Charlie Hebdo: On interfaith unity in the aftermath of terrorism

What does one say after these violent, vile, tragic and frightening events, events which are significant and iconic in ways we cannot yet understand?

First of all, our thoughts are with the families of all the victims in their shock and sorrow, with the relatives and friends of those taken hostage and murdered in the kosher supermarket, Yoav Hattab, Philippe Braham, Yohan Cohen, Francois-Michel Saada; of those killed in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, and of the police officers, Ahmet Merabet and Clarissa Jen-Philippe, who died fulfilling their duty of trying to protect the citizens of Paris. May God give them strength and comfort.

We stand in solidarity with the Jewish communities of Paris and France; they have suffered many violent attacks over the past months and years, including the murder of school children and a rabbi in Toulouse, but perhaps nothing as shameless and shocking as what happened on Friday. Parisian colleagues with whom I spoke told me of how terrifying these days have been, especially for their children. French-Jewish communities are obliged to take substantial further security measures and we must stand by them and help them. We need each other.

One French friend said with characteristically ironic humour as we concluded our phone call ‘I won’t say “Please God by you”. The attacks remind us that in today’s world we are all vulnerable, Jews not least. We are liable to forget how many innocent people have suffered from such atrocities, not only in the West, but even more so in Africa and Asia. Besides vigilance, our response must be to live our lives as fully and honourably as we can, with the deepest commitment to our values as Jews and to the service of all humanity. Wanting to include our fellow communities in France in the Shabbat prayers I took out my copy of the beautiful Siddur produced by the Mouvement Massorti de France and found these words of Rivon Krygier, rabbi of Adath Shalom near the Eiffel Tower: ‘We must never abandon the pursuit of justice and love.’ Nothing could constitute a more profound and courageous response to evil’.

We stand no less in solidarity with everyone who upholds the value of freedom, whatever their faith or philosophy. The slaughter of the staff of Charlie Hedbo was an attack on perhaps the most essential freedom of all, the freedom of expression. To acknowledge this fact need not entail agreement with every editorial decision they ever made. The right to say what one wants must be balanced against the entitlement of others to respect for their sensitivities and concerns.

The murders were aimed at the heart of western culture, its greatest achievement, the creation of a shared space in which people of all cultures and ethnicities can engage with one another because it is defined by equality, freedom, respect and justice. It is true that these values are all imperfect, all deeply flawed in our societies. But the struggle to improve them lies precisely in the rejection of violence in favour of debate, moral engagement, civic commitment and the recourse to law. Jews have often been leaders in these endeavours and the combined attacks in Paris mark this fact in the most disturbing way.

Speaking on Friday night President Hollande called on the French people to unite and mobilise: ‘C’est un obligation pour nous de faire face…I call on you to be implacable before racism and anti-Semitism…We need to rise up and stand together for the values of democracy, liberty, pluralism which Europe represents…’

His appeal, which chimed with the instinctive feelings of innumerable people, drew millions together in France and tens of thousands across Europe. Even to see the pictures has been stirring; secularists and Christians, Muslims and Jews standing together in sorrow and solidarity, determination and hope. Paris was indeed the centre of the moral world. ‘At least there is awareness now,’ a French colleague told me. But the vigilance and solidarity in the struggle against racism have to last.

But what of those who have no intention of joining such demonstrations, who give tacit, or secret or even open support to terror and who do so explicitly in the name of their faith? It is profoundly wrong to identify Islam with Islamist violence or the vast and overwhelming majority of Muslim people, who want to pursue their livelihood and support their families peacefully and in loyalty to their faith, and one of whom helped to save fifteen lives at the Paris kosher supermarket, with such brutal acts. I feel sorry for how they must feel, seeing their religion calumniated by the behaviour of those who betray it with such fanaticism. Yet, as Ed Hussain wrote in Thursday’s Guardian, there is a battle going on within parts of Islam. The terror it produces has no justification and must never be defended in the name of religion. Indeed, the greatest numbers of its victims are Muslims. Like battles against other forms of terror, this struggle demands alertness, good intelligence and the wise use of force.

But it will only be won fully when the values of justice and equality, humanity and compassion, freedom and respect are truly recognised and honoured. The real meaning and purpose of religion lies not in fundamentalist rigidity to dogma, but in inspiring and disciplining us so that we can help to realise these ideals by appreciating God’s sacred presence in all life and in every human being.

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg gave us permission to publish this piece. For more of his musings please check out: and follow his Twittter