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Muslim-Jewish ties: Trying to talk, not fight, in one Paris neighborhood

by Devorah Lauter

February 25, 2009 | 4:00 am

PARIS (JTA)—With the late afternoon sun hovering in the sky, the cries of Orthodox Jewish youngsters playing ball echo in a square just around the corner from a cluster of kosher Moroccan bakeries in this city’s 19th arrondissement.
 
High-rise housing projects loom behind the children, where Muslim immigrant families from sub-Saharan Africa live adjacent to the heavily Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods that comprise this multicultural neighborhood in northeast Paris, which is home to some 30,000 Jews.
 
This mostly low-income neighborhood is no stranger to ethnic tensions.
 
In 2007, the 19th district saw 27 reported anti-Semitic incidents, compared with just two or three per district elsewhere in Paris, according to France’s Bureau of Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism. Last June, a Jewish teenager, Rudy Haddad, was savagely beaten by a gang of youths of sub-Saharan African extraction.
 
The violence is not clear-cut, however.
 
When three kipah-wearing youths were attacked last September on the same street as Rudy Haddad, the incident initially was labeled anti-Semitic, but upon further investigation one of the attackers turned out to be Jewish. 

Among Jews, says Rabbi Michel Bouskila, who heads the district’s Jewish Community Council, “there is still fear because they are more often the victims of street violence. But there are fears from Muslims, as well. When a Muslim boy walks alone by a group of Jewish youth, he’ll be a little scared.”
 
There is much debate over whether assaults against Jews in the 19th arrondissement are inherently anti-Semitic or whether they are simply random cases of neighborhood crime. The critical factor causing tensions here is not religion, some say, but race and class: Jews, rightly or wrongly, are seen as wealthy and privileged by a mostly black and North African poor immigrant underclass.
 
“We have to stop stigmatizing these youth,” said Morad Chahrine, director of J2P, a youth association that is among a host of programs supported by a new mayoral tolerance initiative called Living Together. “They’ve been accused of everything, and now anti-Semitism, too?” 

“Of course there are frictions, and they’re due to life’s hardships,” Chahrine adds. “If a Jewish group happens to fight another of different origins, racial insults will be heard on both sides, but it’s mostly spontaneous. There’s no ideology behind it.”
 
But Richard Prasquier, the leader of France’s Jewish umbrella group, CRIF, says anti-Semitism can have many different faces, even if it’s not rooted in religion.
 
“The problem is first and foremost linked to religion, but anti-Semitism has disconnected from religion,” he told JTA. “Jews don’t have to be religious to be victims of anti-Semitism. It has become a problem of race.”

Foussenou, a 29-year-old from the 19th district whose parents are immigrants from Mali, explains why he and his friends don’t like their Jewish neighbors. 

“All Jews are cheats,” said Foussenou, who asked that his last name not be used. “They stick to themselves. They only help each other and have connections to the police and the state.” 

Laughing, he recounts how he and his friends used to wait outside the local Jewish school when they were teenagers, beating up students after they walked out.
 
While Foussenou now has a job as a deliveryman, the rate of unemployment in the 19th is relatively high. As the economic crisis has worsened, more reports have emerged of drug- and weapons-related crimes, according to police. Gangs are common, sometimes of mixed Muslim-Jewish ethnicity.
 
Ethnic tensions, however, seem to have calmed since well-publicized attacks last summer thrust the district into the national spotlight. In the months since the attacks, elected leaders and community representatives have been cooperating on programs to promote tolerance as part of the Living Together program.
 
When anti-Semitic incidents spiked throughout France following Israel’s recent invasion of the Gaza Strip, the 19th remained relatively undisturbed. A total of 113 anti-Semitic incidents were reported across the country during the duration of the conflict, ranging from firebombings and stabbings to threatening letters and graffiti, according to the Protection Service for the Jewish Community.
 
In the 19th, however, the only reported incidents, according to Bouskila, were from a group of Jewish teenage girls who said they were physically bullied by classmates shouting “Long live Gaza!” He was unable to confirm details of the event.
 
“Emotions still ran high in the area, but people didn’t act violently on it,” said Christophe-Adji Ahoudian, a member of the task force set up by the mayor of the 19th district, Roger Madec. “It’s proof that our work is paying off.”
 
The relative calm also may be a reflection of the national origins of the Muslims of the 19th. Most of the Muslim immigrant families in the neighborhood are from sub-Saharan Africa, according to Rabbi Michel Serfaty, who heads the French Judeo-Muslim Friendship Association. Only a smaller, though still significant, minority are Arabs from North Africa who are more closely tied to the Palestinian cause.

Madame Kadiatou Diabira, a Malian from the neighborhood, attributes prejudice against Jews to her black community’s struggle to integrate into French society, not its Muslim identity, which many here say is more cultural than religious.
 
Diabara has spearheaded meetings with mothers of various faiths to discuss youth violence. She launched her effort after Haddad’s beating.
 
Rabbi Bouskila has been trying to promote Muslim-Jewish dialogue along with an imam from the nearby town of Drancy, Hassen Chalghoumi. Last September, Jews joined Muslims for a Ramadan break-fast meal hosted by the city. 

But Israel’s Gaza offensive set back dialogue efforts, Bouskila said. In mid-January, several Muslim members of the French Judeo-Muslim Friendship Association quit, citing the Jews’ “total absence of condemnations” of Palestinian casualties during the Gaza war, according to a spokesman for the Grand Mosque of Paris.
 
Bouskila was troubled by the move.
 
“Jews here are especially worried to see even moderate Muslims walk away,” he said.
 
He attributes Muslim reticence to engage with Jews to a fear of disapproval from the majority of French Muslims, who are angry about Israel’s actions in Gaza. Chalghoumi, Bouskila’s Muslim dialogue partner, has received threatening phone calls and had his car doused in alcohol right after French media showed photos of him embracing a rabbi whose synagogue was firebombed in January.
 
Another local imam, Larbi Kechat, said he preaches respect for non-Muslims but also discusses “injustices” in the Middle East.
 
“A Muslim has no animosity toward others because of their religion,” Kechat said. “But what can aggravate tensions is what happens in the Middle East. That’s a political question that weighs on the whole social environment.”
 
Despite the relative absence of violence recently, young Jews and Muslims still have too little interaction on the streets of the 19th, says Raphael Haddad, who heads the French Jewish Student Union, UEJF.
 
It wasn’t always this way, said Haddad, who grew up in the 19th arrondissement, but the surge in violence against Jews earlier this decade, during the second intifada, scarred French Jews. The 19th was not spared from that violence.
 
Bouskila says much of the local Orthodox Jewish community fears Muslim youth because they associate them with anti-Semitic crime, and this has encouraged communities to circle the wagons.
 
“What do you expect? Every one of them has experienced, or has someone close to them who has experienced, some form of anti-Semitism,” he said.
 
To Foussenou, who sits hunched on a cold bench outdoors, such insular habits are another reason to dislike Jews.
 
“They would never sit and talk to you like this,” he told a JTA reporter.

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