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.


  1. The url of the Slate piece said blame must be shared by French culture, and in the actual text it said French secularism may have influenced Merah. That claim struck me as exceedingly bizarre, and while I could simply point and laugh for others, having a comment section on your blog means I can ask what you were thinking. So what is the hypothesized causality that leads from French secularism to Merah's shootings?

    I should note that I'm also an American and although irreligious, I do not identify as a secularist.

  2. Hi! Thanks for your response, and thanks for reading my piece on Slate. Yes, I do realize that it was hard for some to understand where I was going with that. It was a hard topic to cover overall in just 1400 words to an audience unfamiliar with the issues/culture at hand, since the issue is very multi-faceted. But basically, to give you the short answer, it stems from the idea that for me, France's secularism reinforces close-mindedness; it doesn't allow free expression of religion. They don't talk openly about religion. When you go to school as a kid, you can't ask the Muslim girl why she wears a veil, if she even likes wearing it, etc, because she simply isn't allowed to wear the veil. Somehow she's supposed to keep her religion only to herself, her family, her community, inside her house -- as if a person's religious identity just stops at the family household doormat, doesn't need to pass that. The French idea that one can be a privately religious person but not publicly is just not practical, as in, for example, when I mentioned that state exams will be put on religious holidays that are very important to Muslims and Jews. When that is the kind of society that is in place, of course certain people are never going to feel like they fit in, that they are never fully accepted for who they are. They simply don't feel free to express who they are, even if it means just wanting to celebrate one holiday per year, but not being able to, because the state says being French and that exam you should take are much more important than some silly religion. I'm planning on expanding on my ideas in another blog post here soon, so stay tuned.