As far as he knows, Bernard Koch is the only French Jew to have worked for a mosque.
During my research into French Jewish life to prepare for this reporting project, Koch’s name kept cropping up as someone who had made a career of working to break down barriers.
I had to meet this guy.
I caught up with Koch at the Porte de Pantin metro station Monday, on the border of Paris’s ethnically diverse 19th arrondissement and its sometimes volatile suburb, Pantin.
Koch looks like an academic, with the kind of whimsical smile you’d expect to see during office hours with a favorite professor.
The son of Polish immigrants who came to France in 1948 after the Holocaust, Koch grew up in Belleville, a Paris neighborhood that used to be heavily Jewish and Muslim but has grown steadily more Chinese since the mid-1980s.
A freelance journalist by trade, Koch began working in late 2007 for the imam of Drancy – a powerful liberal voice in French Muslim affairs – as an “intercultural and interfaith mediator,” he said.
Koch was unpaid, because the imam didn’t want to be seen as paying a Jew to praise the mosque.
“It was a question of symbolism, not of money,” he told me.
Both the Muslim and Jewish communities initially heralded Koch’s appointment as a testament to interfaith progress, though the imam eventually drew flak from some more radical pro-Palestinian contingents of the French Muslim community for hiring a Jew.
It didn’t help that the imam was already under scrutiny for being one of the few French Muslim leaders to support the controversial French law banning the burqa.
Koch stuck it out, though, eventually leaving at the end of 2010 because he felt he had accomplished many of his goals at the mosque – including ensuring the imam of Drancy a popularity boost within the French Jewish community.
“I did what I had to do,” he said. “My job was done.”
Now Koch works at the College des Parents, an organization focused on improving the relationship between parents and children within the North African immigrant community in Paris. He’s been replaced at the mosque by an Algerian journalist who wrote a famous book about Islam and France.
We were a motley crew Monday – secular American me, Koch and my translator, a French-Algerian woman who teaches English to Muslim children in the Parisian suburbs.
Koch has pledged to help me understand the complicated relationships between Paris’s Jews and Muslims, and so far he’s been an excellent guide. On Sunday, I’ll be attending the annual picnic of Shalom | Paix | Salam, a gritty, streetwise group focused on improving interfaith relationships. And Tuesday afternoon will take me to La Marina, a kosher Pantin pizzeria run by a Tunisian Jew and staffed by Arabs.
And the interfaith activist’s prescription for decreasing Jewish-Muslim tension, or at least making it less visible?
“Improve dialogue between the two communities and avoid talking about Palestinian-Israeli issues,” he said.
See? It’s easy.