Gaza Fighting Reverberates In France

The recent conflict in Gaza touched nerves in France, which is home to Europe's largest Jewish and Muslim communities. Despite the cease-fire in Gaza, many say the fighting there has done lasting damage to relations between Muslims and Jews in France.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And now we consider the fallout from the recent bloodshed in Gaza. The battle there touched nerves in France. And why that matters is because France is home to Europe's largest Jewish and Muslim communities. Even though the Gaza fighting is over for now, there is still friction between Muslims and Jews in France, as Eleanor Beardsley reports.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Shabbat shalom...

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: At the height of the Israeli attack on Gaza, several hundred Jews, Muslims, and Catholics gathered in a small Paris community center to sing and pray for peace in French, Hebrew, and Arabic.

(Soundbite of man praying in Arabic)

BEARDSLEY: Even though the group agreed not to discuss politics, there was still tension in the air. Fatima Amadoushi(ph), a Muslim mother of three teenagers, says this conflict more than any other has put a strain on relations between Muslims and Jews in France.

Ms. FATIMA AMADOUSHI: (Through Translator) We can live together, but this makes it so difficult, because when our young people see women and children being killed on TV, they become aggressive and they want to retaliate. We tell them to ignore what's going on there. You live in France, we say. But it's hard to control them.

BEARDSLEY: Thousands of Jews and Muslims live side by side in the 19th Arrondissement of Paris. A walk down the narrow streets takes one past halal and kosher butchers and a Hasidic religious school. One of its students, 21-year-old Remi Oliel(ph) is on lunch break. He says the atmosphere here is directly related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how the media portrays it.

Mr. REMI OLIEL (Student): (Through Translator) Everything in France is completely ruled by the media. And your opinion depends on which channel you watch. Some of the channels show very shocking footage about Israel, and no explanation or words can undo the damage done by such images.

BEARDSLEY: Oliel says he's still in touch with his Muslim friends, but they're careful never to discuss the Middle East.

(Soundbite of protest)

BEARDSLEY: There were demonstrations across France in support of both Israel and the Palestinians during the three weeks of fighting in Gaza. During the conflict, the main French-Jewish organization reported five times as many anti-Semitic acts as usual, including Molotov cocktails being thrown at the doors of four synagogues. And in Paris, two Muslim girls were harassed by a Jewish gang. Chaim Nissenbaum(ph) is a rabbi in the 19th Arrondissement. He says much of the trouble comes from disaffected Arab youth. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The two Muslim students harassed by a Jewish gang were boys.]

Rabbi CHAIM NISSENBAUM: These young Arabs, they are out of the society. They don't have work. They face every day a true discrimination because of their names, because of what they are. And they see Jews as very important people in France, very, very rich people. So there is a cultural and social problem. It's one of the - I think one of the greatest failures of France.

BEARDSLEY: About two-thirds of French Jews are Sephardic and share many of the same North African roots and customs as their Muslim neighbors. Behind the counter in his halal butcher shop, Abdul Madek(ph) says he was shocked by the violent footage coming out of Gaza, but he says relations here are fine.

Mr. ABDUL MADEK (Butcher): (Through Translator) Everything is normal here between Jews and Muslims. And the war won't change that. But it's true we have to avoid talking about politics.

(Soundbite of French television news report)

BEARDSLEY: Not all reports on French television have been about the violence. This one is about a group of Jewish and Muslim women called les batisseurs de paix, or peace builders. Annie Paul(ph) helped found the group during the second intafada in 2002. She says the fighting in Gaza this time has blown apart every Muslim-Jewish friendship group except hers. One reason is because they are women, says Paul. The other reason...

Ms. ANNIE PAUL (Co-Founder, Les Batisseurs De Paix): We don't talk about the Middle East. I always repeat, don't forget you live in France, and you want your children grow up together in France. And for that, I ask to you to put your pain on the side.

BEARDSLEY: For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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Correction April 17, 2009

We said, "[I]n Paris, two Muslim girls were harassed by a Jewish gang." In fact, the two Muslim students were boys.

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