Gaza drives a wedge in Paris imam's dialogue with Jews
Hassen Chalghoumi, from Tunisia, pioneered a religious exchange in France.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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."