Today I witnessed an amazing event – true solidarity in a real Republic. The Unity Rally in Paris was a demonstration in response to the shootings at the magazine, Charlie Hebdo, the shooting of the policewoman and the shootings in the kosher grocery store. The visual of 3.7 million citizens marching across France, 1 million in Paris, silently behind 44 international leaders spoke volumes. The signs and interviews with people trying to explain themselves – how they feel a sense of pain that their dearest values – liberty, equality and fraternity - have been challenged. It was not a rally in support of Jews per se but in support of free speech and upholding the values France holds dear.
It was also remarkable that the last time the streets had been so populated was following the liberation from the Nazis in 1944. What followed were decades of pain for this nation that had been reduced to collaboration with the Nazis although a large partisan movement had existed. However, this was an opportunity for French to boldly declare their French values with their feet and their pens and refuse to let themselves become compromised again.
The terms solidarity and Republic have now taken on a different meaning in my mind. My lens is from Soviet history where solidarity is coerced and implies compliance with the government will. To prove one’s solidarity, Russians could be recruited to demonstrate in exchange for an excused workday or a little money (if they were lucky). “Supporters” would then be bussed to the given destination to express “solidarity” by carrying an approved sign handed to them by an official. And “Republic” brings to mind the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which seemed to operate more like colonies of Moscow. There was no real body of law underlying the Republic or real protection for its citizens. The political candidates were carefully chosen by Moscow and no one else could run. It was required that one voted. By the way, very little of this has changed under Putin.
France has the third largest population of Jews in the world with 550,000. In the last two years over 8,000 have fled to Israel (French Jewish Agency). According to a poll in spring of 2014 three quarters of the Jewish population were considering leaving France.
The support felt unprecedented in my lifetime. Prime Minister Valls said before the grocery massacre that “if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.”
French philosopher, Bernard-Henri Levy stated, “Something very unique has happened today,” referring to a growing and unified awareness that “Jihadism is the new fascism.” The march gave citizens a chance to make their voices heard as Muslims, Jews, Christians but, most importantly, as French citizens who value their rights.
Perhaps Jews in France now will not have to make the decision to flee like so many have before out of fear that they are under attack from within their home countries. My hope is that they can feel valued and protected in France. In turn we can express our solidarity and understand that free speech is a basic tenet.
It is very difficult to appreciate the power of freedom of speech and the effect it has had on our psyche. Imagine not being able to question, to probe, research, write something provocative, express your opinion against a public official. Imagine if you did not really know what truth was and you were banned from searching for the facts. It is dystopia and a very pernicious form of oppression. Imagine how imprisoned you might feel. I wonder if that is how our more moderate thinking Islamic brethren feel who are in such a situation. Today I salute the French for showing up in such great numbers. To the Moslems that had signs of "Je suis Charlie," "Je suis Mosulmane,", "Je suis Juive," I give my thanks and appreciation for their courage.