PARIS — When French President Jacques Chirac recently announced his support for a ban on the wearing of religious insignia in public schools, Muslims from Tel Aviv to Tehran protested the decision.
But Jews didn’t.
While Jewish support for the school ban — which extends from Muslim head scarves to Jewish skullcaps — reflects concern in France about a rise in Islamic fundamentalism, it also masks the fact that life already is difficult for religiously observant Jews in state schools.
From preschool right up through college, virtually all non-Jewish educational institutions in France hold classes on Saturdays and Jewish holidays — and Jews are required to attend.
Around 60,000 Jewish children attend non-Jewish schools, about 60 percent of school-age Jews in the country, according to Patrick Petit Ohayon, education director for France’s United Jewish Social Funds, the umbrella body for Jewish welfare and educational organizations.
Like other French students, they get Sundays and Wednesdays off, but not the Jewish Sabbath.
“If you’re in a state school, you have to go, even if there are some Jewish children who just sit there and don’t write,” Petit Ohayon said.
The situation undoubtedly is one of the reasons why those interested in maintaining a high level of religious observance opt out of the state school system.
It also is why a ban on yarmulkes in state schools is largely irrelevant, since the vast majority of those who wear yarmulkes go to Jewish schools, not public ones.
Martine Ben-Samoun, a product of the state school system, sends her two children to private Jewish schools.
“I wasn’t observant as a child, but there were others in my class who kept Shabbat and they didn’t write when they came to school,” Ben-Samoun said. “Sometimes the Jewish schools are very narrow-minded, but if I want my kids home on Shabbat and festivals I don’t really have a choice.”
Keeping religion out of the state sector long has been a central tenet of the French republic, the result of decades of struggle between the state and the Catholic Church.
That struggle came to a head in 1905, when the government ordered Catholic functionaries out of schools and expunged religion from public life.
For the most part, French Jews have supported the state’s secular nature, believing that it enables religious minorities to be protected — even though the law mandates school attendance on Shabbat.
In 1995, a group of Jewish parents applied for their children to be exempt from school on Shabbat. But their legal appeals were rejected on the grounds that regular absence from classes by Jewish students would disrupt the schools’ routines.
When it comes to Jewish holidays, Petit Ohayon said, the situation is a little better, if less formal.
“The official school calendar marks Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as holidays, so Jewish children can be off school on those days,” he said.
But there are no other informal arrangements when it comes to other Jewish holidays, he said, even though teachers sometimes agree to let their Jewish students skip class.
Isabelle Feingold said she sends her two children to state schools “because it’s part of my personal convictions and I don’t want them growing up with a ghetto mentality.”
Feingold pulls her kids from school on Yom Kippur, and on Passover when it does not coincide with the annual Easter recess.
“The kids are so tired after seder night, they’re in no fit state to go to school,” she said.
Nevertheless, Feingold said her arrangement works only up to a certain age. “I can probably get away with this because my kids go to primary schools, but I don’t know whether I’d get away with it in high school,” she said.
Conversely, the situation is easier for religiously observant teachers. With a 30-hour week, they are able to schedule Saturday as a regular day off from work. A 1967 legal ruling allows them to use annual vacation days to take off the Jewish holidays.
Like most French Jews, Feingold said she never had questioned the system in France. She viewed it as a natural result of the state’s secular nature.
“France is not a multicultural society in the Anglo-Saxon sense,” she said.
Aaron Schwartz, originally a native of the United States, is considerably more upset by the situation, however. Schwartz, who has lived in France for decades and whose grandchildren now attend state schools, heads an organization that campaigns for France to accommodate religious Jewish practices.
“A religious Jew in all good conscience can’t participate in school on Jewish festivals,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz’s organization, Judaism in Society and in the Republic, recently submitted a report to the presidential commission on secularism — the body that recommended the ban on visible religious insignia in state schools.
In the report, Schwartz wrote that Jewish holidays were “a type of spiritual retreat within our secular world.”
Those types of comments influenced the commission’s decision to recommend national school holidays for Yom Kippur and Eid el-Adhar, the Muslim Festival of the Sacrifice.