|Letter from France|
AJC Executive Director David A. Harris writes a monthly letter offering his insights and analysis of current concerns facing American and world Jewry.
Letter from France
February 5, 2003
France faces a major problem today. It's a problem without an easy or obvious solution. It's a problem that challenges the core values of French society. And it's a problem that profoundly affects French Jewry, the second largest Diaspora community in the world.
While estimates vary, there are approximately five million Muslims in France, comprising just under ten percent of the national population. According to the French daily Le Figaro (October 21, 2002), half are French citizens. The vast majority come from the Maghreb - Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. Others hail from sub-Saharan Africa, Turkey, and the Middle East. They range from secular to fundamentalist in their religious orientation, and they represent the denominational spectrum of Islam, from Salafi to Sufi, from Shiite to Sunni, from Wahhabi to Tabligh.
It is said that in France more Muslims attend prayer services on Friday than Christians on Sunday. And it is also said that virtually all the mosques, and the imams that lead them, are funded and staffed from outside of France, principally from North Africa and the Persian Gulf.
The problem France faces is how to integrate this large community into the fabric and fiber of a nation that enshrines democratic values and secularism in the public sphere, and, since 1905, has built an impenetrable wall between religion and state. France has successfully absorbed previous waves of newcomers, including hundreds of thousands of Jews from the Maghreb, who quickly embraced the "republican" values of the country-but this time it's different.
Many Arab Muslims resist the traditional patterns of absorption and acculturation, though there are those, notably from the Algerian region of Kabylia, who have proved the exception. And the second generation doesn't seem to have a much easier time of it than their parents; in some ways, it's even more difficult for them, though born in France. They don't fully identify with the state, but, then again, have no other state to fully identify with, either.
Often trapped in a cycle of poverty, violence, unemployment, and ghettoization, these youngsters feel alienated from French society. They are overrepresented in the prison system and underrepresented in the professional ranks. (According to a new book, Les Territoires Perdus de la République - "The Lost Territories of the Republic" - to which I will return in a moment, "Nearly 60 percent of the inmates in French prisons are Muslims, while the Muslim population in France probably approaches ten percent of the total.")
This situation is by no means unique to France; Belgium, among other European countries, faces similar challenges. But France, by dint of its size and prominence, is the key country to watch. Put most starkly, will France ultimately prevail in the struggle to inculcate its prized societal values in the Muslim community, or will it fail, and, if so, with what consequences for the nation as a whole?
The 5-600,000 French Jews are profoundly affected by what's going on.
An ancient and proud Jewish community dating back to the first century C.E., French Jewry counts among its most distinguished members Gershom ben Jehuda and Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, better known as Rashi, the legendary eleventh-century scholars of Bible and Talmud. French Jews were to enjoy the fruits of emancipation in the eighteenth century, but not before experiencing mass expulsion in the fourteenth century and restrictions on their ability to return.
On the heels of the adoption of the revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man, full citizenship was granted to all the Jews in France in 1791. As Abram Leon Sachar wrote in A History of the Jews:
At last a great European country had abolished all restrictions; the Jews had liberty, equality, and, at least in theory, fraternity. They were no longer aliens....The emancipated people outdid themselves in their devotion to what had at last become for them 'la patrie' (the homeland).
History, as we know all too well, seldom follows a linear course. There were to be major calamities awaiting French Jewry, most notably the Dreyfus Affair and the Nazi occupation of France and the collaboration of the Vichy regime. But the trajectory of French Jewish history cannot be defined by these two tragic events alone.
French Jews have made extraordinary contributions to French politics, science, industry, and the arts. As but one example, how many countries in the world can claim not one, nor two, but three Jewish prime ministers - Léon Blum, Pierre Mendès-France, and René Mayer? Needless to say, this also says something important about prevailing attitudes toward Jews in French society.
Battered by the murder of more than 77,000 French Jews deported to Nazi extermination camps, primarily Auschwitz, the community made a dramatic recovery after the war, fueled by the influx in the 1950s and 1960s of North African Jews, who today constitute a clear majority of the French Jewish population. Not only did they more than double the community's size, but they also infused it with new energy, vitality, and pride, all clearly evident to this day, whether in Paris, Marseille, Nice, Strasbourg, or Toulouse.
But now French Jews face an unprecedented challenge. In the last thirty months, with heightened tensions in the Middle East, French Jews have been the target of chilling physical and verbal violence emanating from the North African Muslim community. Literally hundreds of attacks have been documented. At first, the government was inexcusably slow to respond. The New York Times, in an editorial, commented that when synagogues were "defaced, sacred texts burned, individuals menaced ... the official reaction consisted of a Gallic shrug, as if to ask, What can you expect from poor Arabs when they watch brutal scenes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on television?"
