By: Etai Shucatowitz  | 

Je Suis Juif: Talk With Dr. Mesch Raises Questions Over Reactions to Tragedy

As part of an ongoing series on Violence and Social Justice, the Schneier Program for International Affairs and the Honors Program hosted a talk with Dr. Rachel Mesch entitled “Am I Charlie? French Universalism and the Jewish Question” about trying to understand the recent attacks in France. The discussion, while short and small, raised many important and controversial questions, most notably, what should our response to tragedy be?

It was a small and intimate event, filled with both faculty and students alike, all of whom came from varying backgrounds. The small setting created a personal atmosphere, featuring a perpetual pursuit of meaning, to make some sense of the absurd.

When tragedy strikes, theological questions, sociological questions, and political questions all arise. Everybody wants to just figure out the ever-evasive “why,” as if there must be some sense to be made of a seemingly senseless world. The Sunday following the attacks brought the largest public rally in France since World War II when an estimated 3.7 million people, including various world leaders, took to the streets to voice their displeasure and anger over the violence.

To answer this question, Dr. Mesch, an expert in French literature and culture, placed the tragedy in the context of French society and history, arguing that the attack comes from an issue with French universalism. “The narrative Dr. Mesch wove regarding France’s Jewish and Muslim ‘questions’ was nuanced,” said  David Berger, one of the Schneier Program’s coordinators. “We are compelled by singular events to put things into binary categories, such as good vs. evil, and while certain individuals, groups, and beliefs may warrant these labels, they are not very helpful in addressing challenges and dangers.”Dr. Mesch argued that the attack represented the conflict that derives from the “freedom of religion and freedom from religion” that is so integral to French culture.

While placing the attack in a broader context, Dr. Mesch touched upon the French desire to keep a homogenous “public sphere.” This would mean, she argued, that religious life, something that often affects every aspect of life, is encouraged to remain completely private. The difficulty maintaining this standard is what instigates much of the religious and secular tension throughout the country.

“I think Professor Mesch offered an interesting historical perspective on the relationship France has with its minority communities, and suggested a new manner of approaching those relationships from an outsider's view, “ said Daniel Shlian (YC ‘17). “Tragedies give us the opportunity for reflection on their causes, if only to attempt to prevent their recurrences, and as events which provoke strong reactions, they should certainly inspire discourse about those responses. Obviously there should be space for raw emotional responses, but that doesn't mean that tragedies shouldn't be fodder for further discussion.”

This contextualization of the attack is a fascinating one that brings with it many questions. There always exists a tension in the analysis of tragedy. On the one hand, it’s important to make sense of what happened. On the other hand, this may result in losing sight of the fact that this was a tragic event. If one is able to rationally explain “tragedy,” then it might lose the extremity that the word tragedy brings with it.

When asked about any potential fear of this, Dr. Mesch responded that “my goal was not to diminish the sense of tragedy or deny the evil that leads to such brutal murder and terrorism. Rather, I wanted to give a framework for understanding what exactly was being attacked through these acts.” The discussion that followed allowed people to understand that the attack on Charlie Hebdo was an attack on French universalism from the freedom of religion on the freedom from religion. Dr. Mesch continued, “The framework that I offered was not a response to the tragedy as such, but rather a response to a certain kind reaction that assumes all anti-Semitism and all terrorism to be driven by the same forces and leading to the same result, affecting all cultures and societies in the same ways.”

In a broad context, this new analysis of French anti-Semitism, Dr. Mesch argued, allows us to better understand why France doesn’t want the Jews to leave.  If all of the Jews left France, it would indicate a failing on the universalist foundation of French society. It would indicate that France is not a home to everybody.

It’s often difficult to understand why, and often the pursuit of an answer results only in more questions. As film critic David Denby wrote in his review of the film Downfall, a film which attempts to humanize Hitler, “We get the point: Hitler was not a supernatural being...But is this observation a sufficient response to what Hitler actually did?” Whether analyzing the how of tragedy relates to the broader question of understanding the why, is a large question that remains unanswered. But, at the very least this ongoing series on Violence and Social Justice provides much interesting food for thought.