After Charlie Hebdo: The Representation Of Jews And Muslims In France

After Charlie Hebdo

The Representation of Jews and Muslims in France

By Professor Sarah Hammerschlag (University of Chicago)

January 7, 2016          Picture: Julien/Flickr.

This article is part of The Critique’s Great War Series Part II: Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech & Religious Violence Exclusive.

In the wake of the January 7 terrorist attacks in Paris, many historians and journalists have attempted to respond to the question of whether there is a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe and whether it is comparable to the 1930’s. It was put starkly by Jeffrey Goldberg’s April 2015 article in the Atlantic, “Is it time for the Jews to leave Europe?” The question alone suggests a comparison between our current moment and that of Europe 75 years ago. Through the window of hindsight, those German Jews who responded to the Nuremberg laws of 1935 by consolidating their assets and heading to Palestine look to have been prescient. Goldberg’s article and others like it tally the recent uptick in violence as a means of using the historical past to read the tea leaves of the future. French Jews have been leaving for Israel at an increased frequency. 2013 saw an increase in 62%, from 1,917 to 3,289. In 2014 that number increased over two-fold to 7,200. The trend alone might seem to indicate that these Jews see danger to themselves and their families on the horizon. But as numerous historians have pointed out, the comparison between the Europe of today and the 1930’s is both simplistic and hyperbolic.

The late historian David Cesarni put it in no uncertain terms when he wrote in January of 2015 that “invoking the fate of Jews under Nazi rule is not only inappropriate—it is inflammatory and insulting to the victims.”[1] Cesarni points to the fundamental differences between the 1930’s and present-day Europe. Today “Jews everywhere have full civil rights and are protected from abuse and violence.”  The differences between state-sponsored violence and the acts of extremists—whether French Nationalist or Islamic—cannot be overemphasized.

That said, there is reason to look to history, particularly the history of the representation of the Jew, in order to understand our current moment, not only for what it has to say about the future of Jews in Europe, but also for the future of Moslems, who are much more likely today to be the target of state-sponsored discrimination than Jews are [See Pinto for how this apparent inferior status might factor in discussions of the legal and moral right to free speech], especially after the the State of Emergency invoked by François Hollande in response to the most recent ISIS attacks on November 13, and the increasing pressure for broader surveillance measures in European Muslim communities which has followed.

Twenty-three years ago, long before things had reached their current crisis point, the anthropologist Talal Asad pointed to the implication of the history of the Jewish question for Moslems. In its final page, he invokes Arthur Hertzberg’s book, The French Enlightenment and the Jews, which offers a critical assessment of the very strategy of Enlightenment often championed as France’s great cultural legacy. Hertzberg’s account of the relationship between radical enlightenment and anti-Semitism, Asad writes, reveals that the legacy of the discourse surrounding emancipation shows that “complete assimilation or the status of despised difference—not to mention other, more terrible alternatives—appear to be the only options that the modern nation-state has been able to provide for its minorities.” In his footnote he goes as far as imagining a new Holocaust with Europe’s Moslems as its victims.[2]

But the history of the Jewish question is not merely one in which the Jews were the object of discrimination. This is not to say that it was a pure success either, but it does at the very least prove that the options are more complicated than the dichotomy Asad lays out between “complete assimilation and despised difference.”[3] Those like the 18th century reformer Abbé Gregoire and even Napoleon who predicted that régéneration and emancipation would result in the Jews’ disappearance were belied by the persistence of Judaism even as it reshaped itself into a reflection of revolutionary ideals.

In 1792, in celebration of their emancipation, the Jews of the Metz responded by singing a Hebrew version of the “Marseillaise.”[4] By the 1830’s the very concept of régéneration had been transformed into a movement of internal Jewish reform, including a focus on Jewish scholarship.[5] By the 1860’s the first international Jewish aid organization, the Alliance Israélite Universelle, was inaugurated with the expressed mission of spreading French values to Jewish people across the Mediterranean basin and indeed around the globe. As it stated in its mission statement, “ If. . .you believe that the influence of the principles of ’89 is all powerful in the world…that the example of peoples who enjoy absolute religious equality is a force . . .[then] Israelites of the entire world, come give us your membership, your cooperation.”[6] The effect was an almost complete reversal of the relation between the figure of the Jew and the revolution. La Croix, the leading Catholic Newspaper in 1889 referred to the Centennary Celebration as “the Semitic Centenary.” Édouard Drumont’s vituperative and wildly popular La France Juive, published in 1896, argued that the Jews were the true beneficiary of the revolution and were simultaneously responsible for the corrosion of the values of the nation: “The only one who profits from the Revolution is the Jew. All of it comes from the Jew; all of it returns to the Jew.”[7] While these attacks were meant to construct the aura of conspiracy around both Jews and the revolution, Jews themselves employed the association to their own advantage. As Zadoc Kahn, Chief Rabbi of France, put it in 1890 at his induction, “we could not, at the dawning of this century, conceive for Judaism a more beautiful destiny: it has made promises to the country, and it has kept them; it has received duties from the past that were a sacred legacy, and it has not betrayed them!”[8]

Jean Althouse Cohen/Flickr
Jean Althouse Cohen/Flickr

Even the modern concept of laicité, often treated as a principle of the 1789 revolution, was forged in and around the fate of a Jew. This concept, traced back most clearly to the 1905 law separating church and state has been at the center of cultural conflict in France over the rights of Moslems to express their religious identity and has become a symbol of French national heritage. But in 1905 it divided the Catholic right from the republican and socialist left, as its major impact was a radical diminishing of the power of the Catholic church and the end of its status as state religion. The law has come to be seen as the grand feat of the “Dreyfus Revolution.” As Charles Sowerine puts it, the Dreyfusards had linked “France’s revolutionary and republican heritage to the rights of one man…making his case symbolic.”[9] The way in which the vindication of a wrong done to one particular man could become a cause for and a symbol of the nation was no doubt at the heart of what made this event so pivotal for modern French history. At the same time it became a symbol for Jews around the world, one solidifying the link between the fate of Judaism and the fate of France. As the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas described it, “Among the Jews of Eastern Europe the name of Dreyfus was known everywhere. Old Jews with bears who had never seen a Latin letter in their life spoke of Zola as a saint.”[10]

“The way in which the vindication of a wrong done to one particular man could become a cause for and a symbol of the nation was no doubt at the heart of what made this event so pivotal for modern French history”

It was also the connection between the Jew as symbol and the great conflicts of France that continued to fuel anti-Semitism through the first half of the Twentieth Century. As Maurice Barrès, one of the most influential literary voices of right-wing French nationalism, wrote, “The crowd always needs a word of war to rally itself; it wants some cry of passion that makes abstract ideas tangible.” That idea was the Jew, Barrès wrote, almost paraphrasing Marx, though with different aims, “Juif is only an adjective designating usurers, monopolizers, stockbrokers, all those that abuse money.”[11]  For Barrès the Jews represented the uprootedness of modern life. He designated them les déracinés and sought to re-affirm over and against this image of uprootnedness a France grounded in blood and soil.

But, as I’ve argued elsewhere, it was exactly this connection and this history that made the Jew ripe for revalorization in the post-World War II context, when French intellectuals wanted to distance themselves as much as possible from the strands of its nationalist past. In this context the Jew could once again serve a symbolic function as anti-nationalist, anti-mythic symbol. In this context some of the most important French intellectuals chose to identify with Jews. Among them were Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Blanchot and Jean-Francois Lyotard.[12] For these thinkers and others the figure of the Jew provided a means to think about the history of France as a battle between universalism and particularism, but also to find an avenue out of this dichotomy. Jean Paul Sartre’s conviction that both universalism and particularism were inadequate political options, to be substituted by an account of the human situation, “ a condition…an ensemble of limits and constraints: the necessity of dying, of working for a living, of existing in a world already inhabited by other men,” was itself forged in and through his Réflexions sur la question juive, translated in English as Anti-Semite and Jew.

Evan O'Neil/Flickr
Evan O'Neil/Flickr

It is perhaps no surprise then that as the question concerning the place of both Jews and Christians in Europe has re-emerged since the Charlie Hebdo attacks, a certain rhetoric of French universalism has returned as well.[13] Nor do we have to look very far to see that the legacy of the French Enlightenment is one tool mobilized against the perceived threat of Europe’s newest arrivals from the east. Only recall the face of Voltaire emblazoning the posters of marchers who assembled to show their support for the victims of the Charlie Hebdo shootings on January 11th. On one level the connection is obvious: the brand of satire that Charlie Hebdo represents is itself an embodiment of the form of critique pioneered by Voltaire, one for which there can be no sacred cows. But it is worth noting that no target was less sacred for Voltaire than the Jews. The entry for “Les Juifs” in Voltaire’s Dictionaire philosophique, a sustained 30-page diatribe describing the Jews as “ever unfortunate, ever enslaved, ever revolting,” is the longest of any in the multivolume text.[14] For Voltaire, the Jew was the instantiation of religiosity and all that reason sought to dispel in it. No doubt, during the January demonstrations last year, if Voltaire was the emblem of a unified France defending its legacy of “radical enlightenment,” then Moslems have become the new Jews.

