Israel’s embassy in Paris was long aware of the rising wave of anti-Semitism within France’s sizable Muslim community. But in March 2012, when 23-year-old Muhammad Merah, the son of Algerian immigrants, gunned down an adult and three children at the Ozar Ha-Torah school in Toulouse, the embassy’s staff realized things had reached a turning point.
“The Toulouse attack gave us a slap in the face,” said Elad Ratson, director of the embassy’s media department. “We realized that we were facing not just a difficult situation, but home-grown terrorism.”
Amid the flurry of French condemnations, one voice stood out from the rest. Hassen Chalghoumi, the imam of the Parisian suburb of Drancy and a long-time advocate of moderate Islam in France, led a group of Muslim clerics in a solidarity march with victims of the attack, hand in hand with France’s chief rabbi.
“That’s when he appeared on our radar. We began investigating who he his and what he stands for,” Ratson told The Times of Israel. “We realized that we have a friend, a man we can talk to.”
Dialogue with France’s Muslim leadership was unfamiliar territory for the Israeli embassy in Paris. But with the backing of Ambassador Yossi Gal, who met with Chalghoumi in May 2012, the imam was invited to a conference in Israel and accepted the offer. During his trip he also paid a historic visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial.
In November, with the backing of the Israeli government, Chalghoumi returned to Israel with a group of 17 French imams in what Ratson called “the most ambitious project undertaken by the Israeli embassy in a decade.”
“Our image in the world has been sullied and we must remedy it in the name of tolerance,” the group’s members said in a statement during that visit. “We are the true face of French Muslims.”
The message of tolerance voiced by the French imams was heard loud and clear in Israel, but what about France? It was now time to arrange a reciprocal visit of Israeli Muslim leaders there; and Foreign Ministry Director General Rafi Barak became personally involved in its outcome.
In April 2013, five Israeli imams left for France where they toured local communities, met politicians and members of the media, and delivered sermons in local mosques. For both the imams and the Foreign Ministry, the trip was a huge success.
One highlight was a spontaneous prayer conducted by the visiting imams along with local clerics at the residence of ambassador Gal in Paris during a dinner reception.
“Muslim leaders from across France were in attendance,” recounted Bahig Mansour, director of religious affairs at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who accompanied the group. “We stopped the meal, went down to pray, and went back up. It was very exciting.”
From his porch in the Arab village of Majd Al-Krum overlooking the rolling hills of the Upper Galilee, Sheikh Muhammad Kiwan, who heads of the Union of Imams in Israel, reminisced this week about the group’s emotional visit to a Salafi mosque in Toulouse where terrorist Merah was raised.
On Wednesday, Kiwan hosted a festive lunch of roasted meat in honor of Imam Chalghoumi, who is currently visiting Israel for the third time in a year to attend the Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism in Jerusalem.
Kiwan said the Muslims he met in France were totally unaware of the existence of Arabs and Muslims within Israel society.
“When we told them there are 1.5 million [Arab] citizens who live among Jews, meeting on a daily basis in an atmosphere of mutual respect, they were surprised,” Kiwan said.
Some mosques refused to host the Israeli imams, having received directives to this effect from the umbrella organization overseeing French mosques, the CFCM. But the mosques which opened their gates to the visitors — even allowing them to deliver the Friday sermons — were packed, with worshipers crowding the sidewalks outside.
“I spoke about how our prophet lived with a Jewish neighbor whom he visited every day,” said Sheikh Omar Kayal, the imam of Bilal mosque in Judeidah-Maker near Akko, recalling the topic of his sermon in Drancy. Kayal later told his Muslim interlocutors that unlike France, where clerics must rely on outside funding — which often emanates from extremist elements in the Arab Gulf — he serves as an Israeli civil servant, just like a city rabbi, receiving a respectable salary from the state.
That message was repeated to officials in France’s foreign and interior ministries dealing with religious affairs.
“The state should take responsibility for the mosques,” said Sheikh Jamal Al-Obra, who serves as imam at the Bedouin city of Rahat near Beersheba and as Interior Ministry supervisor over the entire Negev region. “That’s the way to eliminate violence. The French were neglectful, and this is the result.”
Obra, bearded and dressed in a long white robe and white keffiyeh (traditional Arab headgear), said he was mistaken for a Saudi when praying at the Salafi mosque in Toulouse.
“People sitting next to me were saying ‘How did they let a group from Israel enter the mosque?’” But when Obra revealed his identity and the worshipers heard him pray, their opinions dramatically changed.
“They ran after me for 30 kilometers and asked me to come back and pray. They said, ‘We want to hear you again and again.’”
The automatic inclination of leaders in the West to deal with secularized Muslims, not religious ones, should be reconsidered, Ratson said.
“The French don’t understand what we [in Israel] do,” he said. “This tendency to ‘secularize’ Muslims in France faces resistance within the communities themselves.”
But the Israeli clerics were not only in France to teach, but to learn as well. Arriving at the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, they attended prayers and a commemoration service at a Paris synagogue.
At a meeting with the local Jewish community, Obra said that life as a religious minority within the state need not be terrible. “We, as an Arab minority in Israel, live in peace with the Jews,” Obra told his Jewish listeners. “Maybe you too can live here as a minority with the French.”