Another summer, another chance to take Jewish-Islamic dialogue on the road in France.
This time, the road is Route E 54, headed southeast from Paris toward Besancon.
A unique experiment in interfaith dialogue recently pulled into the city in eastern France with its message of trust and tolerance.
The Jewish-Muslim Friendship Bus, a five-year-old project of a French Jewish-Muslim Friendship group known as AJMF, travels the country each summer, preaching coexistence to members of the religious communities that have been riven by violence and hatred in recent years.
Some Jews and Muslims, many of whom have common roots in northern Africa, are welcoming; other are wary, says Rabbi Michel Serfaty, who founded the group after he became the victim of an anti-Semitic attack in Ris-Orangis in 2003.
“We fight discrimination and stereotypes, and try to break down the walls between our young people,” says the rabbi, wearing a black hat in front of the friendship bus in Besancon. Around him are participants in the bus tour, which includes both Jews and Muslims, as well as Besancon residents.
The vehicle, painted with such slogans as “Jews and Muslims say no to discrimination” and “We are more alike than you think,” is a natural attention-getter.
In Besancon’s town square, young women in hijabs hurried past without glancing at AJMF literature. “They are afraid. They see the words ‘Jewish-Muslim friendship’ and they are wary,” Imam Mohamed Azizi, Rabbi Serfaty’s partner in interfaith work, told JTA.
This year, the group, which runs panel discussions in the French countryside as part of its activities, is for the first time spending time in some of Paris’ roughest neighborhoods, where the worst anti-Jewish violence has taken place.
“I support the rabbi’s initiative,” says Farihane Larabi, a young Muslim student wearing a headscarf who came across the friendship bus. “I think this is exactly what we need today, when ‘Islamophobia’ and anti-Semitism are on a rise.”
The demise of AJMF, which has the backing of major Jewish and Islamic organizations in France, was reported last year, in the wake of hostilities in the Middle East.
The reports were premature. AJMF is still rolling along. But it’s slow going, says Elia Ktourza, the organization’s program director. Some French towns didn’t welcome the bus, she says. “They’re afraid; they’d rather hide their problems.”
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