Gaza drives a wedge in Paris imam's dialogue with Jews

Hassen Chalghoumi, from Tunisia, pioneered a religious exchange in France.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Reversal: Hassen Chalghoumi, a Tunisian-born imam, pioneered Muslim-Jewish dialogue in France. The Gaza war has damaged his efforts at religious exchange.
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Hassen Chalghoumi, a Tunisian-born imam of the Drancy mosque outside Paris, takes a modern view of Islam. He pioneered a Muslim-Jewish dialogue in France: He was the first imam to commemorate the Holocaust, to light candles at Hanukkah, and to bring French Jewish leaders on Dec. 8 for the Eid celebrations with 5,000 local Muslims. He tells his faithful they aren't trapped in narrow cultural identities – and neither are Christians and Jews.

But the 22-day Israeli assault on Gaza has undermined his message – and there's concern that hatred fanned by Middle East politics could get more toxic among Arabs and Jews in France. The country has by far Europe's largest groups of North Africans (5 million), and Jews (700,000), two-thirds of whom are Sephardic, with close ties to the Mideast.

The ferocity of the Gaza conflict puts the young imam in an old conundrum: how to advocate peace when ghoulish photos of the aftermath of civilian bombings reach Arab living rooms, as Arab and Jewish positions harden, and as charges of "anti-Semitism" and "Islamophobia" get hotter.

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There may be a cease-fire in Gaza. But the complex frustrations and fears in the Arab and Jewish communities have not yet ceased in France. Large Gaza protests continued in Paris and London Jan. 25. The possible election of Israeli hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister next month adds to worries of continued splits between the sides.

Esther Benbassa, chair of Jewish studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, says one effect of the Gaza bombing already visible is "to remove the taboo of the Holocaust" in common speech, both among Arabs and ordinary French. "I don't agree that Gaza and the Holocaust can be compared, but I note a willingness to do so. I understand that, even if I don't agree with it. It's something new."

Most ordinary French Arabs interviewed earnestly affirm a desire to live in peace with local Jews. They praise French secularism and say what angers them is Israel.

"The temperature is still high right now," says Mohan, a businessman at the peaceful Saturday protest, as he watched a small sideshow where shoes were thrown at images of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and former President Bush (no President Obama). "It is a weak cease-fire. The Jews want to cast this as a religious issue, about Muslims. But it is political. The Palestinians need a state, and that is what will bring normality."

One Jewish leader in Drancy, Jacques Aboucaya, worries Gaza could spark deeper tensions. "I fear outbursts in the suburbs ... an increase of anti-Semitism in France. To see Israeli flags burning in protests makes a strong impression on the minds of youth."

Since Dec. 27 some 60 cases of anti-Semitism – graffiti, four synagogues desecrated, and an attack on a Jewish youth – took place, according to Richard Prasquier of the Council of French Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF). Two Muslim youth were attacked by Jewish gangs.

"The emotions of the Middle East are in our streets," said Jean-David Levitte, the top diplomatic adviser to the French president last week.

Gaza sparked a venting of Arab and black grievances of every kind in France – anger at few jobs in the Arab ghettos outside Paris, lack of assimilation, being outmaneuvered by Jewish voices in the media. In October a mostly Arab crowd booed the French national anthem at the national stadium in Paris during a French-Tunisian match.

"Solidarity with Palestinians has at its roots a feeling of disenfranchisement in France," says Ms. Benbassa. "Migrants from North Africa are astounded to find that when something happens to Jews it is treated with great importance in the media, but when something happens to Arabs or blacks, it is not."

As Arabs condemned Israel, the Jewish community supported Israel's stated war on Hamas. CRIFstated that "95 percent of French Jews" supported military action as a response to continued Hamas rockets; the war was also supported by Gilles Bernheim, chief Rabbi in France.

'Reconciliation will take time'

For Chalghoumi, educated in Syria, India, and Pakistan, where he adopted a blend of Sufi and Tablighi Islam, which stresses self-purification and dialogue – the Gaza war has damaged and temporarily ended four years of patient efforts at religious exchange. The total backing by French Jewish officials of Gaza undercut him. He received death threats from Muslim extremists after a Paris newspaper quoted him saying he was against protests; he says he simply opposed violent protests. He now lives under police protection, though he still conducts Friday prayers.

Chalghoumi is not a typical imam. But his description of Gaza's effect on the mentality in his mosque is typical: "The bombing brought an overwhelming feeling of injustice." He quickly narrates: On Day 1 the mosque prayed for victims on both sides of the conflict. On Day 2 there was solidarity with Palestinians; moderate Muslims were angry with Hamas. But by Day 5, as "Israel kept attacking and attacking, with images of children killed," his believers "felt devastated.... There was silence by the international community ... French Jews fully supported Israel, and then it seemed biblical. By Day 7 the Muslims were all hating the Jews."

When young believers seek his counsel, he says, "You can't hide the magnitude of this catastrophe; you can't cheapen it or water it down. No one will listen. The [graphic] images of children in Gaza mean that the young Muslim is coming to me on fire …. You move slowly; you pray what to say ... you say that only God brings justice.... I know it isn't what anyone wants to hear, but reconciliation will take time."

While the French like to speak of the close quarters that Jews and Arabs share in neighborhoods like the 19th district in Paris, studies show that Jews have been moving out of proximity from Arabs for many years.

Does interfaith dialogue help?

Though President Sarkozy has called for interfaith dialogue to help bring harmony, that approach has many questioners.

A French astrophysicist at the Paris protest, Emmanuel Rollinde, suggests that the cause of the tension in France is not old hatreds between local communities. "Sarkozy is taking a political problem in the Middle East and turning it into a religious community problem in France."

Karim Bitar, an intellectual with the International Institute of Strategic Relations in Paris, offers that "Interreligious dialogue can unconsciously reinforce the idea that the real problem is between faiths. It treats both sides, Jews and Muslims, as a monolith, when what's needed is the breakdown of these identities. Peoples have complex identities today that can't be reduced to a set of beliefs. "

Chalghoumi wants Muslims to critically examine their beliefs to find a "true Islam." But he supports faith dialogue – disengaged from politics – as a way to build ties; his recently built Nour mosque in Drancy, a town infamous as a way station for French Jews being sent to Nazi camps, has an informal Jewish adviser.

During a month of protests here, Parisians heard the cry of "Allah Akbar" in their streets – something new. Secular, moderate Arabs expressed dismay, though Mohan the businessman interprets the call not as a rise of extremism, but as a link between a dozen nationalities, ranging from Iraqis to Moroccans, who don't know one another and don't socialize. "They don't have any other common ties but being Muslim. So you hear a Muslim call."

Debate over 'rising' anti-Semitism

One large debate is over anti-Semitism – and whether it is rising. Catholic France has a history of anti-Semitism, as intellectuals and members of the media readily admit. Yet Arabs see the debate itself as a canard. They complain of being called "anti-Semitic" simply for criticizing Israel. At one point during the Gaza war, says a Moroccan journalist, "I heard more talk in the media about anti-Semitism than about bombs falling on defenseless people."

Benbassa strongly states that she "can't agree with the anti-Semitism phobia the Jews in France are speaking of" in the midst of a brutal attack by Israel. The Jews have "overplayed" this, she says. Yet she and Prasquier agree that old stereotypes about "rich Jews" are coming back among North Africans. She also sees a more subtle anti-Semitic sensibility creeping into the language of "ordinary white French people ... as they talk about Israel and Jews in the context of Gaza."

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