Why French Jews and Muslims are learning each other’s language

Why We Wrote This

Shared experience and conversation can help overcome the sort of misunderstandings fueling Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in France.

Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters
People attend a national gathering to protest the rise of anti-Semitic attacks in the Place de la République in Paris on Feb. 19, 2019. The sign reads, "Antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism – not in our name."

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France’s Jewish and Muslim communities have a long and complicated history. And tense relations between them have once again come to the fore in recent weeks. But grassroots initiatives like Parler en Paix (Speak in Peace) are working to build bridges between them and emphasize a desire within the French public for tolerance and unification.

In the Parler en Paix initiative, students from diverse backgrounds study both Arabic and Hebrew to promote language learning as well as cultural understanding. Another group, nonprofit Langage de Femmes (Language of Women) encourages women from different religious and cultural backgrounds to attend its regular social gatherings, film club, and even a trip to Auschwitz.

Co-founders Samia Essabaa and Suzanne Nakache say that the initial obstacle for women joining the organization is overcoming their personal prejudices.

“The first thing I hear from some [Jewish] members is ‘Muslims don’t like us,” said Ms. Nakache, who grew up in a Jewish community in Algeria. “Then on the other side, there will be women who are in Holocaust denial who go to Auschwitz with us and leave completely changed.”

It’s 7 p.m. on a Tuesday and the temperature is just above freezing – the perfect setting for a bowl of hot soup on the couch after a long day at work. But some 60 students have instead chosen to be here, at the Lycée Voltaire high school, learning Arabic.

“Jamila … Jameeeeela,” says teacher Eugénie Paris, moving around the classroom as her beginner students bury their heads in notebooks as they try to spell out the word for “beautiful” in Arabic script.

In a little over an hour, the students from the four levels meet in one room to share drinks and food, before switching classrooms and languages – this time learning Hebrew.

The language double bill is part of the Parler en Paix (Speak in Peace) initiative – to promote language learning as well as cultural understanding. It’s something that resonates with the diverse group of students who have registered for the year – young and old, Jewish and Muslim, Catholic and atheist.

Grassroots initiatives like Parler en Paix are working to repair relations between France’s Jewish and Muslim communities, which have been challenged by France’s debate on laïcité – “secularism” – which has once again come to the fore in recent weeks. In October, a Muslim woman was asked by a politician at a regional assembly meeting to remove her veil while accompanying her child on a school outing. And in early November, Paris and Toulouse held anti-Islamophobia protests to call for an end to anti-Islamic sentiment. Meanwhile, recent studies show that anti-Semitic acts are on the rise in France.

And yet there is a sense among French people that relations between the country’s Jewish and Muslim communities are markedly more peaceful than what is portrayed in the media. Many feel that the term laïcité has gained too much prominence in political debate. Efforts like Parler en Paix emphasize a desire within the French public for tolerance and unification; to find common ground – be it through language learning, cultural events, or trips abroad.

“There’s been a real competition between the two stakeholders [Jewish and Muslim] for their representation towards the state … to address underground issues that weren’t being talked about.” says Amel Boubekeur, a visiting fellow in the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “But if you’re talking about the average French person, within family circles, at work or school, things aren’t so bad. It’s not a problem of daily socialization.”

Laïcite and Jewish-Muslim relations

France’s Jewish and Muslim communities have a long and complicated history that can be traced back to North Africa more than a century ago. Their relationship often involved legal status – in 1870, the approximately 40,000 Jews in Algeria were granted French citizenship while their Muslim neighbors were not. Through World War I and the Algerian War, the relationship between Jews and Muslims remained complex, flip-floppin​g between cordial relations and intermittent violence.

“French Jews and Muslims have a long history of co-existence despite tensions,” says Ethan Katz, a history professor at UC Berkeley and author of “The Burdens of Brotherhood: Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France.” “Historically, Jews and Muslims have tried at different times to negotiate their different identities … and the perception of what it means to be French, for both themselves and others, while maintaining their Jewish and Muslim identities.”

