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June 08, 2016

Civil Society Mobilizing in France to Counter All Forms of Discrimination

“Racism doesn’t belong to the community touched by it; it affects us all.”

This week I traveled to Paris to meet with civil society groups fighting hatred based on race, ethnicity, and religion. What I came away with was a resonant message that hate of all kinds has a corrosive effect on society. Where hatred exists and goes unchallenged, it undermines our shared understanding of a peaceful democratic society. 

The situation in France remains tense, particularly as France readies for Euro 2016. Following last November’s tragic attacks in Paris, the government has continued to extend the state of emergency, a troubling move that allows fear to sanction disproportionate and discriminatory responses. Paradoxically, these measures do not make people more safe, but only exacerbate many of the grievances that further polarize society and allow extremist ideology to fester.

Despite (or perhaps made more determined by) these developments, the activists and advocates I met with are undeterred in their work to fight against bigotry and antisemitism. At a roundtable cohosted by Human Rights First and Coexister, a French youth grassroots organization that includes individuals of all faiths and convictions, members of the group spoke with U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism Ira Forman about ways to make the situation for Jews in France safer, including how civil society and government can reinforce each other’s efforts.

Coexister’s motto, “Diversity of Convictions, Unity in Actions,” is a simple but powerful way to fight antisemitism and other forms of intolerance—by developing bonds with others in society that are strong enough to withstand the efforts to divide us. This approach is grounded in the understanding that we are strengthened as a community when we recognize our shared humanity and respect for each other based not just on similarities but on differences.

In France, rising violent expressions of antisemitism have stoked fears for Jews that they are not safe. The government has made fighting antisemitism a priority and is devoting resources to the cause. But more needs to be done, especially measures that go beyond government and security responses. Coexister and its partners believe that in order for Jews to have a safe present and a safe future in France, there must be efforts to build a broader constituency in the fight against hate.

It is not contradictory for those of other faiths to stand up against antisemitism, just as it is not contradictory for Jews to stand in solidarity with people of other faiths who also experience discrimination. In fact, these efforts build trust and hope. This collective action creates an environment in which all forms of discrimination—religious, ethnic, or otherwise—are equally weighted. When a group or individual is a target of racism, they will know that others will step up and help them. Civil society groups are more powerful and effective when they rally around this positive unifying goal.

These challenges are not unique to France or Europe—in the hot and angry political landscape of the current U.S. political cycle, a disturbingly familiar clash of civilizations narrative is playing out, with both Jews and Muslims feeling singled out and targeted.

Rights-based approaches to welcoming and protecting refugees, migrants, and people of diverse faiths and heritage provide the best opportunity for a peaceful and prosperous society. And as refugees and migrants arrive in new countries, we must be vigilant to stand up against violence and discrimination against them, for we know that this only feeds into a cycle of violence and polarization. The integration of refugees and migrants should adhere to the principles set out in a recent issue paper by the Council of Europe, including specific efforts to counter stereotypes associating new arrivals with crime, violence, or intolerance.

A young activist I met with from the organization Parle-moi de Islam said, “The best thing I can do as a Muslim to counter Islamophobia, is to be active and present in the fight against other forms of racism, in particular antisemitism.” More voices like this are needed, from all faiths and convictions, standing up against antisemitism and other forms of hatred.