Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech at the Grand Synagogue in Paris / Getty Images
I’ve got two immediate and possibly contradictory takeaways from the news that French President Francois Hollande asked Benjamin Netanyahu not to appear at the unity rally that took place in Paris on Sunday.
Let’s first look at the reasons Hollande reportedly gave. The French president, according to Haaretz (with information that has now been confirmed by the prime minister’s office), wanted the march to focus on demonstrating solidarity with France, and hoped to avoid anything that might distract from that message, “like Jewish-Muslim relations or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Bibi apparently embodied that distraction.
So it’s come to this, all Israel’s PR efforts notwithstanding. The Israeli prime minister can no longer represent anything in Europe other than conflict — as opposed to being just another head of state, he stands for discord, his presence a provocation. If they didn’t already have confirmation of this fact, Israelis can truly say goodbye to that Zionist objective of being a normal people in a normal country.
That’s the first lesson. Whether you think Israel has brought this upon itself or that it is being judged by a grossly unfair double standard, when the Israeli prime minister is asked not to attend a march celebrating solidarity with Western values because his presence would be an irritant, there’s a problem.
The other lesson, though, is: So what?
Hollande was wrong not to invite Bibi because, for one thing, it’s at crisis moments like these that attitudes can shift. Bibi needs to see that he has more to gain from celebrating these Western values, joining the international community and not grasping an excuse to simply skulk off and declare himself and Israel the victim once again. Hollande made the same mistake by not inviting Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National, who was able to gain even more political capital out of this victim status, and in the long run hurt Hollande’s vaunted cause of “unity.”
Hollande was also wrong because even if all this stage managing was for the cause of “unity,” he cannot ignore the context of these attacks simply because it’s harder and more divisive than trumpeting the republican virtues of “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.” The same ideology that motivated the killers of the Charlie Hebdo staff animated the killer of the Jews who were shopping for their Shabbat meal last Friday morning. What seems to Hollande apparently like a distraction — “Muslim-Jewish relations” — is very much at the center of these events. By refusing the presence of the prime minister of the Jewish state, Hollande wants to pretend that defending freedom doesn’t have anything to do with the freedom of Jews not to be killed for being Jews. This is wrong. The same ideology of Islamism that takes murderous offense at depictions of Muhammad sees all Jews as potential targets.
And Hollande was wrong because four Jews died and the prime minister of Israel should be a part of an event denouncing the roots of such anti-Semitism. I know this is my most difficult point to make because many people will argue that Netanyahu is not prime minister of the Jews, but of Israel. But this is a state with a majority of Jews, which is the fulfillment of Jews’ desire to be free of such incidents as took place last week. I wish Bibi wasn’t the messenger on this point because he’s also using this insistence on Israel as the “state of the Jewish people” as a cudgel to beat back Palestinians’ own desire for self-determination. But if we can try and put that aside for an instant, along with all the other boorish behavior often associated with Bibi on the world stage and this trip in particular, it’s hard to see why a prime minister of Israel — imagine, if you need to, that it’s not Bibi in that office — shouldn’t be invited to such an event to mourn over Jewish lives lost.
The great irony, of course, is that in the end Netanyahu’s insistence on being there — even if it did seem to emanate from political calculation after his rivals announced their plans to attend — gave the watching world the greatest vision of unity: Bibi stood six feet away from Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinians, only a Merkel and a Tusk away from having their arms linked. And this didn’t seem distracting at all. It seemed exactly what Hollande had in mind — even if he wasn’t responsible for getting it.
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman