Accessibility links

Mideast Conflict Mobilizes Jewish, Muslim Communities in France

As the Israeli-Palestinian violence continues in the Middle East, pro-Israeli and Palestinian aid groups are waging a quieter battle for sympathy and money in France, which is home to the largest populations of Jews and Muslims in Europe.

Offices in Paris are deserted and the French government is all but shut down for August holidays. But there is no respite for Radio J.

Across the Mediterranean in Israel, another suicide bomber has struck. So a recent afternoon finds the Jewish radio station in Paris broadcasting each grisly detail and each despairing reaction.

Only for a moment are the dispatches interrupted by an advertisement - a Jewish travel agency is promoting a summertime vacation special in Israel.

The timing of the broadcast advertisement may seem grimly ironic. But as other French vacationers flock to sizzling Riviera beaches and pine-scented Alps, many French Jews are instead heading for Israel, in gestures of solidarity.

Worldwide, travel to Israel has plummeted since 2000, when the latest wave of violence began. Nonetheless, Israeli government statistics show that almost 46,000 French Jews, nearly eight percent of all Jews in France, visited Israel during the first five months of this year.

By comparison, about 67,000 American Jews visited Israel during the same period, even though the Jewish community in the United States is ten times the size of France's.

The trips are only one element of the surging support for Israel on the part of France's Jewish community. The director of the Paris-based Radio J, Guy Rozenovicz, has tracked some of the giving. He says the appeals vary from collections to buy ambulances and bullet-proof jackets for the Israeli army, to feeding the needy. Overall, he says, appeals aired on his station to help Israel have jumped from an annual average of 1,500 to 4,000 for this year. Charity groups tell him they have witnessed a two-fold to a four-fold increase in donations.

Among other fundraising projects, France's Jewish community has hosted visits of Israeli bombing victims to Paris, raised money to build a home in Jerusalem for traumatized children, and sponsored a solidarity trip to Israel by Jewish businessmen.

The outpouring has a personal touch. The executive director of France's Jewish Council, Haim Musicant, notes most families among France's largely Sephardic community have a close family member or friend living in Israel. Mr. Musicant says French Jews are fairly united in supporting Israel during the new wave of violence, particularly since Jews and Jewish institutions in France have also been attacked in recent months.

But it is an impossible task to learn exact figures of the donations by France's estimated 600,000 Jews and five million Muslims for Israeli or Palestinian causes. There are no official records of the checks sent to local mosques and Islamic charities to rebuild shattered Palestinian communities, or the coins dropped into fund-drive boxes at kosher stores or Jewish schools to help Israelis wounded in suicide bombings.

One example: hundreds of small checks are mailed regularly to the office of the Palestinian Liberation Organization's representative to France. The office forwards them to charity bank accounts in the Palestinian territories to help unemployed Palestinians who are prevented from working in Israel, and to other needy causes.

A Palestinian diplomat told VOA that members of France's large ethnic-Arab community also arrive with armloads of clothes and medical supplies. So do other French, he said, including some Jews. The office directs the donors to charitable groups working in Palestinian territories.

Donations are also flooding into the Paris office of Islamic Relief, an international charity that works in education, health care, and poverty alleviation in the Palestinian territories. Spokesman Djamel Misraoui calls the region the number-one cause of the year, replacing Afghanistan.

Mr. Misraoui says French donors are generally among the first to mobilize in support of the Palestinian people. Many are ethnic Arabs with limited incomes. Nonetheless, Mr. Misraoui says, they are extremely generous.

More activist mosques are appealing for charitable donations for the Palestinians. But the issue is a sensitive one, especially given recent concerns over possible links between some Islamic charities and terrorist groups.

Other mainstream leaders, like Paris Mosque rector Dalil Boubakeur, say they work with humanitarian groups, but limit their direct appeals to prayer. Mr. Boubakeur says he wants to avoid inflammatory declarations, or further divide the Muslim and Jewish communities in France.