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French Jewish-Muslim Women's Club Works to Build Peace


Attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions in Europe have sharply increased since the start of the Israeli offensive in Gaza. The number of incidents is particularly high in France, home to Europe's largest populations of Jews and Muslims. While prospects for a cease-fire in the Middle East seem to be improving, there are no signs the anti-Semitic attacks are abating in Europe. Now, a club of Jewish and Muslim women is trying to build peace by not talking about the conflict.

Once again, a slice of the Middle East conflict is being played out in Europe, where countries like Britain, Belgium and Denmark have reported a sharp uptick in attacks against Jews. The same is true in France, where more than 55 anti-Semitic incidents have been reported since the Israeli bombing of Gaza began.

While many French protested peacefully against the Israeli strikes, some expressed their anger in violent ways. French synagogues have been firebombed and spray painted with anti-Semitic graffiti. Jews have been taunted and attacked on the streets. In one of the most violent incidents, a Jewish man was stabbed four times in a Paris suburb. He suffered only minor wounds.

Richard Prasquier is president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France. He draws a direct correlation between the Gaza conflict and events in France.

"It is very clear that the number of those attacks has increased very significantly to something like four times more [than normal] in the 15 days after the beginning of the operations in Gaza," he said. "So there is no question that there is a very direct relation between what happens in Gaza and what happens in France."

Anti-Semitic attacks also soared here after the intifada, or Palestinian uprising, that begun in 2000. Nearly 750 acts or threats against Jews in France were recorded that year. Serge Cwajgenbaum, secretary general of the Paris-based European Jewish Congress, does not want to see that happen again in France, or in Europe.

"The solidarity creates public emotion," he said, "but it's unacceptable and unheard of that Jews be targeted and that a wave of anti-Semitism is spreading again over Europe."

But one group of French Jewish and Muslim women is working to stop the spread of religious hatred. The group is called the Batisseuses de Paix, or Peace Builders. It is headed by Annie-Paul Derczansky, a former French Jewish journalist. She was on the phone this week with a Muslim counterpart and friend in the French city in Lyon, to see how the chapter there was going.

Derczansky said she got the idea of a Jewish-Muslim women's group after reporting on a similar effort among Israeli and Palestinian women. Even if these women differed on political matters, she said, they could find solidarity around cultural and social events. So, she thought, why not start a similar initiative in France?

Peace Builders was founded in Paris in 2002. Now, about 500 women yearly from both faiths attend its events in the French capital. They visit synagogues and mosques, participate in debates on their shared heritage, eat kosher meals and attend dinners to break the Muslim fast of Ramadan. They also aired a movie on how the Paris mosque help save French Jews from the Holocaust during World War II.

The women often bring their families. More recently, they began attending monthly pastry making sessions at a restaurant in the Paris suburbs.

Derczansky says the women come and spend two hours making and eating pastries. She says the sessions may not change the world, but Jewish and Muslim women who have cooked and shared pastries together cannot go home and speak badly about the other faith.

The only area that is out of bounds is politics.

Hakima Milati is the Muslim co-president of Peace Builders in Lyon. The chapter was launched last September. On the Gaza issue, Milati says Jewish women have their opinion on the conflict and she has hers. It's obviously not the same point of view. But, she says, the two respect each other.

There are now plans to open another branch of Peace Builders in the French seaside city of Marseille. Like elsewhere in France, many Jews and Muslims there hail from the same North African heritage.

There are plenty of members of both communities who question the use of Peace Builders. They believe Jews and Muslims should not mix. But Derczansky has modest hopes - for now. If both faiths begin to see things differently thanks to Peace Builders events she says, then the group has accomplished something.

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