Recently, I and about 30 self-identifying Jews and allies from around Europe, North America, South Africa and Israel gathered in Marseille, France, for the second edition of BirthWrong, a group trip run by the London-based collective Jewdas to explore and celebrate Diaspora histories and cultures.
As we toured the seaside Mediterranean city, visited a 19th-century shul, marched in the annual May Day rally, ate North African and Lebanese foods, held a workshop on left-wing anti-Semitism, and got to know our local hosts (part of a left-wing activist community), we encountered the French notion of laïcité.
‘For the non-French among us, it was new to encounter a space where people don’t express religious identity in public or communal settings’
Often translated as “secularism,” laïcité emerged from a 1905 French law – enacted in response to popular support – that officially separated church and state to try to limit the influence of the Catholic Church on French politics and society. The idea that politics and religion should be separate has strongly endured, and recently has transformed into the expectation that religion remain in the private sphere – which, in practice, has come to target Islam.
On BirthWrong, this cultural difference manifested itself in mutual surprise and curiosity. Many of the French people in the group, both Jewish and non-Jewish, were struck by being with Jews whose identity and heritage informed their political activism, who sing Yiddish songs in public (loudly) and some of whom wear tzitzit and kippot. (By contrast, religious symbols have been banned in French public schools, and it is illegal to wear a burka in public.)
For the non-French among us, it was new to encounter a space where people don’t express religious identity in public or communal settings, and where personal religious identity isn’t part of political discussions or actions.
Keziah Berelson, one of the BirthWrong organizers, who grew up in England and now lives in Marseille, said that many of her local friends have been “stupefied” that she identifies as Jewish despite not practising traditionally or believing in God. “They’ll be like, ‘But if you don’t practise and you don’t believe in God, then you’re just English,’” she said. It’s been hard for them to understand that she can’t simply “be English” in the same way that people with Christian heritage can be, due to different upbringings and traditions.
When Berelson approached her activist community about holding a radical left-wing seder this year, they initially resisted the idea and held a lengthy group discussion about it. “I was like, ‘This is anti-Semitism,’” she said, noting that Marseille has an annual carnival that coincides with Lent (and Purim), celebrates the start of spring and involves dressing up in costumes.
In the end, the seder went ahead. “People’s minds were blown,” Berelson said. “They didn’t realize that you could be religious and radical, or use identity politics to be radical.”
One of our hosts, Joris Stern-Alibert, who has both Jewish and Catholic heritage and was raised atheist, was “enthusiastic” when Berelson asked him to help organize BirthWrong, and found the experience to be empowering. “I wasn’t familiar with the way of doing this kind of cultural, religious empowerment, because with French politics, this laïcité is sometimes so strong that it doesn’t seem good for a French activist when people speak about their religion,” Stern-Alibert said. “People are suspicious when you speak about it.”
For Yael Tischler, a Canadian-born participant on BirthWrong, laïcité had some echoes of her time living in Montreal, given the historical influence of Catholicism in Quebec and the recent debates about secularism there. She recalled her friends from Quebec “not really getting the religious aspect of my life, and when I tried to explain it, it being a huge trigger for them – I think because there is a lot of leftover wounding from the Catholic Church there,” she said. “So I think there’s a sense that religion and spirituality can’t ever be good or healthy.”
She noted that, at the May Day march, several Jewish and non-Jewish residents of Marseille asked about the “Jewish Antifascist Action” stickers we were wearing. At a bar where some of us went to use the washroom, one man spotted our stickers and said he was a kohen. (Marseille is almost 10 per cent Jewish today.) Tischler said of the Jews who approached, “I felt they were very excited that there could be a public manifestation of Jewishness that was so proud and so loud.”
Stern-Alibert said he and the other hosts found BirthWrong “really fresh,” and will continue reflecting on their experiences and our discussions both among themselves and with left-wing Jewish groups in France, such as the Juives et juifs révolutionnaires (Revolutionary Jews). “It was really new for lots of people here, but that was a great occasion to talk about where we are with anti-Semitism here,” he said. “It’s not so easy, and I’m not feeling so safe about talking about it in lots of public, activist spaces here, so it was great.
“I’m not quite sure what to do with my Jewishness still, but I guess it’s some kind of way to explore it, and it has been a good spark,” he said.
Tamara Micner is a Vancouver-born journalist and playwright who lives in London, England.