AUTHORJoelle Rebeiz Joelle Rebeiz is an undergraduate in the School of Foreign Service, class fo 2014, majoring in International Politics and completing a certificate in Religion, Ethics, and World Affairs. She works as a research assistant at the Berkley Center on...
October 17, 2012
November 20, 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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Strasbourg: Survey of a Town’s Multifaceted Identity
October 17, 2012 | 2 COMMENTS
Strasbourg, itself meaning “city of crossroads,” was founded from congregation of neighboring cultures, belonging to Celtic, Frank, Roman, German, and French territories throughout history. Since its inception, it has served as both a point of peaceful coexistence between peoples, and a violent battleground for political and geographic clout. In fact, the oldest written document in Old French was authored in 842, thanks to an oath of alliance between the kings of the East and West Franks. Centuries later, after the reformation, Strasbourg’s population was mainly composed of Protestants – yet the country managed to stay out of the religious conflict of the thirty years war. In fact, Strasbourg was exempted from the religiously intolerant “Edict of Fontainebleau,” which was meant to expel the Protestant population from France in 1685.
Though I could continue on about Strasbourg’s history for another several hundred pages, I’ll get to the point: since its earliest days, Strasbourg has been a hub of tolerance for religious and ethnic diversity. As for the intolerance of the 20th century, I feel inclined to give Strasbourg a pass, seeing as the entirety of Europe was plagued with unimaginable violence from the turn of the century through the conclusion of the Second World War. Either way, from what I’ve seen in the last month, Strasbourg has held on to its foundation of religious diversity – and examples of this come up every day.
Although cognizant of this rich history before my arrival abroad, I was struck by the prominence of the non-Christian communities in Strasbourg, especially given how close to Germany the city is. Immediately, I noticed that there were almost as many pedestrians clad in traditional Hasidic dress as not – and this observation wasn’t limited to the high holidays, or even Shabbat. Every day I am reminded how vast the Hasidic Ashkenazi community is in Strasbourg, both in terms of numbers and clout. Even in the most traditionally Hasidic neighborhoods in my home state of Massachusetts, I have never seen such an easily identifiable and numerous Ashkenazi population. In fact, Strasbourg boasts one of the largest Jewish communities in France, after Paris.
Despite Strasbourg’s social and religious tolerance of this religious pseudo-minority, the Ashkenazi population doesn’t seem particularly well integrated. In fact, the majority of the practicing community lives in a distinct part of Strasbourg, Jewish students attend their own religious public schools – they are both geographically and socially separate. Indeed, though the Jewish community in Strasbourg is French in citizenship, it is undoubtedly Ashkenazi in culture and tradition.
When I opened the dialogue about these observations with my host mother, she couldn’t help but take this conversation one step further, and inform me that Strasbourg is also home to an incredibly large Turkish and North African minority – the members of which are deeply religious and practicing Muslims. Though less physically identifiable than their Ashkenazi counterparts, the Muslim minority shares certain key characteristics that set them apart from the rest: they are low-income, poorly educated, and have very staggeringly few opportunities social mobility.
All of this is compounded by the fact that there is, from my objective standpoint, a very poor opinion of each group by the others. In fact, the theme of negative attitudes towards immigrant populations has come up several times in a more Global French context – the relationship is causing a polemic discussion throughout the whole of the country. Though each population tolerates they other, they don’t seem particularly happy to do so.
Throughout the rest of my time abroad, I’ll surely be keeping close attention to the way these three key populations interact and coexist.
Since beginning to compile this social database of every day observations, it has occurred to me to just what extent my host-mother is quintessentially a Strasbourger. She herself embodies the three distinct communities that make up the whole of the city, while also borrowing ethnic and social traits from those outlying Strasbourg citizens that don’t fit into the general frame. Indeed, both Strasbourg and my host mother exist thanks to the union of diverse cultures and traditions. Yet there is one major way that my host-mom and Strasbourg are linked: that diverse cultural pieces that compose each one together make a unique whole – one that continues to evolve and adapt to social climate. And one that will keep me pre-occupied long after my return to the states.
RESPONSE FROM MADELINE STEINBERG October 18, 2012
Joelle, your description of the diversity in Strasbourg is so intriguing. I can picture all the different groups of people walking through the streets of your beautiful city. Your experience with all these different religions and mixes of backgrounds is so different from the Danish culture here in Copenhagen.
Everyone here looks so similar, all blonde-hair and blue-eyed. Minority groups certainly stand out, but they don’t have their own section of the city strictly for them. I was able to witness a strong Jewish community I didn’t know existed: during the High Holidays I went to an Orthodox synagogue in center city Copenhagen and for the first time since arriving in Denmark, saw hundreds of Jews in one place, in their typical dress. Coming from a very Jewish area in America, I’d see them walking to services every week, but here, I’ll be lucky if I can pick one out of a crowd.
It is wonderful to hear of the vibrant Jewish community in Strasbourg and interesting to read about your take on inter-religious relationships. Although not restrained to just that part of France, the issue of uneasy attitudes among various groups is an important discussion to be had in France, and all over the world. I look forward to reading more of your insight into French culture. It seems like Strasbourg is alive with meaningful traditions.
COMMENT FROM PROFESSOR ORI SOLTES May 3, 2013
I am struck by the paradox of Strassbourg as described by Joelle. On the one hand it is a city that, historically, maintained it unique Protestant minority status even in a France from which Protestants had been expelled in 1685 and in contemporary terms is a mixture of at least four obvious religious groups--Protestants, Catholics, Jews and Muslims (and I suspect that, although the most visible Jews are hassidic Ashkenazim, there are other non-hassidic, more assimilated Ashkenazi Jews as well as some Sephardic and oriental Jews from North Africa, just as I suspect that there both Sunnis and Shi'is among the Muslim population there)--and yet less mixing among the groups than one might hope for (although that may pertain mostly or even only to the hassidic community). More to the point, tolerance of all other groups by each group, but little genuine respect, much less affection (How could there be without genuine interaction?).
On the one hand, perhaps this is all one can expect so far, in this early 21st-century world in which the majority of humans seem not to have emerged from our millennia-long Dark Age of emotional and psychological immaturity and ideological egotism. On the other, from the perspective of a Georgetown student--a Georgetown University community member--I should think that the importance of this experience and thinking and writing about it, aside from generally opening up one's eyes to the world about which too many cossetted Georgetown students seem remarkably unaware, is perhaps the food for thought that the experience offers with regard to how one views the GU community itself in this regard. How are we similar and how different from Strassbourg: we are most distinctly a rich and varied community with regard to religion, ethnicity, race, nationality, ideology; to what extent do we merely tolerate and to what extent do we really embrace? How much work do we need to do within our own community to build from the former toward the latter, toward being a fully realized tapestry of diversely hued threads, both interwoven with each other and retaining all of our individual and particularized group distinction?