Anyone who wants to understand how the Jews of France—and most other places in the Diaspora, including the United States—feel inside, especially at times when we are targeted by men with guns who represent a radical, fascistic ideology bent on killing us, should take a look at these two videos from the Grand Synagogue of Paris after a solidarity rally that brought an estimated 1.5 million people into the streets to declare their support for free speech and their opposition to Islamist terrorism.
The first video shows the entrance of French President François Hollande to the Grand Synagogue, followed 40 seconds or so later by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who unlike Hollande is greeted by loud and spontaneous cheering.
The fact that the crowd cheers when Netanyahu enters the synagogue has nothing to do with whether the people gathered inside are socialist or conservative voters, or would vote for Netanyahu in an election in either Israel or France, or whether they support or oppose a two-state solution or a one-state solution or continued Israeli settlement of the West Bank. As in every Jewish crowd, there are no doubt people in all camps. The reason they are cheering is far more basic, and it has to do with the harsh lesson that history has engraved into the souls of every conscious and self-aware Jew in the world today. We know that when our lives are in danger, the states where we have built businesses and professional lives and raised our children may or may not protect us, and the same is true of our friends and neighbors. That lesson of the Holocaust is simply too clear and too costly for any of us to ignore.
The reason that Jews can live normal lives as citizens of Western democracies today is not that human nature has markedly improved since 1945, or that another series of attacks by anti-Semitic fanatics is unthinkable. Sadly, that’s not true, as the events of the last week and the last year in Paris show. We are not afraid because we know, whether overtly or in a dark half-acknowledged corner of our minds, that there is one state in the world—however imperfect it is in some of its particulars—where we and our children will be welcome, and whose government will do its best to protect us, with all the force at its disposal.
One of the great lessons of the Holocaust for the Jewish people and for all other peoples who have since been threatened with genocide by fanatics—Cambodians under Pol Pot, Bosnian Muslims, and the Tutsi of Rwanda—is that the world will always talk a good game but will do precious little to save you. If you don’t stick together, you will die alone. The fact that the State of Israel exists means that the Jewish people will never be radically alone. That’s why the people in the Grand Synagogue of Paris are cheering.
The second video shows another side of who we are, and how we feel about the countries where we live. When Netanyahu finishes his speech, the crowd spontaneously starts singing their national anthem—which is, of course, the French national anthem.
The people in the Grand Synagogue are proud to be French, and they want the prime minister of Israel to see and understand their pride in their country, just as they want France to live up to the inspiring words of La Marseillaise.
What has changed for the Jewish people over the past 75 years isn’t that we have ceased to love the countries where we live. It is that we are no longer compelled to bet—with our lives—that our love will be requited.