Jeffrey Schwartz is an admitted Francophile, but as an American Jew he felt it was important to both lend his moral support to France’s half-million Jews and find out for himself what the community is facing in the wake of recent terror attacks.
“I found a community that is proud and a historic community that does feel threatened, but there are as many opinions among French Jews as there are among American Jews,” said Schwartz, a Monmouth Junction resident. “In other words, they are not all leaving France and those who are aren’t all going to Israel. Some who are leaving France because of a Muslim threat don’t want to face another Muslim threat in Israel.”
The first vice president of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, Schwartz was one of the leaders on a Feb. 8-9 solidarity mission to France organized by Jewish Federations of North America.
In a whirlwind of meetings the group of 45 met with Jewish and Muslim leaders and French government and police officials.
Schwartz, an importer of fruits and vegetables who is regularly in Europe on business, was a French major in college and is fluent in the language. Although most of the meetings were conducted in English, he served as translator to convey some of the nuances.
He had been following last month’s deadly attacks at the Paris offices of the political satire magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket, where four French Jews lost their lives.
“You hear all these canards thrown around about France and our relationship with it,” he said in a phone interview with NJJN. “‘We love them. We hate them. They’re our long-term ally, but we don’t like their foreign policy, especially when it comes to Israel.’ The left-wing media says one thing; the right wingers another. I wanted to get the real story — and I think I got it.”
What he found was a country jarred and on edge, calling the Jan. 9 attacks “France’s 9/11.” But the government seemed determined to protect its Jewish citizens. Schwartz said the mission participants were pleased to learn that the French government had dispatched 18,000 soldiers and gendarmes to guard Jewish schools, establishments, and institutions across the country. But, he added, he was concerned that someday that force may be reduced or come to an end.
Many French Jews, while they are concerned, feel a strong connection to their homeland. He called the rumors of a mass exodus “greatly exaggerated.”
Because the majority of France’s 550,000 Jews, the largest Diaspora community after the United States, do want to stay, he said, it is imperative that American Jews not only lend their support financially, but also their expertise.
“I find we American Jews are very good at building coalitions and lobbying our politicians, and I think we should partner with the French-Jewish community and try and teach them these skills,” said Schwartz. “I also think from a security standpoint some of our funds should go to French-Jewish institutions to help them beef up security.”
Immediately following the attacks, he said, French President Francois Hollande declared that France would not tolerate anti-Semitism. That message was repeated by high-level government and law enforcement leaders.
“You have to find optimism in the small details, and one of those optimistic points was the strong demonstration of support by the government,” Schwartz said.
A key moment of the trip was visiting the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket, where the group laid a wreath, lit candles, and conducted a Yizkor service, which Schwartz described as “emotional and powerful.”
“The store is closed as a crime scene, but it’s become a shrine with candles, flowers, and signs,” he said. “What struck me were the bullet holes from the police in the building.”
In addition to local and national Jewish leaders, the group met with American Ambassador to France Jane Hartley and Israeli Ambassador Yossi Gal.
All representatives they met with — government leaders, Jews, and Muslims — seemed to agree that managing terrorism and the radicalizations of Muslim youth would be a long-term fight, possibly taking decades, said Schwartz. However, one suggestion frequently made — that Holocaust denial and appeals for radicalization be banned from the Internet — took the Americans aback.
“As Americans, free speech is sacred, but maybe some of it is not such a bad idea,” he said. “This terrorism is really testing all our values.”
In the end, Schwartz said, “I came away much more aware of the nuances of the Jewish community and also got to know our Jewish cousins there. I think it’s a community worth cultivating.”