Friday, 4 September 2009

Burkini 1, Mikveh 0

Muslim lobbying for religious rights in France has had a certain impact on Jews, who feel that their own, similar requests are being brushed away.

“Things have got worse since more and more Muslims started pushing demands, sometimes with political motives. Now we’re compared to assertive pushy militants and our own requests are denied outright,” said Marc Djebali, vice president of the Jewish community of Sarcelles, a suburb north of Paris. “Now officials tell me: ‘we can’t accept this, this is a secular state’.”

Sarcelles is the home of one of France’s largest and more assertive Jewish communities. In a way it pioneered the controversial trend of French minorities lobbying the secular government for religious rights, known as communautarisme — community activism.

But over the past few years it has been lagging behind the local Muslim community, which has been better able to get its traditions recognised in schools and work places.

“Ten years ago, kosher meals were offered to kids in our neighbourhood school. Today, they can only get halal,” said Mr Djebali. “Principals tell me halal is normal, "natural" even, but kosher is just too comlicated"

"Numbers, it's all about the numbers. The Muslims are not a small minority like us. Their requests are examined seriously," says Djebali.

The feeling that the community was being put at a disadvantage by the Muslim requests became stronger this summer, after comments by the French President Nicolas Sarkozy sparked a public debate over whether the Muslim burka should be banned. Calls to similarly examine Jewish clothing soon followed.

“Jewish men who wear hats and ringlets are just like Muslim women with their burka. They’re proselytising,” said Yves Pras, head of the Europe Secularity organisation. “Maybe this clothing should be banned from all public places, like smoking.”

Although France defines itself as secular and in 2004 its parliament adopted a law banning religious clothing — such as veils and skullcaps — in public schools, Islam has made its way into French tradition and society.

Dozens of schools are now offering halal meals; one school in Paris even offers halal meals exclusively. Meanwhile, a number of pools have arranged separated bathing hours for women, a trend which began in the Jewish community of Strasbourg, and later in Sarcelles, where, for the past 15 years, women have also had a female lifeguard.

In university, students still have to attend exams on Saturdays and holidays. This is a regular sticking point and every year France’s chief rabbi tries to negotiate with universities to find suitable dates.

Muslim holidays are increasingly respected in the office, according to a study by the professional association IMS-Entreprendre.

Ramadan is the first non-Christian holiday to be officially recognised in French companies. Many offices have adjusted their schedules in the afternoons to accommodate tired fasters, and others have set up prayer rooms where fasters can rest. Carmaker Renault was one of the first to reorganise its timetable for Muslim employees.

But IMS-Entreprendre considers other demands, such as leaving early on Friday night, “excessive”.

“Everything depends on the number of people pushing for change,” Dounia Bouzar, the author of What’s Allah’s place at the office?, told the AFP. “If 80 per cent of a company’s employees are Muslim, they’ll be making the rules.”

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Halimi kidnappers to be re-tried

Youssouf Fofana, the head of the gang that kidnapped and murdered 23-year-old Ilan Halimi in 2006, was sentenced to life imprisonment last Friday, but French Interior Minister Michele Alliot Marie asked for a new trial for 14 other gang members because their sentences were deemed too lenient.

The case of the self-proclaimed “Gang of Barbarians” is aparently not over. After a two-month long trial behind closed doors, the jury gave on Friday its verdict for the 27 people accused of the abduction and death of Ilan Halimi. The sentences ranged from six months to life imprisonment for the gang’s leader Youssouf Fofana who admitted killing Halimi.

But the victim’s family and Jewish community criticized the verdict, saying Fofana’s accomplices got off easy, and France’s Justice Minister Michele Alliot Marie asked the prosecution to appeal the verdict regarding 14 of the accused who got lighter sentences than the ones the prosecution had requested. (AFP picture)
The appeal was filed on Monday.Halimi’s family is now hoping the new trial will be open to the public.

“The trial was a missed opportunity. It should have explored the facts, the construction of (anti-Semitic) stereotypes and the mechanism that lead to this abduction, torture and killing of this young man,” Richard Prasquier, the head of the Jewish umbrella group CRIF told me. “I was shocked by some of the sentences because they were not strong enough, not to the dimension of what had happened. The trial shouldn’t just be Fofana’s trial. His accomplices were part of it all. Any one of them could have put an end to this ordeal at any moment.”

“The accomplices helped the killer massacre Ilan. They participated actively,” Halimi’s mother Ruth said after the verdict. “What they did is terrible. They killed Ilan because he was Jewish. But the verdict is by no means exceptional.”

Meanwhile, Defense lawyers said many of the accused had no link or knowledge of Halimi’s murder.
“They were judged for their deeds and not to set an example,” said Me Seban.

Three years ago, Youssouf Fofana organized Ilan Halimi’s kidnapping, hoping to get a ransom. The leader of the self-proclaimed ‘Gang of Barbarians’ wanted to get a Jew, any Jew, because he thought “they were rich” and would have the money to pay a ransom.
Fofana went to a street with several kosher restaurants and Jewish-owned businesses to find targets. He spotted the stored that were closed on a Jewish holiday and sent the following days several young women to seduce potential victims.

