Michel Serfaty asks questions others dare not pose about Jews and Muslims

Rabbi Michel Serfaty takes his ‘friendship bus’ around France to spread a message of tolerance and understanding

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
Rabbi Michel Serfaty (standing here next to his ‘friendship bus’) starts conversations that challenge stereotypes about Jews and Muslims.

When French Rabbi Michel Serfaty failed to get permission to park his “friendship bus” in Montreuil, a gritty suburb outside Paris, he showed up anyway. Mr. Serfaty says he’d pleaded for a permit for a month from local authorities, and these days he has no time to lose.  

“I don’t give a toss,” he says, as he directs the driver of the van, plastered with messages of tolerance between Jews and Muslims, to the plaza directly in front of the town hall. “I have a new strategy: If they don’t respond, I’m coming anyway.”

At a time when Jews are fleeing Europe, Muslims are bracing for a wave of Islamophobia, and the geopolitics of the Middle East – from Israel’s election to the attack on foreigners at a major museum in Tunisia – continue to blow across this continent, the work he’s been doing for a decade now, heading into French ghettos with his French Jewish Muslim Friendship Association (AJMF), is not the kind that he feels can wait.

It takes 30 minutes until the chief of staff of Montreuil’s town hall tells him he must leave within the hour, but that gives him plenty of time to approach anyone who walks by, peppering them with questions that most dare not ask: What do you think of Jews? What do you think of Muslims? Do you think Jews are all rich? Are all Muslims bad people?

It is with this probing, he says, that he discovers preconceived notions – and can begin to break them down. “We look at where the actors of anti-Semitism are coming from. It’s not the pretty neighborhoods,” says Serfaty, who works with a team of Muslim youths, an imam, and a psychologist. “The amount of prejudice, stereotypes, and conspiracy is immense.”

Montreuil sits at the end of a major subway line to Paris. While swaths of the community are gentrifying, it is also home to many immigrants and asylum seekers from Africa, mostly Muslims. His team has charted 14 mosques and two synagogues in the area, as well as cultural centers that flourish around them.

His team has visited them all.

This is their third trip here since January’s twin terrorist attacks in France against Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine, and a Jewish grocery store.

When two young teens pass by, Serfaty makes a beeline to them. He says he always tries to work with children or their mothers – who shape their young minds – whenever possible. “What do you hear about Muslims?” he asks.

“Not good things,” offers one, Loica. “Like what?” the rabbi wants to know. “Terrorism. They are robbers,” Loica responds.  

“Let’s put it all on the backs of Muslims because they have strong backs,” says the rabbi, employing his trademark sense of humor, which he relies on to cut the ice.

“And what about Jews?” he asks. Loica’s friend, Logan, responds this time. “They are victims. They feel they are always targeted.”

The two friends start to leave, as they eye their bus nearing, but Serfaty continues grilling them, at one point correcting their verb conjugations like a grammar teacher, not a religious leader. The bus leaves, and they stay put to listen. He takes them to the back of the “friendship bus.”

“What do you see?” he asks them, pointing to a poster that reads, “I dreamed of God last night and she was black.” A portrait of a black woman sits below.

By the time Serfaty is done, they have to ask for a note to bring to school to justify their tardiness.

On this day his partner, an imam named Mohammed Azizi, who arrived in France in 2003 from Morocco, is not at his side. But that’s a rarity – the two work in tandem to counter the prejudices that brew in France – a reality that Mr. Azizi says is what drew him to this work in the first place.

“I was impacted by the hate between groups,” says Azizi, who adds that despite the Islamophobia that has flared since the January attacks, anti-Semitism cuts deeper.

In the first seven months of last year, the Jewish Community Protection Service reported 527 anti-Semitic acts, almost double the number for the same period the year before.Nearly 7,000 Jews left France last year, according to figures from the Jewish Agency. They are footsteps that 70 percent of French Jews have said in surveys they’d like to follow.

Azizi is a great admirer of Jewish culture and religion, he says, putting him sometimes at odds with fellow Muslims – but that only makes him want to press on further, he says.
Serfaty and Azizi’s impact is impossible to quantify. But the anecdotes mount.

Four years ago they took a trip to the most troubled neighborhood of Nancy, in eastern France. The men in the housing projects rejected their message, threatening them to get them to leave. Instead they stayed, and talked to whoever would listen.

They returned to the same neighborhood this February, a month after the terrorist attacks. “Some of them recognized us. ‘You are the imam and the rabbi.’ They were happy to see us, to exchange their views with us,” Azizi says.

Serfaty says an impact can also be felt when they play with children at cultural centers. Muslim mothers often come up to him afterward with some version of the same refrain: “Why do they lie to us about you?”

One of his volunteers, a Muslim woman named Fatima Karihila, says, “We try to show that a synagogue, mosque, or a church, they are all the same thing. They are places for prayer. If you are a real believer there are no barriers.”

When Serfaty is not on the streets, he leads the congregation at his synagogue in Ris-Orangis, south of Paris. Not far away is the housing project where gunman Amedy Coulibaly, who killed four Jews Jan. 9 at a kosher supermarket in Paris, grew up.

Serfaty himself was attacked in 2003. He was on his way to his synagogue when he heard someone shout “Jews, Palestine will prevail.” Two men pulled up in a car; one, who turned out to be a boxer from Morocco, punched him across the face.

It didn’t deter him. The very next year he started the AJMF, which has made eight tours across the country in its “friendship bus” – each six to 10 weeks – and 10 tours across Paris.

His methods haven’t changed in 10 years, but since January Serfaty has walked around with a bodyguard detail provided by the French government. In plain clothes, they blend in with the crowds that gather around Serfaty and Azizi as they shake hands warmly or put a hand on a shoulder to break the ice.

When the team breaks for lunch on a recent day in Montreuil, Serfaty presses on under a rare March sun.

“I’m not a politician,” he calls out after a man who is scurrying away. He asks another to share his feelings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The man tells the rabbi to stop his unconditional support for Israel. But Serfaty tries to tell him that he should care more about what is happening in France than a conflict 5,000 kilometers away.

Serfaty, who used to work in relative obscurity, has been hounded by the media since the terrorist attacks here, and on this day a television crew follows his every move – perhaps keeping community members from sharing their views more freely.

But one man speaks his mind. When he is asked what he thinks of Jews, he says that Jews stick together, to maintain and monopolize power, from the media to politics.

Serfaty takes off his black hat, revealing his kippa. The man says, “Ah, you were trying to hide that.” Serfaty ignores him and tries to put the hat on the man’s head, but the man recoils and tries to flee.

“Ah, the weight of prejudice is terrible,” Serfaty says, before walking off, unfazed.

He has only one response to such reactions: “Let’s keep working.” With that, he heads toward the next resident.

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