Wednesday, March 21, 2012

French Jews and Muslims grapple for answers to school shootings

PARIS (RNS) Children spilled out of Beth Hanna Jewish school under a spring sun and the watchful eyes of armed police. Leah Chicheportiche mingled with other waiting parents in this northeastern Paris neighborhood, including many men sporting the trademark black hat of Hasidic Jews.

"We're a bit worried -- even here in Paris --  after the incident," said Chicheportiche, a mother of five, keeping a watchful eye on two daughters licking ice-cream cones on Tuesday (March 20).

A day after a motorcycle gunman mowed down three children and a rabbi in the southern city of Toulouse, she added: "We hope they'll arrest him quickly."

As schools across France marked a moment of silence for Monday's victims and the government notched up its terror alert for the southwestern region and increased security around religious institutions, many ordinary French are grappling for answers.

Monday's shootings at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse came days after the shooting deaths of three French soldiers of North African and Caribbean origins. Two were Muslim. Police say the same weapon was used in all the attacks. Now they are hunting down the killer -- and the nation is searching for solace.

"It's a very big shock and the most dangerous part is we don't know where he is," said Rabbi Mendel Azimov, who helps oversee Beth Hanna, which his father founded.

Azimov's uncle runs Ozar Hatorah, where the killings took place. "It's not just a community problem or a religious problem," he said, "it's a national problem."

The shootings have seeped into a presidential campaign already checkered with sharp exchanges on immigration and religion -- notably over Jewish and Muslim ritual animal slaughter practices. Both President Nicolas Sarkozy and his main rival, Socialist Francois Hollande, have suspended their campaigns following Monday's shootings.

"Barbarity, savagery, cruelty cannot win. Hate cannot win," said Sarkozy, who met with Jewish and Muslim leaders on Tuesday and vowed to find the killer.

France's Muslim and Jewish communities -- the largest in western Europe -- are organizing a silent march to mark the killings on Sunday.

"This march has no sense unless it's a joint march," Richard Prasquier, head of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France.

But others fear the incidents may only deepen differences between the two faiths.

"It doesn't unite us," said Victor Levy, a Jew from North Africa who owns a stationery shop a block from Beth Hanna. "It only increases the doubts between the two communities, because each wonders if the other is racist. Little words against the other that shock, that create hatred between the two religions."

Muslims and Jews have long been neighbors in this slightly grimy slice of Paris, known as the 19th arrondissement. In many ways, this neighborhood offers the face of 21st-century France: multicolored and multifaith.

Malians in traditional robes brush past ethnic Algerian Muslims and Tunisian Jews. Old men of all backgrounds play rounds of boules in playgrounds. Halal butchers and kebab joints vie for customers alongside kosher supermarkets and traditional bakeries.

Many Muslims and Jews here hail from the same area -- North Africa. But this is perhaps the only neighborhood outside of Brooklyn where you can get carryout from Crown Heights Pizzeria.

"I'm Jewish, and the guy across from me is a Muslim," said Levy, the stationery shop owner and a Sephardic Jew, pointing to a laundromat across the street. "We get along fine. But when people do idiotic things like what happened in Toulouse, it lights a fire."

But across the street, Moroccan laundry owner Bijuegda Dris, disagreed.

"This has nothing to do with the communities," he said. "The killer is just a crazy guy."

Tensions between Muslims and Jews in France periodically erupt, mostly keeping pace with the Israeli-Palestinian standoff. Jewish synagogues and cemeteries have been attacked in recent years -- either by gangs of Muslims or far-right youths, authorities say. Muslim institutions are also desecrated, often by neo-Nazis. Young Muslims and Jews occasionally clash.

But at Beth Hanna, Rabbi Azimov is focusing on healing. It is up to religious leaders, he said, to unite the two communities. Both must work to get beyond the killings.

"We have a special tradition that says that when bad things happen, you have to increase kindness and goodness and prayer," he said. "We have a belief that when you have light, darkness disappears."

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