A Francophile Mourns for France and Remembers the Importance of Religious Freedom
Last week, many in the Washington, D.C. community — myself among them — gathered at Adas Israel Congregation for an event convened by the American Jewish Committee (and cosponsored by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism) in solidarity and remembrance with the people of France and the Jewish community.
It was a beautiful event, including speakers such as Jason Isaacson, AJC Associate Executive Director for Policy, Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) and His Excellency Gérard Araud, Ambassador of France to the United States. As the French government and the rest of the world turn toward healing from the attacks in Paris January 7-9, 2015 and ensuring that they never happen again, a conversation continues over freedom of expression, freedom of religion, anti-Semitism and the many other issues in the amalgam of concerns in the aftermath. This is an absolutely fundamental conversation to have, and one that we should all participate in. This doesn’t mean, however, that the pain of the attacks in Paris is no longer raw, and won’t remain so for a long time.
I spent most of my adolescence dreaming of France, and spent a heavenly two weeks there in ninth grade. I spent a year in college attending Sciences Po in Paris, the French university for political science. My Francophilia is usually the first personality quirk that people learn about me when we first meet.
I spent this past summer trying to offer some context for people on the rise of anti-Semitism in France and Europe. These events are not directly correlated to the size of immigrant populations, but rather to the effects of societal marginalization and disempowerment. There is never an excuse for anti-Semitism. But the response to hate should not be hate, rather for a society to make strides toward understanding through intercultural dialogue and government action.
As a lover of all things France and French, I have spent the past week struggling with the reality and the gravity of the attacks in Paris. The concept of such brutal, chillingly-orchestrated and hate-filled actions continues to dumbfound me. How could such violence come to the vibrant, beautiful city that I call my (second) home?
Sadly, this is not the first time that I have had to answer this question. On September 11, 2001, I was just 10 years old. My school and my family apartment are (and remain today) just a few blocks away from the Twin Towers. I witnessed with very young eyes how terrorism changes a community, changes a city. I watched with confused eyes how many responded with shameful Islamophobia. But, I also experienced how a neighborhood and community can heal with our hearts and minds aimed at pluralism and understanding.
After the event at Adas Israel last week, I talked to my dad about how much fear French Jews must feel, when leaving France for Israel is for some people the best option to continue to live Jewishly, openly and proudly. There is no doubt that there is a complex web of issues that have contributed to the current situation that France faces in regards to anti-Semitism. I remember some questionable interactions I had in France, where I began to doubt how welcome I could feel living openly as a Jew. However, I did not live there long enough and was not close enough to the Jewish community to have felt nearly so unsafe or unwelcome as much of French Jewry feels today. I cannot fathom the experiences that would lead someone to leave their country of birth — or even their adopted country — because they were afraid of living according to the teachings of their faith, or were targeted just because of who they are.
I spend most of my time at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism working on issues related to church-state separation and religious freedom. Every day, I am inspired by the fact that in the United States, the laws that separate church and state ensure freedom of religion for all people, and vice versa. These laws have allowed the Jewish people and people of other minority religions to flourish here, while elsewhere in the world they face persecution and oppression. Laws that separate religion and state are best for the continued survival of both the religious institutions and the democratic state.
Living out the words of the First Amendment require constant questioning, challenging and reassessing. This is hard, meaningful, important work. But, for these reasons, I am truly grateful to be Jewish in the United States. When I watch videos of the unity march in Paris on January 11, when I read articles about the attacks and the aftermath and when I joined with the Washington D.C. community last week, I am reminded that living out our values of religious freedom and acceptance requires dialogue and respect. I hope we can turn our anger and sadness in the wake of these horrific attacks in France into a legacy of mutual understanding and peace.