PARIS (JTA) – Shadowed by two bodyguards, Hassen Chalghoumi – a target of numerous anti-Semitic attacks in recent years – mingled with friends and colleagues at the fifth national convention of France’s Jewish community umbrella group, CRIF. But Chalghoumi is not a member of the Jewish community.
Rather he is a Muslim spiritual leader, or imam, who is being targeted for his vocal condemnations of anti-Semitism and his work to commemorate the Holocaust.
“Honestly, it has come to a point where I feel safer when I’m abroad,” said Chalghoumi, who has received countless death threats. ”There’s a minority within the Muslim community that is trying to agitate and to tarnish our name. It’s not only a Jewish problem. It’s a Muslim problem. It’s a French problem.”
Chalghoumi was one of several Muslims who attended the conference on Sunday, where organizers highlighted the contribution of non-Jews to the fight against anti-Semitism “to show that Jews are not isolated in French society, as some might think, and that the fight against anti-Semitism is a fight for republican values,” as CRIF President Roger Cukierman told JTA in an interview.
The conference, which organizers said drew more than 500 people, took place amid a spike in the number of anti-Semitic attacks coupled with record-breaking immigration to Israel from France.
And though the conference offered speeches about Jewish spirituality by France’s newly elected chief rabbi, Haim Korsia, and a speech by the French-Jewish celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy on the future of French Jewry – he called on Jews to stay in France – French anti-Semitism nonetheless dominated the discussions at the convention.
France’s Jewish community, which numbers 500,000, became a major target of hate crimes over the summer during Israel’s war with Gaza. The community recorded 527 incidents in the first seven months of this year; there were 423 such incidents in all of 2013.
Most violent acts in 2014 have been perpetrated by people of Muslim background, according to Sammy Ghozlan, founder of the National Bureau Against Anti-Semitism watchdog group.
“Over the past 20 years, Muslims have taken over from the far right when it comes to violent acts,” he told JTA.
Patrick Klugman, a human rights lawyer who serves as a deputy mayor of Paris and a former head of France’s Jewish student union, said: “We had terrible anxiety, of historical proportions, over the very future and sustainability of the Jewish community of France, and what would happen to France itself – two concerns that are intertwined. Now it’s time to reflect. And while the situation is dire, the Jewish community has more friends than it knows. This is an attempt to show it.”
The conference included a lunch session with Latifa Ibn Ziaten, the Muslim mother of one of three French soldiers killed by the Islamist Mohammed Merah before he murdered another four people – three of them children – at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012. Ziaten spoke of her indignation when she hears young Muslims speak of Merah as a martyr.
“I can’t believe my ears and I tell myself this is simply not possible in the France I know,” she said.
Chalghoumi told listeners of a recent incident in which a young man gave him the thumbs-down sign from some distance.
“This time, I went over and tried to ask him why he would do that. He told me to go to my Zionist friends,” recalled Chalghoumi, the imam of Drancy, near Paris. “Then he told me ‘goodbye, Mr. Rabbi.’ “
Notably, back in 2010, Chalghoumi was the target of scores of Muslims who burst into a prayer service he was leading and yelled, “We are going to liquidate him, this imam of the Jews.”
To Chalghoumi, “anti-Semitism and the indifference to it are part of a bigger crisis afflicting French society, also visible in the departure of hundreds to fight as jihadists in a war which has nothing to do with real Islam,” he said in reference to young men and women who left for Syria since 2011. The French daily Le Figaro put their number earlier this year at 250.
As noted during the lunch, these and other factors resulted in the growing popularity of the far-right National Front party, which many perceive as anti-Muslim, not only in the general population but also among Jews. Its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has been convicted multiple times for hate speech and Holocaust denial. But with his daughter, Marine, at the helm, the party has courted the Jewish vote.
One person working to solve issues of interreligious discord is Martine Ouaknine, president of the CRIF’s Nice-based office. At the conference, Ouaknine showcased a recently launched scouts group for Muslim, Jewish and Christian children.
While the CRIF convention highlighted France’s “republican values” and its longstanding embrace of secularism, it also named Muslims (as well as far-right and far-left voters) as more susceptible than others to anti-Semitic views. Conference organizers revealed the results of surveys conducted in recent weeks by the IFOP polling company. Among the findings: 74 per cent of the more than 1,500 respondents who self-identified as observant Muslims agreed that Jews have too much influence on French economics, compared to 25 per cent in the general population.
Chalghoumi did not take issue with the results, saying “we need to look at what we fear, not shy away.”
Watching Chalghoumi and his bodyguard leave the CAP 15 conference centre near the Eiffel Tower, Martine Levy, an active member of the Jewish community, spoke of her admiration for what she said was “Chalghoumi’s courage.” But she also wondered “what kind of message other Muslims who oppose extremism receive when they see that he has to walk around with bodyguards.”