‘Imam of the Jews’ works to combat Muslim radicals

Over dinner at a Simon Wiesenthal Center benefit on April 18 at which he was to be honored, Imam Hassen Chalghoumi pulled out his iPhone to scroll through pictures of himself with a host of foreign dignitaries.

He thumbed past Sen. John McCain, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Israeli President Shimon Peres — each of whom he gamely referred to as “my friend.” Before the end of the night, a sumptuous banquet for Hollywood executives and Jewish leaders at the Beverly Hilton, he would have a few more friends to show off.

But the friends he’s earned on his warpath against anti-Semitism and Islamic extremism have caused him some trouble in the Muslim community of Drancy, France, where he serves as the imam. 

He’s seen his car lit on fire and yarmulkes burned in protest outside his mosque. When he spoke out against the Islamic State in 2015, saying its members have Satan as their prophet rather than Muhammad, the terrorist group put out a fatwa on him — a call for his assassination. Chalghoumi’s family now lives outside of France for their safety.

“My wife and children have had to make numerous sacrifices, and it is of them I think tonight,” he said as he accepted the award onstage at the Hilton. “It is their medal of valor, as well.”

Chalghoumi is tall and broad, with a small goatee and a round, boyish face that is almost always smiling under a white fez. For his activism and close relationships with Jewish organizations, his opponents have labeled him “Imam of the Jews,” a title he now views as honorific.

Back at his dinner table, he pointed across to a tall, suited man in spectacles sitting quietly. The man was an off-duty Los Angeles Police Department officer, he said, part of his security detail. In Los Angeles, his detail is two cops. In Paris, it’s 12. In Brussels, 20.

The next morning, the imam sat stretched on a couch in the office of Marvin Hier, the Wiesenthal Center’s dean and founder. The Wiesenthal Center had flown him to Los Angeles to accept a medal of valor at its 2016 national tribute dinner, and it hopes to collaborate with him on their shared goal of fighting anti-Semitism.

The same off-duty police officer in spectacles and a suit waited quietly outside the closed door.

“The good news is that this man’s the real deal,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center. “The bad news is he’s one in a million.”

Drancy’s imam has been fighting the radicalization of young Muslims since long before the world’s attention turned to Paris after the terrorist attacks that killed more than 100 people last Nov. 13.

“I wasn’t waiting for the attack,” he told the Jewish Journal. “I foresaw it. I was working on it for a long time.”

The imam is quick to dismiss the people who perpetrated that attack and similar acts of violence as fake Muslims and barbarians.

“When they commit crimes in the name of Islam, they too say they are Muslims,” he said of the terrorists. “But I don’t recognize them as Muslims.”

Chalghoumi has set out to recast Islam as a humanist and peaceful religion, especially as a message to disaffected young men in France most prone to being won over by radical ideologies. In his dealings with young people, many simply need to talk with a knowledgeable person of the Islamic faith in order to recognize radical ideology as a sham.

Other cases are not so simple. 

Chalghoumi recalls a couple asking him, in 2012, to intervene with their son, whom they suspected was being radicalized. When the young man wouldn’t meet with him, he put the parents in contact with the French authorities, who arrested the young man but quickly let him go again. Soon after his release, he fled to Syria. 

After the Nov. 13 attack, the imam made the gut-wrenching discovery that the man had been one of the perpetrators of the attack on Paris’ Stade de France football arena.

“There are cases like that that are impossible,” he said. “I can’t do anything about it — the state has to take measures. Their ideology of death, they harbor it because they have inside them so much hate. Is it because of their family? Are they part of a gang? Because in general, it doesn’t start in mosques.”

In 2008, Chalghoumi started the Conference of Imams in France, a group that has grown to 180 religious leaders aimed at creating “an Islam of Europe, that fits in the laws and the values of Europe.” The group has spoken out with conviction and regularity against recent acts of violence in Paris and Brussels.

The imam’s fight for the soul of his religion was inspired in part by the history. The Parisian suburb of Drancy, where he lived, served as the railway terminal through which 70,000 prisoners passed on their way to Nazi concentration camps. 

“Remembering the Shoah is a human duty,” he said. “It’s just human victims, assassinated, massacred because of their religion, their belonging.”

He began to learn more about the Holocaust after moving to Drancy in 2000 to start the local Association of Muslims. Since then, he’s paid respects at Holocaust memorials in Israel and Germany.

His activism in Holocaust memory has brought him a fair deal of strife. In 2006, days after he spoke at Drancy’s Holocaust memorial, vandals broke into his house. Since then, there have been more break-ins and attempts on his life.