“No doubt, during the January demonstrations last year, if Voltaire was the emblem of a unified France defending its legacy of “radical enlightenment,” then Moslems have become the new Jews”.

Yet the resonances between the current situation of Muslims in France and the history of the representation of the Jews in France fail to register when Moslems are themselves figured as dangerous culprits in a culture war rather than as victims of systematic discrimination and bigotry. Ethan Katz’s recently published book The Burdens of Brotherhood tells a different story of cooperation and friendship between Jewish and Muslim immigrants to the Metropole in the Twentieth Century. Such histories can do much to complicate cultural stereotypes and to reveal both Jews and Muslims as integral players in a complicated national history. At the same time, the recent multiplication of cultural rhetoric figuring both Jews and Moslems as French outsiders results in the mutual marginalization of both Jews and Moslems and the consolidation of an idea of Europe mobilized against its cultural others. While Muslim kids from the suburbs are questioned for their lack of allegiance, Jews are shown packing their bags.

“While Muslim kids from the suburbs are questioned for their lack of allegiance, Jews are shown packing their bags”.

Israeli leaders have themselves been instrumental in this endeavor. After the attacks on January 7, 2015 that included four fatalities at a Kosher supermarket, Netanyahu declared: “To all the Jews of France, all the Jews of Europe, I would like to say Israel is not just the place in whose direction you pray, the state of Israel is your home.” These French Jews, addressed as though they were refugees, are being encouraged to leave a place in which cultural animosity and violence remains an exception to move to a nation in which it is the rule. This strategy works only if Israel’s post-World War II function as a refuge for European victims of state –sponsored persecution can be reinvoked at will, even as this paradigm no longer reflects the current reality.

While the French prime minister Manuel Valls countered with the response that “France without the Jews of France is not France,” other indicators might suggest that the marginalization of Moslems in Europe and the marginalization of Jews is linked.

Published on the day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks Michel Houellebecq’s novel Soumission [Submission] imagines France in the year 2022 when the Islamic Brotherhood joins forces with the Socialist party to defeat the National Front and instates Sharia (Moslem law) in the public sphere. Women take up the veil, exit the public sphere en masse and the Sorbonne becomes a citadel of Islamic learning. The novel, a satire in some respects, is also an expression of nostalgia and longing for a version of the Republic that reunites its legacy with a higher Christian mystery. The modern mystic, Charles Péguy is invoked at the center of the novel as the protagonist meditates before the black virgin of Rocamador. Péguy’s 1913 poem Eve, which Charles De Gaulle himself recalled in 1942, rallying France to fight its intruders, is quoted at length, just before Francois, the narrator and protagonist, turns his back on the past and returns to a Paris now under Islamic rule.

Much of the attention paid to the novel concerns its “predictions” which play on the fears of those who claim that with the incursions of Islam into France, the nation is losing its fundamental identity. But there is another side plot which is worth mentioning. Francois, a scholar of nineteenth-century French literature has a young Jewish mistress, Miriam, whose departure for Israel allows Houllebecq to imagine France’s future without Jews. Little attention has been paid to this element of the novel perhaps because it is overshadowed by other themes, but also perhaps because it is the least shocking element in the story. It is merely the occasion for Francois’ potential, though failed transformation.

Similarly, the slogans that accompanied the January 11th demonstrations following the Charlie Hebdo attacks confirm the marginal status of the Jews in the current context, even as this has not been the subject of much media attention. Certainly, the slogan “Je suis Charlie.” is part of a tradition of invoking solidarity through a statement of identification, but most often such slogans have been a means of aligning with those deprived of a voice rather than an expression of the dominant culture. Traced back recently by some to the “I am Spartacus” moment in Stanley Kubrik’s 1960 film when the population of slaves promised a reprieve if they’ll only identify Sparticus thwart the Roman strategy by each declaring himself Sparticus.

