‘It Starts With the Jews and It Doesn’t End There’
Simone Rodane-Benzaquen, head of American Jewish Committee in Europe, spoke with FP about anti-Semitism on both sides of the Atlantic.
For European Jews, the anti-Semitic attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh that took the lives of 11 people was both tragic and familiar. Simone Rodan-Benzaquen directs the American Jewish Committee’s Europe branch out of Paris, where high-profile attacks on Jews have taken place several times over the last 15 years. The era of seeing the United States as a safe haven, she tells Foreign Policy in an interview, is over.
Foreign Policy: What were your first thoughts when you learned of the attack?
Simone Rodan-Benzaquen: You feel horrified and shocked, of course. The fact that it was in the United States was like a dream that is finally over—that is, the idea of the United States as a safe haven, where potentially if everything turns bad you can always go. But at the same time, I think to some extent, I have been expecting this or something like this for quite a while.
FP: Were you expecting a type of radical anti-Semitic far-right extremism?
SRB: Honestly, yes—at least since Charlottesville. I think that was sort of a wake-up call, when you have thousands of people in the streets shouting what they did. You know that words can potentially translate into acts, into actual physical violence and ideas.
FP: What are the similarities and differences between what the European Jewish community has experienced and what’s happening now in the United States? Do you see parallels in the situations across the Atlantic?
SRB: When you look at all of the fatal attacks in Europe, they have all been committed by radical Islamists over the past years.
But I think you can definitely see similarities between what’s going on in Europe and the United States.
First of all, it has been my profound conviction for a very long time that anti-Semitism is always a sign, a symptom of a disease in a democracy. We have anti-Semitism coming from the sort of radical far-left here with all sorts of movements—from the BDS [boycott, divestment, sanctions] movement to radicalized movements, very anti-Israel, anti-Zionist. Where you can see it most obvious is in the U.K. with Jeremy Corbyn and all the anti-Semitic hate speeches there. But you can see it basically everywhere in Europe and even the United States sometimes.
And then, of course, you see it on the far-right across Europe—whether it’s in France, Germany, or Eastern Europe—and certainly in the United States.
I think the other similarity is everything that’s been going on with social media. To some extent, the United States, probably because of the First Amendment, has been a little slow in understanding to what extent free speech can sometimes turn against the very idea that you’re trying to protect. Here in Europe, we don’t have the First Amendment. We don’t have the same sort of sense of free speech to the extent that you have it in the United States. We’ve been much more restrictive in banning anti-Semitic sites.
FP: January will mark four years since the murder of four Jews in a Hypercacher supermarket in France. But it has not been the end of anti-Semitic attacks on French Jews. What is the level of anxiety now among French Jews?
SRB: The situation has been more or less the same over the past 15 years. I think there are certain neighborhoods where the reality is just as stark as it was five years ago or 10 years ago, where basically the everyday life for Jews is just so difficult. In neighborhoods around Paris and the banlieues and around Toulouse, etc., in areas where there are a lot of radicalized youth, when you are Jewish and you are possibly even visibly recognizable there, the situation is super difficult. So when you decide to go to Shabbat, do you go and put a kippah on your head? Or do you decide to put a mezuzah on your door? Or do you decide to put your kids in Jewish school or public school? All of these things they matter, and you feel them very, very clearly. So for those Jews, the situation has been more or less the same for the last 15 years, and it’s not bright.
But on an overall scale there are some things that have been reassuring nevertheless. The French government has been consistently committed and outspoken in combating anti-Semitism. Compared to other countries, we have at least the advantage of having had to tackle that issue for a very long time. When you look at other countries across Europe, it’s relatively new. So maybe those countries and the governments are not so prepared in dealing with the issue.
Then, finally, the way we talk about those issues here in France is probably a little bit more mature than elsewhere. Again, due to the fact that we had to go through this for a very long time. There’s no naivete—neither on the side of the Jewish community nor of the government nor most of the political elite—about the importance of the issue.
