Knowing that I had lived in France for a number of years my son told me the other day that a Jewish college classmate considering language choices was inclined to rule out French. She had heard that France is very anti-semitic so presumably she was thinking over potential study abroad locations as well. I have had Jewish friends all my life and am a minority living abroad myself so I certainly can sympathize with her fears of dealing with prejudice. When I was nineteen I was on a bus in Liverpool, England. A tipsy older man staggered towards my seat and hurled racial abuse at me. When I reached the house where I was staying, I told my horrified hosts what had happened then I settled down in front of the television. I turned it on in the middle of a show called the Black and White Minstrel Show – men and women in costume dancing and singing popular old tunes. All the singer dancers were white but to my shock the men were in black face. No one would dream of such an offensive show in Britain today but this was the 1970s.
Prejudice abroad is an extremely important subject that probably is not approached very often in study abroad briefings or articles. As a result, students who avoid countries based on news reports or history may be in danger of short changing themselves. If I had known about the Black and White Minstrel Show and race relations in Liverpool at the time, I might not have gone and that would have been a major mistake. That minor bad experience opened up a world of interesting topics with my host family who were angry about my experience and disgusted with the show they had always found tasteless. Even their little seven year old tried to comfort me. I began to ask different questions when I met people and I found that they were more than happy to discuss racism and prejudice and class issues in the UK. I did not allow the experience to deter me from traveling to other places including Scotland where I experienced no other incidents – only warmth and friendliness. If I had judged the British based on that drunk and an offensive show, I would have judged them unfairly. When I went to London to see some Black British friends of my parents their children, who were my age, made me feel like a sibling. And that was in part because I had seen a little of their situation rather than speaking exclusively about American society.
Like many other countries France carries a heavy historical burden with regard to its Jewish population, from medieval expulsions and persecutions to the holocaust. However, when students today fear racism or anti-semitism they are more likely basing those fears on current events and present day hate groups. Every society has issues of prejudice but it is difficult to judge how prejudiced a society is from afar. Investigating media reports is a good idea as long you keep in mind where race and inter religious relations are concerned, the news media is usually peddling bad news stories because in their eyes it sells. So without discounting the negative it’s important to ask if this is a truthful picture?
If tourists judged the US on anti semitic statements they read on the internet and by anti-semitic attacks, where would we stand in their eyes? In fact, if they judged the US based on American crime shows (real and fictional) who would ever enter the United States? What if you would like to study in a country but are concerned about anti-semitism? How do you acquire a balanced picture? The answer lies in reworking the problem. Ask yourself how an American would defend the United States against accusations of unbridled anti- semitism? We would cite free speech but also note that anti-semitic statements are publicly condemned (or largely ignored) and those who commit anti-semitic acts of violence are pursued in law and when convicted put in jail. We might also turn to statistics on the number of American Jews and provide this as evidence of a thriving culture. But most importantly we would discuss the prominence of American Jews in public life, in the arts, in journalism, in academia and science and the fact that they are found in all walks of life. So it is in France.
I met many Jewish French people during my six years in France and that is hardly surprising since France has the third largest Jewish population of any country after the United States and Israel. I even had the privilege of meeting Elie Wiesel at a reception when he was honored by the University of Paris at the Sorbonne. French voters regularly elect Jewish French politicians to office. France has had three prime ministers of Jewish parentage and the Jewish community is well represented in all professions including the pop music industry where during my my time there two of the major pop stars were Jean Jacques Goldman and Francois Feldman. An interesting thing about the Jewish community in France is their names will not necessarily be recognizable to people from the US if they are from North Africa, for example. As a result you may be listening to a reporter or speaking to a neighbor without being aware that they are Jewish. Also French society as a whole is very secular in their outlook and approach so the Jewish community may appear invisible but they are there in great numbers and diversity.
Going overseas to study requires a certain amount of courage and if you are a member of a religious or ethnic minority, perhaps a leap of faith as well. Americans take pride in their many origins and rightly so, but it is important to acknowledge that the US is not the only country on earth to embrace diversity. Others also strive to be inclusive and contain individuals capably juggling multiple cultural identities. Students interested in meeting people in other countries of similar origin or religion should be drawn to study abroad experiences. It’s a superb way to obtain insights into a society and you may acquire an instant network as well.
Clearly, in the context of this post I am not speaking about violence or criminal acts but experiences limited to insults. I would certainly not wish even minor insults on anyone but I learned when I was nineteen that while you can not prevent prejudice coming your way, far from ruining an experience abroad you can turn it into something beneficial. If you use a bad experience to ask challenging questions and gain insights into another society, you will grow enormously in confidence and in your ability to understand other cultures. And that is the point of studying abroad.
(For more on how others see the US and diversity see my book on Coping with Anti Americanism published by Potomac Books and available from Amazon on May 31)