Friday, March 30, 2012

Response to - French Anti-Semitism, Intolerance, and Laïcité

I've written a response to's Eric Leser which will appear soon in and expands on my first article that appeared in the wake of France's school shootings in Slate. For now, here is my response in English.


I’d like to thank's Eric Leser for his response ("I Have No Trouble Being Both French and Jewish") because I think only by dialogue do we open our minds to new ideas and learn from each other.

Mr. Leser writes that he doesn’t believe laïcité is the cause of anti-Semitism. But I don’t, either: anti-Semitism is far too multi-faceted to pinpoint one cause.

What I meant in my first article is that secularism promotes homogeneity while what is needed to foster tolerance is difference. I know that is quite a provocative statement for the French, since laïcité is regarded so highly. Indeed, laïcité’s proponents extol the supposed tolerance that the policy affords, highlighting centuries of religious strife between Protestants and Catholics that preceded its implementation. Please note that I'm not saying that the American system is better for the record, but just remarking on things that I noticed throughout my years in France. I'd also like to note that though I'm not religious, I can still sympathize with my French religious friends who don't feel like they can integrate with larger French society.

But what has always struck me as odd in that argument is that it glosses over that laïcité was put in place in a much different time. In 1905, the year the Loi de la séparation entre léglise et létat was passed, France still had years before its colonies would gain independence. How many Arab Muslims from France’s colonies actually lived on the mainland at that time? Certainly nowhere near the estimated 10% of the population that they make up today, whereas relatively few French are religious Catholics anymore. Though no official records are kept, rough estimates put the figure at  61% for those who identify as Catholic, although 46% of those Catholics do not practice. Meanwhile, more French are identifying as “non-croyants” - non-believers in God. And in the most stark representation of how much France has changed since secularism was established, France is now estimated to have the largest number of Muslims and Jews in Europe.

At the same time, laïcité leaves little space for religious identity in the public sphere. Thus, though Mr. Leser may say otherwise, one can’t truly be both French and Jewish, since Jewish practice is expected to be kept private.

Moreover, any state which by law prohibits its citizens from practicing their religion is violating a basic human right. When the French state, which prides itself on its commitment to human rights, refuses, for example, to accommodate Muslim and Jewish students who cannot take a state exam on their religious holidays, it is effectively preventing them from practicing their religion. Thus, with the full yoke of laïcité in place, including the restriction from even wearing a kippa or veil in a public school, many Muslims and Jews don’t feel like they will ever be able to fit the mold of being truly “French.”

Laïcité is thus perhaps good in theory but far from perfect in practice: religion doesn’t stop at the doorstep of a household, before one is to walk into the public sphere. After all, a person’s religion is their essence, something lived by day-to-day, hour by hour.

What has also always troubled me about laïcité is my French friends’ insistence that it promotes tolerance -- that it is akin to asking all schoolchildren to wear uniforms -- because by showing everyone that you look alike, then there is somehow absolutely no discrimination.

But it must be considered, too, how boring things are when everyone looks the same: It is much more difficult to ask questions, or start discussions and debates. Perhaps what is worse is that we develop fears of what we don't know if we are not regularly confronted with the idea that people can be different from us. A French Catholic can’t ask why his Muslim schoolmate wears her hijab because she is simply prohibited from wearing it in the first place. How are you supposed to begin to understand -- to accept -- someone with different beliefs if you’re socially stunted from even broaching the subject? And if you don’t learn at a young age that it’s OK if other people look different and have different religious beliefs than you, when are you ever going to?

So essentially, one who wishes to be French and Jewish must agree to give up everything that separates them from what is mainstream French. To be even a mildly practicing Jew and French, therefore, is out of the question -- the state questions you too much over it. This goes the same, for example, wearing a kippa in the street, even in Paris, which ironically has the largest Jewish population in the country: there is no doubt that donning the head covering will get you a few stares from fellow countrymen. This is one of the reasons so many of my religious Jewish friends Paris have taken on the practice of wearing a baseball cap instead while in public.