From an early age, multiculturalism played a large role in the imam’s life. Born in Tunisia in 1972 to a family of modest means, he grew up in the diverse La Goulette port neighborhood of the country’s capital, Tunis, where he recalls a kosher restaurant peacefully coexisting with the Muslim majority.

“We don’t talk about the People of the Book as infidels; we talk about them as the family of the book,” he said of his upbringing in the Islamic faith.

He said the type of radical Islam spreading in low-income areas of France and Belgium are an opportunistic interpretation of the religion: “The façade is Islamic but the reality is politics.” 

Extremist Muslim leaders exploit the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to energize their supporters. For instance, he pointed to dogged activism on the European continent by the Muslim Brotherhood, imported from the Middle East by political refugees.

“It’s not the same Islam as the Islam in the countries where they come from,” he said. “It’s not about peace, love — it’s about confrontation.”

Take, for instance, the idea of jihad — often translated as “struggle” — which has come to refer to Islam’s most militant and extreme wing. Chalghoumi draws a different interpretation. 

“Ramadan is a jihad against the soul,” he said, switching between halting English and Arabic-accented French. “To resist your ambitions — like [Yom] Kippur. For hours, no eating — that’s jihad.”

He shares with the Wiesenthal Center the conviction that radical Islam in the 21st century has to be met where it exists, namely on the Internet. 

“The majority of work we have to do, 60 percent, is on the Internet,” he said. “Because that’s the vehicle, the means of hate. America attacks Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Tora Bora, all those places. But now Al Qaeda is on the Internet, you can’t just bomb them.”

Much of his activism is directed at European corporations that allow terrorist groups to spread their message online. Cooper, the Wiesenthal Center associate dean, recalled that when he first met Chalghoumi at a conference on anti-Semitism, the imam pointed to a Google representative and said, “J’accuse! [I accuse!]” Chalghoumi holds the search engine responsible for allowing terrorists to operate on its site.

As the interview wrapped up, Cooper re-entered the room with a laptop open to a screen grab of a homophobic game a Wiesenthal Center researcher had unearthed, where users play as ISIS soldiers and execute suspected homosexuals. 

“It’s a failure in the system,” Chalghoumi commented.

“Parents don’t know,” Cooper said.

“No control,” the imam said.

“No control, no knowledge,” the rabbi said. “There has to be a whole change in approach even as to how you raise your children.”

Chalghoumi looked drawn and worried. “France doesn’t deserve what’s going on right now,” he said.

100 imams to commemorate Holocaust near Paris memorial site

Some 100 imams will commemorate the Holocaust at a memorial monument near Paris.

Monday's event is planned for Drancy, a suburb of the French capital where tens of thousands of Jews were confined in 1942 before being transported to extermination camps during the German Nazi occupation, according to a report in the French daily Le Figaro. The paper called the event unprecedented.

Hassen Chalghoumi, the imam of Drancy and a veteran activist for dialogue between Muslims and Jews in France and against anti-Semitism, will host the imams.

Manuel Valls, France’s interior minister, also is scheduled to attend the event, which Le Figaro reported is the initiative of Chalghoumi and the French Jewish novelist Marek Halter.

In explaining the goal of the event, Halter recalled a landmark visit by 19 French Muslim leaders, many of them imams, to Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial museum.

“This had a huge impact in Israel and the Arab World,” Halter told Le Figaro. “The objective is to re-create this at Drancy.”

Since the second intifada of 2000, France’s Jewish population of approximately 550,000 has experienced an increase in anti-Semitic violence, mostly by Muslim extremists. Last March, Mohammed Merah, a 23-year-old French-Algerian Islamist terrorist, killed four Jews at a Jewish day school in Toulouse.

“We are in a period of crisis, and tensions take the form of violence,” Halter said. “We need to soothe the tensions. It’s a time bomb.”

French railway lawsuits divide plaintiffs and country’s Jewish groups

Mayer Grosman thinks back to Feb. 2, 1944, all the time.

French policemen and militia members came to his parents’ apartment in Paris with orders to take two Grosman males — Grosman, age 6, and his father.

But Grosman’s grandfather, whose name was not on the paper, insisted on going in place of 6-year-old Mayer. After jewelry and money exchanged hands, the police and militia agreed.

Grosman’s father and grandfather, both Polish-born Jews, were taken on a train of the SNCF, the French national railway, to the Drancy internment camp north of Paris. From there, another SNCF train took them to Auschwitz, where they were gassed.

