Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

In France, Riots Show the Need to Improve Jewish-arab Relations

December 29, 2005
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

During the November riots in the suburbs of Paris, Dr. Bernard Kanovitch talked on the phone every day to his personal friend, Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Mosque of Paris and the leading Muslim official in France. Kanovitch, who is in charge of Jewish-Arab relations for CRIF, the French Jewish umbrella organization, says Boubakeur, was frustrated by the rioting but knew the council could do little to stop it.

“We talked every day and I know he was very unhappy,” said Kanovitch. “As a Jewish community official, I could have simply turned my back on him.”

But, he continued, “even if I know that many young people from both sides are not particularly interested in working with each other, there is a Jewish ethic that says, get involved. So now more than ever we want to broaden the dialogue between French Jewish and Arab communities.”

European Jewish Congress President Pierre Besnainou, who was born in Tunisia, has said that improving Arab-Jewish relations in France is his highest priority — and he’s not alone.

French Jewish officials agree that the riots polarized the public and heightened the need to bring Jews and Arabs together.

“I think that the rioting radicalized public opinion in France, and not in a good way, and that includes a lot of Jews,” said Yoni Smadja, head of the Hashomer Hatzair youth group, a secular group linked to the political left in Israel. “However, we know very well that the rioters do not represent all the young Muslim Arabs and blacks in France. In addition, we have differences over the Middle East, but we still want very much to participate in programs with Muslim groups.”

Karim Chayeb, head of communications for the Muslim Scouts of France — a non-religious organization similar to the Boy Scouts — noted that they would continue holding regular get-togethers with Jewish groups.

“The rioting changed nothing in our relations,” he said. “Last year, we went with Jewish groups to the Drancy deportation camp, just north of Paris. Our scouts were very moved. The worst enemy for the kids is ignorance about other people.”

Perhaps the Jewish leader most involved with Arab groups in the field is Rabbi Michel Serfaty, who was born in Morocco and now lives in the Paris suburb of Ris Orange. He’s putting together a program of contact groups for young people from the two communities.

“Young Jews will be learning about the structures involved in Islam and young Muslims about the Jewish community structures,” he explained, “and then both groups will go out to meet with the kids from the housing projects. We are getting help from French government ministries on this.”

Serfaty said a bus tour of 30 towns in the Ile de France region around Paris is being organized for April, with sports, cultural and artistic activities and even a theater troupe.

Serfaty said Muslim leaders had contacted him during the riots to go to a mosque in the Clichy suburb of Paris, where hundreds of cars were being burned and rioters battled with police. Local, more radical Muslim leaders refused to allow it, however.

Jewish groups in France have youth groups, local synagogues, sports clubs and private schools serving thousands of young people. On the Muslim side — aside from tiny local clubs that sometimes focus on Koran study — there are only the scouts and the similar Terres d’Europe, and together they account for a few thousand young people at best.

They did participate in June in an activity that everyone refers to, and which made CNN International — a bus tour for Jewish-Muslim friendship. Organized by Serfaty, the bus left Paris on June 19 and toured cities and towns throughout France.

One problem is the lack of organization in the Muslim community, according to Younes Aberkane, a director of Terre d’Europe. Born and raised in Algeria, Aberkane trains high school math teachers in France. He said that when he worked on the bus tour, he found that some Jewish parents were afraid.

“They didn’t want their children being taken into suburbs with potentially hostile Muslim young people,” he explained. “In the end, everything went smoothly, but I learned something: We need young Arab adults to work with the kids to teach them to interact with the Jewish kids, to train them, in a sense, and we simply do not have those young adults that we need.

“In France, unlike the way it was years ago in North Africa,” he said, “many young Arabs do not want to be with Jews, especially in the poorer classes. They feel rejected by France, and Jews are a part of that France. And French Jews are very vocal about their support for Israel.”

Business student Steeven Chiche, 19, a Jew whose family came to France from Tunisia and Morocco, says money and the Middle East get in the way of friendships.

“I have one Arab friend in school, and honestly I have more in common with him than with any of my French friends,” he said. “We eat the same food, we don’t eat non-kosher or non-halal meat, we respect our religions and we have a strong sense of family. Most of my French friends don’t have any of that.”

Said Mokhtar Bessam, 28, who was born in Oran, Algeria and moved to France at age 5: “The Arabs are like the French: They are jealous of people who make money and like to spend it.”

“When I was in trouble, it was my Jewish friends who helped me, not my Arab friends,” Bessam said. “It didn’t matter that I was Arab; they simply had this great solidarity amongst themselves as Jews and as friends, including for me.

“I get together with my Jewish friends and smoke joints regularly,” he continued. “It’s true, we don’t agree on the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but hey, we live in France. And I would love to go to Israel with them.”

Recommended from JTA