Last Saturday night, a day after the terror attacks in Paris, my father called to say that my uncle, Philippe Braham, was killed as he was checking out at the Hyper Cache kosher supermarket, just before Shabbos. He was murdered in a neighborhood I know well, Porte de Vincennes, a few minutes away from my high school, and a mere 10-minute ride from my childhood home. He was one of mine, a relative, but together with all the other victims of the horrific crimes last week, he was also one of ours.
Philippe, who was 45 when he was killed last Friday, was anyone who has ever run into a grocery store with plans to run back out in a few minutes, just as the cartoonists killed in the Charlie Hebdo attack were anyone who has ever exercised their right to speak their mind. We fought for these rights in Europe and in the United States, first for some, then for all, regardless of opinion, religion, race or gender.
History books say that we won the battle. Yet, while the Jewish community in France was shocked and shaken by the events on Friday, we were also aware of a lengthy history of targeted violence.
I remember when everyday life in France began to change.
It was about a dozen years ago, and I was not yet a teenager. We lived in the 10th arrondissement, and all of a sudden, it seemed, I had to stop going to the library by myself to get my books for the weekend. I had a beautiful Magen David with blue gemstones, and my mother did not let me wear it outside. My sister and I were not allowed to go in the lobby of our apartment building alone to get the mail.
Around that time, we found swastikas scratched with car keys on our front door. Our mezuzah was stolen. We put another one on, and it too was stolen. Our car was broken into more times than I can recount. A heter, or religious edict, was given for Jewish men to not wear their kipas outside, to protect them from potential attacks.
Then, in 2006, Ilan Halimi was tortured by a gang of North African immigrants; he is remembered by us, forgotten by many others. Cars were burned. A friend was attacked with an ax. In 2012, Toulouse witnessed a Jewish school shooting that took the lives of a rabbi and three children
I remember the pain, every time a little bit sharper. The France I loved was under attack.
French Jews often talk about aliyah as a potential necessity, but never as something easy. (North African Jews immigrated to France during and after the wars of independence there in the 1960, largely because they felt a cultural tie to France.) Thousands have already left, many heading for Israel. After events like last week’s, the old questions are resurfacing, in my family and in many others in France. How could you not leave, when your child might not make it back from school, on a continent that knows the dangers of obscurantism all too well? At the same time, how could you leave, when these are the streets where you learned to walk, this is the language in which you say “I love you,” this is the first image your brain shows you when someone talks about home? On a very basic human level, when conditions threaten to pull you out of your home by the collar, how could you not hold on to the doorknob?
What is happening in France is very real and concrete, and it can be mistaken for a specifically French issue. It isn’t. The question is not about French Jews making aliyah or not. It isn’t about whether France should be blamed for not being safe enough. Jihadism is a transnational issue that affects values that we all claim to stand for. The families of the victims feel the loss of their loved ones, and they hear the cries of their children. These were innocents who were cut down for no reason other than what they represented. But what they represented is all of us. And this is what was attacked. By shooting the journalists at Charlie Hebdo, the terrorists shot all of us who write, read, talk and think. By shooting policemen and policewomen, they shot all of us who have ever protected someone. And by shooting the consumers of a kosher grocery store, they killed all of us who go about the life we have chosen for ourselves.
But if we keep the memory of those who have fallen, then the attackers shot at the power to write, but they missed; they shot at the power to read and think, but they missed; they shot at the responsibility we have in protecting our own, but they missed; they shot at our right to live the lives we have chosen for ourselves, but they missed.
Even as I write this, jihadists are likely walking around Paris with the keys they use to draw swastikas on car hoods, while we carry the keys of the friends’ apartment whose kids we are babysitting, or of the synagogue that we are opening up for a late-night shiur, or class. We are solidifying old institutions, and building new ones. Rather than succumbing to fear, we are rallying around the concept of solidarity, and hoping that the sentiment will hold. Resilience has shaped my generation. We’ve needed it.
In the midst of everything, all we hope for is to carry on with daily life, and in these times of distress, to stay strong and drink to life. Also, to remember the life of my uncle and the other victims of last week’s attacks. And to be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with the others doing their last-minute grocery shopping as another Shabbos arrives in Paris.
Mouchka Darmon Heller, who attended Yeshiva University, lives in New York City and works in the field of corporate regulatory strategy.