Few suspects were arrested, even fewer prosecuted. Whether this was the result of political considerations - presidential and parliamentary elections were scheduled for the spring of 2002 and the Muslim vote was a bigger factor than the Jewish - or whether it was the fear of triggering riots in restive Muslim neighborhoods, French authorities failed to act quickly and decisively.
Instead of taking on those who would flout the law and attack Jews, the government instead took on those on the outside, mostly in Israel and the United States, who condemned the violence against Jews. "France is not an anti-Semitic country," French officials vehemently insisted, but this was never at issue in the first place. It was simply a red herring, a diversionary tactic. What was at issue was the stream of violent incidents against Jews within France, not wholesale condemnation of the country.
Regrettably, some American Jews inadvertently played into the hands of the French government by assailing France in newspaper ads and through the Internet, and calling for a travel boycott. This allowed government officials to circle the wagons and assert that their country writ large was unfairly under attack.
However well-intentioned, the boycott call was misguided. It was done without consultation with French Jewish leadership (which subsequently denounced the call, pursuing instead intensified dialogue with government officials), the Israeli government, or American Jewish organizations. With little chance of success, it would have revealed weakness, not strength. It is wiser under such circumstances to hold out the possibility of a boycott rather than to actually call for one. And a boycott could have led to retaliatory measures - not against American Jews, of course, but against Israel.
Fortunately, things have taken a turn for the better lately. Many French Jewish leaders attribute this to a toughened approach by the new government led by Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Much credit is given in particular to the minister of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, whose no-nonsense approach to law and order has proved popular. Still, French Jews aren't breathing easy yet.
At the annual dinner of CRIF, the French Jewish umbrella body, in Paris last month, Roger Cukierman, the elected president, said in a powerful speech before Prime Minister Raffarin, members of the Cabinet, parliamentary leaders, ambassadors, religious figures (among them Dalil Boubekeur, the head of the newly-established French Council of the Muslim Religion and a leading moderate), and hundreds of other guests, including an American Jewish Committee solidarity delegation:
Last year in one breath we spoke of our fierce attachment to France and our anguish in the face of the renewed outbreak of anti-Jewish acts.
Mr. Prime Minister, you heard our appeal. On July 21, 2002, at the Place of the Martyred Jews of Vel d'Hiv, you forcefully affirmed that to attack the Jewish community was to attack France and the values of the Republic. [Author's note: The Vélodrome d'Hiver was the site in Paris where, in July 1942, thousands of Jews were kept for days in inhuman conditions en route to deportation.]
We thank the Minister of the Interior who, under your leadership, acted efficiently. We can confirm a decline in the number of these acts. But they have not disappeared. Far from it. What was at stake, and what is at stake, is not simply a matter of public order. What is at stake is the future of the Republic....
Because we feel that we are in the front line in the defense of the Republic's values, and because we remain concerned about the risk of a resurgence of anti-Jewish acts, we have several requests:
- The judicial system must punish more severely attacks that are anti-Semitic or racist in character. This looks like it will happen, given the unanimous adoption of the bill sponsored by Pierre Lellouche in the National Assembly [i.e., parliament]. We welcome this step.
- Moreover, we believe that the penalty of three months for offenses involving the expression of racist or anti-Semitic views in France should be increased to a minimum of one year, including for offenses involving the Internet.
- Finally, we would like to see an effort undertaken to legislate internationally against the propagation, via the Internet, of racist or anti-Semitic views.
President Cukierman then expressed his concern about threats to secularism in French public life. He cited an important new book, Les Territoires Perdus de la République, which was published in September 2002 and focuses on teachers' accounts of anti-Semitism, racism, and sexism in the French school system.
This book encapsulates the Herculean problems faced by France in trying to integrate youth of various backgrounds, especially Muslim. Here are a few telling excerpts:
At the Lycée Bergson in Paris 19, two young girls saw the monstrous face of anti-Semitism. In the courtyard ... they were surrounded by some 15 pupils who insulted them to their faces with vulgar expressions. The pupils laughed at each insult. But the humiliations weren't only verbal. Apples and cheese were thrown in their faces. Their clothes were dirtied. "The Jews don't wash themselves," one of the pupils commented. The torturers then pulled the girls' hair several times. They were then ordered to get on their knees and beg forgiveness that they were Jews. The pupils then went through their personal belongings, without taking anything. The object of the exercise: humiliation. The girls shivered from fear, but didn't get on their knees. They were hit. They were warned that if they spoke about this to anyone there would be reprisals. The ordeal lasted 40 minutes.... A disciplinary committee met in May 2002. Two pupils were suspended. But one of the two was treated more gently. She was able to go to the class where one of the two (Jewish) girls was, and proceeded to threaten her.... The two girls, much traumatized, changed schools.
