January 13, 2015

Je suis human

By ignoring unprovoked hate crimes against minorities, we are overlooking attacks on the most fundamental human freedoms.

On Friday morning,  nausea overtook me; class was not an option with the pangs in my stomach and the sorrow in my heart. Though I am a college student, this wasn’t a hangover from wayward revelries, or a case of bad break up blues, but a result of reading the news. Two days after heavily armed self-proclaimed jihadists killed 12 people at the Paris offices of the satirical paper Charlie Hebdo to “avenge the prophet”,  one of the same gunmen took hostages at a kosher supermarket in a Paris, killing at least four people.

I spent that morning glued to my computer, reading articles on the events as they unfolded, sharing the most disturbing stories on Facebook. I read of conspiracy theories that Israel was behind the Hebdo attack; I noticed that many articles never mentioned that the attack was also anti-Semitic in nature, claiming it was “unclear,” even after the terrorist clearly stated anti-Jewish motives, that in response to the supermarket siege, some Algerians were shouting “strike France and the Jews,” that this was most likely a foiled assault on a Jewish school and the eerie story of customers  saved by hiding in the store’s freezer. The more I read, the sharper the pangs became. But I continued, almost addicted; I felt it was my  duty to become informed on the tragedy.

While my Facebook world was full of posts on the issue, the real world around me in the Regenstein Library at the time was full of students working away. There I was with tears down my face, but for everyone working on problem sets and essays, it was business as usual. The tragedy had struck home for me. I knew that it could have been me or my family; the victims were just grocery shopping for Shabbat. Images of the terrified freed hostages, a few fleeing in their long skirts and modest outfits, illustrated that some were observant Jews in the uniform of my own community. I was angered that this was nothing new, that Jews in France are attacked while walking home from school and synagogue, or while in their homes; that there seemed to be nothing we could do to stop them from being burned, raped, and slaughtered like animals. I could not help but think of the French Jews I met at a synagogue over winter break in Shanghai. The young students who I prayed and partied with, who gave me a place to stay and treated me like family.

Was this pain extreme? Unfounded? Should I have cared less? I felt I had to be preoccupied with it, if I wasn’t-- who would be? I wasn’t sure what I could do to help the situation, but remembering the victims was in my capacity, and I concluded that thinking of them would do something for their memories, that at least their lives would not be taken unnoticed.

The next day, I was surprised that though many of my friends had heard of the atrocity of Hebdo, many had not heard of what followed. One friend had expressed how he was sorry for the events,  but stated that I had a visceral reaction only because I had a personal connection. He wasn’t that affected by what he called the “regular fussy business of ethics.” I wondered where the massive outpouring of support for the Jewish community was, especially from the same people who hurried to identify with Charlie Hebdo. I wondered why Obama himself did not mention the clear motives behind the supermarket slaughter, in his official response to the attacks. I wondered where all the articles were discussing anti- semitism in France like those rightly discussing the issue of free speech. The New York Times published articles on satire, free speech, Islamaphobia, but not one dedicated to the issues involved in deliberate violence against French Jewry. On Wednesday evening, all of France professed “Je suis Charlie”  in what became the emblem of the global fight against savagery.  On Friday evening, there was no comparable rush of  people declaring  “I am a Jew,” though the citizens who happened to be in the supermarket were murdered because they were in a publicly Jewish establishment. While there were a few who tweeted #Je Suis Juif, “I am Jewish,” it was an incredibly small number in comparison. Celebrities sported “Je Suis Charlie” signs like the season’s hottest accessory at the Golden Globes this past Sunday,  yet a “Je Suis Juif” was nowhere in sight. Twelve innocent people were murdered at the Hebdo massacre in Paris, when four people were shot in the Parisian kosher supermarket, should it not receive at least one third of the attention in tweets, hashtags, and conversation?

Those young people in the kosher supermarket weren’t killed for provocative satire or seemingly offensive actions. These Jews were slaughtered for simply existing, for just being Jews. These Jews were guilty of nothing but the sin of existence.

Perhaps the world cared more about the free speech issue, and perhaps rightly so. Freedom of speech, after all, is supposed to be a pillar of Western civilization, an issue with universal repercussions. What happens to the Jews, however, happens to just one small drop in the bucket of humanity.

This logic is in fact terribly mistaken. More than just a Jewish issue, Friday’s attack on the Jews is actually an attack on western civilization; it undermines a value arguably even more fundamental than freedom of speech— the freedom of thought and belief.  The kosher supermarket and the families inside were held hostage because they believed in the Jewish faith— they were just peacefully living their lives. People should be able to hold their desired beliefs sans fear of being murdered on a supermarket run, and that is a universally applicable issue. Extremism of this form may start with the targeting of Jews, but if not stopped it certainly won’t end with them. While reading about France, I could not help but think of Germany. I heard the echoes the famous words of Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), a pastor who spent seven years in a Nazi concentration camp:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— 

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— 

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Terrorists aim to tear peoples apart, to create an us-vs.-them dichotomy; thus, enhancing political solidarity against terror, and real friendship with those of different faiths are the weapons that will lead to the defeat of the extremists. The weapon in this war against terrorism and polarizing ideology is being aware of and caring for the loss of life, whether it is 17 at the hands of extremists in France and certainly if it is 145 in Pakistan or 2,000 at the hands of similar extremists in Nigeria.

After all, long before Martin Niemöller, around the first century BCE, Hillel the elder said, “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?”(Ethics of the Fathers 1:14). This quote illustrates an even more poignant, ethical imperative. Though we must first focus on our personal issues as exhibited by the first half, if we only focus on what we think are our own groups and not others, we become a “what”— we lose our very humanity when not realizing that we Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, etc are all in fact part of the same group: the human race.

Eliora Katz is a second-year in the College.