Ilan Halimi was filling in for a friend at a mobile phone shop that day, when Iranian-born Emma entered the store. Ilan asked her out on a date, and she invited him over to her home in a suburb to the south of Paris. He accepted, but when they get there, Halimi was attacked by several men who pushed him into the trunk of a car.
He was then taken to an apartment in the suburb of Bagneux and later to the sordid basement with the help of the building’s guard who gave the gang a set of keys for some money.

For 24 days Fofana tried to negotiate a deal with Ilan’s parents. But the Halimis followed police orders and refused to pay.

As Ilan’s father kept refusing Fofana’s deals, the gang of Barbarians got wilder and wilder. Several members kept beating up Halimi, and a guard even burned Ilan’s forehead with a cigarette while calling him “dirty Jew”.

Fofana eventually realized his plan had failed and decided to get rid of Halimi. The gang stripped Halimi of his clothes and drove him to another suburb, Sainte Genevieve des Bois. Fofana stabbed Halimi several times, spread petrol on his body and torched his victim. Halimi was then abandoned. He was still alive and tried to get help, but succombed when rescuers tried to get him to the hospital.

The court considered that only two of the accused had anti-Semitic motives, Fofana and one of the guards who burned Ilan’s forehead with a cigarette.
Fofana’s main accomplices who guarded the basement and tortured Halimi got 15 to 18 years and the woman who trapped him was sentenced to 9 years and could be freed in two years.

As the ruling came in on Friday night, some of the accused’s friends and families were in court and smiled at them. They cheered as some of their friends’ short sentences were pronounced. Fofana applauded the ruling.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Unraveling deceitful Judeo-Muslim dialogue

French authorities are hoping that the truce in the Middle East will extend to their own territory.
Over the past three weeks, over sixty anti-Semitic incidents have occurred throughout the country: Molotov cocktails were thrown at synagogues, a dozen youths were assaulted, Jewish institutions were tagged and two Jewish artists – TV star Arthur and emblematic Sepharadi singer Enrico Macias – were prevented from performing. Meanwhile three young Muslims were targeted by a bunch of pro-Israeli militants, presumably from the Jewish Defense League and an imam known for his tolerant ways was assaulted by Muslims.

The media lashed out at Israel for its offensive and tens of thousands protested in the streets – often in support of Hamas - but a surprising poll showed an evolution in public opinion regarding the conflict. Indeed, 23% considered Hamas was responsible for the crisis, while 18% accused the Israeli government. 28% said they were both responsible and the rest couldn’t say.

The less expected effect of the war, here in France, is the collapse of the Judeo-Muslim Friendship Association, founded by Rabbi Michel Serfaty. All of its Muslim officials resigned because their Jewish counterparts didn’t openly condemn Israel for its operations.
Co-chairman Djelloul Seddiki said remaining neutral wasn’t enough: his Jewish colleagues had to condemn Israel.

Rabbi Serfaty said he was surprised, for he remained silent and expressed no support for Israel precisely to please his Muslim counterparts.
Meanwhile Djelloul Seddiki and his friends protested against Israel without mentioning Hamas’s role in the flare-up. So much for dialogue…

Rabbi Michel Sefaty (photo:UEJF)

Rabbi Serfaty is an engaging figure. The tall former basketball player, with his wide black hat and Clint Eastwood stare launched his battle for friendship after being assaulted in the street while walking to the synagogue with his son in 2003. Instead of running along, the rabbi faced his attackers and asked them to explain themselves. He then created the Jewish Muslim Friendship Association to deconstruct stereotypes.

Throughout the years the rabbi has been dragging his congregation, family and fellow Jews along in his initiatives. Every summer he drives his association’s ‘Friendship bus’ across France and neighboring countries with a number of Muslim and Jewish militants advocating dialogue. They go everywhere, from the beaches of Marseille to the rough suburbs around Paris. They don’t spare an effort. But sometimes they have to cave in and make sacrifices.

Rabbi Serfaty sided with his Muslim colleagues over the Danish Mohammad cartoons controversy. The drawings had been reprinted in a couple of French newspapers and the Muslim umbrella group CFCM decided to bring the issue to court in a lawsuit which it eventually lost.
At the time several Jewish leaders, among them former French chief rabbi Joseph Sitruk, criticized the cartoons. Rabbi Serfaty told me he wasn’t, like some French rabbis, against all cartoons criticizing religion. Mocking Moses or Jesus was fine for him. But he strongly opposed drawings criticizing Islam, saying Muslims are different. “The Christians and us have been living in this free speech environment for centuries. They’ve only just arrived. We don’t care about these caricatures but they get hurt.” When I asked him if he did not think many Muslims would be offended if treated differently from the rest of society, he responded that the important thing for him was avoiding a flare-up. “The main goal is to maintain social peace”.

It seems as if this time, condemning Israel – and Israel alone - was a price the rabbi wasn’t willing to pay, even to save his cherished association. Or was he simply taken by surprise ?