Meanwhile, when I see that Marine Le Pen, a candidate at the Elysee in 2012, attended a ball in Vienna just this spring which is long known for its celebration of Holocaust denial, I cannot agree with Eric Leser's assertion that traditional anti-Semitism has simply "disappeared" from the French political and public sphere. It has faded, certainly, but certainly not disappeared.

And all the while, to be a Jew in France today means having to defend yourself against attacks of whether your loyalty lies with Israel or to the state, no matter how long your family has lived in France. 

Furthermore, these identity questions vis-à-vis France’s Jews transcend boundaries to French of immigrant background and especially Muslims. Marine Le Pen abhorrently compared Muslims praying in the street to a “Nazi occupation” just last year, while Le Point ran a quite alarming cover this month reading “L’histoire d’un fou d’Allah,” further stigmatizing Muslims.

And this is what I meant when I insisted that Merah was French. He was not simply “a French national of Algerian background”: He was born, raised, and killed in Toulouse. While I understand it is uncomfortable to consider that such a monster might be a product, at least indirectly, of a society long plagued by anti-Semitism, that does not mean that the the consideration should be brushed aside.

I’d also like to take note of another anti-Semitic attack that was carried out exactly one week after the school shootings in Toulouse at the same school network, only in Paris, in which a 12-year-old Jewish boy was beaten up in front of his school. My French friends were often quick to point fingers at young troublemakers of Arab descent when such violence occurred during my time in France, even before all the facts are known. But I always found that this frame of mind would ignore that these aggressors, like Merah, likely were born in France, raised in France, and went through French schooling.

And here, too, I disagree somewhat with Mr. Leser about the two strands of anti-Semitism, which he says are completely separate. I agree that they are distinct, but I do think they play off of each other in some part. As we have both established, anti-Semitism has a long, ugly history in France. But to place anti-Semitism’s modern incarnation solely on the shoulders of Arabs, and to assume that an older version has simply vanished, seems to me like a form of denial of French responsibility -- have these Arabs not lived in France for decades and sent their children to French schools? After all, it is that much easier for an immigrant-backed ignorance to flourish in a climate that already tolerates it. But to point at a historically marginalized minority as the sole cause of a modern problem seems too easy of an excuse, in itself removing responsibility from French society at large. And while I don’t think at all that all French are anti-Semitic, I do think there is a general and unspoken undercurrent of intolerance that I felt coming from various parts of society during my years in France.

Mr. Leser also errs in writing that France’s current anti-Semitism stems from the Israeli-Arab conflict. While I do not dispute that the creation of Israel has certainly aggravated tensions, anti-Semitism has existed in the Arab world since before Israel, albeit to different degrees depending on the vast region that spanned from Morocco to Yemen to Iraq. Mr. Leser ignores that Jews lived for centuries as dhimmis in the Muslim world, that Europeans brought their anti-Semitism during the colonial period, as did the Nazis, while the rise of Arab nationalism in the 20th century also contributed to the Arab anti-Semitism we see today. He also ignores that the French created tensions in their Arab colonies by imposing laws, such as the Décret Crémieux, which gave Jews a higher status than their Muslims counterparts. All the while, it is also important to note that the Jews of the Arab world never experienced anything remotely comparable to scale of those in Europe.

Furthermore, it is important to remember that Merah also killed three French officers, all of north African or Antillean descent, seemingly because they represented French foreign policy. These, indeed, seem to fit in with President Sarkozy’s characterization of this month’s terror as an attack on France. But the same cannot be said for the Jewish school shootings. Merah didn’t kill three children and a teacher at Ozar Hatorah because they were French; he killed them because they were Jews. This is what particularly took me aback with Sarkozy’s remarks that Merah had attacked France as a whole; I understood, from a political standpoint, his desire to amass a sense of national cohesion in the face of such terror, especially so soon before an election, but his comments were delusional.

