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Meet the Prominent Rabbi Who Says Europe's Jews Should Be Armed

Following the recent terror attacks in Paris, Rabbi Menachem Margolin has said European Jews should be legally permitted to carry weapons in schools, synagogues, and kosher stores.
January 17, 2015, 8:00pm
Photo by Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP

In many parts of France, "Je suis Charlie" — the anti-battle cry born of last week's terror attacks in Paris — shares the stage with another slogan: "Je suis Juif," or, "I am Jewish."

The last of the simultaneous attacks on the French capital took place at a kosher supermarket in Porte de Vincennes, in eastern Paris. Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who seized the shop and held its patrons hostage, told a French TV station — by phone, in the midst of a standoff with police — that he had selected the Hypercacher store "because it was Jewish."

Many from France's half-million strong Jewish community took to the streets, placards in hand after the attack. "Je suis Juif" became a catchphrase for their shared grief and revulsion — but also a pointed demand for French authorities to do more to protect a community that increasingly sees itself in peril.

So far, French officials have heeded their demands. This week, the French government dispatched nearly 5,000 police officers to safeguard hundreds of Jewish sites, including yeshivas and synagogues. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced that cops would be placed at all 717 of France's Jewish schools. And French President Francois Hollande reportedly told Jewish leaders that he would bring in the army to protect Jewish institutions, "if necessary."

The moves came amid news that Jewish schools in Belgium and the Netherlands were temporarily shuttered Friday due to security concerns following a police raid that targeted alleged Islamist terrorists.

France is home to the world's third-largest Jewish population, behind Israel and the United States. The country has a history of anti-Semitic attacks beyond the recent events. In 2012, a French Islamist named Mohammed Merah slaughtered three students and a teacher at a Jewish school in Toulouse. Last May, Frenchman Mehdi Nemmouche — newly returned from Syria and described by French officials as a "jihadist" — gunned down four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels.

An alleged uptick in anti-Semitic incidents has been tied to Israel's military operation in Gaza last summer.

Today's Charlie Hebdo-themed op-eds tend to reach back even further in time, placing the Paris attacks within a broad and bloody French history of Jewish prejudice. Rare is the editorial that does not link last week's assaults to the French Revolution, or the Dreyfus Affair, or the French Commune, or Vichy France and Vel d'Hiv.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu capitalized on this history last weekend with a sales pitch to the Jews of Europe. "To all the Jews of France, all the Jews of Europe," Netanyahu declared. "I would like to say that Israel is not just the place in whose direction you pray. The state of Israel is your home."

To all the Jews of France, all the Jews of Europe,Israel is not just the place in whose direction you pray, the state of Israel is your home

— ?'????? ?????January 10, 2015

Indeed, last year, some 7,000 Jews reportedly ditched France for Israel.

But many reports of genuine fear have blurred with hysteria. And hyperbolic reports — suggesting, without clear evidence, that Europe's Jews are preparing a mass and imminent flight to Israel — have appeared with regularity.

Perhaps the most bombastic claim about Jewish security in Europe has come from Rabbi Menachem Margolin, director general of the Rabbinical Center of Europe and the European Jewish Association. Earlier this week, newspapers around the world carried Margolin's declaration that Europe's Jews are in great danger — to such an extent that they must be permitted, legally, to arm themselves.

On Friday, VICE News caught up with Rabbi Margolin.

VICE News: You recently got a lot of attention for your call that European nations loosen up gun licensing laws — and allow Jewish people to arm themselves. Why did you make that proposal?
Rabbi Margolin: First, let me say that today, the Jewish school systems in Belgium and Holland are closed because of a security situation.

Can I ask you a question?

Sure.
Say you knew that someone would like to kill you — and they told you clearly, 'The moment I see you and I am able to do so, I will kill you.' What would you do?

Umm…
You question. But your question comes from the point of view of someone who doesn't live with this fear on a day-to-day basis.

