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Riots Show Need to Press Forward with Agenda of Pluralism and Respect

November 11, 2005
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For once, it would appear that Jews, Judaism and Jewish interests are not the target of violence in Paris and in so many cities across France. After a surge in anti-Semitic hostility and incidents in recent years, that comes as something of a surprise. This time it appears the rioters are burning down their own cars and neighborhoods, rather then aiming their anger at the symbols of some outside enemy.

In today’s France, we witness riots without obvious enemies or proper targets — just bursts of pure anger.

After the burning of thousands of cars and shops, the French government announced two steps and two policies to stop the violence. First, it gave permission to strong repressive measures such as house arrest and curfews, measures that the government has criticized when used by Israel.

It also announced a plan to help the social and economic situation in the affected suburbs, promising to create 57,000 new jobs.

This second step is late and based on the wrong assumption — namely, that the present wave of anger is driven mainly by a harsh economic situation. In truth, this is an insult to the millions of people who struggle every day to make a living but who never riot because they respect the life and possessions of others.

What’s really at stake is that many of the 7 million Muslim immigrants and their descendants in France feel discriminated against in the French political system, where their religious identity often is seen as suspect.

Unless religious and cultural expressions of identity are permitted and valued in a diverse society, violence is a likely response to the perceived lack of recognition. Only a year ago, the French government banned the use of visible religious symbols such as the Islamic head covering. This was done in good faith, for the higher purpose of secularism, as well as to curb trends of religious radicalism and fundamentalism.

But how wise is it to prevent such expressions of diversity and identity in a society that prides itself on being multicultural? Is France today paying the price of its policy of integration into a society where secularism is seen as the highest value?

What’s taking place these days on the streets of so many French cities should remind us that in a diverse society, it’s dangerous to put one set of values above others. The basis of a diverse society should be a sufficient set of common values that allow citizens to live together, rather then the establishment of a hierarchy of values that elevates some and deprecates others.

Let us not forget that as Jews we, too, are often first- or second-generation immigrants. More then 75 percent of French Jews are from North Africa.

For the Ashkenazim, many do have issues and problems with a French society that only 60 years ago turned its back on us, stripping us of citizenship and denying us protection from the Nazis.

Concerned by the events of the past two weeks, let us go beyond simple condemnations of violence and avoid the trap of playing the “secular French” card of order and citizenship against the “Muslim immigrant” card of violence and hooliganism.

The images can be misleading. The real danger today is not the lack of order and the burning of cars, the danger is the political impact that such riots could have on many French citizens.

In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, reached the second round of France’s presidential election. After these riots, we fear that many will again turn to Le Pen and his ilk for simple and radical answers, which could bring to an end the dream of a diverse religious and cultural society.

Two years ago, CEJI, the French acronym for the European Jewish Information Center, warned the French government that diversity should never be taken for granted, and that unless society learns how to deal with pluralism it will face difficult times ahead. We offered training for teachers and civil servants, but the government didn’t follow up.

Through our work in schools and peer training, implementing the “World of Difference” educational program and constantly working in the field of Jewish-Muslim dialogue and European integration, we know that education is the key to a peaceful society.

When violence erupts, it’s not the time to give up on our dreams and turn to simple and radical solutions. Rather, today is the time to work even harder to make our dream a reality. By valuing each other and discovering each other, we believe we can still create a more cohesive society in Europe.

Ronny Naftaniel is executive vice-chairman of CEJI and Rabbi David Meyer is an executive board member.

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