France is home to Western Europe’s biggest Jewish and Muslim populations.
The two largely live side-by-side, but they are often divided. Tensions have been rising since last March, when a man named Mohamed Merah gunned down seven people, including three children, at a Jewish school in Toulouse. Merah himself was killed in a firefight with police. Then, in a shootout in Strasbourg last October, police killed Jeremy Sidney, a terror suspect linked to an attack on a kosher market outside Paris.
Merah and Sidney are extremes but they're among an alarming number of anti-Semitic attacks across France this year. Most of the assailants have been identified as young Muslim men. So it is in France’s low-income and largely Muslim communities that some religious leaders are campaigning for peace and reconciliation.
To that end, a rabbi and an imam are taking a bus on a tour of France, including through working class suburbs of Paris.
The 1970s vehicle is plastered with colorful posters with slogans of peace, and a banner above the windshield saying, “Jews and Muslims: No to Discrimination.”
Pedestrians are gawking, and that’s the point. They’re visiting Muslim and Jewish communities to promote mutual understanding. Rabbi Michel Serfaty, the organizer, has been doing this for seven years, and, he says, it’s not getting any easier.
“Jews today live in fear,” he said. “When I tell people I’m going into this kind of pressure cooker, everyone is afraid for me. Everything goes well, but the reality of the teaching of hatred is incontestable. We’ve been told of children as young as 6 years old who reek of hatred for Jews, reek of anti-Semitism. They learn it from their parents.”
Outside a marketplace, Serfaty and Imam Mohammed Azizi strike up a conversation with a woman in a headscarf. They show her a booklet on customs common to Jews and Muslims. The woman says she gets it, but she’s still upset by the images she sees on TV of what’s happening to the Palestinians. Serfaty urges people to focus on what’s happening in France instead of the Middle East, but the issue keeps coming up.
Jihane Laoui, a 16-year-old Muslim student at a Catholic school, stops to check out the bus. She says she thinks the tour is a good idea because there are tensions among her peers. She says people post things on Facebook about Israel and Palestine and it gets everyone worked up.
Serfaty says that kind of tension occasionally erupts into anti-Jewish violence.
“The rate of attacks goes up and down depending on what’s happening in the Middle East and on the economic crisis in France,” he said. “In neighborhoods where schools aren’t working and people feel isolated, anti-Semitism develops because Jews are assumed to be at the head of the media, at the head of banks, at the head of power, so people blame the Jews.”
This is a difficult time, according to Sammy Ghozlan, head of France’s National Bureau of Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism. He says anti-Jewish incidents have spiked since the Merah shootings in Toulouse.
“Today,” he said, “Jews avoid going out late, going to certain neighborhoods, wearing yarmulkes.”
He says some who share Merah’s extreme views have taken inspiration from him.
In September, masked men threw grenades into a kosher grocery store in the heavily Jewish and Muslim suburb of Sarcelles, north of Paris. One person was injured.
Police say a Muslim convert killed in an October raid was implicated in the grenade attack.
On this afternoon, there are plenty of shoppers at the grocery store, and the owner of the kosher market next door says the grenade attack was an isolated incident.
“We never have any problems,” he said. “Sometimes there’s some anti-Semitic graffiti about what’s happening with Palestine, but city hall cleans it off pretty quickly.”
Still, some Muslim leaders here are taking steps to counteract the most negative perceptions. Hassen Chalghoumi led a delegation of 17 imams to Israel last month. They met President Shimon Peres and visited the graves of the three children Merah killed.
“We wanted to show a positive side of France — of diversity, of coexistence, because they don’t know us,” he said. “There are Israelis who think all French Muslims are Merah. I met youths who said to me, ‘You’re all like Merah.’”
Many Muslims in France fear that their fellow Frenchmen think the same thing. One Moroccan shop owner said the police treat young Muslim men as future Merahs. But while Merah was clearly an extreme case, some see him as a product of his environment.
One of his brothers says they were raised to hate Jews.
It’s both a new and an old story, says fashion designer Maud Perl, who runs a boutique in the chic Paris neighborhood of Le Marais. Perl is the great-granddaughter of Alfred Dreyfus, the French soldier who was jailed on trumped up charges of treason and became a symbol of French anti-Semitism at the turn of the last century.
Perl says when she was a girl, her grandmother told her about Dreyfus. But she really felt a connection to him when Catholic classmates shunned her after they found out she was Jewish.
“I was very marked by that experience,” she said. “I suddenly found myself at the heart of a story that was repeating itself.”
And while she says overt anti-Semitism seemed to go away for decades, it resurfaced in 2000, with the Palestinian Intifada.
“I think we’ve let the situation deteriorate for so long that it will be very difficult to fix it,” she said, “but we absolutely must.”
And that’s why Rabbi Serfaty rides around on an old bus, trying to close the gap between neighbors of different faiths.