Opinion: Strengthening Muslim-Jewish ties in the face of evil


As a rabbi and an imam, we deeply mourn the tragic loss of innocent lives in the murderous terrorist attacks in France. We express our heartfelt sympathy and compassion for the bereaved.

Amid the wall-to-wall media coverage of the attacks and their aftermath, one piece of the story has received less attention: the inspiring manner in which Muslims and Jews in France have stood side by side in denouncing these heinous acts.

Thousands of Muslims and Jews reacted to the savage killings of three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse and the earlier murders of three French soldiers, including two Muslims, by joining together in solidarity marches in communities throughout Paris.

Meanwhile, top French Muslim and Jewish leaders have vowed to stand united in opposition to acts which Mohammed Moussaoui, president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, has accurately characterized as being “in total contradiction with the foundation of this religion [Islam].”

This heartening coming-together of Jews and Muslims in France did not happen in a vacuum.

In 2003, Rabbi Michel Serfaty, the spiritual leader of the Jewish community of the Paris suburb of Ris Orangis, responded to being accosted by Muslim youths near his synagogue by founding the Jewish-Muslim Friendship Society of France, which is dedicated to building ties of understanding and trust between the two communities. Every year the organization’s dedicated Muslim and Jewish staffers and volunteers take part in a Tour de France, in the process building a network of ties between grass-roots Muslims and Jews in towns and cities throughout the country.

In 2009, the European imams and rabbis who took part in the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding’s Mission of European Imams and Rabbis to the United States agreed to participate in the foundation’s annual Weekend of Twinning in which scores of mosques and synagogues and Muslim and Jewish organizations hold one-on-one encounters during a weekend each November in cities around the world.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the FFEU and the Islamic Society of North America will host the first Mission of Latin American Muslim and Jewish Leaders. The event will bring 14 imams and rabbis from five South American countries and two Caribbean islands to Washington for meetings with Muslim and Jewish members of Congress and with top officials at the White House and State Department. We are optimistic the mission will jump-start a process of dialogue and cooperation between the Muslim and Jewish communities of Latin America.

What we have learned from five years of working together to nurture an ever-expanding fabric of Muslim-Jewish relationships—and what has been proven anew by the joint response of Muslims and Jews in France to the terror in Toulouse—is that when Muslims and Jews open sustained face-to-face communication, we can maintain our unity even in the face of unspeakable horror directed against our respective communities.

As we have undertaken together a joint study of Torah, Koran and the oral traditions of our two faiths, we have discovered profound commonalities between our beliefs. We have come to understand that just as we share a common faith—dating back to our common patriarch, Abraham/Ibrahim—we also share a common fate. Our single destiny must strengthen our bonds of concern, compassion and caring for each other.

Indeed, as Jews and Muslims, not only must we carry out a sustained dialogue, but we must actively fight for each other’s rights, standing together against Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and xenophobia. We believe deeply that a people which fights for its own rights is only as honorable as when it fights for the rights of all people. For only when we see the humanity in the Other can we preserve it within ourselves.

Rabbi Marc Schneier is president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. Imam Shamsi Ali is the spiritual leader of the Jamaica Muslim Center in New York.

After Toulouse attack, Sarkozy suspends campaign and Jews warn of rising anti-Semitism


The attack by an unidentified gunman on a Jewish school in Toulouse, France was condemned by Jewish leaders, who also warned against the rise of anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe.

“Whoever did this is looking to target the Jewish community at its weakest point, its youth, in the hopes of spreading fear throughout the community,” said Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, in a statement. “They will not succeed. The Jews of Europe in general and the Jews of France in particular have a long history of standing firm against hatred and violence, and I know as a community French Jewry will send a message of strength and resilience in the face of those who wish to terrorize them.”

A man riding a motorbike reportedly opened fire Monday morning outside the Ozar Hatorah School, where students were waiting to enter the building at the start of the school day. The shooter then entered the building and continued shooting at students and teachers before fleeing on his motorbike.

Several students also were injured inside the building. The dead are reported to be a 30-year-old rabbi and his 3-year-old and 6-year-old sons, as well as the 10-year-old daughter of the school’s principal.

“This is a brazen assault on France and French society, and another telling reminder of the dangers that exist for Jewish communities in today’s world,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, in a statement. “We count on French authorities to pursue the investigation vigorously, arrest whoever is involved, and prosecute to the fullest extent of the law, as well as review security at Jewish institutions. We have confidence they will.”

Anti Defamation League national Director Abraham Foxman pointed out that the Jewish community of Toulouse has been targeted in the past three years with anti-Semitic acts of violence.

“It is critically important that the Jewish community in France feel assured that they will be safe and secure in the aftermath of this horrific incident, and we welcome the announcement that security will be intensified at Jewish institutions throughout France,” Foxman said. “We appreciate President Sarkozy’s decision to immediately go to Toulouse, for the government’s clear message to all French schools to stand in solidarity, and for the direct public statements that no efforts will be spared to bring the killer to justice.”

