AUTHOROlivia George Olivia George is a member of Georgetown College's class of 2013. Originally from Houston, Texas, she participated in the Junior Year Abroad Network from Paris, France during the spring of 2012.
March 16, 2012
The Junior Year Abroad Network (JYAN) connects Georgetown students studying abroad in a variety of cultures. Students share reflections on religion, culture, politics, and society in their host countries, commenting on topics ranging from religious freedom and interfaith dialogue to secularization, globalization, democracy, and economics.
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Judaism: A Tolerant France Despite a Turbulent History?
May 17, 2012 | 2 COMMENTS
The Dreyfus Affair of the late 19th century proved that although Jews had equal rights, there was still a strong undercurrent of anti-Semitism in the general public, the government, and the military. Then, during World War II, the infamous Vichy Regime not only cooperated with the Nazis in sending Jews to concentration and death camps, it actually initiated measures against the Jews as early as 1940.
What’s worse, the Vichy Regime was rarely mentioned for several years after WWII ended; my host mother here says that it was barely mentioned when she was a child in school and even later as a young adult it remained a forbidden topic. She says that one of the first serious attempts by the French at exposing the true horror of the Vichy regime was in 1993 when a French producer created an in-depth documentary. In fact, it was only three years ago that the French council of state issued a ruling recognizing the state’s culpability.
How does one account for the large population of Jews despite this history of hatred? Following the war, Leon Blum was elected three times the Prime Minister of France, making him the first Jewish head of state in an independent country for almost 2000 years. Perhaps this demonstrated tolerance by the French people and government contributed to the influx of Jewish refugees from around Europe in the 1940s and 1950s. In addition, following the decolonization of French Northern Africa, roughly 235,000 North African Jews migrated to France because of severely anti-Semitic movements in the newly formed independent countries of Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco.
Today, although there have been a number of very serious anti-Semitic attacks (the most recent of which occurred during my stay here in March, when a gunman opened fire on a Jewish school in Toulouse), on the whole France is perceived as very tolerant. This general tolerance could stem from France’s strict policy on secularism; religion is protected because it has been removed from the public sphere, rendering it a completely private matter.
Although not Jewish myself, I had heard a few of my Jewish friends here speak about their experiences in Paris. It seems the best way to talk about Judaism in France is to get a first-hand account, and thankfully two of them allowed me to interview them. One of them lives in the Marais, a historically aristocratic area in Paris that has hosted a large Jewish community for several centuries. She seemed surprised to learn that France has the third largest Jewish population, since she finds that it’s not a hugely visible community.
That said, she mentions that she also has not felt any discrimination or reactions other than interest in the discussion of her religion amongst the French, which demonstrates a general atmosphere of tolerance here. Of course, she adds, she would not be surprised to find anti-Semitic attitudes in certain areas of French society. In general, the French seem to be less ‘politically correct’ than we are in the States, meaning that they tend to be fairly open about their prejudices. So, if an anti-Semitic attitude does exist, it would likely come across in conversation.
This is reflected in the experience of my other Jewish friend here, who lives with a family in the 13th arrondissement. He, too, occasionally sees the influence of the Jewish community (especially, he noted, more traditionally religious Jews), but agrees that it is not the same kind of modern Judaism he grew up knowing in the States. He actually has received some ‘borderline’ anti-Semitic remarks here in France, even from his well-meaning host family.
He responded that “people don’t want to hear it,” when I asked if he ever spoke about his religion. He says that people in France are much less aware of what is appropriate when it comes to discussing differences and, as a result, often overstep the boundaries. He confirms that there has been a new wave of anti-Semitism in France because of the Israel-Palestine conflict and the large number of French Muslims.
There seems to be no clear answer about the status of Judaism in France. In some instances in the present and past, France has shown relative tolerance. However, France’s history is also marked by anti-Semitic events. Today, it seems although anti-Semitic sentiments still undoubtedly exist in certain areas of French society, Judaism is also a cultural and religious reality for many in France and is generally accepted as such.
RESPONSE TO OLIVIA GEORGE FROM ALEXA WEST May 26, 2012
France is an interesting place for Jews, and you did a great job of illustrating that in your post. It is both tolerant, and anti-Semetic. For a long time, ever since the Pope resided there, France viewed itself as the home and protector of Catholicism. This, combined with the large number of Jews within its borders, creates a dynamic situation. Having lived in Paris, and being a Jew, I can say that my experience on the whole was very good. I too lived in the Marais, and living close to Rue des Roisiers, the Jewish area, was very helpful in terms of practicing my Judaism.
Something I found interesting about Jewish culture in France was that even more pronounced than the division between Jews and non-Jews was the difference between the two sects of Judaism, Ashkenazi and Sephardic. Though Jews in Israel and America are considered one and the same on this basis, western Jews and eastern Jews had tangible distate for each other in France. Why, I'm not sure. Anyone care to weigh in?
RESPONSE TO OLIVIA GEORGE FROM GINA ELLIOTT June 5, 2012
I’m interested in what both Alexa and Olivia have to say about Jews in France. Alexa, I wouldn’t have thought that Ashkenazi/Sephardic divisions were more prominent in France than in Israel. I did a module on Israeli literature this semester, and one of the novels we read did describe an alienation of Sephardic Jews in Israel in the 1950s. Your comment suggests that Israel has moved beyond this, while French Jews have not—perhaps an example of people in a diaspora holding on to certain beliefs or prejudices more strongly than those who remain in a country.
Olivia, it is interesting to me that you say that France is “perceived as very tolerant” because of its secular policy. Personally, I find this policy intolerant because of its insistence on pushing religion into the private sphere, when relgion is inherently something that people are unable to “check at the door” of the public sphere. Just as France’s reluctance to discuss the details of the Vichy regime may have allowed anti-Semitism to persist in some form, I feel that the policy of laicite discourages dialogue about different religions, and allows ‘borderline’ anti-Semitic (and other) remarks to go unchallenged.