Such statements of rhetorical solidarity have recurred with increasing frequency in recent years. In 2008 in response to propaganda attempting to associate Barack Obama with Islam by means of his middle name, his supporters began to take on the middle name “Hussein” as their own. “We are all Hussein” became a common refrain. More recently social media has become a means to declare “I am Trayvon Martin” or “I am Michael Brown.”[15] What is striking about the phrase “Je suis Charlie” is how it functioned not as a means of asserting the voice of the margins but of consolidating the center. The association between Charlie Hebdo and Voltaire on many of the posters bearing the slogan aligns the magazine with France’s greatest Enlightenment figures and asserts a continuing legacy, one that connects present day satire with French liberté. It is worth noting that the slogan “Je suis Juif” also circulated at the demonstrations and on the internet. Many who chose to hold up the banner, “Je suis Juif” instead of “Je suis Charlie” did so because they were Jews and did not want the Jewishness of the victims to be forgotten.

Julie Kertesz/Flickr
Julie Kertesz/Flickr

“What is striking about the phrase “Je suis Charlie” is how it functioned not as a means of asserting the voice of the margins but of consolidating the center”

This slogan in the singular also recalls another important expression in the first-person plural, the chant “Nous sommes tous des juifs allemands” from the student protests in Paris of May 1968. Along with the complex history of Jews in France, this moment in particular can help us to think about how the history of the Jewish Question in France might serve another purpose beyond its invocation as prophetic warning of danger to come.

On May 23rd, in a moment now seared into the public consciousness, crowds took to the street chanting, “Nous sommes tous des juifs allemands,” “We are all German Jews,” to assert their alliance with their leader, Daniel Cohn-Bendit who had been refused re-entry into France after a trip to Germany. In this moment when the French people chose to re-enact their revolutionary past, to take to the streets as they had done in 1789 and again famously in 1830, 1848 and 1870, the Jew became a revolutionary symbol. It was a moment when the Jew became a means for the students to emphasize their resistance to what they felt to be an oppressive regime, to re-enact the ideal of fraternité, by aligning themselves with the protest leader, a cultural outsider, and to refuse identification with the dominant depiction of nationhood through the idealization of its margins.

It is a moment that has been almost endlessly analyzed and thematized, itself becoming symbolic. The philosopher Jacques Rancière has referred to it as an inversion of “a stigmatized name in order to make it the principle of an open subjectivation of the uncounted,” a moment when politics is manifest by the revolutionary capacity to represent those whose voice is not counted among the demos.[16] For the literary theorist Maurice Blanchot it was the instantiation of revolutionary, even messianic politics, a moment simultaneously non-violent and powerfully disruptive. “Never had it been said anywhere, never at any moment, an inaugural speech event, opening and overturning borders, opening and overthrowing the future.”[17]

What is striking about the various accounts of the May ‘68 events is the sense in which the announcement of solidarity with the Jews in the slogan “We are all German Jews” was revolutionary because it represented a new means to imagine France’s political future, one in which the margins represented a kind of political ideal, or at least a symbol of the desire of France’s youth to identify with its others. In May 1968 the Jew represented that possibility.

Can we envision a future in which representations of the Muslim youth of les banlieus are not identified with Islamic extremism, but are rather seen as symbols themselves of France’s Revolutionary past in their struggle for equality? Can we imagine that the city of Paris’s geographic margins could be a means for thinking about the political needs of those who are positioned as the nation’s outsiders?

It is worth recalling May ‘68 in light of the slogans which accompanied the January 2015 demonstrations and considering the difference between the slogan “Nous sommes tous des juifs allemands” and “Je suis Charlie” and “Je suis Juif.” In January of 2015 Jews were invoked in response to the attack on the Super Kasher, not as a symbol, but in their material particularity. If “Je suis Charlie” is a slogan reconstituting the universal, “Je suis Juif,” is a slogan reconstituting the particular, and there is no political sign or signal of people thinking beyond this immediate dichotomy. In light of the resonance and the difference between these slogans, it is not surprising that Daniel Cohn-Bendit was called on to comment on the events and their distance from May 1968.

