French Antisemitism and the Myth of Laïcité: Perspectives of a Jewish Student Studying Abroad in France

Stephanie Rosenberg
August 10, 2023

When I first decided to spend a semester abroad, I had worries, one of which was about the enduring antisemitism in France. I had been largely sheltered from antisemitism going to Boston University, which has the largest Jewish population of any private university in the United States. Although France has the highest Jewish population in Europe, I had gone into my semester abroad expecting an entirely different environment than I had gotten used to living in Boston. In my mind, France was not a welcoming or safe place to express my Jewish identity as it has always been brought up in conversations about global antisemitism, whether it be historical events like Jewish expulsions from France during the 13th century or the more recent attacks on French synagogues and countless murders of French Jews. While I am thankful to have not experienced such extreme cases of antisemitism during my time in France, I have come to notice differences in how I connect to my Judaism and religious expression in general.

From the Dreyfus affair to the defacing of Jewish graves to the murders of French Jews, antisemitism has always been and continues to be an issue plaguing French society. While French antisemitism has been historically tied to age-old antisemitic tropes and stereotypes, modern French antisemitism combines these ideas with anti-Zionist sentiment. Unlike in the United States, however, France’s long historical connection to antisemitism makes it especially ingrained in society in ways people may not recognize. It’s not just the history that allows antisemitism to perpetuate so successfully through French society, but the general disdain for religion and difference that exists in France.

Living in Grenoble, a city in the Rhône-Alpes region of France, I didn’t have any opportunities to engage with my Jewish community. At BU, I not only had the opportunity to be involved in a large and vibrant community of other Jewish students, I also had plenty of ways to engage with the greater Boston Jewish community, which is also quite sizable. Going from one of the most Jewish campuses in America with endless opportunities to get involved in Jewish life to not having anywhere to go for Shabbat or holidays made it difficult to stay connected with my Jewish identity. At BU, I would regularly attend Shabbat services and partook in every Hillel event. I helped plan services and events as a member of the Reform Committee and alwa-ys spent my free time at Hillel where I would constantly run into other Jewish students or staff members. While abroad, I no longer had a Hillel community to connect with and it often felt lonely not having anyone to celebrate holidays with or to simply connect with on our shared Jewish identity. It was through this experience that I learned how integral my campus Hillel has been to my Jewish experience. 

Prior to starting college, I didn’t really have a Jewish community and I didn’t have many ways to feel connected to my Judaism. By just having the support and camaraderie of other Jews around me, it was much easier to embrace my Judaism and feel a sense of belonging. Without the sense of community, it felt like I didn’t have much connecting me to Judaism and thus, I felt as if I was losing my connection to one of the most important parts of my identity.

I also didn’t feel as comfortable visibly expressing my Judaism in France. Any time I left my apartment, I tucked my Magen David necklace into my shirt, something I had never done in Boston. Being aware of France’s long history of antisemitism and seeing swastikas drawn around the city and even in a bathroom stall on campus made me feel that I needed to hide my Judaism for my safety. I soon gained an appreciation for the safety of the BU campus where my Judaism was something that didn’t need to be hidden and, more importantly, was something I could showcase proudly.

Through my experience in France, I’ve noticed that much of society revolves around traditional French culture in a way that can sometimes seem to single out those who don’t fit into the widely accepted cultural norms. This viewpoint extends toward French Jews and other minority groups that don’t fit into the cultural norms. I have also found this general lack of acceptance of Judaism and other religions to be largely attributed to the concept of laïcité, or French secularism. In theory, laïcité implies the freedom of all citizens to practice or not practice any religion. Through my time in France, I have not found this to be the case. 

As I became more familiar with French culture, I became more aware of the discrepancies between the idea of laïcité and the ways in which it actually manifested in French society. Having lived in the United States all of my life, I was familiar with the concept of separation between church and state functioning as more of an idea than a reality. While religion is still not an openly disclosed or talked about topic in France like it is in the United States, France’s history and present as a predominantly Catholic country continue to impact current French society. Like the United States, France also has historical connections with Christianity that can still be seen through the numerous churches scattered throughout the country and the school calendar working around Christian holidays. 

However, where I think French views toward religion differ is that they can sometimes seem like less freedom of religion and more anti-religion. French secondary schools have banned wearing religious symbols or garments, and I had an experience visiting a French bathhouse that did not allow modest swimwear. These rules especially affect Jewish and Muslim communities, creating an unwelcoming environment for religious individuals. Even though Jews are not specifically targeted by these policies, these policies are antisemitic as they interfere with religious Jewish practice. In aiming to achieve égalité by taking away any religious attributes that might differentiate people, France has singled out its religious community, taking away their right to freely practice their religion.

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