Let me share two quotations with you, both translated into English from other languages. Here is the first one: “Look, these people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal wisely with them because they have greatly prospered and increased; otherwise they may join our enemies in the event of conflict and rise up to fight against us.”
Here is the second quotation: “We can no longer assimilate the new people that keep coming in. They’ll end up in ghettos, in inter-ethnic conflicts, making demands and claims and for their particular group, and causing religious and political provocation. These things are a direct consequence of a massive immigration that overshadows our national identity and brings with it more and more visible increases in radical behavior, with all its claims and demands. This community, with its clannishness, has poisoned national cohesion and threatened security, which are the very firsts of our freedom.”
The first quotation is a translation from Hebrew. Uttered by Pharaoh to his courtiers thousands of years and found in this week’s Torah portion (Exodus 1:9-10), it describes the king’s concern that the growth of the Israelite population might swamp and subvert the stability of ancient Egypt.
The second is a translation from a speech given in French by Marine Le-Pen at the Cambridge Student Union in England just under two years ago. In her remarks Le-Pen highlighted the dangers posed by elements of her country’s population whose ideals and beliefs threaten to undermine the values of French civilization. While not exactly equating France’s entire population of roughly 5 million Muslims (approximately 8% of the population according to a 2010 study of the Pew Research Center) with “radical Islam,” Le-Pen neither defines nor distinguishes between Muslim immigrants in general and those who advocate radical views.
Marine Le-Pen’s words really aren’t so different from Pharaoh’s; both are xenophobic. Perhaps Pharaoh had good reason to be fearful of the Israelites — though the Torah is silent on the matter and there is nothing to suggest provocative behavior on the part of Jacob’s descendants. On the other hand, the rabbis teach that throughout their sojourn in Egypt, Israel not only dwelt separately from the Egyptian people, but declined to intermarry, never took Egyptian names, and refuse to abandon the Hebrew language. In other words, they remained committed to remaining separate and distinct from the society in which they lived.
If it is not hard to grasp that Pharaoh’s suspicion of the Hebrews was based on their aloofness from Egypt’s language and culture, it is perhaps not so difficult to understand the growing numbers of French individuals who have become increasingly suspicious of Muslim immigrants. Does this justify such sentiments? Absolutely not! What rabbi would justify Pharaoh’s enslavement of our ancestors? As for Marine Le-Pen, we cannot forget that she comes from a family and political party that has denied the significance of the Holocaust and has had scathing things to say about Jews and Israel. The adumbration of Le-Pen’s words in Pharaoh’s simply remind us that xenophobia is hardly a new phenomenon.
France is a country in crisis. Civilized individuals the world over were shocked by the brutal murders of those killed at the office of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. A day later a police officer was killed in Montrouge in a related attack, while yesterday a kosher grocery was also targeted by Islamic radicals. As disturbing as these incidents are, they are part of a much larger pattern that repeats itself time and again. In December knife attack in a police station in Tours and car-ramming attacks in Dijon and Nantes on three consecutive days . . . hundreds of French citizens fighting for ISIS in Syria . . . not to mention hundreds of incidents of anti-Semitism ranging from beatings to vandalism against Jews in multiple French cities.
The French government has recently passed tough new anti-terror laws allowing it to shut down jihadist websites, revoke passport privileges and deny re-entry to insurgents who fight with terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda or ISIS.
Yet no law can change the basic alienation of many young Muslims living in French slums, who are economically disadvantaged and lead lives of isolation in sprawling urban slums with no stake in the Western ideals of free speech and cultural pluralism. These are the breeding grounds of resentment, a pressure cooker in which those with little reason to hope for better things are vulnerable to jihadist recruiters who promise salvation, glory, and the chance to be a part of something larger than themselves. Even if only 1% of France’s Muslim population were to fall prey to the fanatical rhetoric of radical Islam, there would still be 50,000 individuals receptive to those who preach the message of glorious martyrdom; and were that number only 1/100th of the Muslim population, there would still be 5,000 ripe for extremism. Having seen the mayhem caused by just four people over a period of a few days, this is a frightening thought.
According to the Babylonian Talmud, (Sotah 11a) when Pharaoh became concerned with the growth of the Hebrew population he called together his three most trusted counselors: Reuel, Job, and Balaam. Reuel urged Pharaoh to treat the Israelites well, to accommodate their differences while still giving them a stake in Egyptian society. Job, on the other hand, took a neutral stance, declining to recommend a particular course of action to Pharaoh. Balaam, the last of the three counseled harsh treatment to break their spirit and put them in their place. In rabbinic legend, it was none other than Balaam who suggested to king the practice of drowning the male children of the Hebrews.
