The cowardly massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris put me in an uncomfortably reflective mood last week.
There is little that one such as I can say about the terrible grief and pain felt by people close to those who died. Their tragedy is a personal one but also a global one, because of the threat the killings pose to freedom of expression everywhere. I would amend the rallying cry “Je Suis Charlie” to “Nous Sommes Charlie”: we are all Charlie.
The Charlie Hebdo attack made me realize that my past visits to Israel and to Europe have put me on the outskirts of terrorism. A brief personal history is in order: In 1978-79, I spent my junior year of college at Tel Aviv University, in an English-language program. While not Jewish, my time there gave me a strong connection to Jewish people of Israel and other countries. In 1980, I was blessed with another travel opportunity, to work for three months at a Michelin one-star restaurant in Normandy, about an hour by train from Paris.
My wife, Lorre, and I visited England in March 1991, just at the start of the ground war in the first Gulf War; I vividly remember the “report unattended objects” warnings, and seeing Victoria Station shopkeepers react with alarm when a shopping bag was left not far from their doors. It turned out to be an innocent act of forgetfulness by someone, but it was a bracing beginning to our vacation. We would later encounter border barbed wire and armed British patrols and security gates in Belfast (this was before the 1998 Good Friday agreement).
When I flew to Israel in 1978, my first time out of the country, in Zurich we Tel Aviv-bound passengers were shuttled to a remote metal building away from the terminal, for a separate security clearance and boarding process. That was my first exposure to the realities of years of war and terror involving Israel and the region, and people who travel there.
In my student year in Israel I saw soldiers with their weapons everywhere I went — standard procedure then, as now, for security’s sake as well as the simple reality of life in a country with a citizen reserve army. I saw Arabs told to get off buses, a painful experience I saw Israelis protest, and we were schooled in the unattended packages ethos. That year I heard both Abba Eban, Israel’s then-UN delegate, speak of diplomacy, and the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, speak of Jews arming themselves against what he said was the inevitable war on Jews; that meeting was held in a basement, in virtual secret, as Kahane was at the time persona non grata with the Israeli government.
However, nothing overt happened in my year there, other than one non-fatal bomb in Jerusalem. It was the year of peace accords starting with Egypt — a magical time that seems unreal now. I went to Bethlehem and had the ironic experience of being frisked by solders before I could enter Manger Square on Christmas Eve.
In 1979, on a student trip to the Golan Heights (held by Israel, but all-but-empty due to its proximity to enemy Syria), we took a hike on a remote plateau and were warned not to touch any object we saw, for fear it could be booby trapped. (On that same trip, we rode the single ski lift in Israel up to the top of Mt. Hermon, a ride that looks down upon the rusted remains of Syrian tanks from the 1967 War.)
On that hike, walking through the scrub, my boot touched something and amazingly I reached down to pick it up — an unidentifiable plastic part of some kind. Friends saw me and laughed and shook their heads. Whatever it was, I dropped it — and thought of nothing else for the rest of the hike.
In 1980 in Paris, a grim coincidence occurred that gave me a sense of awareness of, if not direct experience with, terrorism. (Pardon my stilted syntax, but I am trying to phrase this just right.)
I had stayed twice in Hotel de Nice, a cheap walk-up hotel in the heart of the city. It was a good base for taking in the museums and parks. I ate cheap food and walked — a lot. Both times I had room 26 at Hotel de Nice, the key hanging from a hard brass keychain, in those days before swipe cards.
My third Paris visit, in October 1980, was days after a bombing at the Paris synagogue on Rue de Copernic, a tragedy that killed four people. The International Herald Tribune called it “the worst anti-Semitic act in France since the end of World War II.” I confess that I don’t think I was all that mindful of the synagogue attack; I just planned two days to soak in as much of Paris as my meager budget could afford. I arrived at Hotel de Nice and was given a different room number — 24 — and thought nothing of it at the time.
The day I left, I checked out and took off walking around Paris, planning to catch an early train back to Normandy. Shortly before I was to do so, I put my hand in my coat pocket and realized I still had the hotel key — room 24 — but not enough time to take it back. That would have to wait until the next visit.
Meanwhile, in my wandering, I realized I was lost. Well, not so much lost as needing to look; maps of Paris are exact (and this was before GPS) and after a few minutes I was able to suss out my location. I charted a course for catching the train from Gare St. Lazare, and started walking in that general direction. After a few blocks I looked up and realized I was at the corner of Rue de Copernic — just a block from the blown-up synagogue. Curiosity got the better of me and I walked down Copernic to have a look. The police tape was up and guards were there, but things looked nearly normal. I bought a roll at a bakery across the street.
And here is the coincidence: As I was standing on Copernic I pulled the Hotel de Nice key from my pocket and looked at the address of the synagogue: 24 Rue Copernic, the same as my room number.
And the key chain? I kept it; it’s in the photo above: made of brass and shaped like the Star of David, the Jewish symbol. The lower point of the star points to where the synagogue is.
On Oct. 6, 1980, LeMonde newspaper evoked the Nazi’s branding of Jews in its response to the synagogue attack: “Every Frenchman should feel like he is wearing the yellow star.”
In January 2015, this newspaper and thousands of others said, “Je Suis Charlie.”
Statements of unity, even fraternite et liberte.
Last week in Paris, the murderers attacked a newspaper office and then a kosher grocery store miles from their first crime. They sought out Jewish people to kill.
There is no practical connection between the synagogue bombing of 1980 — carried out by French rightists — and the Parisian tragedies of 2015 — done by Islamic jihadists — other than a set of victims in both cases who happened to be Jewish. And Paris is hardly unique in being wracked by terror. I think people everywhere share a mutual sense of foreboding as the smoke clears on Charlie Hebdo.
So I stumbled on a piece of plastic in a Golan field, and saw soldiers walking around with guns, or happened into a bombed-out synagogue in Paris; in none of these experiences was I ever in danger, and I cannot claim to understand what true fear feels like. But it keeps me mindful of the ingrained history of hate that seems at times to define the human experience.
Current events, and my own snippets of history, have my attention. Statements of unity are a good thing. Even on the outskirts of something you can still feel close to it. But how close, and for how long?