JERUSALEM — Thousands of mourners, the vast majority of them French immigrants, paid their respects here on Tuesday to four men whose lives were cut short when they entered a kosher supermarket on Friday and were then held hostage and killed. Gathered under the sun in a cemetery overlooking the scenic hills of Jerusalem, family members of the deceased bid farewell to their loved ones, and Israeli leaders offered their condolences. Mourners described the men as family.
“He was in love with Israel,” said Jonathan Saada, the son of 63-year-old Francois-Michel Saada, after lighting the first of four memorial torches. “He always wanted to live here and now he will. All his life he wanted to gather people and now he has.”
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin offered the first official eulogy, and he began by addressing the deceased with words that drew many tears from the crowd. “Yoav, Yohan, Philippe, Francois-Michel, this is not how we wanted to welcome you to Israel,” he said. “This is not how we wanted to see you come home, to the State of Israel, and to Jerusalem, its capital. We wanted you alive, we wanted for you, life.”
He also directed his words at European leaders, whom he urged to do more to counter the anti-Semitism that has caused a record-breaking 7,086 French Jews to immigrate to Israel in 2014 alone.
“Regardless of what may be the sick motives of terrorists, it is beholden upon the leaders of Europe to act, and commit to firm measures to return a sense of security and safety to the Jews of Europe; in Toulouse, in Paris, in Brussels, or in Burgas,” he said. “We cannot allow it to be the case, that in the year 2015, 70 years since the end of the Second World War, Jews are afraid to walk in the streets of Europe with skullcaps and tzitzit” (the tasseled four-cornered garment worn by observant Jewish men).
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also spoke at the ceremony, and recalled the day less than three years ago when four other victims of anti-Semitism in France were buried here at the same cemetery. “These four victims are like [the] victims of Toulouse, killed only because they were Jewish,” said Netanyahu. He, too, had a message for world leaders about the dangers of religious intolerance. “I have said for years, and will say again today — these are not just the enemies of the Jewish people, but the enemy of humanity as a whole. The time has come for all civilized people to unite and uproot these enemies from our midst.”
Some in the crowd waved Israeli flags, or held signs bearing the smiling faces of the four murdered men, with various depictions of the phrases “I am Charlie,” “I am Yohan Cohen,” “I am a Jew,” and “I am dead because I am a Jew.” Hundreds of French flags were hung along the main streets of Jerusalem, along with signs in French that proclaim “Jerusalem is Charlie,” and signs in Hebrew that read “Jerusalem embraces the French people.”
Among the thousands of mourners, more French was being spoken than Hebrew. Some had personal ties to the victims, while others were there in solidarity with the men they view as brothers.
Steven Taieb, 22, and Natan Touitou, 20, wore shirts with the words “Je suis Yohan Cohen” below the face of their lost friend, the 20-year-old who worked at the Hyper Casher market and was shot dead there on Friday. Taieb and Touitou both moved to Israel within the last year, and had kept in close contact with Cohen, who they said was their best friend.Touitou and Cohen had weekly long-distance PlayStation dates on Thursday nights. “After we played on Thursday night, when we said goodnight, he said he’d call me tomorrow before Shabbat,” Touitou said through sobs. “When I didn’t hear from him on Friday, I figured we would talk after Shabbat, but then I saw his face on Facebook, in the news about the attack. Today I still don’t believe that it’s him who’s being buried.”
Didier, 49, didn’t want to give his last name, but said that before he moved to Israel he had been a neighbor and friend of Philippe Braham, 45, who he described as a happy man who loved life. Most of Didier’s family remains in France, he said, but “they are seriously considering Aliyah (immigrating to Israel). They’ve been wanting to since Toulouse but it’s hard for them to imagine restarting their life here.”
Ora Itta, 18, has no connection to the victims other than the fact that they are French and Jewish, but said that coming to the funeral was not even a question. Itta is only in Israel for the year, studying in a post-high school seminary for young women. She is supposed to return to Paris in the summer, but is now considering staying in Israel instead. “I want to stay here because France is so dangerous, and here it’s a nation of Jews,” she said. “It’s hard to decide because my whole family is in France, but my parents tell me it would be better for me to stay in Israel.”
The question of whether French Jews should stay in France or move to Israel in response to the rising anti-Semitism has stirred some debate within the Jewish community, particularly after comments made by Netanyahu during his visit to Paris over the weekend. At the funeral on Tuesday, he echoed those statements, telling the overwhelmingly French crowd, “I believe that Jews know deep in their hearts that they have one country — the state of Israel, the historic birthplace that will accept them with open arms. Now more than ever Israel is the real, genuine home for all of us.”
Yet Rivlin noted in his eulogy, “Returning to your ancestral home need not be due to distress, out of desperation, because of destruction, or in the throes of terror and fear … We want you to choose Israel, because of a love for Israel.”
And the families who traveled from France to Israel chose to bury their loved ones in Jerusalem. When Valerie Braham, the widow of Phillipe Braham spoke, there was barely a dry eye in the crowd. “Philippe, my dear love,” she said in Hebrew, fighting back tears. “He always thought of others first. He lived only for his children. Today he is with our son,” she said, referring to their son who was buried in Jerusalem several years ago. “I know you are all crying with me and I thank you all. I can’t believe it.”