Radical Reformer


Along with the steady stream of news about anti-Semitic incidents in Europe in recent weeks, there’s one event that brings some hope: the Paris unity march, where more than a million people expressed their solidarity for the victims of recent terror attacks.

Many of the cameras focused on a delegation of Muslims and Jews who marched under the banner “We Refuse to be Enemies.”

The delegation was organized by Samia Hathroubi, a 30-year-old French-Muslim woman who brings Jews and Muslims together as the European coordinator for the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.

Calling itself “the international address for Muslim-Jewish relations,” the foundation is perhaps best known for its annual Weekend of Twinning, which works with Jewish and Muslim institutions in this country and, more recently, Europe to organize joint activities.

It’s the sort of work for which Hathroubi seems to have prepared her entire life, she told The Jewish Week during a recent visit to New York. But it’s not always easy, as she also made clear.

“One of the things I’m fed up with is when you have Jews standing up only against anti-Semitism and when you have Muslims standing up only against Islamophobia,” Hathroubi said.

It’s almost as if the two groups were “in competition” over which one is the greatest victim, she said, a familiar observation to anyone in human-relations work.

But the paradigm is beginning to change, Hathroubi said, noting that second- and third-generation European Muslims are “starting to become key players” in the Muslim community and “standing up for civil rights.” The change has become especially pronounced in the wake of the violence of the past few months.

Hathroubi’s own background may be instructive in that regard.

Born in southern France, as were her siblings, she spent every summer as a child in Tunisia, where her parents were born and where her grandparents remain. She also spent more than a year in a small Tunisian village, where she lived at the age of 5 with her mother’s family.

Although her grandparents were tenant farmers and never had an education, they’d frequently bring her to Tunis, where she noticed the city’s main synagogue and other, Jewish-owned buildings. The sites prompted her to ask her relatives about the country’s Jews and the lives they led, she said.

During those summers, Hathroubi also had long conversations with her grandfather, who fought for the French during World War II, serving in France and Italy.

“He told me about Hitler,” as well as an American nurse who cared for him while he recovering from wounds, Hathroubi said. And he also spoke of the French resistance and “what happened to Jews.”

Those experiences also captivated Hathroubi’s older sister, who wrote her master’s thesis on the Jews of Tunisia, but it wasn’t until Hathroubi graduated from college that she became close to a Jewish peer, a woman she met in a Jewish-Muslim dialogue group who remains a friend to this day.

“I used to meet Jews,” Hathroubi said, smiling, “but [only] in books — in history, in architecture.” Part of the problem is that it’s especially difficult to ask others about their religious or ethnic background in France, where the ethic is that “you’re just French,” she said. Neither do you automatically know the background of classmates, who are barred from wearing religious symbols in school.

Following college, Hathroubi worked in France for various human-rights organizations, she said. She also spent a year living in Jerusalem and Ramallah, where she worked for YaLa-Young Leaders, a Facebook-based movement co-founded by the Peres Center for Peace and YaLa Palestine to promote dialogue and engagement among Arabs and Israelis.

Hathroubi’s work brought her to the attention of Walter Ruby, the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding’s Muslim-Jewish program director, and Rabbi Marc Schneier, the organization’s founder and president, who offered her the job two years ago.

Discussing the move, which makes Hathroubi the foundation’s first staff member in Europe, Rabbi Schneier said he believes European Jews have two choices — either leaving the continent “en masse” or reaching out to “our Muslim brothers and sisters” to change the situation.

“At the end of the day,” the rabbi said, “the only ones who can stand up to radical Islamists are Muslims themselves. Anything else, you’re only wasting your time.”

He added that “Islam has to reform itself from within,” and that Hathroubi is part of that reformation.

Over brunch at a midtown hotel recently, Hathroubi told The Jewish Week that her work centers around building “coalitions of people who share the same values and are willing to stand up not only for themselves, but also the other.”

The coalitions include the Gathering of European Muslim and Jewish Leaders, a network of clerical and community leaders who meet every six weeks, and a rapid-response team, a group of seven key players throughout Europe that comes together in times of crisis to try to calm tensions.

“There’s no other movement [in Europe] like this,” Hathroubi said — one that now issues “a common response from Muslims and Jews” anytime one group or the other feels threatened. “Here we have Muslims and Jews speaking for the first time in one voice.”

Hathroubi is also establishing an online presence in Europe for the foundation, an imperative when it comes to reaching young people, who can certainly find radical groups on the web, she said. By way of example, she’s now working with a French imam who has created live, weekly video program on Facebook called “Tuesday Fatwa.”

The imam “has a team of young people who take questions that he answers online,” she added.

Hathroubi’s work also brought her to the United States, where she met last month with Ira Forman, the State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, and other State Department officials. She also addressed members of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, the capital’s largest synagogue, and a class in “multifaith leadership” at New York University.

Her time in New York also included a discussion with staff members of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, on “team-building,” and the importance of having people with the proper skills in the right places to prevent “forest fires” from breaking out and, if and when one occurs, to extinguish it, said Bob Kaplan, JCRC’s director of intergroup relations and community concerns.

Hathroubi said she’s aware of the challenges she faces, including differences between Jews and Muslims over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But she believes those differences can be put aside, noting that two clerics who work with her — both in Florence, Italy — are an Orthodox rabbi from Jerusalem and a conservative imam from Hebron. Both, she said, are “amazing” people who “don’t see the other as the other. They see their commonalities, and at the end of the day, they want to make Florence the best city possible for Muslims and Jews.”

She also believes that educating young people, strengthening their sense of identity, and allowing them to feel as if they, too, have a stake in society are all key to fighting radicalism.

Speaking of herself and her siblings, Hathroubi said they all grew up “pretty confident about who we are — French, Tunisian and Muslim — and we were pretty clear about our own identity. … And that’s probably why we became interested in the other.”