And while it is normal to have such sympathy for the victims after such a tragedy, there was also an irony in Sarkozy's words. Just days after the memorials, he continued his campaign, calling for all children of the "secular Republic" to eat the same food in the schools. What Sarkozy forgets here is that those same children who were killed in Toulouse are from a religious family, meaning that they can't eat the same food as everyone else, since Jewish law proscribes that they must eat kosher.

Sarkozy, in his later campaign speeches, also seemed to largely disconnect from the fact that Merah was French: born, raised, and killed.

And with this backdrop of a confused national and religious identities, perhaps this is where France’s policy could improve in order to stifle stigmatization of its substantial minority populations and foster a truly cohesive French society. Despite French contention to the contrary, it would seem that laïcité as implemented today doesn't necessarily foster tolerance, but rather a base from which ignorance and wariness of the “other” can be accepted as norms. It is time for France to come to terms with certain realities: more than a century has passed since the adoption of secularism, while its minority population, which has drastically increased during that time, will remain diverse, multi-ethnic, and multi-cultural. It is thus time that France reevaluate whether or not laïcité, as implemented today, truly upholds the national motto of “liberté, égalité, fraternité" for all.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Sad, Not Shocked

I first heard about the shootings this morning at a Jewish school in Toulouse as I lay in bed, groggily reading an email message on my phone that a concerned friend had sent me. 

In my half-asleep stupor, I was angry, upset, and frustrated. How could anyone do this? Who could shoot children? It was the first news story that I aggregated this morning at my internship. But as more details filtered through, as more reports were read, the angrier and sadder I got, especially after I learned that a college friend of mine had actually once attended the school and knew the rabbi and children who were killed. But amid all these emotions, there was one thing that I was not: I was not shocked.

I lived in France for four years, in Nantes as a high schooler, and in Paris during university. I moved there after having lived in the U.S. all my life, where I was able to be Jewish with no questions asked, no threats to my identity nor questions of whether I could truly be both American andgaspa member of that Israelite faith.

But over the years on Gallic territory, I realized how lucky I was to have been able to grow up so unquestioned and free. French Jews don't have it so easy, even if they don't like (or want) to admit it.

In a Nantes high school, my mouth figuratively dropped as several classmates asked me the most basic of questions about Judaism to which all of my American classmates, even in my suburban and very Christian Florida hometown (not exactly famous for its culture) would have known the answers. In one instance, my classmate thought all Americans celebrated Christmas, and asked me why I didn't celebrate Christmas. When I explained I was both American and Jewish, she still didn't fully understand. That's when I had to explain, a bit awkwardly at the elementariness of it all, that, erm, Jews aren't Christians. My classmate's ignorance certainly didn't stem from maliciousness, rather ignorance, of other religions, largely because France refuses to talk openly about religion in school,  and forbids kids from even expressing their religious beliefs in wearing a veil or a kippa, for example.

In Paris, I saw my French religious friends take off their kippotor religious head coveringswhen walking in certain areas of Paris, and girls taking on the practice of making sure their stars of David were hidden under their shirts while on a crowded metro. Israeli friends were told that they should avoid speaking Hebrew in the streets, as well, you know, just a precaution. But what would seem shocking in New York—basically the American equivalent to Paris—was done without complaint, without second thought. It was second nature for a Jew in France to take safeguards at hiding his or her identity.

And that is precisely what troubled me during my last years in the country with one of Europe's largest, if not largest, Jewish population, as I started to take note of these types of gestures more and more. A friend mentions being stared at for his kippa while he walks into a grocery store—but no worry, he'll just start putting on his baseball cap instead next time he needs to go in! A metro station showcases graffiti for weeks about the Holocaust being a lie—but we're sure it was just some crazy who randomly painted it on! A young Jew of Moroccan origin is kidnapped, brutally tortured, and found dead in a field weeks later, all because his killers—up to 27 people were implicated in the casetruly believed that since he was Jewish, he must come from money—yes, it's disgusting, but it's an exceptional case! A popular French comedian defends the killing of Israelis in suicide bombings in a poem-song—but it's OK, he's also just another crazy, and no one really listens to him anyway (well, besides those who regularly fill the seats at his performances in a major Paris theater).

