French authorities are hoping that the truce in the Middle East will extend to their own territory.
Over the past three weeks, more than 60 anti-Semitic incidents have occurred throughout the country: Molotov cocktails were thrown at synagogues, a dozen youths were assaulted, Jewish institutions were tagged and two Jewish artists — TV star Arthur and emblematic Sephardi singer Enrico Macias — were prevented from performing. Meanwhile, three young Muslims were targeted by a bunch of pro-Israeli militants, presumably from the Jewish Defense League, and an imam known for his tolerant ways was assaulted by Muslims.
The media lashed out at Israel for its offensive and tens of thousands protested in the streets — often in support of Hamas — but a surprising poll showed an evolution in public opinion regarding the conflict. Indeed, 23 percent considered Hamas responsible for the crisis, while 18 percent accused the Israeli government. Twenty-eight percent said both sides were responsible and the rest couldn’t say.
The less expected effect of the war, here in France, is the collapse of the Judeo-Muslim Friendship Association founded by Rabbi Michel Serfaty. All of its Muslim officials resigned because their Jewish counterparts didn’t openly condemn Israel for its operations.
Co-chairman Djelloul Seddiki said remaining neutral wasn’t enough: His Jewish colleagues had to condemn Israel.
Serfaty said he was surprised, for he had remained silent and expressed no support for Israel precisely to please his Muslim counterparts.
Meanwhile, Seddiki and his friends protested against Israel without mentioning Hamas’ role in the flare-up. So much for dialogue….
Serfaty is an engaging figure. The tall former basketball player, with his wide black hat and Clint Eastwood stare, launched his battle for friendship after being assaulted in the street while walking to synagogue with his son in 2003. Instead of running along, the rabbi faced his attackers and asked them to explain themselves. He then created the Jewish Muslim Friendship Association to deconstruct stereotypes. Throughout the years, the rabbi has been dragging his congregation, family and fellow Jews along in his initiatives. Every summer he drives his association’s “Friendship bus” across France and neighboring countries with a number of Muslim and Jewish militants advocating dialogue. They go everywhere, from the beaches of Marseille to the rough suburbs around Paris. They don’t spare any effort. But sometimes they have to cave in and make sacrifices.
Serfaty sided with his Muslim colleagues over the Danish Muhammad cartoons controversy. The drawings had been reprinted in a couple of French newspapers, and the Muslim umbrella group, CFCM, decided to bring the issue to court in a lawsuit that it eventually lost.
At the time, several Jewish leaders — among them former French Chief Rabbi Joseph Sitruk — criticized the cartoons. Serfaty told me he wasn’t, like some French rabbis, against all cartoons criticizing religion. Mocking Moses or Jesus was fine with him. But he strongly opposed drawings criticizing Islam, saying Muslims are different. “The Christians and us have been living in this free-speech environment for centuries. They’ve only just arrived. We don’t care about these caricatures, but they get hurt.” When I asked him if he did not think many Muslims would be offended if treated differently from the rest of society, he responded that the important thing for him was avoiding a flare-up. “The main goal is to maintain social peace.”
It seems as if this time, condemning Israel — and Israel alone — was a price the rabbi wasn’t willing to pay, even to save his cherished association. Or was he simply taken by surprise?
Still, Serfaty is far from lost. If the crisis in the Middle East taught us anything, it’s that facade dialogue is useless. Uniting to settle kashrut and halal issues or to condemn Jerusalem gay pride is not really a breakthrough. France needs a genuine Judeo-Muslim dialogue between religious and secular leaders.
And the crisis showed us that these leaders exist and who they are.
While tens of thousands demonstrated in the streets, a number of Muslim leaders refused to join them and repeated that France had to stay away from the conflict, while respecting each others’ views on the conflict.
French minister Fadela Amara, a strong secular figure in charge of the impoverished suburbs, gathered in her ministry various associations to discuss and organize the battle against anti-Semitism and racism. This wasn’t surprising, as Amara, who had strongly supported the Geneva initiative a few years back, has been fighting for tolerance and against sexism in France for years with her women’s association, Ni Putes Ni Soumises.
Imam Hassen Chalghoumi and his family, from the suburb of Drancy, have paid once again during this outburst for their tolerant approach. The imam who advocates genuine dialogue has been assaulted again and his family threatened after he denounced anti-Semitism and called for peace.
“How far will you go? Watch out!” North African men told him as he was walking down the street. Others vandalized his car and threatened him over the phone.
Chalghoumi said nothing would alter his dialogue with the Jewish community, although he couldn’t stop thinking of the events in Gaza.
“People from my congregation ask me, ‘Why is this happening? This isn’t fair.’ And I answer, ‘That’s war. It’s never fair.’”
Chalghoumi is the imam of Drancy, a town where French Jews were gathered during World War II in a concentration camp before being deported to death camps. In 2006 the imam called on all Muslims to remember that history and pay their respects. Following his address at the Drancy memorial his children were threatened.
A few months ago he invited Jews to participate in the festivities ending the Ramadan. Chalghoumi was attacked following his initiatives. But that didn’t stop him.
Paris-based journalist Shirli Sitbon writes the “Paris Chronicler” blog at jewishjournal.com.