France through the Muslim and Jewish lens

Safya Khan-Ruf & Jemma Levene - 12 04 17

As a Jew and a Muslim travelling to Paris to research the realities facing both faith communities, we thought we knew some of the issues we would witness from our own experiences in the UK.

Walking over the grey cobblestones and enjoying the milder weather, it was easy to see Paris as the French equivalent to London: a bustling multicultural capital, with less rain and better croissant. Yet despite the short distance between the two cities, secularism, or its French version, laïcité, has contributed to a very different religious ecosystem here.

In essence, laïcité refers to the freedom of citizens and public institutions from the influence of organised religion. It developed during the French revolution, which sought to dismantle the power of the Catholic Church and the monarchy in France. In 1905, a major law officially separated church and state. But France went further than many other nations, by pushing the prohibition of religious expression in the public sphere. The state is now struggling on how to apply laïcité in a modern, ethnically diverse nation.

“Laïcité in French political discourse is completely broken,” says Anne Mattatia, coordinator at the Liberal Jewish Movement of France (MJLF), a progressive religious association. She said the word was used in very different ways. “The neutrality of the state, the separation of power between the state and religion, didn’t impose [force] you to be neutral,” she said.

Evolution in France

Today, France includes two of the largest Muslim and Jewish communities in Europe. Many share common roots from North Africa and emigrated during the last century. But that sense of shared history has not been transferred to the younger generations in France. Samia Hathroubi, interfaith activist and a director at Coexister, an organisation promoting dialogue between the three monotheistic religions, lived next to a Jewish neighbourhood in Tunisia. When she went to school in France, she couldn’t find any Jewish neighbours. “I was the only one in my class that was brown, Muslim, immigrant and poor, so I was seen as the ‘other’,” she said. “Since I was already the other, I was looking for the ‘other’ other that wasn’t white and Christian.”

When France experienced a wave of immigration from North Africa the two communities often lived side-by-side in the poorest areas of the country. “What is different with the Jews in France is that they found an already-organised Jewish community. The Ashkenazi Jews who had come earlier from Eastern Europe helped them find their place in French society,” explains Yonathan Arfi, vice president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF).

Furthermore, following the foundation of the state of Israel there was a growth in anti-Semitic sentiment in the North African countries many Jews had left behind. Thus they knew they were in France to stay and were looking forwards not backwards from day one. While Jewish communities later moved out to more affluent areas, many Muslim communities remained locked in increasingly disadvantaged ‘quartier populaire’ [working-class neighbourhoods].

Many French suburbs with large Muslim immigrant populations are known for their high unemployment rates, poverty and delinquency. Michel Serfaty, a French rabbi of Moroccan origin, was subject of an anti-Semitic attack in 2003. One of the attackers reportedly shouted: “Palestine will vanquish you, we will massacre you”. Serfaty’s response was to create an association, l’Amitié Judéo-Musulmane de France (AJMF), to address the lack of interaction between Jewish and Muslim communities.

Serfaty believes anti-Semitic sentiment grows in disadvantaged suburbs because of the socio-economic failures of the area. “France has let 1,500 dangerous zones develop, that are stigmatised so that anyone who comes out of these areas fails their job applications,” he said. For the past 15 years, he and his team (which includes an imam and a psychologist) have worked in these suburbs, trying to break some of the stereotypes and misconceptions about Jews. He describes interfaith dialogue in theatres, universities and cafés as “nice”, but ineffective in reaching the people who most need help.

Simmering tensions

The intersectionality between immigration, racism and religion is deep in France. When Hathroubi decided to go into vocational teaching in the more disadvantaged suburbs of Paris, she was shocked that there were no white students in her class, just a mixture of Asian, black and Arab immigrants. Many regarded Jews with a combination of fascination and repulsion. Many had never met a Jewish person at all.

The suspicion wasn’t one sided. As she set about teaching on the Holocaust and Jewish history, she took a group of students to Auschwitz. “I remember, before we entered the plane, people were looking at us like, what are you doing here, where are you coming from? We were all Arabs, blacks and Asians,” she laughs.

Like Serfaty, Hathroubi thinks the anti-Semitism found in some Muslim communities is based on a socio-economic situation rather than any religious concept. “It’s probably the same if you go to any very deprived community, you will find the same anti-Semitic view. It’s not because of them being white, it’s them being poor and thinking the Jews are the elite and the favourite.”