But my disgust didn't limit itself to the socio-cultural, expanding its reach, quite unfortunately, to the political. My stomach churned as right-winger and current serious presidential candidate Marine Le Pen compared Muslims praying in the street to a "Nazi occupation" back in December. (Really? The occupation that the French Vichy government aided and abetted, shipping some 70,000 French Jews to their deaths, was really equivalent to Muslims practicing their faith in public?) And let me take this moment to remind the reader that Madame Le Pen is the daughter of Monsieur Jean-Marie, who once infamously quipped that the Nazi gas chambers were but a "detail of history" and who was convicted last month by a Paris court for saying that the Nazi occupation was not "particularly inhumane."

And then earlier this month, I learned about the Prime Minister's comments that Jews and Muslims give up their "ancestral traditions" of eating kosher and halal meat basically because it clashed with France's view of secularism, in turn suggesting that, as everyone knows, one can't be both a religious person and a dedicated French citoyen (please note the sarcasm).

Whether political platforms beget social attitudes or vice versa might be up for debate, but my concern and meticulous mental noting of France's intolerance is not: These are unfortunate memories that will never leave me, and recounting the rest of them could fill a hundred blank pages. On this background, perhaps you can begin to understand why I was not all that shocked by Monday's shootings.

France is but a powder keg of stubborn intolerance, harboring an anti-Semitism that I fear may never be eradicated from its soil if it hasn't been already, nearly seventy years post-Holocaust.

And with all the hubbub about burqas, Muslim votes, and fears that halal meat will be available in French schoolchildren's canteens, I might as well just argue that France's Muslim, though not completely replacing the juif, has at least come to the forefront as another, to-be-hated scapegoat.

The sooner that the French can accept these realities of their current society, the sooner they will be able to develop into a nation that lives up to its supposed values of liberté, fraternité, et égalité.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Ridic Parental Expectations

In the last year, my dad has proposed no fewer than the following suggestions for what I could still manage to do career-wise with my horribly unguided life:

  • Become a doctor. (Cue stereotypical Jewish parent jokes.) But minor problem: I studied international politics for my Bachelor's. So Dad and I spent an entire day last summer researching two-year intensive bio/chem/physics programs which basically feed you into med school afterwards. Still sounds just as awful.
  • Become a lawyer, an international criminal lawyer, to be specific. (I actually seriously considered thistook the LSAT and all!but no thanks. It's great work that needs to be done, but not for me.)
  • Host a travel show on the Travel Channel. (At 23, I clearly should have already achieved this.)
  • A subsidiary of the above: become Slate's travel correspondent! (A position that doesn't even exist.)
  • Write a book on my travels, and Paris in particular. (Working on it, actually.)
  • Start a business. (No specification in what, exactly.)
  • Become a writer for SNL and/or movies. (After I'd move to L.A. and just land the job, despite my lack of any related experience, of course.)
  • Go into advertising. (Because it would allow me to be "creative.")
  • Go into banking and finance. (This actually sounds worse than med school.)
  • Go to LSE or Columbia for that master's degreethe title of which he couldn't he even remember. (Human Rights Studies. It's OKI realize it's not exactly a common or lucrative degree choice.)
  • Just get any job. Please.

But I think the best one of all was this one:

"You know, honey, there's all this pressure on women now to have careers and all, but there's nothing wrong if you just want to get married and have kids."

Yep, my dad actually time-travelled back 50 years. If we had been living in circa 1900 Greece, he'd probably have married me off long ago to some rich mensch.

