Lessons for Germany's Turks from France's Jews
By Symi Rom-Rymer
In the midst of cheering crowds and booming music at an auditorium in Düsseldorf, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told his Turkish audience of 10,000 to “integrate…into German society but don’t assimilate. No one has the right to deprive us of our culture and our identity.” Later he said, “I am here to show that you’re not alone!…You are part of Germany, but you are also part our great Turkey.” The response inside the hall was jubilant. Throngs of people shouted out “Turkey is great!” and waved Turkish flags. In the words of one audience member, Erdogan is “their savior.”
Erdogan’s visit comes at a time of particular upheaval for Germany, where an ongoing debate over the meaning of Turkish assimilation. Anti-Muslim feeling is strong. One of the most popular—and controversial—books published over the summer was Germany Abolishes Itself by Thilo Sarrazin, in which Turkish immigrants and their contributions to Germany are disparaged. Shortly after the book appeared, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that the German multicultural experiment was dead, raising the question of what would replace it. Three million Turks live in Germany, most of them immigrants or descendents of the original Turkish guest workers who helped rebuild post-war West Germany. Over one and a half million of them hold only Turkish citizenship—dual citizenship is not allowed—and many feel disenfranchised from modern German society. Indeed, a recent report by the German Marshall Fund lays bare the enormous economic and educational discrepancies between Germans of Turkish descent and Germans with no Turkish background.
While Germany is arguing about how best to get their Turkish population to assimilate—to speak German before Turkish and wave German flags with as much fervor as they wave Turkish ones—they might do well to look at the French model. Erdogan’s speech is reminiscent of a speech given by then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2004 at the height of a wave of anti-Semitic attacks in France. In that instance, too, a foreign leader spoke to a population with whom he had strong ties, but who did not live in his country. Like Erdogan, Sharon saw his people under siege and felt it was his duty to help them. Come to Israel, he urged his intended audience. France is no longer safe for Jews. Take refuge in Israel! Instead of the cheers and applause Erdogan received, Sharon’s words were met with scorn and anger from the French Jewish community. France was their home, they insisted. They would not take their marching orders from Israel.
Of course the situation is not totally analogous. Although many French Jews feel great affinity for Israel, it is not their terrestrial homeland. Moreover, unlike Turks in Germany, most today do not feel alienated from society. They generally have a good educational background, easy access to employment, and are integrated into French society. French Jews also have deep historical ties to France that, despite the recent rise in anti-Semitic rhetoric and attacks, have influenced their conception of their place in the country.
Yet it is important to remember that French Jews did not always enjoy the place in French society they do today. Debates raged in France in the late 19th and early 20th centuries on the status of Jews in France that played on anti-Semitism and fear of the ”inassimilable” nature of Judaism. Jews in France then, like Turks in Germany now, were accused of invading France and introducing unwanted elements into its society. And yet, especially in the early 20th century, Jewish immigrants were generally secure in their French identity. One of the most important reasons for integrating was the encouragement for Jews to work their way into mainstream society through the social and political institutions of the time: education and the army. As easily as one can point to the Dreyfus affair as an example of the system going tragically awry, one could also look to the election of Léon Blum, France’s first Jewish prime minister in 1936, as a success story.
In the fateful October 2010 speech in which German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the death of German multiculturalism, she argued that immigrants must to do more to integrate into the dominant German society by learning German and entering the labor market. Yet, it is often not that simple. Turks living in Germany today face discrimination and marginalization from the greater society and see few opportunities. Despite Erdogan’s warm reception in Germany, Turks are not leaving the country in droves. They, like French Jews before them, have decided to stay in a country that has become a home for them. The burden may be on members of the Turkish community to learn German and to join the workforce, but the burden is also on the German government to make sure their path is unobstructed. They can do this by condemning rather than condoning anti-Turkish or immigrant speech, easing the path to German citizenship and openly acknowledging the important contributions that Turkish immigrants have made to Germany over the decades.
The relationship between France and its Jews is a turbulent one and should not be emulate in its entirety. But the ties that bind Jews to France have remained strong, despite periods of difficulty and tragedy. If Germany is serious about wanting Turks to feel as rooted in Germany as Jews feel in France, perhaps there is something to be learned from the story of modern French Jewry and why French Jews did not take out their Israeli flags when its Prime Minister came calling.