Friday, March 23, 2012

France Uber Alles?

Writing in Slate, Rachel Levy recounts the difficulties of living as a Jewish-American in France - and the greater difficulties facing those who think of themselves as Jewish-French:
In the end, the trouble stems from the idea that "French" means you follow the values of the state—in this case, secularism. What Americans often believe to be the mere French version of "separation of church and state" is actually diametrically opposed to Americanized freedom of religion. In short, while Americans value freedom of religion, the French value freedom from religion. In practice, French secularism, or laïcité, means that you don't express your religious beliefs in public: That means in public schools, Muslim girls can’t wear their veils, Jewish boys can't wear their kippot, and Christians can't draw attention to their crosses. It also means that when a state exam falls on your religious holiday, well, tant pis, because laïcité means you’re supposed to be French before anything else.
She stretches her experience further to lay some blame for the killing of Israeli-French Jews last week by an Algerian-French Muslim at the feet of the French state.
And after those four years living among the French, I concluded that the country's nearly religious devotion to secularism is a least a partial explanation for the country's latent racism and anti-Semitism. It also fosters an ignorance that likely contributed to the perverted mindset of the suspected Toulouse gunman. Mohammed Merah might have been a radical Islamist of Algerian background, but he's also a French national who grew up in Toulouse.
This seems like a bit of a reach to me, but it is certainly true that two centuries of radical secularism have done less to eradicate racism and religious bigotry in France than two centuries of growing religious tolerance have done in England, or expanding religious inclusion have done in the U.S.

Hat tip to Carol.

1 comment:

Carol Douglas said...

When I read before he was identified that the Toulouse gunman was probably a xenophobic skinhead, my gut reaction was that it was unlikely. After all, the skinhead problem is SO last year (Anders Behring Breivik notwithstanding).

But after reading Levy’s piece, I rather think that he is, in fact, just the latest manifestation of the exact same xenophobe problem that has plagued Europe for more than a hundred years. That the target was expanded to include not just Jews but people from the Caribbean is no surprise, really—because in the past it was never just a Jewish question, but also a Gypsy, Slavic, Polish, Slovene, Serbian, gay, mentally ill, etc. question.