Have French socialists and Francois Hollande lost the Muslim electorate because of Gaza?

August 6, 2014

“To our French cousins, one thing to repeat for Hollande, Valls and Cie: ‘Gaza, if I forget you in the 2017 polls, let my right hand be cut off!’” Reads one of the latest Facebook posts calling to “punish” Hollande and the Socialist Party at the next presidential election in 2017.

The Party of the Indigenous of the Republic (PIR), which is very active in mobilizing for Gaza in France and which played a major role in the two demonstrations that were banned, has been vocal about its dislike for Hollande’s policies.

“The tide is turning. After more than a month of a Zionist invasion, from all sides, emerges the slogan: ‘In 2017, the PS will pay,’” it warned in a recent statement.  “Numerous voices have marked the date for the presidentials, and call for a real Waterloo for the PS in the next elections” stated the PIR, which has promised to “employ all its forces.”

In activist circles and beyond, Francois Hollande, who obtained 85% of the Muslim vote in 2012, is currently at his lowest popularity level. Although it is impossible to determine what constitutes the “Muslim vote,” it is evident that many Muslims are angry with Hollande and how he has dealt with the situation in Gaza.

Early in the conflict Hollande expressed his support for Israel and urged the government to “take every measure to protect its population in the face of threats.” This statement has since prompted outrage from the Muslim community.

Many activists and elected socialists of Muslim origin have noticed the rise in hostility toward the Socialist Party, a dislike which has increased since the ban on public demonstrations in Paris and Prime Minister Valls’s accusation of anti-Semitism in poor neighborhoods. Hollande’s party has suffered from internal debate.

Certain members of the French government have revised their original support for Francois Hollande as more civilian casualties in Gaza take place. For example, Minister of Foreign Affairs Laurent Fabius recently recognized the “massacre of civilians” in Gaza.

A Militant Jewish Group Confronts Pro-Palestinian Protesters in France

August 6, 2014

Several hundred pro-Palestinian demonstrators rampaged through the Jewish quarter of this northern suburb of Paris in July, some chanting, “Death to Jews.” As the rioters attacked a funeral home and set fire to a pharmacy, a band of young Jews formed a human shield in front of the city’s main synagogue, brandishing motorcycle helmets as weapons.

Foot soldiers of a French offshoot of the Jewish Defense League, a far-right Zionist group that advocates muscular self-defense in the face of violence and anti-Semitism, they faced off with the crowd as protesters clashed with riot police officers.

“If it wasn’t for those boys, this whole neighborhood would have been burned and turned into hell,” said Fortunée Fitoussi, a cashier at Boulangerie Nathanya, a popular bakery in a large Jewish neighborhood of kosher grocery stores and blocky apartment buildings in Sarcelles often called Little Jerusalem.

But while some Jews embraced members of the group as heroes, it also added a volatile element to France’s sometimes violent street protests as the Gaza war fueled tensions, especially between Muslims and Jews, in a climate of growing anti-Semitism in France and elsewhere in Europe.

The group models itself loosely on the Jewish Defense League in the United States, an organization founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was assassinated in 1990, and whose Kach party was banned in Israel as racist. The American group has been listed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a terrorist organization. The French interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, warned in July against “excesses” of the French League, prompting speculation that he was considering banning the group.

The French news media has characterized the French League as a dangerous vigilante group, though experts say it is small, disorganized and less militant than its American counterpart.

Founded in France in 2003 by former members of Betar, the youth movement linked to the Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the French League has roughly 400 members. They are predominantly young Sephardic men from working-class suburbs, some trained in krav maga, a hand-to-hand martial art used by the Israeli military. Critics accuse the group of advocating violence and racism, noting a past entry on the League’s Facebook page that referred to Arabs as “rats.”

“They are dangerous, violent and anti-republican,” said Sihem Souid, a human rights activist whom the League has lambasted on its website and accused of encouraging anti-Semitism. Ms. Souid, who works for a victims’ organization attached to the Justice Ministry, vehemently denies the accusation and has called for the group to be banned.

