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June 23, 2017 12:08 pm

Jewish Students at French University Fail Exams Due to Administration’s Refusal to Make Shabbat Accommodations

avatar by Rachel Frommer

The ESSEC business school campus in Cergy, France. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Hundreds of France’s Jewish students are finding themselves in an impossible situation. In a country where tests are frequently scheduled for Saturdays and administrators are wary of making accommodations for religion, students are often forced to either violate their commitment to Shabbat observance or fail exams.

This challenge is not new, but Sacha Ghozlan, president of the Union des Etudiants Juifs de France (Union of Jewish Students of France, or UEJF), told The Algemeiner the problem seems to have mushroomed during the past academic year.

“We have had many more students getting in touch with us than in the past,” said Ghozlan, who explained that students appeal to the UEJF for assistance in intervening with teachers and administrators, and even at times officials at the Ministry of Education.

Ghozlan traced the resistance shown by French educators for Jewish students’ Sabbath needs to the national law of laïcite (from the term “laity,” meaning lay people or non-clergy), enacted in 1905, which maintains a rigid barrier in France between religion and public life. One is free to practice religion in private, but in public, one is French, a citizen of the republic — not Jewish, Christian or Muslim.

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“There’s a misunderstanding of what religion in the public space looks like,” said Ghozlan. “Some deans and teacher think that laïcite means keeping anyone from speaking out about their religion in public, and not that religion is separate from state. They think it means a Jewish student is not allowed to act Jewish.”

State-funded schools are not supposed to schedule tests on major holidays, including Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and French students of any faith have the legal right to take off three days a year for religious reasons, but Ghozlan said administrators often ignore both of these guidelines.

“For the last two or three years, there has been an increased concern at universities by the fact that religion has been getting more and more attention in public debate, and they have responded by refusing to recognize that students — especially Jewish students — have the right to keep this law,” Ghozlan said. “They fear that if they give Jewish students this, they will ask for more and more.”

With so many students reaching out to the UEJF for help, Ghozlan’s team launched a reporting platform in September 2016 that made it easier for someone to file a request for assistance, and centralized UEJF’s data from the 25 schools — that’s 20 universities and five private schools — where it has student representatives.

This year, UEJF received nearly 200 appeals from students torn between their religion and their education.

Ghozlan said students studying in France would likely always have conflicts with observance, because of laïcite, and that UEJF has no interest in pursuing the creation of a national exemption for Jewish students from taking tests on Shabbat or holidays. He similarly has no expectation or desire for the needs of a minority to be imposed on the French public by, for example, legally prohibiting testing on Saturdays.

But Ghozlan wants French law to be respected and applied, and for teachers to be willing to work with students on a case-by-case basis to accommodate their needs.

“We try to explain to [French officials] that if we can’t both keep our religion and study, there will be an increase of aliyah or an increase in the creation of private Jewish schools — neither of which is good,” said Ghozlan. “Jews should have a place in French universities.”

One coup for UEJF this year came at the Paris Descartes University medical school, where about 200 Jewish students faced the choice of taking a major end-of-year exam on Shabbat, or failing one of the most important tests of their university careers. With UEJF’s assistance, the university agreed to administer the test to the Jewish students before nightfall on Friday.

Benjamin Hausser, the UEJF representative at the University of Strasbourg, the second largest university in France, said students there have had to sit for tests on Shabbat.

“I’ve had success with teachers who are kind and considerate about the issue, but for other students it can be complicated and they do take the exam,” said Hausser, who described himself as “Jewish traditional.”

“The UEJF melds the Jewish values and the French values, and shows how you can be both [French and Jewish],” Hausser continued. “But teachers don’t usually understand how that works, so we have to explain.”

Eythan B., who attends the Cergy-Pontoise campus of the prestigious ESSEC Business School, characterized his university experience as “lucky” and “ideal,” and attributed the tolerant atmosphere to laïcité.

“Everyone is free here to do whatever he wants,” said Eythan, who requested The Algemeiner use only his first name. “There’s no opportunity to promote or engage in anything Jewish, and if you miss an exam you cannot be excused, but everyone is pretty tolerant. As a Jewish student, you get to go to school where Israel and Judaism doesn’t come up, and you can do whatever you want. Nobody forces other people to do what they do.”

A campus group called ESSEC Israel arranges annual trips to Israel, often with more non-Jews than Jews attending. The organization remains, as it legally must, doggedly areligious.

Eythan marveled at the two or three people he has seen wearing kippahs on campus, which, like all conspicuous items of religious dress, France legally banned from being worn at state-funded schools in 2004.

“I see them during lunch,” he said. “I don’t know how they arranged that.”

But other Jewish students have found their French university experiences burdensome — and maybe not worth the hardship.

Jeremie S., a UEJF representative , received a zero on a Saturday exam in his entrepreneurship course this year, his first at university. Jeremie, who asked for only his first name to be used, appealed to the teacher and the administration to allow him to take the test on some other day, but he was shot down.

“They don’t want to make any distinction for any religion,” Jeremie said. “If you can’t make an exam, too bad. I don’t know why they don’t just look at the calendar and not schedule tests for holidays or on Shabbat.”

At the time that he spoke to The Algemeiner, Jeremie had yet to receive his final grade. He could only laugh and say he hoped the fail wasn’t too damaging to his overall results.

His friends have found themselves in similar binds.

“In this secular society, religion is taboo,” Jeremie said. “No one says, ‘I am Muslim,’ or ‘I am Jewish.’ It is very important to say ‘I am French,’ and that is all. Laïcité makes society more close minded. People don’t know the real life of others, only whatever is fabricated for in-public — and that must not include religion.”

The restrictions imposed on Jewish life on campus go beyond testing conflicts. France’s university cafeterias do not offer food options for religious dietary needs, including kosher (Jeremie lives off vegetables while at school). Prayer rooms on campus are out of the question, leaving observant Jewish and Muslim students struggling to find a private spot to juggle mandatory prayer hours that fall out in the middle of a class.

Jeremie’s business program requires him to do a year abroad, and he is using Jewish observance as one of the criteria in his decision on where to go.

“I’m looking at the US and Israel,” he said. “If I like it, I might stay.”

Ghozlan, the UEJF president, wants Jewish students to believe they can have a future in France, but he appreciates that, for some, the price for staying in the country is too high.

“We don’t know what will be with the new government,” said Ghozlan about President Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the May election. “Things might be better.”

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