National Identity


You may or may not know that the French government has launched a debate about “National Identity” in this country. Unfortnately this has turned into a fiasco with numerous “linguistic” blunders from the right and lots of ingenous comments from the left.

First the debate has been marred by the Swiss vote against the building of minarets and the issue seems to have focused mainly on the Muslim inhabitants of France. As someone who teaches to a vast majority of students whose ancestors were all French I can testify that their “national identity” isn’t always clear and inborn.

Then it worries me that the people who make themselves heard in this debate can only see things in terms of black and white. France as a whole isn’t turning into an Islamic nation, neither should we be naive about what is taking place in some areas of France where Islamic groups which do not share the values of the Western world are free to prosper.

One of the problems with France and its treatment of religion is not so much that it is a secular country where “church and state” are totally separate but that this has led most French people to be completely ignorant about religion.

As a result any religious sign is seen as a proof that you are at best an obscurantist at worst a fanatic, whatever your religion. As they are unable to interpret these signs French people either worry about them (mostly people on the right) or dicard them as part of an exotic heritage that should be preserved (people on the left). I agree that I am oversimplifying here but this is for the sake of clarity.

Identity is not only inherited, it is mostly taught. France has a strong history, filled with strong historical figures. It has integrated lots of different people over the centuries and is certainly still capable of doing so. The solution is certainly not to teach less history but rather more and also to have leaders who are able to identify what is acceptable or not in a religious expression of one’s faith.

I welcome any comment- especially if you disagree – and would love to read what you think about what constitutes one’s national identity and how yours was forged.


19 thoughts on “National Identity

  1. This seems to be partly about an underlying problem – it is good to have freedom, but with freedom comes the danger that some (I won’t mention which groups, but if you pay attention to the news, you know) tend to abuse these freedoms, in ways that are scary and dangerous to others.

    Then there is the problem of seeing all religion as bad when some groups abuse religion and do evil things in the name of their religion. A related problem in the U.S. is people used to learn ethics through their church or synagogue, but as fewer people attend, what is the replacement? I don’t sense as much anti-religious feeling here as what you mention.

    Thank you for introducing us to the debate in France.

  2. I don’t sense as much anti-religious feeling here as what you mention.
    I guess this can be explained historically. The religious dissenters who created America were religious but also knew the dangers of religious hegemony having suffered from them. In France the Catholics supported the king long after France became a Republic. As a result the young democracy was very wary of religious involvement in politics. Hope this short summary makes sense.

  3. I don’t have a sense of national identity at all, but it doesn’t worry me. I have lived in too many places, and found I have “cherry picked” what I like from the places I have lived and made them my own. Frankly, a lot of British history embarrasses me beyond belief, so I can’t say I am proud to be a Brit. I do find however that there are deep rooted things in my psyche that make me ache for where I was born. I am an immigrant in a country where it is assumed I am a local, but I still have that draw and tug to the things which tie me to the soil where I was raised.

  4. My travels have taken me nearly all over the world, I have lived in many countries, and now live in France … because my only daughter and only grandson live here. And also because we happen to like France as a country.
    National identity? None and All.
    How about ‘citizen of the World’?

    By the way, have you noticed that in France they never mention wearing a little crucifix, or one of those medals with Mary? That is allowed. A kippah isn’t.

    • By the way, have you noticed that in France they never mention wearing a little crucifix, or one of those medals with Mary? That is allowed. A kippah isn’t.
      The problem is that the law (in schools for instance) says something about the religious symbol not being conspicuous but it doesn’t say what is conspicuous and what isn’t. Not that I am defending it!
      I wear a Chai though and nobody has ever said anything.

      • Because most of them don’t know what it is. When I wear a Chai, people always want to know if it is Chinese or Indian and what it stands for.
        A crucifix not conspicuous? Ha!
        This whole thing about a ‘national identity’, is one of the smartest forms of racism I have ever encountered (and I have encountered a lot of it).
        I love France and am very happy living here, but this is one of the things that gets me angry … and not just at home, but in public, too.

  5. Hmm, such a minefield. Like Jane, there are definite instances where I am not proud to be British, but at the same time, I love my country. However, this means I love it because of its diversity, not in spite of it. Many people seem to forget that pretty much most of our ancestors were immigrants at one time or another – very few can say with any certainty that their ancestors were born in this country.

    At times of financial crisis, there are always extremes of views that are heard far more readily than in the better times – you only have to look at inter-war Germany to see evidence of that.

    At the moment, I find myself in a really strange situation. Having written above that I am British, at the moment my identity aligns towards being Jewish first, British second. This feeling has increased quite significantly over the past few months. On the train into work this morning, I really felt very different to almost everyone else. How many people on my journey had recited the Modah Ani this morning, how many even know what the Hebrew alphabet lookeed like, let alone how to read it in any way at all?

    Obviously, this is personal to me as I have just started my life as a Jew, but it still all feeds in to my approach to my fellow countrymen and women. I am different, but that doesn’t mean I should batten down the hatches and turn inwards against all the other different people I meet every day.

  6. This whole thing about a ‘national identity’, is one of the smartest forms of racism I have ever encountered (and I have encountered a lot of it).
    I completely agree.
    But feeling Jewish first has nothing to do with ‘national identity’, I find. It goes much, much deeper.
    It is still part of our identity and may make us less attached to a particular country.

  7. What a thought-provoking post! I have long felt that Americans’ sense of national identity (patriotism, if you will) has been losing strength for some time, and have the sense that Europeans are going through the same thing now.

    While promoting a “national identity” can seem extremely right-wing to some, even Daniel Gordis (not an extremist of any kind, I think) has written about this (in his book, Why Be Jewish?). What binds people from various ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds together is a shared set of values, such as belief in civil rights, in the rule of law, and in freedom. I agree with Gordis that the roots and expressions of many of those modern, Western ideals are to be found in the work of America’s founders, as well as many European authors who shared those values. I think the value of government by the people, of the rights of free speech and assembly, and the right to worship as one pleases are something everyone should feel they share. They are not something to be feared, and belief in them does not mean that one rejects the validity of the various backgrounds from which the polity comes.

    Having said that, I think I enjoy living in Israel more than I’ve enjoyed living anywhere else because while there are manifold frustrations of living here, and while I am not always proud of the country or its government, there is no question of a shared sense of history (as Jews) and values (in the Torah). I like having that in common with the rainbow-colored populace here, where what matters is not what color we are, but the fact that we are all Jewish. That’s exhilarating.

    • Thank you Shimshonit for your visit and for the long comment. I really need to gat the Gordis book; it isn’t the first time you’ve mentioned it!
      The reasons why you like Israel really make sense and I, who live in such a tiny community here, would love that.

      • Oops! Got the Gordis title wrong. It’s “Does the World Need the Jews?” (“Why Be Jewish?” was by Rabbi Meir Kahane. Same message, very different messenger.) It was a heartfelt attempt to answer the question, “Why be Jewish?” (which is why I get it mixed up with Kahane’s book). His more recent “Saving Israel” (which I hope to reread and review on my blog) attempts to answer the question, “Why be Israeli?” Both are important books, I think.

        I hope you don’t mind, but this post really got me thinking and I hope to post on a similar subject (relating to the US rather than France) on my own blog.

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