In an interview with Libération, he suggested that it was clear that for him the term “Jew” has ceased to be a metaphor. He writes about the strange experience of feeling himself Jewish in response to the attacks, not because of a feeling of solidarity with the victims but from the realization that they were killed only because they were Jews.[18] What is striking in all of this discourse is how the rhetoric of the event solidified the position of both Jew and Moslem as Europe’s others. The emphasis of the media portrayal of Jewish responses focused on the question of whether Europe was still a safe place for the Jews and documented the immigration of Jews to Israel in light of their sense of insecurity.[19] Meanwhile France as a nation was a unified front, gathered round the symbols of its Enlightenment legacy. Within this tripartite picture the rift between the political factions that have animated French history, the fight between secularism and the Catholic right disappears. For Hollebecq such a union can only be raised as a nostalgic and unrealizable longing. Many have contested a reading of the novel as dystopic, or even as political satire. Rather it has been suggested that the vision of Islamic France is just a means to depict a longing for a France in which the spirit of Péguy had in fact prevailed. It is important to note, nonetheless, that even to stage that longing, he requires a political fantasy in which Islam undermines French culture and Jews are once again sent packing.

In Qui est Charlie, the sociologist Emmanuel Todd reminds his readers that the unified front that the “Je suis Charlie” demonstrations of January 11 claimed to represent is itself a mirage, one that represents neither France’s past nor its present.[20] France has always accommodated conflict, clashing values, even without the Jews. What is dangerous about the present moment, he suggests is the attempt to represent France as homogeneous and united and to use the heritage of the 1789 revolution as itself the symbol of that unity. Perhaps it is no accident that in light of the desire to portray Europe’s past as a heritage worth protecting, the Jews are present only as a future absence. For in France’s history rhetoric about Jews has almost always marked the site of the national rift.

This rift has been a site of negotiation for Jews and a means by which even the worst slander could be revalorized into a vision of the future. To suggest that the history of the Jews in Europe serve as an example for Muslims trying to find a way to envision a Europe that includes their voices is, perhaps, too facile. But nor should the history of the Jews in France be told as a cautionary tale. It will only become one if both Jews and Muslims accept a portrayal of France’s history and a redeployment of its symbols that excludes them.

Footnotes & References 

[1] David Cesarani, “There is no “Wave” of Anti-Semitism,” Huffington Post, January 26, 2015.

[2] Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993) 306.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Hyman, The Jews of Modern France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998) 30.

[5] See Berkovitz, The Shaping of Jewish Identity in Nineteenth-century France (Detroit, Wayne State University, 1989) 150-172.

[6] Aron Rodrique, French Jews, Turkish Jews: The Alliance Israélite Universelle and the politics of Jewish Schooling in Turkey1860-1925 (Indiana UP, 1990) 22.

[7] Drumont’s volume sold over 100,000 copies in its first year alone and was reprinted 200 times.

[8] Kahn, Zadoc, Sermons et allocutions (Paris: A. Durlacher, 1893-1903).

[9] Charles Sowerine, France since 1870: Culture, Society and the Making of the Republic(London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) 77.

[10] François Poirié, Emmanuel Levinas, Qui etes-vous? (Paris: La Manufacture, 1987), 70.

[11] Barrès, “La formule antijuive” Le Figaro 22 February 1890.

[12] see Sarah Hammerschlag, The Figural Jew: Politics and Identity in postwar French Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

[13] I’m thinking in particular here of Alain Badiou’s Saint Paul: The Foundations of Unversalism, translated by Ray Brassier (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2003).

[14] Voltaire, Dictionnaire philosophique (Paris: Cluny, 1930), 278-279.

[15] Matt Pearce, “ ‘Je suis Charlie’ and the People who are not Charlie” LA Times, January 14, 2015.

[16] Jacques Rancière, Aux bords du politique (Paris: La fabrique, 1998), 157.

[17] Maurice Blanchot, Écrits politiques 1958-1993 (Paris: Lignes, 1993), 125.

[18] Annette Lévy-Willard, “Interview: Daniel Cohn-Bendit <>” Liberation, January 10, 2015.

[19] See for example, Jeffrey Goldberg, “Is it time for the Jews to leave Europe,”The Atlantic, April 2015.

[20] Emmanuel Todd, Qui est CharlieSociologie d’une crise religieuse (Paris: Seuil, 2015).

Sarah Hammerschlag
Sarah Hammerschlag
Sarah Hammerschlag is Assistant Professor of Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is the author of The Figural Jew: Politics and Identity in Postwar French Thought (University of Chicago Press, 2010) and Broken Tablets: Levinas, Derrida and the Literary Afterlife of Religion (Columbia University Press, 2016). Currently she is editing an anthology of French-Jewish writing and working on a monograph on the renaissance of Judaism in postwar Paris.
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