In a rare interview, one of the group’s senior officials, a burly 62-year-old former law enforcement official who declined to give his full name but called himself Eliahou, summarized the French League’s philosophy: “I would rather be a mean Jew than a dead Jew.”

Eliahou said the League had no qualms about harassing people wearing kaffiyehs, the black-and-white scarf that is a symbol of Palestinian resistance, on the Rue des Rosiers, a street lined with Judaica shops and falafel joints in central Paris. “This is our neighborhood,” he explained. “Our aim is to annoy people who hate Israel and are anti-Semites.”

Eliahou said anti-Semitic violence was swelling the group’s ranks, with 10 recruits joining every day, while donations had poured in from as far away as Canada. Though his claims were not possible to verify, the group’s members are being embraced across Jewish neighborhoods in the French capital as gutsy, if hotheaded, protectors, residents said.

During another attack in July at a synagogue in an eastern district of Paris, on the Rue de la Roquette, several witnesses, including Jean-Yves Camus, director of the Observatory of Political Radicalism at the Jean Jaurès Foundation in Paris, credited the League with helping to fend off up to 150 pro-Palestinian demonstrators as congregation members cowered inside.

Several congregation members who were there said demonstrators, some wielding metal bars and bats, had tried to scale the walls while League members forced them back by tossing tables and chairs. Palestinian groups accused the League of provoking the attack by taunting demonstrators and throwing projectiles.

Mr. Camus said he had studied the group extensively and concluded that it was capable of fighting but did not resemble its American counterpart, a serious terrorist organization.

Still, members have gained reputations as provocateurs. Bernard Ravenel, a member of the France Palestine Solidarity Association, said that in 2004, half a dozen masked members of the League tried to break down the door to the group’s headquarters to disrupt a conference. Eliahou denied that the attack took place.

In 2012, the French Jewish Union for Peace demanded that the group be disbanded, accusing it of making threats. Members have also interrupted a reading in Paris organized for Jacob Cohen, a writer critical of Israel, heckling him as a “collaborator.”

That year, a member of the League sprayed Houria Bouteldja, a French-Algerian activist, with red paint as she stood near a museum devoted to Arab culture.

Roger Cukierman, president of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, dismissed the League as marginal. The Protection Service of the Jewish Community, a security body that works closely with the police, is highly effective, he said, and hundreds of officers from the French security services have been deployed in recent weeks to maintain order. But he dismissed claims by pro-Palestinian groups and the French news media that the League had provoked recent anti-Semitic attacks.

“We don’t know the League, and we don’t want to know it, and I am sad that youths feel attracted to this organization,” he said. “But I understand when youths say that we are faced with a pogrom and need to defend ourselves.”

Law enforcement officials said some League members had criminal records. A leading member of the Protection Service, who asked that his name not be used, citing security concerns, said members did not have adequate training, were overly aggressive and were giving Jews a bad name.

But Chantal Haziot, owner of a Judaica shop in the Jewish quarter of the Marais, expressed a more common refrain heard these days: “People are afraid, and, like them or not, I am happy they’re there.”

An Interfaith Trojan Horse: Faithwashing Apartheid and Occupation

By Sana Saeed

July 1, 2014

 

Interfaith work has the potential to create and sustain profound relationships across religions. 

But what happens when interfaith work becomes a trojan horse?

In this piece I explore the Muslim Leadership Initiative, a program which sends American Muslims leaders to Israel to study Judaism and Zionism and is funded by the Shalom Hartman Institute, a Zionist and anti-BDS organization.  I’ve broken down the narrative into five parts – the actual critique and deconstruction of the institute and program are towards the later part of the article.