French Interior Minister Claude Gueant ordered security to be tightened around all Jewish schools in France after the attack.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy called the attack a “national tragedy” and vowed to find the killer. “This is a day of national tragedy because children were killed in cold blood,” Sarkozy said in Toulouse, where he rushed after suspending his reelection campaign. “Barbarity, savagery, cruelty cannot win. Hate cannot win. We will find him.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would do everything to help France track down the killer. “Today we had a savage crime in France that gunned down French Jews, among them children. It’s too early to say what the precise background for this act of murder is, but I think that we can’t rule out that there was a strong murderous anti-Semitic motive here,” Netanyahu said.

“I haven’t heard yet a condemnation from any of the UN bodies but I have heard that one such body, the UN Human Rights Council,  invited on this very day a senior representative of Hamas – on this day, when we had the savage murder, they chose to invite a member of Hamas,” Netanyahu added.

“We are horrified by this attack and we trust the French authorities to shed full light on this tragedy and bring the perpetrators of these murders to justice,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told AFP.

The White House also condemned the attack. “We were deeply saddened to learn of the horrific attack this morning against the teachers and students of a Jewish school in the French city of Toulouse,” said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends of the victims, and we stand with a community in grief.”

From Middle East to France, a Jewish school’s journey


Rabbi Jean-Paul Amoyelle, head of the Ozar Hatorah network of Jewish schools in France, was woken at 4 a.m. during a visit to New York with chilling news.

Jewish schools and synagogues in France had been targeted in a string of attacks in the past decade, many of them arson, but this was different.

A gunman had shot dead three children and a 30-year-old Hebrew teacher at his school in Toulouse, one of 20 in France with roots in the diaspora of Middle Eastern Jewry.

The shooting marks a tragic turn for Ozar Hatorah, which was created in the wake of the Holocaust in the mid-1940s by a Syrian-born Jew intent on improving the lot of Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa.

In 2001 a classroom was burned down at a “Ozar Hatorah”, or “Treasure of the Torah”, school in the Paris suburb of Creteil, but the perpetrator turned out to be a pupil.

Amoyelle said Monday’s attack was a sign of growing danger.

“This was deliberate. Anti-semitic and deliberate, I have no doubt,” Amoyelle said by telephone as he was due to return to France. “I plan to install a zone of reinforced security.”

The creator of Ozar Hatorah, Isaac Shalom, opened schools in countries including Morocco, Iran, Libya and Syria to respond to what his network described as disastrous educational conditions.

As the region underwent upheaval and war following the creation of the state of Israel, Ozar Hatorah also followed the path of Jewish emigration, starting schools in France from the late 1960s as large numbers of North African Jews crossed the Mediterranean to escape heightened regional tensions.

“I was in France in 1967. I began with a school in Sarcelles (a Paris suburb), and there was already one in Lyon,” said Amoyelle, who now oversees 20 schools across Paris and cities like Marseille, Strasbourg and Aix-les-bains.

“These are schools that are perfectly integrated in the community,” he added, describing the educational program as offering two possibilities: a straightforward French education as well as a Jewish education rooted in history and religion.

Today there are over 30,000 students enrolled in Jewish schools in France, according to the French Jewish association CRIF. The number of enrolments has stabilized since 2005, according to Jewish education expert Patrick Petit-Ohayon.

Ozar Hatorah offers what Amoyelle describes as “a certain security”, a precious commodity for parents made wary by the arson attacks. Guards stand at the door to check visitors and the railings were elongated after 2001.

Parents and pupils have been left shocked and bewildered in an area they thought was safe.

“This area is very calm and as far as I know there had not been any threats,” said Laura, a parent at the school, who declined to give her last name.

Her daughter said teachers had hurried them into various rooms, including the synagogue, when the shooting broke out. “I didn’t see anything, but I heard several shots,” she said.

“It was scary.”

Additional reporting by Chine Labbe and John Irish; editing by Geert De Clercq and Philippa Fletcher

Sarkozy: Gunman in French shootings driven by racism [VIDEO]


French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that the same gunman who shot dead a teacher and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse on Monday was also responsible for the killing of three soldiers last week, apparently motivated by racism.

“We know that it is the same person and the same weapon that killed the soldiers, the children and the teacher,” Sarkozy said in a televised address, saying the terrorism alert level in France had been raised.

“This act is odious and cannot remain unpunished.”

Sarkozy also said he would suspend his campaign for France’s April-May presidential election until Wednesday.

Reporting By Daniel Flynn and Leigh Thomas; editing by Nicolas Vinocur

 

New York City police tighten security at Jewish sites


New York police ramped up security at synagogues and other Jewish institutions on Monday following the deadly attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse, France.

