Jewish Identity Politics and the Scarf Affairs in France

Article excerpt

Much has been written about the scarf affairs in France and the subsequent legislation banning large religious symbols from the classroom. Less has been written about the major religious leaderships' responses from 1989 when the first affair took place until the debates surrounding the Stasi Commission in 2003. This article traces the evolution of their thinking with special emphasis on the splits within the Jewish leadership within the context of a rise of anti-Semitic acts.

Keywords: laicite, schools, religion, multiculturalism, anti-Semitism


Much has been written about the two scarf affairs that gripped France, one in 1989 and the second in 2002. Both provoked passionate debate, and many groups took to the streets to demonstrate. After the government's ambiguous response in the first, problems continued to plague French educational authorities. The Raffarin government, appointed by Chirac after the Right won the elections in the spring of 2002, vowed to come up with a clearer policy when the second scarf affair erupted. Even before, a commission had been appointed by the government to study the application of laicite in France. The question of whether a law should be passed banning large religious symbols in the classroom was central to their deliberations. The 2003 Stasi Commission recommended its passage, along with other provisions that recognized religious pluralism in France and asked for policies to improve the integration of Muslims in French society.

Representatives of the major religious groups in France--Muslim, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish--were asked to appear before the Commission. The Muslims clearly thought that the passage of such a law would further exacerbate tensions between Muslims and French society, a view shared by Catholic and Protestant leaders. The leadership response of the Jewish community was more divided, however. The Chief Rabbi objected to a law that would ban the wearing of kippot in class along with headscarves. Unlike the Chief Rabbi, the Conseil representatif des institutions juives de France (CRIF) did not take a public position. The leadership did not see this as a serious Jewish issue but rather a Muslim one but supported its passage. (1) Why was part of the organized Jewish community's response different from that of the other religious groups in France, and why was there a split within this community? (2)

Jewish Identity Politics

To speak of French Jewish identity politics is a relatively new phenomenon and is a culmination of changes that have taken place internally within the Jewish community and externally within the larger society. Contemporary Jewish life in France is going through a period of renewal that began in the 1970s, rooted in trends that began after World War II. They include the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the more towards Algerian independence. This resulted in a large number of Jews leaving North Africa for France or Israel. Those who moved to France came with a very different conception of themselves as Jews compared to their French Israelites brethren. They tended to be more observant or traditional than most French Jews and were much more willing to flaunt their "ethnic" identity in public.

The awakening of Jewish memory of Vichy also galvanized the Jewish community in a new direction at the end of the '60s. French Jews became outraged when the French government impeded legal proceedings against French officials of Vichy in the '70s. (3) Some closure, however, was reached for the Jewish community when President Jacques Chirac, in a 16 July 1995 speech, recognized the culpability of French officials during the commemoration of the Vel d'Hiv roundup. (4)

The Six Day War also energized the organized community. French foreign policy switched from being pro-Israel to being pro-Arab during that conflict. Jews who supported Israel no longer found their pro-Israel stance in line with that of the government's. …