Now that the initial shock surrounding the murder in Toulouse of Jewish children and teachers by Mohamed Merah has abated, it’s time to look at France’s Muslims from another perspective. France’s Muslims should consider the experience of their estranged cousins – France’s Jews. There are valuable lessons to be learned.
A little history.
For over a thousand years Jews lived in France at the sufferance of the Catholic Church, the monarchy, and the French people, enduring physical, social, legal, and economic segregation, official derision of their faith, blame for all manner of the country’s ills, and routine violence. But during the French Revolution, the Jews in France were granted civil rights – the first such act in all of Europe.
Early in the 19th century Napoleon Bonaparte convened an Assembly of Jewish Notables charged with figuring out how Judaism as a religion, culture, and way of life could be made compatible with French citizenship.
Of course this was an insult on its face, but the status quo was no bargain either. The leaders of the Jewish community were forced to make difficult choices that would have a deep and far-reaching impact on their community and its descendants. In the end their compromises moved France’s Jews into mainstream French society. They became not Jews living in France, but Frenchmen who were Jews with all rights of citizenship and the responsibilities to the French state that that demanded.
Of course since then the French state has at times failed miserably, and we need only recall the Dreyfus Affair and France during the Shoah.
Political correctness notwithstanding, there are similarities between France’s relationship with its Jews and its relationship with its Muslims.
Both groups are cultural and religious minorities in a homogenous society. For decades, Muslims from France’s former colonies and other countries have settled in France, but the French have never made them welcome. Unemployment among Muslim immigrants is high, decent education is not a priority, access to mainstream French society is filled with obstacles and being stopped or arrested for suspicious behavior is routine.
Social and political alienation have been inevitable results, and Muslims in France are regarded with fear, distrust, and hatred by many French. That was certainly true (and arguably still may be) of France’s Jews.
At the time of emancipation many Jews in France preferred to be left to their own devices in terms of religious governance, and many were afraid that integrating into French society would result in a withering away of their Jewish character and of Jewish practice. To some extent those fears were well-founded, especially early on.
As France’s Jewish population became integrated and prosperous, Jews in other countries wanted to become part of the community. But Jewish immigrants to France had one critical advantage that Muslim immigrants never had – an infrastructure that wants and helps them to become French, to assimilate, if you will, into mainstream French society.
As a result Jews are part of the fabric of France today – academics, doctors, lawyers, architects, shopkeepers, government ministers, industrialists, religious leaders, artisans, authors, artists and taxi drivers. Jews have on three occasions been president of the Republic; one of France’s greatest heroes of the Resistance, the recently deceased Raymond Aubrac (nee Raymond Samuel) was a Jew. The list is as long as it is distinguished.
As was the case with Jews long ago the greatest challenge for France’s Muslims is to decide whether they want to remain Muslims in France or become French citizens who practice (or don’t practice as the case may be) Islam.
But France’s Muslims have challenges to overcome that France’s Jews did not. Their leaders must persuade them to abandon the notion of transplanting without compromise religious intransigence, culture and way of life to la France Profonde.
This means French Muslims must accept certain facts of life: while observing halal is their right, threatening shopkeepers who sell pork is not; while reacting negatively to public and private criticism is part of living in a liberal democracy, the choice by some to riot, vandalize and murder cannot be tolerated. France’s Muslims must embrace the responsibilities of French citizenship if they want to enjoy the rights of that citizenship. But many in France’s Muslim leadership are ambivalent at best, and at worst hostile, to the idea of becoming French, even though community support is essential to success. The historical experience of Jews in France could have profound relevance for French Muslims if they are willing to listen.
Make no mistake; the road to compromise is fraught with emotional and political pitfalls and uncertainty for those who must travel it. But what is the alternative? Muslims as a community should consider and adopt the example of French Jewry to their situation – to commit, as a community to being Frenchmen who happen to practice Islam.
Toni L. Kamins is a writer in New York City and the author of the Complete Jewish Guide to France (St. Martin’s Press) and the forthcoming Complete Jewish Guide to Paris.