I have taught at the elementary level in Paris for more than 20 years and am currently in a school north of the capital. In our classrooms we have children of many backgrounds, and I have noticed that Jewish children today are jostled and insulted because of their origin. I've heard: "Jew dog," "Long live bin Laden," "We're going to burn Israel," and "Go back to your country." These comments come from the mouths of children who are seven, eight, nine years old.
In a school in Seine-Saint-Denis something was organized that was in large measure responsible for my desire (as a professor of history and geography) to quit the school as quickly as possible. The town authorities, with a communist orientation, were actively looking for a school to participate in a twinning program with Palestinian students. Our principal, himself part of the municipal council, offered our school…. He spoke of a 'peace trip.' I asked him if Israeli students would also participate. He said no. That's a strange way to think of education for peace, isn't it?... In February, the Palestinian delegation, with children from 14 to 16, was welcomed.... During the Easter break, it was the turn of our children to go. Israel was not included in the itinerary, other than the arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport and the border crossings to reach the West Bank. The children spent ten days visiting Ramallah, Jenin, Kalkilya, and Nablus. On their return, wrapped in kefiyas, our students spoke more or less along the following lines: the Palestinians are poor, they have nothing. The Israelis are rich; they have everything and taunt the Palestinians....
Mr. T., a professor of history near the end of his teaching career, acknowledged with resignation and sadness that "violent criticism of Christianity and Judaism" by many pupils of Maghreb origin compelled him to touch only briefly on the curriculum on religions. When it comes to Islam, he now only speaks about it with great caution and keeping a close and uneasy eye on the reactions of the pupils.
Miss Y, a young professor of history and geography who enjoys good relations with her students, many of whom are Muslim, confided: "I believe that there is a huge problem of anti-Semitism.... I was shocked when I raised the subject of the Nazi period and the deportation. Several students ... pointed out the mistakes in my class." "But no, professor, all this is false. You repeat what's written in the history books, but you are mistaken.... We know that this was invented by the rich Jews after the war, but we've read other books that tell us the truth." "What books?" asked the professor. "People who know how to get such books because these books are forbidden by Jews who don't want them sold," a pupil replied. "But what are you saying? Give me a title." "Okay, the book of Garaudy, that's one," said the youngster. [Author's note: Roger Garaudy, a French convert to Islam, is a notorious Holocaust denier.]
Taking account of the difficulties in the French school system, Prime Minister Raffarin, in his remarks at the CRIF dinner, pointedly said:
I would like to emphasize the questions linked to teaching that you appropriately raised, President Cukierman [of CRIF]. Anti-Semitism is sometimes spread even into our classrooms. There we are experiencing the failure of integration to our republican values, which is a fundamental mission for the school. In certain educational establishments, it becomes difficult for the professors to raise the subject of the Shoah or to utter the name of Israel.... We must teach the Holocaust. The national minister of education, with absolute firmness, is mobilizing the means to assist the schools and teachers to fight against these unacceptable phenomena.
The prime minister went an important step further. Citing the campaign at the University of Paris VI to stop the renewal of academic cooperation between the European Union and Israel and to end exchanges with Israeli universities, he declared, to much applause, that such an initiative was "inadmissible" and that the government "has forcefully condemned it." The French government, he added, was moving in precisely the opposite direction. "We wish to develop our bilateral relations with Israel and our cooperation with foreign universities," citing as an example an agreement signed on January 14, 2003, to promote further scientific and technological cooperation with Israel.
Apropos the situation on French university campuses, an article by two leaders of the Union of French Jewish Students was published in the national daily, Le Monde, on January 22, 2003. Entitled "L'Intifada des campus" - "The Intifada of the Campuses," it noted that "hatred of Jews has become a statistical fact at French universities" and that "in the name of Palestine, everything is permitted."
Two other books have recently appeared in France that are also provoking considerable discussion and much concern.
The first, entitled Rêver la Palestine ("Dream of Palestine"), is a novel allegedly written by a teenager, Randa Ghazy, living in Milan, whose parents emigrated from Egypt. There are those who question whether Ms. Ghazy, given her youth and the fact that she never set foot in the West Bank or Gaza, actually wrote it herself, or is simply the vehicle for a clever marketing ploy.
The book appeared late last year in a French-language edition from the prestigious publishing house Flamarrion and almost immediately created a firestorm. The CRIF leadership, reacting to the book's inflammatory contents, called on the publisher to withdraw all copies. Proche-orient.info, a leading website on the Middle East, commented that the book "in the guise of fiction ... is an incitement to hatred, violence, and to Jihad against Israelis and Jews," citing a 1949 French law that prohibits the promotion of hate among minors. "It is a book that, given the socio-political context in France, can only encourage anti-Semitic acts."