Marwan Mohammad, president of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) which records discriminatory and hate-based acts against Muslims in France, blames the discourse among the political elite, the media and certain intellectual circles for increasing islamophobia and inflaming tensions. He describes the rise of religious frictions in France as a top-down phenomenon.

“I don’t see an identity crisis in suburbs based on ethnicity or religion, either sociologically or personally. What I see are identity politics constructed that have an effect over time and reach grassroots,” he says.

Our investigation into the two communities was hampered by a lack of statistics available on religious minorities. France’s brand of secularism makes data, especially on religion and ethnicity, nearly impossible to obtain for foreign journalists, or even French researchers on the ground.

The belief that the Jewish community is better treated by the State is possibly exacerbated by the increasing discrimination that the Muslim community faces through policies and political discourse.

“Everything that is brown or black is associated with Islam, and as soon as someone is of Muslim culture, they are dangerous,” says Michèle Sibony, from the French Jewish Union for Peace (UJFP), a left-wing Jewish anti-racism and pro-Palestinian association. She criticised a mixture of racism and Islamophobia in France. Politicians and the media constantly debate the incompatibility of Islam with French values, she says, while new legislation disproportionately impacts the Muslim community (such as the ban on religious symbols in public roles, schools and work places).

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is also a real source of tension, generating very real passions in both Jewish and Muslim communities. But it also appears to be an issue that is used to stir up mistrust and even hatred on each side. The same video footage of members of the Jewish Defence League, a virulently anti-Arab militant group, and pro-Palestinian protesters clashing around a synagogue in 2014 during the Gaza conflict, was used to both accuse the pro-Palestinian supporters of an anti-Semitic attack on a synagogue and to accuse the pro-Israeli side of instigating violence. It was a perfect example of the ongoing misinformation and misrepresentation of facts going on which allow people to pick “their” narrative. We haven’t been able to establish the actual facts of the clash yet, but this among multiple incidents was used to ban pro-Palestinian marches due to the threat to public order.

“The situation creates resentment. We really made sure the Muslims understood that they had better shut up on the Palestinian situation. Otherwise they were considered anti-Semites,” Sibony says. Many Muslims echoed her words as they expressed their frustration at what they saw as double standards


The multiple terrorist attacks in France have also worsened the situation. The Jewish community feels vulnerable, and there is increased mistrust towards Muslims , while the Muslim community feels blamed for terrorist attacks that may have been perpetrated in the name of Islam, but for which they have nothing but revulsion.

Grand Mosque of Paris

France’s ongoing state of emergency has lasted for over 18 months, with more than 4,000 raids carried out without warrants against individuals’ homes. Mohammad says the radicalisation prevention leaflets the State has issued have caused “devastation”, especially among youth in the suburbs. “Someone sees a neighbour wearing a headscarf, growing a beard, going to the mosque, so they think, we need to signal him to authorities and then they will act upon it,” Marwan says.

Hathroubi adds that many young Muslims feel that “whatever is happening to Jews is happening to the whole country while what’s happening to them – getting harassed by the police on a daily basis – well, no one gives a shit about them.”

Almost all of the Muslims and Jews we spoke to identified a clear inequality in the way Muslims in France are treated relative to other groups. However, there are multiple realities here too. By comparison, the Jewish community in France certainly has a more accepted presence at the Establishment level, but communities have been dealing with increased levels of anti-Semitic incidents and attacks since 2000.

Though statistics are not available, from the reporting mechanisms that do exist it is clear that such incidents often align with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, in many cases, are known to have been perpetrated by young French Muslims of North African and Middle Eastern descent. Indeed, the refugee crisis in Europe has left many in the Jewish community torn between helping people into the country and worrying that the relatively small number of refugees from the Middle East in France will bring anti-Semitic sentiments with them.

The sparsity of dialogue at grassroots level appears to increase the divisions and reduce the empathy, understanding and recognition of the problems each community is facing.

Dialogue: the realities on the ground

One of the primary reasons we went to Paris was to investigate the shape of interfaith activity between the Muslim and Jewish communities, and to explore the impact of such encounters. We found a division of opinion among activists from both communities about the logic and motivation behind such engagement.

One opinion stated very strongly by Sibony was that all Muslim/Jewish dialogue was pointless until the Israeli Palestinian conflict is resolved. She felt that the two communities were too divided, and creating dialogue was just ceding ground in a global battle for justice.

