Gaza: a taboo subject in Paris suburb

15th January 2009, Comments 0 comments

In Aubervilliers, Jews and Muslims steer clear of the Gaza offensive subject for fear of upsetting the delicate understanding between the two communities.

AUBERVILLIERS – The fighting in Gaza is on everyone's mind, but in this mixed Paris suburb, Jews and Muslims tread carefully around the issue, anxious to keep the peace in their own community.

Home to Europe's biggest Muslim and Jewish populations, France has seen a spike in anti-Semitic attacks since Israel launched its Gaza offensive in December, sparking appeals for calm from politicians and religious leaders.

In Aubervilliers, a working class town on the northern outskirts of Paris that is home to three mosques and two synagogues, residents say the two communities have long rubbed shoulders peacefully.

"We have always worked in a good atmosphere," said an Arabic nurse from a local clinic, who asked not to be named.

"People trade jokes, gifts and visits, we tell each other about our festivals and religions without the slightest problem.

"You can tell the war is on everyone's mind, but we never talk about it. We steer clear of the subject, to avoid saying the wrong thing or upsetting someone. We're afraid of upsetting this understanding that exists between us."

In a fortnight that has seen arson attacks on three French synagogues, and huge crowds turn out for pro-Palestinian rallies across the country, Aubervilliers has not been spared from the rise in tensions.

On Tuesday, a local Jewish school was evacuated following a bomb scare, which turned out to be a false alarm. Two weeks ago, the school rabbi's car was vandalised in the night.

In Saint-Denis, a few kilometres away, vandals hurled nine firebombs at a synagogue on Sunday night, setting fire to the next-door kosher restaurant.

Mayor Jacques Salvatore admitted the Gaza conflict had become a taboo subject for many in the town, where Muslims of north African descent account for nearly a third of the 74,000 residents, and Jews for 10 percent.

"We just don't know how to tackle the issue. It is a conflict where even words can be deadly," said Salvatore, who runs a Palestinian support group, AuberPalestine, but has both Jewish and Muslim officials on his staff.

"Even people who are in favour of peace are having real trouble finding the right words. So we avoid the subject altogether."

Steve, a Jewish jeweller from Aubervilliers who declined to give his last name, said: "Those who want to import the conflict are just a bunch of idiots. I am French first and foremost. France is my country."

The 34-year-old, who visits both Israel and Morocco regularly and counts many Muslims among his friends and customers, said France should ban demonstrations linked to Gaza, to avoid fanning tensions.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has joined Muslim and Jewish religious leaders in appealing for calm in the wake of the recent violence, warning that the perpetrators of hate crimes will be severely punished.

But with some 55 anti-Semitic incidents recorded in under three weeks, the Jewish Students Union says the violence is already more intense than in 2001 when France was rocked by the spillover from the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

Meanwhile, two north African students were assaulted last week outside their high school in Paris, in an attack blamed on pro-Israeli activists.

Salvatore says he has seen local Arab youths in Aubervilliers gravitate towards the Palestinian cause since the start of the US-led Iraq war in 2003.

Anxious to safeguard good relations between Jews and Muslims, the town has set up a working group on religious equality and Salvatore says officials are "keeping a watchful look-out".

"Better to do too much to prevent risks than to ignore them," he said.

[AFP / Expatica]

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