Meyer Habib was clearly shocked when describing a Jewish woman who has joined Islamic State. “It’s the end of the world,” the Jewish MP declared. Habib was using colourful language, but his tone was appropriate.
While only two Jewish women are known to have left France to join ISIS, the media, both in their home country, and Israel, has seized on their stories, shocked by their conduct: Promising Jewish teenagers becoming jihadists. It’s definitely double take material. But we need to be careful, though; this radicalization is simply one example of a larger trend in French life, which isn’t so much about the growth of Islam, as it is about the fracturing of French identity.
That Jews chose to gravitate towards radical Islam, as contradictory as it appears, remains its own unique question. But what’s not is the fact that they are also French, and that they became jihadists. In doing so, the girls have joined the largest community in Europe contributing its citizens to the conflict in Syria. The question is why? In Europe, jihadism tends to be framed by a number of grievances, including racism, economic disenfranchisement, strained family ties, and media-tutored radicalization.
That French Jews would respond this way, to the same circumstances as Muslims, speaks volumes about the consistency of their experiences with a community they so often find themselves in conflict with. It flies in the face of all the political orthodoxies associated with France’s Jewish establishment, and their sense of persecution, at the hands of their Muslim neighbors, who are no strangers, either, to Judeophobia, though one must be careful to distinguish their anti-Israel rhetoric from actual racism. Still, it must be horribly discomfiting to imagine that this community could produce members with outlooks like Mohammed Merah and Mehdi Nemmouche, too.
Why Jewish women, though, and not men? The answer cannot be the same as the sort proposed by Dounia Bouzar, concerning a girl who wanted to leave for Syria, but was caught at the airport. Bouzar, who is the founder of the conservative watchdog Center for the Prevention of Sectarian Abuse Linked to Islam, described her as a gifted student who came from a religious family of “affluent merchants.” She went on to be dumbfounded by her “self-radicalization” in the same way as Habib, but quickly overlooked alternative explanations in favour of another agenda.
Bouzar ends up arguing that “it’s safe to assume that a lack of spirituality in the education [of these youths] is one of the factors that leads to radicalization.” This is a strange finding, especially given the tone that has already been set by two Jews seemingly abandoning their faith for a religion deemed anti-Semitic. Does Bouzar mean to use these events as an opportunity to rail against secular trends in Jewish life? It is crude, and unconvincing.
It would be far more appropriate to argue that the economic crisis besetting France right now is so destabilizing that it is radicalizing everyone. From National Front voters, recovering their whiteness, and their Catholicism, to Jews becoming Zionist, and Muslims donning the veil, it’s the zeitgeist. During times of crisis, in every country, the retreat to tradition, as solace, is as common as it is old. This is just the French mix, and jihadism is a part.
Considering how heavily North African the Jewish community is, and of course, the grounds for cultural identification with Islam is already there, however submerged. It is only in recent decades that there has been any sense of alienation between the communities; at least the sort that prevails today. Still, it’s hard to erase centuries of coexistence and cohabitation, in France’s former colonies. This, to a large degree, makes sense.
The harder part is digesting the fact that this is a form of rebellion, against political and cultural conventions, in the Jewish community. How could it inspire behavior like this, at a time when Jews feel so besieged by Muslims? Perhaps it’s a signal that the Europeanization of the North African Jewish community is incomplete, that these Sephardim were prematurely severed from their Levantine origins, and can’t pretend anymore.
That is a crisis in itself, which is not unreasonable, or unprecedented, in Jewish communities of Middle Eastern origin, who have had to assimilate to European circumstances, for whatever reason, whether it be in Israel, or in Europe. It’s the jihadist spin though, that takes some getting used to, considering its violence, and what it says about idealized gender roles, in certain sectors of the French Jewish community. Those are the most worrying elements, both for Jews, and for France, at large.
Still, French Jewry should take some cold comfort in the fact that white, gentile Europeans are also crossing over to the other side right now. Witness the high number of ethnic Germans converting to Islam, and fighting for al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Afghanistan, as well as in Iraq, and Syria. This is no different. Irrespective of the severity of France’s circumstances, mixing things up like this is part of what it means to be European right now.
Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit, who also contributed to this article.