Theodor Herzl was at the Paris Solidarity March on January 11, 2015 metaphorically in spirit only, yet powerfully evocative. France was the place where Herzl a journalist covering the Dreyfus trial for a Vienna paper faced himself as a Jew. In 1896 Herzl heard the cries “Death to the Jews” that came from a screaming scary mob of French citizens outside Le Cherche Midi, the prison where the rigged Dreyfus trial took place. Le Cherche Midi stood a mere four kilometers from Place de la Republic where leaders and heads of states linked arms in solidarity with France in its moment of grief and in its historic moment of courage, “Not Afraid,” waving the iconic “I am Charlie” and “I am a Jew.”
In 1896 Herzl was in Paris as a journalist covering the Dreyfus trial for the Vienna Neue Freie Presse, The New Free Press, a liberal paper that traced its political philosophy to the 1848 Revolution. Four decades later the paper faced its own state terrorism during the rise of the Nazis in Austria. The Nazis first gave the paper an Aryan identity and when that was not enough ethnic cleansing, the Nazis shut it down in 1938.
In Paris in 1896 Herzl a son of an assimilated family, embraced his own version of “Je suis Juif” and began his new life’s mission to find a safe home for Jews. Herzl was shocked by what he described as senseless hatred of Jews in the country considered the epicenter of 19th century liberty, equality, culture, art and literature. If it could happen there, he reasoned, the future of Jews in Christian Europe was dire. Herzl saw the hatred as a political characteristic of the modern nation-state. Europe, as far as the eye could see, embraced a notion of nation-state, a political system in which the state took its identity from the majority population in a way that excluded other ethno/religious minorities. In the nation-state Jews would forever be seen as “Other” with the distinct likelihood of being stripped of their citizenship on a whim, by incited unruly mobs and despotic or indifferent governments; all these elements were in evidence during the Dreyfus trial.
The behavior of the French government toward its Jewish citizens was to offer no protection; the absence of safety for Jewish citizens did not change even when the government acknowledged the false accusations against Dreyfus. The shame and sham of the Dreyfus trial did not stop the French Vichy government (1940-1945) from enthusiastically collaborating with Nazi Germany to deny that Jews were French citizens. The collaboration began with the devastating betrayal of its Jewish French citizens and its betrayal of the Jewish refugees in France as it deported 75, 000 Jews.
After the war and for many years France was unwilling to face sending its Jewish citizens, men women and children to their death; governments and presidents were reluctant to come to grips with betraying its Jewish citizens during World War II. This reluctance signaled that Jews have not been, and may not ever be equal citizens in the state. That message was never lost on anti-Semitic groups on the extreme xenophobic ultra-nationalists in France.
In the last 15 years France has witnessed attacks on Jews by radicalized French Muslims in the grips of violent groups who use a religious mantle for their brutal horrific crimes against humanity and against Muslims as the latest mass massacre in Nigeria reveals. For the last fifteen years they have spun a new kind of anti-Semitism grafted onto the old French right wing anti-Semitism. This new ethnic hatred of Jews expressed by the murderer of the Hyper Cacher, the kosher supermarket in Paris has horrific effects on French Jews who are well aware that the state has resisted facing its responsibility during the Vichy government.
France’s president Francois Hollande made a sharp turn in facing the past as he “went beyond his predecessors to offer a magnificent promise that France will never forget and that he, individually, will make sure that no French school child will lack knowledge of his country’s most shameful years.” On the seventieth anniversary of the mass arrest, of the betrayal of Paris Jews by their fellow citizens, President Hollande publicly declared the fact that “not one German soldier, not one, was mobilized for this operation.” He added, “We must fight against all forms of historical falsification.”
Theodor Herzl, known by his Hebrew name Benyamin Ze’ev, could link arms with a President Francois Hollande willing to face the truth, with a France that says, “Je suis Juif,” and “Je suis Charlie” both identities that would have described Herzl; but none had come from the government in 1896. “Not Afraid” the refrain that dominated the Paris march would surely fit Herzl’s determination to establish a Jewish homeland. On August 29, 1897 Herzl organized the First Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland. Herzl recognized how revolutionary, imaginative and even fantastic his idea of a homeland was and knew that he would need to persuade international powers to support his idea. Herzl had a secular education and a law degree from the University of Vienna and was a compelling writer and speaker who could easily engaged with state leaders; it was an uphill difficult struggle that nevertheless prevailed.
Now the state of Israel the home for Jews offers answers and dilemmas. French Jews face a dilemma, should they stay in France or should they migrate to England as some have done, or go to Israel as 7000 French Jews have done in the last year. On Sunday as Paris prepared to march, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of England responded in an interview on CNN to a question on the future of French Jews. Rabbi Sacks supported all possible options, to leave if they were afraid, to have a home in Israel or to stay. He did emphasize however the importance of staying, of upholding universal/international principles of citizenship that must not be parsed or partial or diminished. President Hollande said in an interview that if Jews were to leave, it would be a tragedy for France.
What would it take for us in America and in Israel to link arms with Herzl and with France? We need to do more to actively follow the legacy of Herzl who was a visionary and most of all not afraid to be critical and not afraid to speak the truth as he saw it. For America to link arms with both, it is beyond the absence of President Obama from the Paris solidarity march. For America the linking of arms must mean to not be afraid of the facts and the truth of slavery and the endemic racism and to insist of the responsibility of the government to protect all its citizens, a duty that Herzl saw as critical to democracy.
For Israel the challenge is to balance its designation as a home for Jews and to abide by and honor its Declaration of Independence to treat all its citizens equally. The government should make sure to reject formalizing second-class citizenship for its non-Jewish citizens as some politicians on the right are proposing. Until there is a peace and two states agreement with Palestinians the state must ensure that it follows not only international law but also Jewish ethics of human rights in the West Bank. Israel’s Declaration of independence offers the balancing of rights that deserve reiteration, “THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”