Grosman’s mother took him and his sister and fled, hiding in French homes and churches. They survived the war.

Grosman, along with other deportees’ families, received a settlement worth about $24,000 from the French government in 2000. But when Alain Lipietz, a French deputy in the European Parliament whose father and uncle were rounded up and sent to a holding area during the war, won a cash indemnity worth about $77,000 from the SNCF — the railway is appealing the case — Grosman decided he’d also sue.

“I’ve never forgotten and never forgiven,” said Grosman, 68. “I want recognition, and if my children and grandchildren can receive financial compensation, all the better.”

More than 1,000 people, both Jews and non-Jews, have filed similar claim letters since the Lipietz case in Toulouse last summer. Under French law, the SNCF must respond to each letter individually within two months, or legal proceedings begin automatically.

Jewish community leaders in France have come out against the claims against SNCF. They argue that of all the state-run institutions active during World War II — including banks, insurance companies, the education system and many others run by high-level civil servants in prestigious posts — SNCF officials have made the greatest effort to be transparent and truthful in explaining their wartime activities to the French public.

“I understand the families,” said Roger Cukierman, head of the CRIF, the umbrella organization of French Jewish groups. “I can feel their pain, but the SNCF has really made an effort to put together exhibits in train stations and other educational tools. If people take the SNCF to court, they could begin doing the same with other state-run groups, such as the police, and then why not private companies? I understand the claims, but is this the right path to take?”

CRIF officials and community leaders — such as Serge Klarsfeld, the well-known Nazi-hunter, lawyer and head of the Sons and Daughters of Jewish Deportees from France — have criticized the lawsuits, but CRIF has taken no official position.

The story gets more complicated. Klarsfeld’s son, Arno, was highly praised in 1998 for representing plaintiffs in the trial against Maurice Papon, a Vichy police boss who directed deportations from Bordeaux and went on to a decorated civil service career.

Arno Klarsfeld now represents the SNCF in New York, where deportees’ families filed a class-action suit against the French railway. He also works closely with Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy on providing legal papers to certain illegal immigrants in France, leading some to charge that his SNCF work is politically motivated.

Neither Serge nor Arno Klarsfeld returned phone calls for this article.

Historians consider the Holocaust the industrialization of mass murder on an unprecedented scale. In France, that industrialization is represented by the SNCF’s efficiency in deporting mostly Jews, but also Resistance fighters and even railway workers who joined the Resistance.

“Right after the war, De Gaulle did a brilliant thing,” said Corinne Hershkovitch, a lawyer representing about 500 families who have filed claims against the SNCF. “All the major institutions, the banks, insurance companies, construction companies and so on, were issued a presidential pardon for collaborating with the Nazi regime, in the interest of French national unity. He managed to convince the French people that France had won the war.”

Among the groups receiving the pardon, which was political and not judicial, was SNCF. But now, the railway has a dilemma on its hands: There are no class-action suits in France, so each of those 1,000 letters could lead to a hearing or trial. An SNCF official said the letters were being answered individually and not with a form response.

However, SNCF General Director Guillaume Pepy told a Paris TV station earlier this year that “the SNCF board has decided to reject the requests by plaintiffs for cash indemnities to be paid by the railway. The SNCF was requisitioned and was acting under constraints from the Nazi regime. We think it would be unfair and a historical error to find the SNCF guilty for the deportations.”

Hershkovitch disagrees.

“This is the continuation of the Papon trial. Papon was the first individual to take the stand, and the SNCF may be the first company,” she said.

The SNCF officially opened its wartime archives in 1992. The Bachelier Report, commissioned by the SNCF and written by a private French institute, was issued in 1996 and made available to the public in 1998, revealing some ugly details.

For example, the report noted that the Nazis asked for big barrels of water to be placed in each train car so people could quench their thirst on the trip to Auschwitz.

“French SNCF officials at the time refused to do so,” Hershkovitch said. “They said putting barrels of water in each car could easily delay the trains and upset the schedule. They said that their job was to keep the trains rolling on time.”

Another lawyer handling more than 400 claims, Avi Bitton, said it was normal to ask for financial reparations, “even though the French quickly link the money with the claimants being mostly Jews, and that is negative.

“The SNCF role was about money from the very beginning,” Bitton said. “According to the Bachelier Report, the French railway billed the Vichy government for every person who was deported. And they billed Vichy for the use of third-class cars but put the deportees in cattle wagons.”