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Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

  • Lisa Bryant

France is on high alert after last week's gruesome terrorist attack near the city Lyon. It comes just six months after deadly Paris shootings. One community is particularly worried - French Jews.

The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims, which were strained over conflict in the Middle East and simmering anti-Semitism.

France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus are making the rounds.

Drivers slow down to stare at Serfaty, who is an imposing figure with a black hat and a snow-white beard. He talked with a man in a white T-shirt about being called a dirty Jew as he walked down the street. The man agreed it is shameful, but said it does not reflect the views of many ordinary Muslims like himself.

They're in front of Union of Islamic Organizations of France, better known as the UOIF. It is a popular group with ties to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

It is a strange place to find a rabbi, but Serfaty is not your usual rabbi.

Urging solidarity

For years, he has toured France in a beat-up mini-bus plastered with slogans like "Solidarity between Jews and Muslims," and "We are more alike than you think."

In towns like La Courneuve, with high crime rates and large immigrant communities, he waded into tough neighborhoods, striking up conversations with Muslim leaders, students and even drug dealers.

Since the Paris terrorist attacks, Serfaty’s work has taken on a new urgency.

Serfaty said sometimes people take the flyers he hands out and throw them into the street. They say Jews must be killed and Hitler has not finished his work. He said he has heard hard things, but he has never had any serious incident. That means that even with delinquents, there’s the possibility of dialogue

Dialogue is what the Jewish Muslim Friendship Association is all about.

Serfaty runs the operation from his synagogue in Ris-Orangis, a quiet town outside Paris.

Interfaith harmony

Next door is a mosque and an evangelical church, a deliberate plan, Serfaty said, to push interfaith harmony.

But Serfaty has round-the-clock protection since January’s attacks.

The rabbi wanted an interfaith team, but he could not find any Jews who were interested.

So he travels around the country with several young Muslim staffers and Imam Mohammed Azizi. Serfaty has known Azizi for years. They both immigrated to France from their native Morocco.

Azizi said the fight against anti-Semitism, prejudice and Islamophobia takes a long time. It needs a lot of energy, and perseverance.

Anti-Semitic attacks in France have soared since Serfaty founded his association in 2005. Often the perpetrators are young Muslims. But prejudice goes both ways.

Serfaty recounts the time he met a group of Hasidic Jews. One told him he was wrong to pursue his mission because the two sons of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael, hated each other. He told Serfaty that Jews and Muslims will hate each other forever.

But Serfaty pushes on. In La Courneuve, he arrived at the UOIF unannounced .

UOIF official Ghazi Wehbi orders coffee and said Serfaty reminds him of an uncle. The two men pose for photos.

Promoting dialogue

Then it is back outside to hand out flyers about the friendship initiative. A few people push them away.

But soon a small crowd gathered around Serfaty and the man in the T-shirt, who complained about Jewish clannishness. The two men agree on one point, there needs to be more communication between Jews and Muslims.

Wehbi, the mosque official, praised Serfaty and his initiative.

He said the more there is dialogue, the more Jews and Muslims will understand each other. He said the UOIF also opens its doors to outsiders.

In June, the French government awarded Serfaty the National Order of Merit for his achievements. His association has grown to several chapters around France. Slowly, he said, the seeds of Jewish-Muslim friendship are bearing fruit.

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