Terror in Europe

That Slippery Euphemism We Call 'Cultural Differences'

The attacks in Paris last week put us face-to-face with the fact that our neighbors may live their lives in ways that make no sense to us. How do we keep this from spiraling toward hatred?

Street scene in Paris' 18th arrondissement
Street scene in Paris' 18th arrondissement
Moira Molly Chambers*


PARIS — It had been fabulous, but it had been long, and we were very tired, thirsty and hungry. Essaouira, the magical Moroccan port city, had exhausted us yet another day. The rowdy, squirming boys (aged 3 and 5) sitting next to us were our own, though at that moment we didn't wish to be associated with them. The restaurant owner had reluctantly but understandingly agreed to serve us, though his staff was not ready, and he probably knew that dusty little feet would be all over the rich, kilim cushions.

Then the call to prayer began to sound, and we must have been sitting right across from the mosque because it was piercing. The children stopped wiggling, looked up and then immediately began howling with laughter. Then they started loudly imitating the call. My husband and I looked at each other in wide-eyed horror. Make them stop! After using all our parental tricks, we finally were able to distract them and calm them down.

In truth, we found the kids' impressions of the call very amusing, but we didn't want to offend the restaurant owner who was bringing us tea. We knew — not through any explicit means but through instinct and traveler's osmosis — that dissing the religion is simply not done in a Muslim country. We weren't afraid that we would be decapitated or shot for it, but we knew it was bad form and we genuinely didn't want to offend anyone.

Essaouira — Photo: Jerzy Strzelecki/GFDL

This was four years ago, and we've been traveling to different Muslim countries ever since. Rather than a T.E. Lawrence type of quest to be one with the desert, we simply travel to sunny destinations to escape our lightless, Parisian winter — blatant opportunism about as difficult as hopping on a plane to Florida. Finding a nice package deal to Libya, Iran and Syria is obviously a little tough right now. It devastates us that the treasures of these countries are eroding and may soon be lost to us all.

Apart from the marvels of human civilization, we love the towns, the markets and the people who have brought them to life. Though it's not an absolute, there tends to be a warmth, humor and spontaneity among people in Muslim countries that is delightful, particularly after the stress and formality that pervades the Parisian mindset.

A culture shocked

Just 48 hours after we returned from Jordan, Charlie Hebdo was attacked. Still in between cultures, we found it difficult to understand why anyone would want to deliberately ridicule Islam, which has given us so many treasures. And why would they do it with such embarrassing, unsophisticated humor? Sure, Charlie Hebdo delighted in taking everyone down — Christians, Jews, politicians. Even Charles de Gaulle, France's 20th century savior, wasn't safe. Dogmatically rejecting dogmas, they pursued everyone with fanatical fervor. Lawsuits were filed against them — not unlike the anti-Semitic, standup comedian Dieudonné — but Charlie was, until last week, safe from harm.

In my years living in France, I have noted that the country's secularism often feels like religion. This hard-bought belief has roots going back many centuries. Such events as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre (1572) were so violent one can only marvel at the rapid and comprehensive shedding of blood that can be accomplished without a Kalashnikov. And of course, when ridiculing religion and supporting freedom of the press, one must rally around the memory of Voltaire. But that's going on nearly three centuries ago. Voltaire primarily aimed his quiver at his own culture. Above all, he targeted abusers of religion, fat-cat popes and sadistic inquisitors, rather than the structure of any given belief.

And coming out fighting mad, on the other side of the ring, Islam forbids any representation of the prophet, which gives us the peaceful geometry and calligraphy so emblematic of its art.

I don't really get it any more than I understand why a woman would wear a black veil in the middle of a sweltering desert or why some dudes wear Jane Austen ringlets. But there are a lot of things I don't get about a lot of different cultures. My (French) mother-in-law never ceases to be incensed by the fact that teetotaler George Bush didn't drink the glass of Chateau Margaux that Jacques Chirac poured for him at some state visit a million years ago.

"Cultural differences"

We wouldn't have the expression "cultural differences" if there weren't real misunderstanding and anger at the core. A cultural misunderstanding tends to hit us when we least expect it. We are enraged. We want to cry and stamp our feet. How can these people be such idiots? After more fury, reflection and hopefully understanding, that misunderstanding is graciously euphemized into a "cultural difference." And then they become interesting to ponder, and sometimes we even start to see things from the other side.

And so at Sunday's demonstration, I admired the many Muslims I saw. They probably hate Charlie Hebdo"s representations of their beliefs. And they swallowed their anger for the good of us all and maybe because they understand that the French have their own sacred cultural beliefs — or blind spots — sometimes invoked as freedom of the press, which our Gallic allies feel a particular need to uphold even if it borders on harassment.

Ultimately, the seeds of this new reign of terror have little to do with press freedom or caricatures. They began elsewhere some time ago in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Poland, etc. Generations of war do not make for a positive and stable set of young folk.

Ideas — good, bad and ugly — will spread. Some very ugly ones are found in France. Among its many foyers was an orphanage not far from Paris where two French brothers of Algerian descent could not have been raised in the happiest of conditions. And now French Jews and Arabs and cops and even squirmy little boys talk of things like missile launchers and automatic weapons. Perhaps it's the wiggliest generation who are the most marked by such events. They certainly don't miss a trick.

In times of turbulence many of us victims of a Liberal Arts Education gather "round The Good Book — the Shakespeare Folios — for solace. Please open now to Act IV, Scene I of The Merchant of Venice. "Therefore, Jew … though justice be thy plea, consider this: That in the course of justice none of us should see salvation."

And tears well in the starry eyes of students and poetry lovers everywhere as they are forced to face the possibility that our prophet was an anti-Semite. Even "the quality of mercy" can be strain'd. Everybody has blind spots. So, let tolerance ring.

*Moira Molly Chambers is a Paris-based writer.

*Correction: an earlier version of this essay referred to the Charlie Hebdo attackers as Algerian. They were in fact French, of Algerian descent.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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