BESANCON, France — On a hot afternoon in early June, an unusual looking bus is parked in the central square of this historic city in eastern France.
Passers-by cast sidelong glances at the brightly colored portraits on its side accompanied by such slogans as “Jews and Muslims say no to discrimination” and “We are more alike than you think.”
It is the friendship bus, a project of the French Jewish-Muslim Friendship group, known by the acronym AJMF.
Led by a rabbi and imam, the bus and its team spend five weeks every summer traveling through the French countryside hosting panel discussions, chatting with pedestrians, promoting dialogue, and holding out the hope of mutual respect and cooperation between two communities more often found at odds.
“This is our sixth summer touring France,” said Rabbi Michel Serfaty, AJMF’s founder and co-leader of the bus project with Imam Mohamed Azizi. “We fight discrimination and stereotypes, and try to break down the walls between our young people.”
Tensions run high between France’s estimated 6 million Muslims and 600,000 Jews. In addition to reverberations from the Israeli-Arab conflict, the relationship between the two communities in France has been exacerbated by a rise in religious extremism among its Muslims and their poor economic status. Many French Muslims, particularly the young people, are unemployed or working menial jobs. They are living in crowded suburbs like the one where a 23-year-old French Jew, Ilan Halimi, was kidnapped, tortured and murdered by a gang of young Muslims in 2006.
“We have done a bad job teaching our children the importance of getting along with each other while maintaining their own identities,” said Morgi Madini, a Muslim and linguistics professor in Besancon who showed up for an AJMF discussion of Jewish and Muslim dietary practices. “We need this kind of rapprochement; we need to listen to each other.”
Few such initiatives exist in France; none besides this one is led by a rabbi and imam. Their partnering, and the fact that the work takes place on the streets and in schools, gives the AJMF project great access to France’s Muslim population, say Serfaty and Azizi. AJMF works with the Grand Mosque of Paris and the CRIF, the French Jewish umbrella organization.
Most Jews and Muslims in France have roots in the same region: the former French colonies of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. They share a similar culture and history, and many speak the same language, Arabic. That helps launch the dialogue, although it does not guarantee accord.
“There is a rupture between the third and fourth generations,” said Serfaty, who grew up in pre-independence Morocco speaking French and Arabic and interacting with his Muslim neighbors — something few young Jews and Muslims in France do today. “Jews have left the suburbs, and this young generation of Muslims doesn’t know any Jews. They have forgotten that their grandparents used to live together.”
“We do this work because no one else dares,” said Algerian-born Marc Dahan, a professor of applied mechanics and volunteer director of the AJMF branch in Besancon.
Serfaty, who moved to France in 1963, has a bachelor’s degree in Arabic and is a professor of Jewish law, Hebrew philology and mesorah — the transmission of Jewish tradition. A longtime activist in Jewish-Catholic dialogue, Serfaty in 2001 organized France’s first high-level meeting between Jewish and Muslim leaders on behalf of the Consistoire, the governing body of French Orthodox Jewry.
As the intifada worsened, so did Jewish-Muslim relations across Europe in the early 2000s, including in France. Serfaty continued organizing such meetings until, in November 2004, he decided he had to take his work to the streets.
“That’s where the trouble was, and that’s where we had to be,” he said.
In the summer of 2005, he teamed with Azizi, a law professor as well as an imam who had moved from Morocco to France two years earlier. The two clerics took 15 Jewish and Muslim teenagers from the Paris suburbs, all young men, on a six-week bus tour through the French countryside. Everyone slept in the bus and spent their days talking to young people and elected officials about tolerance and diversity.
After three summers, Serfaty and Azizi decided to limit the summer tour to adults while continuing to work with troubled Parisian youths the rest of the year. The boys, Serfaty said, were a bit “unpredictable” on the road.
Serfaty says his goal is to create a cadre of young Muslim activists committed to peaceful relations who are not afraid to reach out to the AJMF when problems arise.
That has already happened.
Last November in Evry, a volatile Paris suburb, a Muslim activist who runs an afterschool program for underachieving Muslim children invited Serfaty to speak to her charges.
“She told me, ‘These children stink of Jew hatred,’ ” Serfaty said. “I told her that’s true everywhere, but I was glad to work with her.”
A Muslim community center in another Paris suburb invited him to talk to a group of Muslim women who wanted a Jewish perspective on the violence in Gaza.
“I went because this is what we want, the Muslim base reaching out to us,” Serfaty said. “It’s not the mayor calling us in.”
But it’s slow going. Elia Ktourza, AMJF’s program director, says some French towns don’t want to work with them.
“They’re afraid, they’d rather hide their problems,” she said.
And many religious Muslims in particular are wary of the colorful bus, which has the word “Jew” emblazoned all over it.
In the town square in Besancon, young women in hijabs, the headscarves worn by religious Muslim women, scurry past without stopping to take the Jewish-Muslim cooperation literature spread out on tables or bothering to speak with the program volunteers.
“They are afraid,” Azizi said. “They see the words ‘Jewish-Muslim friendship’ and they are wary.”
The only Muslims who pause to find out what’s going on that afternoon are men like 38-year-old Nordine Nemer, who says he works for an organization trying to end violence against children. Nemer stays for more than an hour, discussing the finer points of group psychology with Priska Tirouvanzian, an intercultural psychologist who is traveling with the bus to study the impact of this kind of dialogue.
“This is good, but it’s not enough,” Nemer said, smiling carefully. “Talking is fine, but for things to change in this country, we need to take serious action.”