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.


  1. How do you consider the July 2007 bombings in London, within the framework of your criticism of French laicite? The London bombers were British-born Muslims, living in a tolerant, open multicultural society, where Muslim women wear the hijab, Jews can wear kippot, Sikhs wear turbans and noone blinks an eye. British multiculturalism ideologically resembles more closely the US model of multicultural tolerance than the French model of laicite. Nonetheless these four young British Muslim men felt sufficiently angry to kill dozens of their fellow citizens. If your analysis is correct and French laicite is a necessary sufficiency for a disillusioned young Frenchman to kill French Jews and Muslims, then how was that possible?

  2. Hi, thanks for reading and sorry it's taken me some time to get back. Of course there are probably always going to be horrors to the scale we saw in Toulouse -- after all, we see them in the U.S. despite having an arguably more open society. And I don't think French laicite is a "necessary sufficiency" to convince a deluded young man to commit such atrocities. Rather, my gripe with the French model is that it doesn't necessarily promote the tolerant society its proponents would have it. In short, I think we would see less racism and ignorance toward minorities in general if difference, on the larger societal scale, wasn't regarded with such skepticism.

    I'm guessing from your username that you're based in France now? Do you have any thoughts/experiences re: laicite?