Amid anti-Semitism, French remain passive

My dearest fellow French citizens,

As I write this in Paris, it is the 14th of July, Bastille Day, a day of national celebration, a day of freedom and happiness. A day when fireworks lighten our hearts and bring us together in dance. A day when the ideals of the French republic emerge.

I’m writing to you to break the silence that greeted yesterday’s anti-Semitic attacks, a silence that has been overwhelming for months now. I’m also breaking my own silence as a “happy French Jew.”

Yesterday, following a Paris-based demonstration in support of the Palestinians, protesters filled with hate attacked two synagogues as well as innocent bystanders. Like barbarians, they took to the streets shouting “Death to Jews” while breaking shop windows, attacking passersby and trashing everything they could find. They spread out from Bastille Square to Saint-Paul, the Métro station of the Jewish quarter, hoping to harm Jewish people.

There is no single cause that justifies the fury that took place here in France. Did somebody try to hurt or kill one of these young violent demonstrators? Nobody did. Nobody. Don’t talk to me, or at me, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or about Zionism, or rockets. Because, my dear fellow citizens, I’m writing to you from Paris, France in 2014. I’m writing to you because this is not the first time such an anti-Semitic flood has spread through France.

I’m writing to you because I cannot be quiet and try to rationalize this hateful fury anymore. You who were sitting outside the cafés and restaurants nearby, you who were hanging out in the Jewish quarter of Marais, you who reading newspapers, you who have been witnessing these scenes — you need to speak out and break the silence.

Why don’t we react when we hear “Death to Jews” today in France? Is silence the only reaction this incitement to racial hatred and crime provokes? Mister Chief Rabbi of France, I’m waiting for a word from you as you are supposed to represent us.

Ladies and gentlemen, enlightened intellectuals, I’m waiting for your words to soothe me. Why is it taking so long? I’m not afraid. I’m hurt. I’m Jewish and I’m French, and nothing, absolutely nothing, will legitimize the horrendous crime that is taking place here in France.

Nothing justifies our passivity and our quiet, our ongoing acceptance of such hateful acts. I’ve always taken part in demonstrations for human rights, for equality, for democracy, for Gypsies’ rights, for the rights of undocumented migrants and for the LGBT community. I’ve always risen up against racism and bigotry. I have always believed in my country — France, a country that welcomed my parents who were forced to leave their own home countries themselves.

I’ve always fought, but when are you going to fight for me? When will you fight to allow me, as a Jew, to live safely and peacefully in my country, like you? When are you going to rise up against the outrageous anti-Semitic poison spreading through France? Please, talk to me! Tell me you are shocked that I can’t leave my home without being threatened. Please reassure me and calm me down, because I can’t believe in my people’s security anymore.

My freedom seems to stop where other people’s freedom begins.

Please tell me that we haven’t lost our values and that I can still turn to my fellow citizens. My fellow citizens, who I went with to public school, to high school and college, those who attended the same philosophy, political sciences and human rights classes with me. Please tell me, without any hesitation, that you too are outraged. I need you today. I need to hear you raise your voices against hatred.

My dear fellow citizens, I wish you a merry Bastille Day. Keep on dancing and singing. But please don’t forget the values of our country, the values that allow us to live together.

Milena Kartowski-Aiach, a Paris-based anthropologist, artist and scholar, serves as JIMENA’s European program coordinator. A version of this essay appeared in French in Le Nouvel Observateur.