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Healing Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France
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France remains on high alert after the terrorist attack last month near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims.

France Interfaith
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France is guarding against new violence after the terrorist attack last month near the city of Lyon. The attack came only six months after deadly shootings in Paris. One community is very worried – French Jews. The attack has added tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims.

The ties were already tense over conflict in the Middle East and anti-Semitism, hatred of and discrimination against Jews. Yet France’s Jewish and Muslim communities share a common tradition. And as far as one religious leader is concerned, the two groups are meant to be friends.

Drivers slow down to look at Michel Serfaty, who is both a big man physically and a Jewish leader or rabbi. He wears a black hat on a visit to Le Courneuve, a town near Paris. A snow-white beard covers his face.

Rabbi Serfaty is telling a man in a white T-shirt about being called a dirty Jew as he walked down the street. The man agrees it was a shameful act. But he says it does not represent the opinions of many Muslims like himself.

The two men talk in front of the offices of the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, a group with ties to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. It seems a strange place to find a rabbi, but Michel Serfaty is not your usual clergyman.

For years, he has traveled around France in an old mini-bus covered with signs saying “Solidarity between Jews and Muslims,” and “We are more alike than you think.” The rabbi walks through neighborhoods with high crime rates and large immigrant communities. He talks with Muslim leaders, students and even drug dealers.

Since the Paris terrorist attacks, Michel Saferty’s work has taken on new meaning. The rabbi hands out flyers to those he meets. He says people sometimes take his handouts and throw them into the street. They say Jews must be killed and that Adolf Hitler has not finished his work. Many Jews were killed in Europe during the years Hitler ruled Germany.

Michel Serfaty has heard hard things, but he has never had any serious incident -- which means that there is the possibility of dialogue.

Discussions are what the Jewish Muslim Friendship Association is all about. Rabbi Serfaty directs the group from his synagogue in Ris-Orangis, a quiet town near Paris. Next to the religious center sit a mosque and a church. The rabbi says the placement of the buildings next to each other was done for a reason: to push for understanding among the three groups.

But Michel Serfaty has had round-the-clock protection since the Paris attacks. The rabbi wanted an interfaith team, but says he could not find any Jews who were interested. So he travels around France with several young Muslims who work for his association and Imam Mohammed Azizi. Rabbi Serfaty has known the Muslim leader for years. They both immigrated to France from their native Morocco.

Imam Azizi says the fight against anti-Semitism, discrimination and hatred of Muslims takes a long time. He says it requires a lot of energy and effort.

Attacks against Jews in France have increased since Rabbi Serfaty founded his group in 2005. Often the men responsible for the attacks are young Muslims. But prejudice goes both ways.

Mr. Serfaty remembers the time he met a group of Hasidic Jews. One told him he was wrong to continue his work. The man also said that Jews and Muslims will hate each other forever.

But the rabbi pushes on. In La Courneuve, he arrives unannounced at the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, known locally as the UOIF.

Union official Ghazi Wehbi offers coffee and says Mr. Serfaty seems like a member of his family. The two men take photographs together. They agree that there needs to be more communication between Jews and Muslims.

Mr. Wehbi praises Michel Serfaty and his program. He says more dialogues will make Jews and Muslims understand each other. He adds the UOIF also opens its doors to non-members of the organization.

In June, the French government awarded Mr. Serfaty the National Order of Merit for his efforts. His organization has grown to several offices around France. Slowly, he believes, the seeds of Jewish-Muslim friendship are bearing fruit.

Lisa Bryant reported on this story from Paris. Triwik Kurniasari adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

shamefuladj. causing dishonor

flyer(s) n. pieces of paper that have messages or other information printed on them

interfaith adj. involving people of different religions

round-the-clock adj. all day and all night

prejudice n. a feeling against a person or group because of religion or race

bear(ing) v. to have or produce

dialogue – n. discussions, communciations