Advancing peace & interfaith understanding Beliefs Culture

French rabbi hits the road to build Jewish-Muslim ties

Rabbi Michel Serfaty speaks to Muslim men outside UOIF headquarters. Religion News Service photo by Elizabeth Bryant
Rabbi Michel Serfaty speaks to Muslim men outside UOIF headquarters.  Religion News Service photo by Elizabeth Bryant

Rabbi Michel Serfaty speaks to Muslim men outside UOIF headquarters. Religion News Service photo by Elizabeth Bryant

LA COURNEUVE, France (RNS) Drivers slow down to stare at the tall figure in a black bowler hat and snow-white beard. “Just the other day, I was called a dirty Jew,” Michel Serfaty is telling a Muslim man. “Now, you’re going to say it isn’t so.”

The man indeed begins to protest — that the remarks are shameful but don’t reflect the sentiments of many Muslims. The two are standing near the glass-fronted headquarters of the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, or UOIF, a popular and conservative association with ties to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Men are trickling in for prayer on a sunny afternoon.

It’s a strange place to find a rabbi. But Serfaty is not your ordinary rabbi.

For the past decade, Moroccan-born Serfaty has toured France in a beat-up minibus plastered with slogans such as “Solidarity between Jews and Muslims” and “We’re more alike than you think.”

He’s met with Palestinians in Gaza and taken French imams to Auschwitz. But mostly he wades into tough French neighborhoods, striking up conversations with Muslim leaders, students and even drug dealers. Dialogue is what Serfaty’s Jewish-Muslim Friendship Association is all about.

“When we go to some neighborhoods and hear the blackest things about Jews, we’re not there to correct them,” he said. “We’re there to listen and to get people to talk.”

Since the Paris shootings in January — and the gruesome Islamist attack near Lyon on Friday (June 26) — the rabbi’s work has taken a new urgency.

Fears of militant Islam have added new tensions to Jewish and Muslim relations in France, which are already strained by events in the Middle East and anti-Semitism at home. Indeed, the number of anti-Semitic acts recorded by Jewish authorities doubled to more than 850 in 2014, compared with the previous year. Too often, experts say, the authors are young Muslims.  

“The state has done nothing for years to improve things,” Serfarty said. “During that time, I’ve gone to all the tinderboxes. I’ve heard the harshest things, but I’ve never had any incident.

“Which means that even with delinquents, there is the possibility of dialogue, of a handshake and a smile.”

The Star of David casts a neon glow on the rabbi as he speaks. Serfaty is seated in his synagogue, in the quiet Paris suburb of Ris-Orangis. A mosque and an evangelical church are just next door — a deliberate feat of urban planning to promote interfaith harmony.

But the soldiers standing watch outside point to another reality. The rabbi has round-the-clock protection since January’s terrorist attacks. In a twist of irony, Amedy Coulibaly, who gunned down four Jews at a kosher supermarket, grew up just a few miles away.

Rabbi Michel Serfaty and Imam Mohammed Azizi stand in front of Serfaty's bus. Religion News Service photo by Elizabeth Bryant

Rabbi Michel Serfaty and Imam Mohammed Azizi stand in front of Serfaty’s bus. Religion News Service photo by Elizabeth Bryant

But there is work to be done on both sides. Serfaty described meeting a group of Hasidic Jews in Paris. “One tells me, ‘Mr. Rabbi, you’re mistaken,’” Serfaty recounted. “‘Isaac and Ishmael (the two sons of Abraham) hated each other. And we Jews and Muslims will hate each other forever.’”

Serfaty works with a small team to shift those hardened views. He wanted to hire an interfaith group, but no Jews applied. So for now, he travels the country with an imam and several young Muslims.

“I’d never met a Jew, so it was a real discovery,” said 24-year-old Mohammed Amine Boudebouz, who joined Serfaty’s staff two years ago. Like the rabbi, Boudebouz’s family comes from Morocco. “My parents are open,” he added. “They grew up with Jews in Morocco, so there’s no problem.”

On a recent morning, Serfaty drives to the UOIF’s headquarters in La Courneuve, a bleak Paris suburb ringed by housing projects. As usual, he arrives unannounced. The organization’s president is away, but accountant Ghazi Wehbi invites him for coffee.

The two exchange pleasantries and pose for photos. Wehbi said Serfaty reminds him of an uncle.

Back outside, Serfaty begins to hand out fliers to the faithful. A few push them away. But soon, he’s struck up a vigorous exchange with 38-year-old Adel Bouafi. A small crowd gathers as the conversation switches from the “dirty Jew” remark to Bouafi’s complaints about Jewish clannishness.

“They call Sarcelles  ‘Little Jerusalem’ — that’s shocking in France,” said Bouafi, naming a nearby town. Serfaty laughed. “That’s an old story, dating back 2,000 years,” he replied. “Every town where rabbis gather has been called ‘Little Jerusalem.’”

“We need to act,” Serfaty continued. “We need to break down barriers.” The men gathered around began to nod.

Later, Bouafi described the rabbi as courageous.  “It’s a really good initiative to meet young people, to open doors,” he said.

Will it make a difference?

“Everything is possible,” he added.

LM/MG END BRYANT

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Elizabeth Bryant

8 Comments

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  • People who say Jesus was just a prophet don’t make sense because no true
    prophet can be revered if they are a liar so if He/Jesus was not the Messiah
    He can’t be revered or a true prophet so either Jesus was a liar or Messiah!
    All faiths outside of Christianity have to earn their way to heaven/they teach
    works but non-believers do works so the fruit we are known by is the fruit of
    Repentance so if we Repent/trust Christ as Lord we are assured of going to
    heaven but these other belief systems give no assurances to their believers
    when they die if they go into heaven. What kind of faith is that? A fasle one!
    Jesus among others gods and also the Case for Christ are both good books.
    Jesus is the Messiah/the only way to heaven!

  • In trying to break down interfaith barriers, the Rabbi is doing what all people of good faith should do! We are all brothers and sisters! Our bodies are made of the same elements, molecules, cells, etc.
    Only those who wish to hate, cannot see the wisdom of goodness and as a consequence, they are not happy!

  • So true! We should all love our brothers and sisters in the “human family,” no matter the race, culture or nationality. It will eventually be accomplished worldwide on earth through God’s kingdom or government with true brotherhood of man.?

  • Ro Na, its unfortunate that you used a post on interfaith understanding to say that Jews and Muslims are both wrong. I don’t live my life to get into heaven. That is not the purpose of my life, but it’s offensive and just wrong to say that Jesus is the only way. Non-Christian religions are not false. You just make Christians look bad. I’ve always wondered why you think posts like this will convert anyone. It does the exact opposite.

  • Ro Na is right Susan. Jesus is the only way to heaven and the only way to have peace with God. She of course can post what she feels she should. You continually place yourself in opposition to Yeshua and thereby are in opposition to God the Father, since Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus is indeed the Way, the Truth, and the Life for everyone,. Jews, Gentiles, those raised as Muslims and those raised in any other religion that is based on works and not on God’s grace and salvation through faith in Jesus. We need to receive Jesus as Savior and Lord to know God’s forgiveness and His peace. Then our eyes will be opened and the blinders will come off and we will be in agreement with God, rather than in opposition to Him. May many come to know His peace.

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