The other book, Mes "Frères" Assassins: Comment j'ai infiltré une cellule d'Al-Qaïda ("My 'Brothers' the Murderers: How I infiltrated an Al-Qaeda cell"), just came out last month and has already caused a stir.
Written by Mohammed Sifaoui, a journalist, it recounts how the author ran into an old Algerian classmate in Paris, who had since become an Islamist terrorist. The classmate tried to recruit Sifaoui and for three months the journalist pretended to go along, all the while keeping a meticulous diary and, thanks to a hidden camera, filming many of the encounters. Terrorist targets in France were discussed, including the possible assassination of two moderate Muslim leaders, Dalil Boubekeur, mentioned above, and Soheib Bencheikh, the mufti of Marseille.
Terrorism, it should be recalled, is not new to France. In the 1990s, France was hard hit by Algerian-linked terrorism connected to the brutal civil war ravaging the North African country. More recently, German officials uncovered an Islamist cell plotting an attack on the cathedral in Strasbourg, while French authorities thwarted a plan by Muslim terrorists to blow up the Russian embassy in Paris.
In sum, France is on the front lines in dealing with the challenge of Muslim integration in Europe, trying to instill the values of democracy, secularism, separation of religion and state, respect for women, and religious tolerance in a Muslim population that, to a considerable degree, is proving resistant, while France also faces an economic and social divide that remains strikingly wide.
French Jews find themselves bearing much of the brunt of this frontline effort. Interestingly, in the 1990s it was French Jews who were among those reaching out to French Muslims and trying to find common ground in the struggle against racism and defamation.
While links with some ecumenically minded Muslims remain, French Jews have become a target for radical Muslims who rail against France, the West, Israel, or the "infidel." Vastly outnumbered, French Jews worry about the constant potential for violence. Most immediately, if there is military action against Iraq, French Jews fear repercussions in the streets of French cities. Indeed, when an American Jewish Committee delegation raised this concern with French President Chirac in a private meeting last month, he agreed that it was a distinct possibility and recognized the need for increased security and vigilance.
Recent media accounts have focused on the doubling of the immigration rate of French Jews to Israel in the past year, suggesting that these Jews, troubled by what's going on, are voting with their feet. It's true that 2,300 Jews made aliyah in 2002, and, yes, some Jews reportedly are exploring the possibility of relocating to Quebec, which is always on the lookout for French speakers, but most French Jews see France as their home and have no intention of giving up the fight.
And this is really the right note to end on. As an American Jew, I've always been inspired by the example of other Diaspora communities.
France is a perfect case in point. With a history spanning 2,000 years, today French Jewry faces daunting challenges - a large and often hostile Muslim population; a government that abstains in the vote on Libya's candidacy as chair of the UN Human Rights Commission and resists branding Hizballah a terrorist organization; an extreme left wing that has enthusiastically embraced the Palestinian cause and challenges the legitimacy of Zionism; and an extreme right wing, with all the accoutrements of xenophobia and anti-Semitism, that flexed its muscles in the national elections last year and elbowed out the Socialists as the second top vote-getter.
Even so, the French Jewish community hasn't gone into hiding; it hasn't lowered its voice or its profile; it hasn't toned down its support for Israel; and it hasn't pushed the mute button when it comes to commenting on the outrageous behavior of the extreme left and extreme right.
To the contrary, the mobilization of French Jewry has been nothing short of remarkable. Sure, there are those on the right who complain constantly that the leadership is insufficiently assertive and want to go to the edge. And there are those on the left who have never seen a petition critical of Israel they wouldn't endorse. But these groups, fortunately, are a distinct minority.
Rather than avoid France, therefore, visit and spend time with the Jewish community.
Listen to the impressive Jewish radio stations they've set up that are still a dream here in the U.S.
Go see the new feature film, Decryptage, that two French Jewish intellectuals have produced to defend Israel and that is now being shown in cinemas.
Attend one of the demonstrations in support of Israel or against anti-Semitism and take the pulse of the crowd.
Witness the vibrancy of organizations, synagogues, and schools.
Observe the pride of Jews, both in their identification with France and their link to the Jewish people, as they go about their daily lives.
Learn about proche-orient.info, the website created by a group of top-flight mainstream journalists, who gave up their careers to bring balance to Middle East coverage that is too often skewed in favor of the Palestinians, regardless of the facts on the ground.
Watch (or, better yet, join) the steady flow of French Jewish tourists and businessmen who fill daily El Al and Air France flights to Israel, eager to deepen their links with the Jewish state at this difficult and dangerous moment in Israel's life.
Above all, let's affirm the bonds that unite us.
Note: This is # 27 in a series of occasional letters on topics of current interest.Date: 2/5/2003