Still, Rabbi Serfaty is far from lost. If the crisis in the Middle East taught us anything, it’s that façade dialogue is useless. Uniting to settle kashrut and Hallal issues or to condemn the Jerusalem gay pride is not really a breakthrough. France needs a genuine Judeo-Muslim dialogue between religious and secular leaders.
And the crisis showed us that these leaders exist and who they are.
While tens of thousands demonstrated in the streets, a number of Muslim leaders refused to join them and repeated France had to stay away from the conflict, while respecting each others’ views on the conflict.

French minister Fadela Amara, a strong secular figure in charge of the impoverished suburbs, gathered in her ministry various associations to discuss and organize the battle against anti-Semitism and racism. This wasn’t surprising as Amara, who had strongly supported the Geneva initiative a few years back, has been fighting for tolerance and against sexism in France for years with her women’s association ‘Ni putes ni soumises’.

Imam Hassen Chalghoumi and his family, from the suburb of Drancy, have paid once again during this outburst for their tolerant approach. The imam who advocates genuine dialogue has been assaulted again and his family threatened after he denounced anti-Semitism and called for peace.
“How far will you go? Watch out!” told him North African men as he was walking down the street. Others vandalized his car and threatened him over the phone.
Chalghoumi said nothing would alter his dialogue with the Jewish community although he couldn’t stop thinking of the events in Gaza.
“People from my congregation ask me ‘why is this happening? This isn’t fair.’ And I answer ‘that’s war. It’s never fair.’”

Chalghoumi is the imam of Drancy, a town where French Jews were gathered during World War II in a concentration camp before being deported to death camps. In 2006 the imam called on all Muslims to remember that part of history and pay their respects. Following his address at the Drancy memorial his children were threatened.
A few months ago he invited Jews to participate in the festivities ending the Ramadan. Chalghoumi was attacked following his initiatives. But that didn’t stop him.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Chilling hatred in snowy France

Temperatures haven't sunk so low in Paris for the past 3 decades. The streets are beautiful in the snow in the trendiest and loveliest neighbourhoods as well as in my own popular 20th quarter.
But you know what? Forget about the freezing wind. We get a much greater shiver these days when we hear about the Middle East, see Hamas flags in uptown Paris rallies, and hear about desecrated synagogues and assaulted men.

A burning car crashed into the gates of a synagogue in Toulouse, in the south east of France last night, in what appears to be the latest attack in a recent wave of anti-Semitism.

Rabbi Jonathan Guez was lecturing some members of his congregation when a stolen car was rammed into the front gate, setting it on fire.
A second car was about to be crashed into the synagogue but the attackers abandoned the vehicle with the motor running and fled the area when a security alarm was set off. Police found Molotov cocktails in the cars and is searching for three suspects who were seen running away.

The attack is the latest in a wave of incidents targeting the French Jewish community over the past week which Jewish officials have linked to the unrest in the Middle East.

A 29-year old Jewish man was beaten up in a Paris underground station by 20 young men shouting “Palestine will prevail” following a pro-Palestinian rally in front of the capital's Opera Garnier.
A car with a giant menorah was vandalized and other vehicles were set alight in front of a synagogue in the Paris area. Meanwhile, the Jewish community is following closely the investigation over an attempted murder that left a Jewish doctor in a critical condition on Friday.
70-year-old Dr Desire Amsalem had been shot in the back.
In another symbolic incident, vandals damaged the “Wall of Peace” created by Jewish artist Clara Halter who pleads for peace in the Middle East.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is desperately trying to broker a truce between Hamas and Israel, warned against a contagion of the Mideast conflict and called on France’s communities to remain calm.
French newspapers qualify his attempt to reach a settlement "Mission Impossible" but the public seems to appreciate his efforts in the general international apathy.
Sarkozy's defreeze with Syria - Bachar el Assad's visit in France last summer and his invitation to the prestigious July 14 Bastille Day parade - is even praised in newspapers as a clairvoyant move.

Sarkozy's Interior minister Michele Alliot-Marie gathered Muslim and Jewish officials on Monday, moments ahead of the attack on the synagogue, to discuss the recent tensions and anti-Semitic slogans in rallies against the Israeli operations in the Gaza Strip.

“The conflict should by no means spread to France,” said Richard Prasquier, the head of the Jewish umbrella organization CRIF. Prasquier invited his Muslim counterpart Mohamed Moussaoui to “overcome together” the current difficulties but stressed that certain religious leaders had incited against the Jewish community.

Moussaoui, who heads the Muslim umbrella organization CFCM, condemned all violence and said he was “determined to strengthen relations with the Jewish community in these difficult times.”
Both organizations launched on November 24 common efforts to battle jointly against ant-Semitism and Islamophobia.

However the events may turn in our lovely city, one cannot ignore a strange coincidence.
Yesterday, the day a synagogue was attacked in Toulouse, was also the first day of a major trial, the trial of the three suspects in the attack against the synagogue of Djerba - one of the oldest synagogues in the world. In this al-Qaeda-sponsored attack a Muslim man crashed his explosive-loaded truck into the gates of the ancient temple - killing 21 people. It all happened on April 11, 2002. The accused deny any kind of involvement.