French Muslims and Jews Talk, but There’s Still a Long Way to Go

Although French Jews and Muslims have launched an organization to foster dialogue between the two groups, the path to true friendship remains rocky. An interfaith gathering this month at Paris’s City of Sciences and Industry marked the launch of the Jewish-Muslim Friendship Association, a group its founders hope will usher in a new era in relations between France’s Jewish and Muslim communities.

The group — whose patrons are to be Simone Veil, president of France’s Holocaust Foundation and a former president of the European Parliament, and Lebanon’s former ambassador to France, Stetie Salah — has set up a 12-person executive committee, including six members from each faith.

The absence of official backing from the French Muslim Council, whose two leading factions — the Federation of French Muslims and the Union of French Islamic Organizations — have touchy relationships with mainstream Jewish groups, put a slight blight on what was widely regarded as a successful and well-attended gathering.

Based on a model that already exists between Jewish and Christian groups, the organization is the brainchild of Rabbi Michel Serfaty, the leader of an Orthodox congregation in Paris and a longtime advocate of interfaith dialogue.

Serfaty, himself the victim of a racially-motivated attack last year, was able to bring together an impressive list of Jewish and Muslim clerics for the event, including the chief rabbi of Paris, David Messas, and Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of the city’s Grand Mosque.

However, Boubakeur, a moderate known for his close ties with Jewish groups, attended only in his capacity as head of the Paris Mosque rather than as an official representative of the council, of which he is president.

Discussions and debates on religious and cultural themes took place throughout the Nov. 21 event, while various local Muslim and Jewish groups welcomed visitors to some 30 stalls dotting the hall, highlighting such varied themes as circumcision rites, wedding ceremonies and philanthropic initiatives.

Speaking to JTA shortly after the rabbis and imams were replaced on the stage by Jewish and Muslim musicians in a concert culminating the event, Serfaty described the gathering as “a great success.”

“This is the first path toward greater understanding between Muslims and Jews in France,” he said.

Many of those attending also expressed hope that the event could be the catalyst for more positive dialogue between the two faiths.

Claudine Frand, an executive member of the Abraham Brotherhood, an interfaith group, said it is a pity that such an initiative had taken so long to come about.

“There’s always been dialogue between Jews and Christians and between Christians and Muslims, and there’s such a great atmosphere here,” she told JTA. “Of course, there’s always going to be people who want to pour oil on the fire, but religion can be used as a tool for us all to build solidarity and fraternity.”

That spirit of brotherhood was well illustrated at a stall where members of the Jewish and Muslim scout associations were engaged in friendly banter.

Mohammed Rouahbi, a senior chaplain with the French Muslim Scouts, described the event as “an historic day,” adding that “we have to build on this to pass this message of tolerance on to the youth who have lost their way.”

At the back of the hall, Ben Omar Taif, who heads the French Muslim Council’s Halal Committee in Marseille, was busy chatting away with Daniel Messiha, a kosher food trader from Paris.

Messiha had suggested to Taif that he come up to the capital for the event after the two men worked together at a recent ethnic food show. Here, they jokingly exchanged gifts: Taif’s official halal listings and Messiha’s kashrut guide from the Paris Consistoire, French Jewry’s main religious group.

Taif said that food was a good place for dialogue to start because, “When you come together around a table, you don’t just eat, you talk, you negotiate.”

Many organizations at the event welcomed the opportunity to provide a showcase for positive elements of their respective faiths.

For Roger Cukierman, the president of the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jews, the event showed that “things are moving in the right direction,” while the absence of some of the more radical Muslim groups was “just a little argument among factions in the council and shouldn’t concern us.”

“The fact that the principal organizers are the Paris Mosque and the Consistoire shows that there is a tradition of cooperation in this city,” he said.

Serfaty, too, said that “we can only work with those who want to work with us.”

Nevertheless, with wide media coverage and the highly participatory nature of the event, Koussay said he was sure that the basis had been created for an even wider dialogue.

“First of all, we have to show our own good will to do the right things,” he said. “Then, by seeing the results from the strength of our dialogue, the others will have to join in.”

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