Rabbi Andrew Baker says daily pressures, not violence, drive Jews from France

By David Cohen

david@atljewishtimes.com

Combating anti-Semitism is a full-time job.

Rabbi Andrew Baker is the American Jewish Committee’s director of international Jewish affairs.

Just ask Rabbi Andrew Baker, the American Jewish Committee’s director of international Jewish affairs. Baker visited Atlanta on Feb. 4 to lead a lunch-and-learn session at Congregation Etz Chaim and to introduce and discuss “The Prime Ministers” at Merchants Walk for the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. He talked with the Atlanta Jewish Times about anti-Semitism in Europe, the United States and the world.

Jan. 27 marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. How has European Jewry changed since then?

Seventy years ago, we ended the worst chapter in Jewish history. If you go back 10 years before that, you had such a sizable Jewish community centered in Europe. That ended and will never return. What you confront today certainly builds on and learns from the legacy of what happened then. Jewish communities in Europe today are mere shadows of what once was.

What can you say about the recent rise of anti-Semitism in France and the rest of Europe?

Anti-Semitism is multidimensional, and we see it manifest in a number of ways. What we’ve seen recently in France is twofold. First, there is an issue of security, specifically the threat of murder coming from this admittedly limited segment of radicalized Islamists. Twelve hundred foreign fighters have returned from Syria and Iraq in France. Others are self-radicalized that want to go there, and Jews are targets. That’s also true elsewhere, in Belgium, the Netherlands and even in Denmark.

So we have this problem. One of the days when I was in Paris recently, the front-page, above-the-fold story in Le Monde was titled “French Jews, the temptation to leave.” So this is a national story in France, but it’s not because of the threat of these violent Islamic terrorists. It’s because of the day-to-day experience of verbal and sometimes physical harassment that Jews are experiencing.

Did anti-Israel demonstrations during Operation Protective Edge encourage harassment of Jews and let extremists know that if they acted out there would be few repercussions?

That’s a good question. In a way, it’s possibly true because governments should have been prepared this summer. It wouldn’t be the first time that an incident in Israel has triggered anti-Israel and anti-Semitic demonstrations. It happened more quickly this summer because social media plays a significant role in all of this. As we saw in France, the police weren’t prepared.

About 50 people attend a lunch-and-learn session with Rabbi Andrew Baker at Congregation Etz Chaim on Feb. 4.

When the French prime minister says that “France without Jews isn’t France,” is that a popular view in the country, or is he trying to lead the country in that direction?

I would love to think he’s reflecting a popular view, but I would probably think that it’s more a matter of leading the country. You have in the French structure this republican tradition of secularity which says there shouldn’t really be public expression for different ethnic or religious groups. Once you’re a citizen, you are just a French citizen. So in a funny way there is this tradition of not singling out any particular group. Maybe for many French citizens who also believe in these same traditions it could be a statement that should be self-evident that Jews have found a full home in France and that it shouldn’t have to be stated. The reality is, French Jews have been attacked because they are Jews, and everyone knows it. In this case the prime minister wants to lead the country, and he wants to reassure French Jewry. Ultimately, if a Jewish community wonders about its future, that also says something about France.

Could the French prime minister make a statement like that about Muslims at this point?

I think he would like someday in the future to be able to say that. The reality today is you have 6 million Muslims in France. They’re not going away, so the challenge here is how do you make them French? How do you inculcate in them these republican values?

What about anti-Semitism here in the Southeastern United States?

I’d be hard pressed to find places where there is no anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism in America is very different than Europe, although you will find pockets in places where it can be pretty unpleasant. I think we have long passed the point in the South or North where anti-Semitism is systemic. We have mostly made it out of bounds here. The more time I spend in Europe, the more I appreciate the fact that I raised my children in America. In Europe, I think you are always self-consciously Jewish. In America, you can be un-self-consciously Jewish.