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said tightened surveillance and increased patrols at more than 40 locations citywide came in response to the Toulouse attack and not in response to a specific threat against New York City.

“We know that we’re the top of the terrorist target list, so we’re concerned about the so-called copy-cat syndrome where someone might see the events unfolding in Toulouse and take it upon themselves to act out,” Kelly told reporters.

He said the additional coverage includes some undercover officers “but it’s largely increased uniformed presence at houses of worship and other locations.”

A gunman on a motorbike shot dead three children and a teacher at a Jewish school in Toulouse on Monday, just days after apparently killing three soldiers nearby.

New York City, home to more than 1.4 million Jews, has the largest Jewish population of any metropolitan area outside of Israel, said Levi Fishman, spokesman UJA-Federation of New York.

Following attacks abroad, the department typically reinforces security at corresponding targeted locations in New York such as hotels or the mass transit system.

Reporting By Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Philip Barbara

Couscous for the Soul


Pauline Bebe, France’s first and only female rabbi, was in town last week, soaking up not only the winter California warmth but our spiritual rays, too. Dark-haired and soft-spoken, Bebe, 36, is a leader in a growing Jewish liberal revival that is now spreading rapidly through Napoleon’s homeland. But in a nation that is still startled by a newspaper headline reading “Moi, femme juive et rabbin” (I, woman, Jewish and rabbi), she’s got her work cut out for her.

For many of us, French Jewry is little more than an off-road adventure during a trip to Paris. Even assimilated Jews get a kick seeking out a pastrami sandwich in the Marais or attending High Holy Days services in the ancient Orthodox synagogue where, amid intermittent anti-Semitic attacks, gendarmes guard the gates. Most of the time, France represents hostility to Jews, siding with Arabs against Israel and hiding terrorists.

But France contains the world’s fourth-largest Jewish community, and 200 years ago, its Jews were the first to balance Jewish identity against citizenship in a modern state. France was, of course, the home of the great Talmudist Rashi and the birthplace of modern sociology (once derided as a “Jewish science”).

Today’s French Jewish society is culturally diverse, equally Ashkenazi and Sephardi. When I asked the Sorbonne-educated Bebe how a Jewish mother makes chicken soup, she replied, “Couscous.”

As French Jews go, so, in a way, do we all. And today they need our help.

With a Jewish population nearing 700,000, only 5 percent of French Jews are affiliated with any community organization or practice. American Jews talk about the loss of the current generation to intermarriage or disaffection, but our community participation is at the 50 percent level. For Bebe and her American-born husband, Rabbi Tom Cohen, for the French to reach 50 percent participation in two decades will be miraculeux.

But before the miracle can occur, the weight of modern history must be lifted. Of course I mean the Shoah.
“I have that history in my own family,” began Bebe, as she kept one eye on her 5-month-old son Elon, and an ear on two other youngsters in the next room.

“My grandfather, Paul Nathan, was in engineering school when he was told to register with the police. He was proud of his country, his family had died for his country. He never thought that by signing a piece of paper, he would endanger his life.”

The infamous history of France under Vichy echoes throughout Bebe’s congregation. France didn’t wait for Hitler to begin its own assault on its Jews. More than 80,000 Jews were deported from France to Germany and Poland, where many were killed.

And yet, while the police cooperated with the Gestapo, many individuals, including police, took enormous risks on their behalf.

“My grandfather was out riding his bike when a policeman warned him that he better leave,” she said. Bebe’s mother and father, like thousands of French Jews, were hidden by Catholic families in the south of France throughout the war.

“I asked my in-laws why they stayed,” Tom Cohen told me. “But it was far more complex than American Jews believe.”

After the war, Jewish life ended. There were few Jewish schools. Today’s synagogue-goer is making up for lost time, feeding a hunger suppressed for two decades. Though Bebe’s role as first female rabbi initially caused a stir, she is the rare member of Generation J, a Jew with knowledge. There are 200 families in her synagogue, 80 students in her religious school.

“The true tradition of Judaism is being open … and we are building its home in Paris,” reads the brochure for Bebe’s dream, the Jewish Community Center in Paris. Combining a synagogue, school, library and cybercafe, the center will be “a home filled with spirituality, where every step of the cycle of life can be celebrated with emotion, a home where it’s good to enter and linger a while.”

This is where we can help. With the help of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, a building campaign has begun for the first French JCC. You can become an associate member of this new institution.
But that’s not all. Bebe says that many French Jews are still uncertain about taking the first step. A generation that grew up in Jewish ignorance needs mentoring and friendship.

“When you’re in Paris, don’t only visit the Orthodox shul, visit us,” she says (e-mail Paris@judaisme-liberal.com). “I can tell them that Reform Judaism is the largest movement, but that’s only a rabbi talking. Our congregants need to see you, to know that liberal Judaism is observed all over the world.”
When in Paris, get some Couscous for your soul.

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