“You have to put everything on the table, not pretend or hide a true agenda. Otherwise you put the Muslims in a position where they have to keep justifying themselves not to be anti-Semitic, historically or in actuality, with no context – there is a context, they are living it every day, the context of being accused of terrorism,” she explained. However, she was not able to offer any concrete suggestions other than continuing political activism to champion the rights of the global dispossessed.

Other activists on the ground disagreed and consciously avoided addressing tensions on Israel and Palestine, in order to build a framework of trust and partnership between French Jewish and Muslim communities.

Anne Mattatia told us that after the Charlie Hebdo/kosher supermarket attacks two years ago, she was one of hundreds of individuals from her community who contacted their rabbi, sensing that it was time to make change at a community level. When we asked her what her motivation was at such a difficult time, she gave a classic Gallic shrug and exclaimed: “Because I am a citizen!”

Mattatia began organising dinners uniting members of different communities. Her aim was to knock on doors and get people who weren’t involved in the usual interfaith events to meet and potentially work on social issues together. “We miss the target, if we only talk to people already involved,” she said. She also said that the most successful encounters were between people who came as individuals, rather than to ‘represent’ a group, and that both the Muslim and Jewish individuals she had encountered had a very wide range of religious and political senses of self. Even on Israel and Palestine, opinions were far more diverse than the black-and-white picture often painted by so-called community leaders.

But meeting more insular Muslim communities wasn’t easy for Mattatia. One of the great difficulties she met was finding leaders willing to enter official partnerships. “Muslim communities in France are much more recent and had less time to organise. The leadership is more horizontal so no one wants to take a decision in the name of everyone,” she said.

Another block to building grassroots interfaith has been the lack of social spaces for people to mingle. Samuel Everett, a researcher for the Woolf Institute in the UK, says this problem is exacerbated in places with less funding like disadvantaged suburbs – the areas where this type of action might be most important. “There are fewer organic opportunities for dialogue, especially with the funding cuts,” he said.

Mattatia hasn’t given up though. Her motivation is based on her vision of an inclusive but diverse French society. “We do need politicians to act but we shouldn’t wait for them to do so. We are here, we are French, we are the people.”

The UK and France: looking to the future                

Before visiting Paris, we were guilty of an automatic assumption that Brits ‘do multiculturalism’ better than the French. However true that may seem, the reality is far more complex. The French concept of laïcité is not abstract; it is a lived value that has evolved over the years and has, in more recent decades, been increasingly invoked against certain expressions of religiosity in public space. In the end, we felt that it was not our place to judge its value. Although we could certainly sense its impact, it is unlikely British solutions could apply to the current system in place.

On a personal level, strictly Orthodox Jews told us they are more private about their identity than those in the UK. But personal religious choice is forced into the public arena when Muslim women’s choices to wear headscarves become the topic of a fierce national debate. However, it would be a mistake to think the State ignores faith: it is clear there is much ebb and flow between state and faith-based organisations, even if not all of it is positive. When we dropped by the Great Mosque (a beautiful building), we saw a group of French secondary school students being given a guided tour. Many of the people we talked to agreed the views of French youth provided optimism for the future.

On a national level, the State’s type of religious neutrality has the potential to be a force for good, but also means that collating data, and addressing the needs and discrimination felt by certain faith communities is a structural challenge.

It seems that the French state is sensitive to external criticism, too. As Mohammad noted, the coverage of last summer’s burkini ban in the international media was crucial in a total reversal of policy. “When you guys started talking about it in The Guardian, The New York Times, when people expressed how ridiculous the situation was, that’s when they started changing their … behaviour.”

Mohammad urged those in the UK to keep on applying pressure when the French state or authorities tried to infringe on religious or other liberties. As we heard from many of those we interviewed, when one group is being attacked, other groups are the best people to respond.

In this context, it is unsurprising that it is not the state but grassroots activists who appear to be having the biggest impact in creating relationships between Muslims and Jews, while remaining ever aware of the structural pitfalls and political minefields that surround them. We saw some really positive work happening in communities, and it is clear there are individuals and organisations in both communities who are keen not only to work together, but also to stand up and defend the rights of the other.

Whatever the outcome of the upcoming elections in France, it seemed to us that this ability to fight for the rights of the ‘other’ will be crucial in standing together against future threats.

By Jemma Levene and Safya Khan-Ruf


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