Relations between Jews and Muslims remain tense in Toulouse, six months after an al Qaeda-inspired gunman shot and killed three soldiers, a rabbi and three Jewish children, say the city's Jewish leaders.
Official contact between Muslim and Jewish associations is virtually non-existent in Toulouse – a city that in March witnessed one of the worst anti-Semitic hate crimes in recent decades – according to the city's Jewish leaders.
Nicole Yardeni told FRANCE 24’s Debate programme on Wednesday [Part 1, Part 2] that despite all the CRIF’s efforts to invite Islamic associations to official inter-faith meetings and events in the traumatised city, they had gone largely unanswered by the city’s Muslim leaders.
This lack of contact, she said, existed before the March 2012 killings by al Qaeda-inspired gunman Mohammed Merah, who shot and killed three French soldiers, all of North African origin, before gunning down a young rabbi and three primary school children at a Jewish school in Toulouse.
The comments came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the city in south-western France to pay his respects on Thursday. He was joined by French President François Hollande, who vowed to fight anti-Semitism in France.
The March killings lifted the veil on latent anti-Semitism among a small minority of French radical Muslims, at a time when anti-Muslim sentiment in the country was being drummed-up by the far-right National Front party in the run-up to the May presidential and parliamentary elections.
But according to Yardeni, the trauma of the event did nothing to prompt fresh efforts to improve ties between the two communities.
“At an individual level, local Muslims have shown me an incredible amount of support,” Yardeni said. “But I have no one among the imams or Muslim organisations here that wants to speak to me.”
'Lack of leadership'
Yardeni said that at the beginning of March the CRIF organised its annual dinner, attended by other religious organisations and local government and business officials.
But not one representative of the Muslim faith deigned to attend, apart from a “very young assistant from one mosque”.
The leader of that mosque, she said, “was very nice” but did not want to be interviewed by the CRIF “because he didn’t want to talk on our radio, he did not want to be seen to be getting cosy with us.”
“I don’t think it’s hate so much as a lack of organisation,” she added, saying that in other southern French cities such as Marseille there were firm links between the two faiths, primarily because of strong and charismatic direction from Muslim leaders there.
“But no one in Toulouse has been able to unify its many different Muslim voices, there is no leadership.”
Yardeni’s complaint about the apparent unwillingness of Muslim leaders to engage with Toulouse’s Jewish community was confirmed by the city’s Rabbi Harold Weill, who told FRANCE 24 on Thursday that links between the two faith communities in the city were “virtually non-existent”.
The “excellent relationships” with the city’s Christian organisations “simply don’t happen with the Muslims here”.
Weill pointed out that creating institutions – such as the CRIF – that are capable of presenting a united voice, “takes time and discipline, and at the moment the leadership of the Muslim community is very badly organised.”
“Finding a Muslim leader willing to be a partner in dialogue here in Toulouse is extremely difficult,” he said. “The problem isn’t about individuals. Most Jews here, like me, have good relationships among the city’s many Muslims.
“Obviously, the vast majority of Muslims here aren’t anti-Semitic. But it must be stated that the biggest anti-Semitic threat that exists in France today comes, sadly, from a minority of extreme radical Muslims.
“Maybe it’s this small minority that makes their leaders afraid to extend the hand of friendship. If we are going to overcome the problems of anti-Semitism, they will need to show more courage and more strength.”
'We are all victims of radicalisation'
Abdellatif Mellouki, who is vice president of the Regional Council for the Muslim Faith (CRCM) in Toulouse, which is under the umbrella of a National Council (CFCM), denied that there had been a concerted attempt by Muslims to snub or avoid the Jewish community.
But he admitted that the CFCM - set up a decade ago with state sponsorship for the purpose of giving Muslims in France a focal point to improve dialogue and community relations - was "still young" and could "only operate within its means”.
Muslims in Toulouse had been meeting with Jews since the March attacks, he said, even if these meetings were informal and unofficial.
“Evidently we want to strengthen these links, of course we are willing to talk. The whole Muslim community in Toulouse wants dialogue and progress,” he told FRANCE 24.
The March killings, Mellouki said, should not be seen as purely anti-Semitic: “The first three people killed by Merah were of North African origin, two of them Muslims, shot because they were soldiers.
“This tragedy touched our community too. We are all, Muslims, Jews, Christians and atheists, victims of this radicalism.”
Mellouki also alluded to obstacles within the Jewish community – “which has its own radicals” – blocking dialogue: “Some of the CRIF genuinely want dialogue. Others don’t.”
Courage in the face of extremists
Hassen Chalghoumi, who presents himself as an imam and is president of the Islamic cultural centre mosque at Drancy in the Paris suburbs, is a leading voice calling for greater understanding between France’s Muslim and Jewish communities (for which he has been subjected to intense criticism).
He told FRANCE 24 the lack of dialogue in Toulouse was “a tragedy” that could be explained because of the diverse backgrounds of France’s Muslims, “who come from many countries and bring many different interpretations of the religion.”
“There is very little coherence between mosques, so it is difficult to have unified leadership,” he said. “Muslims will have to do it if we are ever to hope to present our values honestly. And that is going to take a certain amount of courage in the face of radical extremists.”
But building bridges was a two-way street, he added: “Muslims need to get beyond the idea of the CRIF being an organisation that raises money so that Israel can kill Palestinians.
“And French Jews – and the French generally – need to get over the image of Muslims being animals and suicide bombers.
“Real relationships and a genuine hope for unity can only come when these prejudices have been buried.”
Date created : 2012-11-01