There’s also growing understanding among some aspects of civil society—the idea of “it’s the canary in the coal mine,” “it starts with the Jews and it doesn’t end there.” So, when Mireille Knoll [an octogenarian Holocaust survivor] was murdered [last spring], for the first time we actually had thousands of people in the street, which we never had before.
FP: When I visited your offices last year, I was struck by how difficult they were to find. They’re unmarked. I’m curious about how Paris and Brussels and Berlin approach security for Jewish sites. Should we think of Europe’s permanent prominent police protection of synagogues and Jewish sites as a commitment to Jewish security or as a commentary on the social acceptance of entrenched anti-Semitism or both?
SRB: I think both. It’s actually very interesting. AJC launched this initiative on social media in the United States called “Show Up for Shabbat.” The idea is basically after the Pittsburgh murders to say, OK, our answer to anti-Semitic murders is that we ask people of goodwill across the world, Jews and Gentiles, to come to synagogue for Shabbat on Friday and Saturday morning and basically say, “We’re not afraid.” And I think it’s a fantastic initiative. We thought, OK, let’s try and do this here in Europe. Basically, the response I got from most countries here and most Jewish communities was this is just not feasible. The idea is great, but from a security point of view, it’s simply not feasible.
FP: As you mentioned, after Mireille Knoll was murdered in Paris last spring, there was a massive solidarity march. Do you think that such outpourings of support help? What are effective mechanisms against anti-Semitic rhetoric and attacks? What is the impact?
SRB: It has always been my belief that the civil society movements in the United States are stronger than they are across Europe, generally. Even the kinds of images I’ve seen up until now—including, for example, raising money from Muslim organizations and churches for Pittsburgh—we’ve not seen a lot of that here. I’ve always thought civil society movements are stronger in the United States.
It’s not just words. One of the things that has been the most difficult for the Jewish community here in Europe is this feeling of loneliness and sort of feeling abandoned.
But the other thing is, and I’m a little afraid of this in the United States, too, to what extent you’re capable of having a nonpartisan conversation about the problem of anti-Semitism and the problem of racism that you are facing right now.
One of the problems we’ve had here is that we have not been able to look at anti-Semitism, where it comes from, in an honest manner in a long time. For example, one of the problems we’ve had to look at is anti-Semitism when it comes from within the Muslim community. For more than 10 years, we were incapable of looking at this, and I think it’s very, very important for a society to have a reasonable conversation of where the problem of anti-Semitism actually comes from. Otherwise, you’re not going to be able to tackle it.
FP: What about anti-Semitism coming from places such as Viktor Orban in Hungary and these attacks on George Soros and that kind of traditional-sounding conspiracy theory that we’re starting to hear in the United States?
SRB: Well, I mean, it’s there, of course. It is a threat, and we have this across the world. We have all sorts of populist, nationalist movements where anti-Semitism is part historical revisionism, and you can basically see this across the European continent, not necessarily always from people who are in power but from parties, whether it’s the Alternative for Germany or the National Front in France. It might not always be that anti-Semitism is the first thing that they will use, but it’s always somewhere there and somewhere present. Conspiracy theories are definitely a big part of it.
FP: This attack, obviously, affects the perception of safety for Jews in the United States.
SRB: Definitely. Listen, it’s been a major conversation among many of our friends, and when you look at the sorts of hashtags of many Jews on social media, the idea is that nowhere is safe. I think, definitely, this is the case that to some extent many Jews were thinking, “OK, of course we still have Israel, but we also, of course, still have the United States if things turn really bad.” And by the way, even when I think about myself, I’ve never thought of leaving Europe, and I’ve always thought how important it is to stay and not to falter, but at the same time, deep inside me, I always thought, “OK, if things turn really, really sour, we have the United States.”
And, of course, one attack doesn’t mean that the entire country will now go down. But it’s the first sign of something profoundly wrong and with it the idea that we don’t have anymore a sort of safe haven where we can go.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.