In my sermon on the Shabbat immediately following the terrible attacks in Paris, I urged circumspection rather than merely emotional reactions. There are many possible causes contributing to these tragic incidents.
Afterwards, one member offered a challenging argument: ‘I’ve lived through the Blitz bombardments, the worry of nuclear attack during the Cold War and the years of IRA bombings; how can we pretend that we can live with perfect security against any threats now? Life is risky because people and societies will always commit violence.’ Moreover, in other aspects of our lives, we seem to be hugely more tolerant of far greater risks to life and limb. If you consult the relevant European Commission website for statistics concerning road fatalities in the EU, you will learn that, ‘in 2011, more than 30,000 people died on the roads’ and that ‘for every death on Europe’s roads there are an estimated four permanently disabling injuries such as damage to the brain or spinal cord, eight serious injuries and fifty minor injuries’. In only one week of one year, more people are killed on the roads than the total number of all murdered by ‘terrorists’ in the entire time since 2001.
My wise congregant offered a valuable historical perspective but traffic statistics tell us that the equivalent of a decent-sized European town is wiped off the face of the earth each and every year. (And it’s much, much worse in the United States when it comes to not only road traffic deaths but also when you consider the vast numbers of all day-to-day hand-gun deaths). I am just old enough to remember the mass outcry in America when the federal government mandated the installation and wearing of seatbelts in the mid-1960s. Even stranger, then, the mass hysterical reaction about perceived threats to our ‘way of life’, ‘security’ and ‘safety’ when it comes to relatively few extremists misusing Islam, let alone ignoring its ethical precepts concerning justice, compassion and caring for the stranger.
We will never achieve perfect security as Simon Kuper has noted in the Financial Times Magazine of 17th/18th January. There are many, many reasons why an individual might commit acts of violence in the name of religion. In the case of France, there is a background of ruthless colonial behavior in Algeria, for example, and an ongoing legacy of discrimination, unemployment and poverty in the more deprived Parisian banlieues. Surely, doesn’t the best hope for a safer and more cohesive society lie in the long-term and painstaking work of social, academic, economic and political inclusion of all young people into the core of that society? Should we not be capable of sufficiently valuing all human beings so that all feel a sense of belonging, meaning and hope? Of course the causes are complex but does it surprise any of us that the Kouachi brothers were orphaned early in life and that Hayat Boumeddiene’s mother died when she was a small child?
Should it be any surprise that emotionally deprived and disconnected youngsters might be more inclined to grow up to be insecure and vulnerable young adults who are susceptible to those extremist recruiters who seduce them by saying that their unhappy lives and deaths have a ‘great’ purpose? One of many outlets of social alienation is anti-Semitism. What a tragedy it is that, so often, human solidarity seems to revolve around hating those in some other group. In this regard, we are all guilty of lumping people into static negative categories. We project the things we can’t admit about ourselves onto someone else; usually someone who’s somehow different and not the dominant political player.
We have said, throughout history, that members of some particular group –Muslims, Jews, Communists, witches– want to take over the world. We thus make ourselves out to be victims in a struggle for our very survival; a truly dangerous outlook. As Jews, we must remind ourselves that in Western Europe today there is no such thing as state-sponsored anti-Semitism. We are considered by most everyone to be simply part of the basic part of the fabric.
We are privileged. Let us not fall prey to those within our own ranks who may have an interest in furthering anxiety, fear and crisis among Jews in the diaspora. Simon Kuper echoes the urgent question asked by Rodney King who was filmed being brutally beaten by Los Angeles police in 1992: ‘Can we all get along?’ I would go a step further. The real question is, how can we actually support and help each other as humanitarians? Like it or not we are all in the same very leaky capitalist boat. We must support each other’s longings for a reasonably decent existence including peace, tranquility and a sense of belonging and purpose. Quite simply, it’s the very reason why we are here on this earth.
Rabbi Frank Dabba Smith