Complicating matters further have been France’s laws on laïcité. Initially enshrined in a 1905 law to separate church and state, it has morphed through the years, influencing laws and legislation, and powering debate. Most notably, it fueled a 2004 law banning conspicuous religious symbols in the public sphere, including Jewish kippas, the Muslim veil, and Catholic crosses.

But many say France’s laïcité unfairly targets the country’s Muslim population. The 2004 law has been at the root of controversies involving wearing the hijab or burkini on French beaches or the full-face veil (burqa) while driving. And in late October, French senators voted to ban veiled women from accompanying their children on school field trips.

Critics have connected the bans to a climate that fosters xenophobia and anti-Semitism too. The number of anti-Semitic acts in France rose by 74% in 2018, according to police figures. And a study conducted for the book “L’an prochain à Jérusalem” (“Next Year in Jerusalem”) showed that the majority of French Jews who immigrated to Israel in recent years were overwhelmingly motivated by a feeling of insecurity.

“We have to get back to French history,” says Ms. Boubekeur. “Does laïcité mean that the state is protecting religion or that it should be taken out of the public sphere?”

Building bridges

While the political climate may increasingly pit the Jewish and Muslim communities against one another, there is a desire for healing from a large swath of society. That’s a major reason why nonprofits are working to unite Jewish and Muslim communities – and keeping politics out of it. Parler en Paix identifies itself as nonpolitical, and says that remaining neutral allows for a more diverse group of students.

“We see people from very different backgrounds that would probably never have met if there was a political angle,” says Nicolas Bontemps, the president of Parler en Paix. “It’s the opposite of what happens at more activist organizations.”

French nonprofit Langage de Femmes (Language of Women) also stays away from politics, while encouraging women from different religious and cultural backgrounds to join their organization, which holds regular social gatherings, a film club, and a trip to Auschwitz.

Co-founders Samia Essabaa and Suzanne Nakache say that the initial obstacle for women joining the organization is overcoming their personal prejudices.

“The first thing I hear from some [Jewish] members is ‘Muslims don’t like us,” said Ms. Nakache, who grew up in a Jewish community in Algeria, during a November meeting of Anglophone journalists in Paris. “Then on the other side, there will be women who are in Holocaust denial who go to Auschwitz with us and leave completely changed.”

Ms. Essabaa, who is also a high school teacher, says that working with women is a particularly powerful way of reaching more people. “It’s not enough to work with young people,” she says. “You need to work with the mothers so that they can transmit their knowledge to their children.”

“A respect for others”

Both Parler en Paix and Langage de Femmes put an importance on social connection. At Langage de Femmes, members regularly attend an open forum where they can meet one another and ask questions about other religions or cultures in a nonjudgmental setting.

And at Parler en Paix, the dinner break midway through the Arab-Hebrew classes is a chance for students to exchange with open, like-minded people. They argue that the atmosphere here is a microcosm of what they experience in their daily lives and not what is presented in the media.

“I grew up with many Jewish people, in an environment of tolerance,” says Sonia I., who is Muslim, and did not want to give her last name. “But all we hear these days about [Jewish-Muslim relations] are negative things.”

“I have a very diverse friend group,” says Aurelien Bonneil, a university student who describes himself as nonreligious. He says the classes have helped him gain a better understanding of both Jewish and Muslim cultures. “I wish we could move on from talking about religion and how no one gets along.”

For some, a more universal understanding of laïcité could repair relations. Others say a redefinition of the word is in order. Unlike in the U.S., which allows and even encourages individual expression, some say that the French version of secularism calls for people to hide their religion, effectively effacing their identity and fostering resentment.

“Does it really shock people to see a woman wearing a headscarf, or a nun wearing a cross?” asks Abderrahmane Jebbari, who teaches Arabic for Parler en Paix. “We say that France is united by universal values … but it’s just as bad to force someone to wear something as it is to force them to take it off. That’s not what laïcité should be. It should be a respect for others.”

Editor's note: The original story has misnamed the school where Parler en Paix is holding its sessions.

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