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France: Jewish-Muslim group fights rising antisemitism

Lisa Louis in Paris
November 14, 2023

France has seen a surge in antisemitic incidents since the start of the Israel-Gaza conflict. One Jewish-Muslim group near Paris is trying to calm tensions.

Michel Serfaty and Haj Mouloid Elouasia smile and shake hands as they stand in the street
Michel Serfaty and Haj Mouloid Elouasia are close friendsImage: Lisa Louis/DW

The scene was a glimmer of hope in dire times.

On a recent Tuesday morning, half a dozen young people gathered around a van on a parking lot in Ris-Orangis, a southern suburb of Paris. The vehicle was covered in slogans. "We are more alike than it seems," one sticker read.

"How would you define discrimination?" Thibault, a Frenchman who converted to Islam, asked the youngsters.

"That's when you treat someone badly because of a presumed characteristic," one participant answered.

"How would you define ageism?" Thibault went on.

"That's when you discriminate against someone because of their age," another young man replied.

An older man talks to two younger men in a parking lot.
The workshop in Ris-Orangis aimed to raise awareness about antisemitism among young peopleImage: Lisa Louis/DW

Rabbi Michel Serfaty was standing among the youngsters. The 80-year-old founded the initiative, the Group for Jewish-Muslim Friendship (AJMF), 20 years ago. It currently employs eight people, all of them Muslim.

"Our goal is to fight antisemitism and Islamophobia," Serfaty told DW.

"We are raising awareness among young people in an indirect way. By speaking about discrimination to sensitize them, we make sure they don't fall into the trap of antisemitism," he added.

Underlying trend of antisemitism in France

That goal seems even more crucial since the beginning of the current conflict between Hamas and Israel. Hamas is classified as a terrorist organization by the West, and various Arab countries. Since Hamas' terrorist attacks on Israel on October 7, and Israel's declaration of war, the French authorities have registered almost 1,250 antisemitic acts.

"This number is alarming — and higher than any annual figure since systematic records began around 2000," Michel Wieviorka, a sociologist at Paris-based University EHESS, told DW.

Wieviorka thinks the surge in incidents reflects how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been imported to France, which is home to Europe's largest Jewish population as well as one of the largest Muslim communities.

But, he said, this came on top of an underlying trend of antisemitism in France, where the annual number of antisemitic acts regularly exceeded 400 before the Israel-Hamas war.

This wasn't always the case. "People outside Germany were appalled when, in the 1970s and 1980s, they discovered how 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust — through filmmaker Claude Lanzmann's epic documentary 'Shoah'," Wieviorka said. "That created a lot of benevolence toward Jews."

"What's more, a vibrant cultural Jewish scene and a positive image of Israel — seen as the country where utopia is possible in the communal kibbutz settlements — shed a positive light on the Jewish community," he added.

But this effect has been waning away, the sociologist observed.

"The Shoah is still explained in schools and museums, but people have gotten used to the horror. And while the Jewish cultural scene is less vibrant now, the image of Israel has deteriorated due to its diverse conflicts," he said.

'Racism and antisemitism are opposite phenomena'

To counter that effect, Serfaty's AJMF friendship group also regularly tours France's most destitute housing estates in its van. The rabbi, who grew up in Morocco, thinks the heart of the problem lies in these districts.

"Many Muslims, especially young people in destitute areas, grow up with the idea that Jews are rich and rule the world," he explained.

"These regions also have the country's highest crime rates, percentage of school dropouts and unemployment. We've seen that 95% of antisemitic acts have their origin there," he added.

Danny Trom, sociologist at France's National Center for Research CNRS, said people from less wealthy parts of society can indeed be prone to antisemitism, as they feel excluded from society.

"Certain people — also those from former colonies who feel stigmatized — might turn against Jews thinking the latter are the ruling oppressor," he told DW.

"Racism and antisemitism are opposite phenomena. The former happens as a part of humanity is seen as inferior, whereas the latter goes against Jews considered a dominating class," he added.

The French government has been stressing that police are doing what they can to bring perpetrators to court.

"Ten thousand police and soldiers are protecting 900 synagogues and schools across the country. We've arrested 486 people for committing antisemitic acts," Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin recently told French media.

Antisemitism is 'found across the political spectrum'

Rafael Amselem, public policy analyst at Paris-based market-orientated think tank GenerationLibre, said it's not that French Jews like himself don't feel supported by the government — they do.

"There is, however, a problem with certain political parties in France such as the far-left movement LFI [France Unbowed]," he told DW.

"Their leader Jean-Luc Melenchon called Sunday's marches against antisemitism meetings of those 'unconditionally supporting the massacre [by Israel in Gaza]' – that's unacceptable," Amselem said, adding that Melenchon seemed to think people could only oppose antisemitism if they, at the same time, dissociated themselves from Israel's actions.

Thousands of people stand in a public square. Someone holds up a French flag and in the background, people hold a banner saying: "The Republic united against antisemitism".
Thousands of people came out to demonstrate against antisemitism in Paris on November 12Image: Claudia Greco/REUTERS

On Sunday, 182,000 people gathered in marches against antisemitism across France. The LFI officially boycotted the demonstration in Paris, although some LFI members ignored the boycott, attending protests outside of Paris. Members of far-right RN party, on the other hand, including former presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, participated at rallies.

"The paradox is that LFI helps the RN appear less radical," Amselem said. He believes the far right is depicting itself as the defender of Jews to attract their votes.

"But that's camouflage. They continue to have members, and be close to organizations, known to defend antisemitic views. … Jews, with their own customs and way of living, would not be tolerated by the RN," he added.

Historian and antisemitism expert Tal Bruttmann, a member of Paris-based private Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah, said the latest political developments show that antisemitism is "found across the political spectrum."

"Since the horrific events under the Third Reich, people thought that antisemitism was exclusive to the far right, but they forgot that the former USSR [Soviet Union] also carried out antisemitic policies," he said.

Fighting antisemitism and Islamophobia in France

Can 'Little Jerusalem' show the way?

Marc Hecker, director of research and communications at Paris-based think tank Ifri, thinks France needs to do more to change that mindset.

"We need more educational programs on antisemitism to thoroughly address antisemitic stereotypes, just like the one in Ris-Orangis," he said.

One of the participants of the Ris-Orangis workshop admitted his view on Jews had changed.

"Before I came here, I always thought that Jewish people kept to themselves. But I've realized that was a prejudice. We shouldn't judge people without knowing them," said the young man, who wished to stay anonymous.

This gives Rabbi Serfaty hope that Ris-Orangis can show the way. He calls the area Little Jerusalem because the synagogue, church and mosque are practically next to each other.

Ris-Orangis' religious leaders regularly organize joint events — such as a day of mourning immediately after the start of the current conflict between Israel and Hamas.

As Serfaty met local imam Haj Mouloid Elouasia after midday prayers, the two religious leaders reminisced about how long their friendship dated back.

"It's thanks to Rabbi Serfaty that we could open our mosque in this street 20 years ago," the imam said.

"He called the mayor and said, there is a building available here. The mayor replied — are you not afraid of the Muslims? Mr. Serfaty said no — on the contrary. We want them to be close to us, so that we can be neighbors and brothers," he said.

This article was translated from German by the author.