For 22 years I was an expatriate New York Jew raising a family, working as a journalist and navigating life in Paris and its upscale western suburbs. One day my husband’s secretary invited my two boys home for lunch. As it was Passover, I politely declined, explaining that week imposed too many dietary restrictions.
The exasperated woman sat me down for a much-needed talk: Didn’t I realize what a disadvantage it was for me to impose these differences on my children? It was a social stigma that brought with it no compensatory reward. Besides it rubbed people the wrong way. If I insisted on my “customs,” I must think that the French way was not as good. Why would I choose to incite the inevitable resentment my judgment provoked?
Stunned, I failed to convince her that honoring my traditions in no way inferred the inferiority of others. The dignity of difference has no resonance in a country where cultural values are understood in terms of a hierarchy of relative worth.
The French balk at multiculturalism; the attachment of a subgroup to its own traditions clashes with the Republic’s ideal of liberté, eqalité, fraternité. The privileges extended by the Republic ask in return a surrender of particularism or, at the very least, the decency to be as discrete as possible about these stubborn vestiges of a less enlightened past. The French Revolution granted its Jews full rights of citizenship, an act, however seminal and noble, that could never overcome France’s inherent aversion to Jews too tenaciously being Jews.
Author Marc Weitzmann, a regular contributor to Le Monde, recounts telling a colleague about Otzar Hatorah, the school in Toulose where one adult and three children were killed by terrorist gunmen. It is a French school of exceptional standing — an unheard of 100 percent of candidates pass the Bac (generally required for university admission) — in which 10 hours of Jewish studies are added to an already rich curriculum. His colleague’s only response: Why do some people need a special school anyway?
I was confused at first when people asked me if I was “d’origine Juif.” I would reply that I was not only of Jewish “origin,” but was Jewish still. The phrasing revealed a certain assumption. Our “origins” can’t be modified, but we needn’t cling to, much less flaunt, them in a homogenized society.
France is now home to some 6.5 million Muslims, who make up 10 percent of the population. It is quaking to its anti-multicultural foundations. You can forbid Muslim women to wear their headscarves in official establishments but you cannot by those methods win their hearts. Muslim youth are caught between a deep-seeded national disdain for who they are and a promise of full restoration of dignity if only they take up arms against the mocking infidels.
The insistence on the right to publish cruel satire of Islamic beliefs in the midst of this inflammatory situation is ill-timed, to say the least. “Je suis Charlie”? Frankly, the declaration gets stuck in my throat. I am utterly horrified by murder and I am also an ardent practitioner of free expression. I fully understand that “blasphemy” has no conceptual meaning in a secular democracy. Yet, I have never bought an issue of Charlie Hebdo, and I decline to embrace the kind of satiric journalism it practices — regardless of its long, revered history in France.
France is justly proud of its anti-clerical, pro-enlightenment, rationalist tradition. But how to identify that elusive point where free speech becomes a hate crime? How to convince an infuriated Muslim from the Euro Zone that it is justified to arrest a Jew-baiting comedian Dieudonné while cartoons showing Mohammed in a homoerotic embrace should circulate freely?
My concern is not only with the obvious risk of a double standard.
I spent last Sunday in a downtown Manhattan seminar exploring racial tensions in our own country. I came away with an important awareness: The antidote to racism is not only inclusion, it is, more importantly, relationship. It is the willingness to take a chance and get to know the other, to have difficult conversations and to learn from inevitable mistakes. It is the cultivation of empathy, even while maintaining one’s own point of view.
Ridicule, so endemic to French society, is not relating, it is standing off and taunting from a superior position. Humiliating cartoons show no empathy and utterly fail to communicate except to those already in the know. Hurtful mockery retards, rather than inspires, social change. What’s more, satire is an intellectual feat that stands between you and the baring of your soul. It is a socially acceptable distraction from facing your own essential terror.
I’ve been bruised by premature optimism about healing wounds and effecting social change. I raised my boys in the 1990s not to buy into the anti-Arab bias that was rife in our suburbs. I urged them to get to know the marginalized Arab youth. One day when my 15-year-old was alone at home, rather than submit to accusations of racism, he let a group of Arab kids into our house. One held him down while the others robbed us. When I filed a report to the police, they laughed me out of the station for my naiveté.
There was a time when only religious Jews felt like targets in France. In light of the terror, formerly discrete, socially- assimilated Jews are newly concerned about their right to their full, dual identity. The Muslim-led terror is, ironically, provoking a more self-conscious approach to the issue of multiculturalism among a wider gamut of France’s Jews.
I’m stubborn when it comes to seeking positive outcomes. Rather than turn against one another because of a small number of fanatics, the Jewish and Muslim communities can cooperate to redeem the dignity of difference in the democracy they share. French Jews can actually help French Muslims to construct their cultural identity from within: educate youth, and cultivate resources and courageous mainstream leadership. Together, France’s religious minorities can enrich its social fabric, while adding dimension and depth to its honorable ideas.
Susan Reimer-Torn is author of the recently published memoir, “Maybe Not Such a Nice Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return.”