What about if you could not send your kids to school? Today, for instance, my kids are at home. What if your wife was afraid to take the kids to the kosher store to buy products for Shabbat because no one knows what will happen? What if people were afraid to come to synagogue?

The governments do not listen to our calls and they haven't for a very long time. Well, they listen partly, but not fully, to our requests that Jewish institutions — Jewish stores, Jewish community centers, kindergartens, synagogues — be protected by police or army.

'In schools, a few teachers would have guns. In the synagogue, a few people would carry guns. In each kosher store, the manager and owner and another one or two people would carry guns.'

How would your proposal work?
I'm not saying that every child of 16 who wants a gun should get it. That's not what I said. What I said is that I want each Jewish community to choose a few people who could obtain guns through the authorities — going through all the necessary psychological tests, training, etc.

So in schools, a few teachers would have guns. In the synagogue, a few people would carry guns. In each kosher store, the manager and owner and another one or two people would carry guns.

A system should be put in place — but only in cases where authorities are unable to protect Jewish institutions.

You say that you have reached out to interior ministers in all EU countries and put this proposal before them. Have you heard back from anyone?
Some of them contacted us. Some of them asked for more information or clarification. Some understand the issue and have to think about it. Of course, it's not a decision that would be taken in a day. But the process has started.

Which countries have responded positively thus far?
I prefer not to say.

It wouldn't be fair to say they responded positively, but they responded. They understand the situation.

With all due respect, you must know that your proposal is wildly implausible — and that it would require wide-ranging legislative changes in many countries. The obvious point to put before you is: Isn't this all hyperbole?
First of all, I'm not sure about that. What is happening in Europe is a kind of wake-up call for governments. The situation has completely changed.

And I'm not so sure about your argument that the procedure can't take place. In some countries, Jewish people, lots of people, can volunteer with the police. If someone is then part of the police, he will carry a gun — in most countries.

I would like to remind you that the bad guys have lots of weapons.

Some Muslim community leaders have also spoken about feeling under threat, in light of last week's attacks. Do you think your gun proposal should be extended to Muslim populations?
I can only speak for the Jewish community. I think there is no minority like the Jewish community when it comes to experiencing threat on a day-to-day basis for thousands of years. I don't really think it would be right to compare anything to that.

When you talk about Jews being under threat, are you talking about people who are identifiably Jewish: people in Hasidic communities, for instance, and students who attend Jewish schools with identifiable uniforms?
No. It depends. A person who looks like a Jew walks down the street every day and… For example, I hear often things like "Dirty Jew!" or "Go to Gaza!" or "You kill children!" Things like that happen to me and my colleagues.

If a person does not look like a Jew, of course he will feel it less. However, there are many Jews in Europe who do not look like Jewish people but who attend Jewish institutions.

I'm interested in the fact that you recently criticized Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's government for its "Pavlovian reaction" to the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Over the weekend, Netanyau tweeted a message to European Jews, saying, "the state of Israel is your home."
I did not criticize Netanyahu. I criticized the natural Israeli response that came after the attacks: 'Oh there is a problem in France, you are not protected, you better come to Israel.' This is unacceptable. Jews have the right to live with full security everywhere.

It's not the reality that the entire Jewish community in Europe would emigrate to Israel. The fact is that the majority — 80 or 90 percent of Jewish people in Europe — will stay.

What is motivating the Israeli government's call? Is this about internal politics? Is it about a wish to sustain a sizeable Jewish population in Israel?
I think that for someone who is not a Jew, it would be much harder for you to understand. But we grew up with our history. The Jewish people for thousands of years needed to run away, from one country to another.

With all due respect, I understand this very well. I think you are making an assumption about my own background.
I'm just saying, in general. I don't know what your religion is; it's not my business. But I'm saying that I understand where the Israeli position comes from.

However, I think you need to consider whether this is a realistic call or not.

Follow Katie Engelhart on Twitter:@katieengelhart