At the time of that comment, I wasn't even dating anyone. In fact, I was trailing at the end of my desert* period and living with the parentals in my suburban Florida hometownnot exactly ideal mating grounds. (I'm no stranger to ridiculous parental expectations or suspicions: when I was 17, I would hang out non-stop with my best high school girl friend. Naturally, my mother thought I was gay for an entire summer.)

In any case, I can't think of any worse thingshort of dyingthat could derail my life more than "just" getting married and popping out children. I think it's actually the worst thing that I could allow to happen. And with my luck, whoever I'd marry would have this weird fascination with living in that city of lovers and literature, that global cosmopolitan hub of culture and sophistication (riiiiiight).

But I've digressed. The truth is, while the "OMG-what-should-I-do-with-my-life-OMG?!" hyperventilative question did overwhelm me just a year ago, I feel like I've found my track. No, I don't know exactly where I'm heading (does anyone?), but where I am now just feels right.

I didn't feel that in Paris.
I didn't feel that in Israel.
I didn't feel that in The Hague.
But I do feel it here as I sit writing this random entry in an equally random Brooklyn cafe.

Maybe this is the part where I get to breathe a sigh of relief in knowing that though Dad might still be worryingI'm finally finding my way.

*Four year period in which I was miserably single in the so-called "City of Love."

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Welcome to New Beginnings

I'm not sure when I got so old.

Not that I am, at least not that much. I'm 23.

23 and my grandmother had been married for years.

23 and my mother was married, too.

23 and I'm an intern in a new big city with a relatively clear idea of where I want to go but a not so clear idea of how I'm exactly supposed to get there. Oh, and I'm not married (hallelujah).

But still, I feel old. Old like I should know more of where I'm going, career-wise, life-wise.

At least I've learned to enjoy the moment more. Those moments where you pause in your own thoughts even though the world keeps spinning full speed around but you realize anyway for those moments, few glorious moments, that you need to just breathe it all in, everything you've gotten thus far: health, love, family, life.

And I suppose all this rambling is to say, briefly, that I'm good.

I'm well.

I'm happy for the most part, if a bit frustrated at times, but that mostly stems from the whole I-think-I-know-where-I-want-to-go-but-life/people/job-not-letting-me-get-what-I-deserve type nerves.

I moved to New York a few weeks back, and I'm living in an apartment in the "hipster ghetto" of BrooklynNotorious B.I.G. grew up not far, and hipsters now galore, hence the name. Apartment shared with a friend of a friend. Check out my 'hood:

Spriiiiiing. :)


Kosher eating, but rather skimpy in selection, if I must say so myself.

One of many churches in my hipster ghetto.

It's too complicated for one post to explain why I'm here, but it basically involves a story in which:

  1. I fell for a Dutch boy a few months back while I was interning at one of the international criminal tribunals in The Hague. And by fell I mean hard.
  2. Said Dutch boy still lives there. (Gah. But kind of normal, obviously.)
  3. But I want to live in the U.S. because it's the best move for me life-wise, career-wise, state-of-mind-wise.
  4. I know I want to write.
  5. I have an offer to study for a master's degree at one of the NYC schools but not sure yet if it's worth the tens of thousands it would cost in the long terma very hard financial calculation to work out, considering there are certainly more unknowns than knowns.
  6. I have no idea what I'm doing with my life.

I say that for dramatic effect. It's only partially true.

That said, welcome to my blog. I hope to keep it updated every once and awhile. Stick around for more random escapades and non-sequiturs from the life of a girl who, after perhaps moving around the world too much, is trying to get her feet back on the ground in the land of sanity.*

*But after these few weeks, I'm starting to have my doubts about why I dubbed the homeland this in the first place while I was abroad. See: contraception debates in 2012, the existence of Rick Santorum as a legitimate GOP candidate, 20+ chemical-sounding ingredients in supermarket bread, The Jersey Shore.