France, like Pharaoh, stands at a crossroads, free to take the advice of Reuel, Job or Balaam. It can seek to counter the alienation of Muslim youth; it can choose to do nothing; or it can give into the xenophobia of Marine Le Pen.
To opt for the last choice will only lead to failure — not only because it will corrode the very values of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” that exemplify the best of French civilization, but because the promoters of holy war exult in any action that creates more discontent and dislocation within France’s immigrant communities.
There have been many condemnations of the terror attacks of the last several days from Muslim authorities around France. It would be dangerously cynical to dismiss such sentiment as pure posturing; I believe the revulsion they express is absolutely real . . . as is their fear of a backlash against all Muslims. Let us not forget for a minute Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim policeman killed in the line of duty while responding to the attack on Charlie Hebdo; let us not forget Lassana Bathily, a Muslim employee of Hyper Cacher, the kosher supermarket in Paris, who saved Jewish shoppers by quickly hiding them in a freezer, turning off the electricity, and locking the door to keep them safe. Bathily, at considerable risk to himself, escaped from the building to apprise the police of the situation — only to be arrested as an accomplice, spending 90 minutes in handcuffs before finally convincing the police of his innocence.
These individuals should give us pause before we slander an entire religious group. Yet I would respectfully submit that the time has come for the 99% to do more than protest that such atrocities do not represent the real Islam, or that they violate specific precepts of the Koran and the hadith, the prophetic traditions taught in Mohammed’s name. Islam, like both Judaism and Christianity, contains a wide variety of textual traditions — all three Abrahamic faiths have narratives to support a full spectrum from the most peaceful and conciliatory statements to the most brutal and intolerant. It no longer suffices to disown the jihadists; the Muslim community in France must co-opt them. That there is no hierarchy in the world of Islam as there is in Catholic Church makes it difficult for one group or leader to claim the fealty of all Muslims; indeed, the worst excesses of violence are those perpetuated by Muslims against other Muslims. Nevertheless, the 99% who shun the path of hatred must stand up more vigorously to the 1%. The battle is not for the soul of Islam, it is for the souls of Muslims around the world.
The sad fact remains is that the Muslim establishment has largely stood on the sidelines in the aftermath of anti-Semitic attacks on French Jewry, remaining quiet or excusing such violence as but a natural reaction to frustration with Israeli policies toward the Palestinians . . . as if kidnapping a Jewish teenager on a Paris sidewalk as he walked to synagogue and then dumping his lifeless body constitutes a logical quid pro quo for the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East.
But for the Muslim community to succeed in exposing the criminals who hide behind the facade of Islam, it will require an active partnership with the French government, and above all, with the 92% of the population who aren’t Muslim.
Perhaps the French people might gaze beyond the Atlantic, beyond the Americas and the Pacific to Australia. In the wake of a terror attack in downtown Sydney invoking Islam, thousands upon thousands of ordinary Australians sought to reassure Muslim citizens that they need not fear a backlash of intolerance. It began rather spontaneously with a tweet from a woman named Rachael Jacobs, (whom I’d like to believe is Jewish):
“the woman (presumably Muslim) sitting next to me on the train silently removers her hijab . . . (next tweet) I ran after her at the train station and said, ‘Put it back on. I’ll walk with you.’ She started to cry and hugged me for about a minute – then walked off alone.”
Soon this led to other posts:
“If you take the #373 bus by Coogee or Martin Place, wear religious attire, & don’t feel safe alone: I’ll ride with you. @ me for schedule”;
“I’m a semi regular commuter on the Mandurah Line. If you see me, #illridewithyou. I’ll be wearing this scarf” (accompanied by a picture of a scarf).
In just one twelve-hour period, more than 150,000 residents of Sydney and other metropolitan areas tweeted to #Illride with you . . . could one ask for a greater investment of outreach and support than that?
I reject the stark black and white views of knee-jerk reactionaries, even as I am painfully aware of the great distance we have yet to go. I continue to believe that a time will come when the Muslim community of France views an attack on a synagogue as though it were a desecration of a mosque; a time when the Jews of France will be among the first to stand guard against those who would vandalize Islamic houses of worship. A time when an Ahmed Merabet and a Lassana Bathily are the kinds of heroes all our children aspire to becoming. Whether now or later, humanity will eventually have to face the simple choice between riding alone with only hate and suspicion as companions, or riding together with respect and empathy. After 9/11 we heard the French tell us “We are all Americans.” Now we are all Charlie . . we are all Jews . . . we are all Muslims . . . we are all French. I would be happy if we were all simply God’s children, realizing that we must journey together on God’s earth. As for me “Je vais voyager avec vous — I’ll ride with you” is the only way to travel.