 

The TIME article reduces the occupation to the displacement of “dialogue” and “both sides” (unsure if Chaudry means Palestinians and Israelis or Muslims and Jews) being unwilling to speak outside ”their own bubbles”. Muslims, it essentially argues, misunderstand Zionism and thus misunderstand Jews and Israel. Therefore, to have healthy and holistic interfaith dialogue back in the United States, American Muslims must understand what Zionism means to Jews and what Israel means to Jews. At the  midway point of her piece, Chaudry even explains how  it was only after she finally met Palestinians, during her trip, that she understood that the “fear many Israeli Jews have [of ending the occupation] is not a figment of [their] imagination” as “the pressure cooker cannot hold indefinitely.”

Faithwashing Apartheid and Occupation

It is hard to ignore the obvious; it is hard to ignore that despite whatever good intentions and explanations there were and will be, a group of Muslim American leaders – many in the very public eye and with a great deal of social authority – went to Jerusalem through a program, albeit organized by an Imam, funded and supported by an institution that is unabashedly Zionist. That a group of Muslim American leaders traveled to Israel to learn about what ‘Zionism means to Jews’ to better understand Jewish connection to Israel and thus bridges, interfaith, dialogue and other such nouns.

And yet nothing about this is, unfortunately, surprising.

One of the most common tactics of Zionist lobby groups and organizations has been sanitizing the occupation and apartheid and displacing the actual cause and reason for the conflict. Zionist groups have courted Black college students and Latino leaders (with pushback), for instance, in an attempt to, as independent journalist Rania Khalek describes it, “neutralize the brown electorate.” She explains how in an attempt to thwart identification or solidarity Latino, Asian and Black Americans may have with the Palestinian struggle there is a necessity to, quoting former US Ambassador to the European Union Stuart Eizenstat, show how the conflict ”..“is not a civil rights issue. It’s rather a very different conflict in which violence is being used and Israel’s right to be a state is questioned.”

The Need to Reject The Zionist Narrative

There are more questions than answers.

One of the first things that struck me about the program, after I learned that it was associated and funded by the Shalom Hartman Institute, was that there actually isn’t any reason for Muslim American leaders to travel to Israel to study Judaism for the sake of interfaith. Was there really a dearth of resources in the United States? Or are Rabbinical studies only possible in Israel? Just as Qur’anic studies would only be possible in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, India, Jordan? Morocco has one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in the world; why not go there, where interfaith between Muslims and Jews isn’t obstructed by apartheid walls and laws? Not only would it not cross the BDS line but it would also shift the focus from Ashkenazi-centric Jewish narratives to Sephardic.

Palestine is central to the hearts of Muslims all around the world, but that does not mean we try to re-write the narrative of the occupation on our own terms. There is a real need for interfaith understanding and work between Jews and Muslims and if Israel is a part of that work, then so be it. But we must not, in the process, allow ourselves, our communities and our leaders to be on the wrong sides of history and justice by normalizing and accepting what was and remains unjust.

Right now is a critical moment for our communities to have an actual conversation – not a shouting match. There are concerted efforts to drive wedges between members of communities that may and do stand up against Zionism and the oppression of Palestinians. I earnestly hope we do not allow those efforts to succeed and I encourage others to write responses and engage on this topic. Let’s keep the conversation going.

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What a Muslim American Learned from Zionists

During a visit to an institute in Israel, I gained a new perspective on a belief that I once saw as toxic.

June 24, 2014

How probable is it to get ardent Zionists and pro-Palestinians to not just talk to one another, but love and respect one another? Not likely. That’s why the Shalom Hartman Institute launched a controversial but groundbreaking program to bring American Muslim thought and civic leaders to Jerusalem for a year-long fellowship. For many, the program was a hard sell given sensitivities and loyalties on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I hesitated joining because Hartman is an unapologetically Zionist institution and, like all the participants, I have been committed to the Palestinian cause throughout my life. Other than posing an ethical dilemma, it also required putting our credibility with the Muslim community on the line and opening dialogue with Zionists, a thought once an anathema to our sensibilities.

Through the fellowship I learned that Zionism means something very different for Jews. The Jewish people’s longing of thousands of years for a homeland, a return from exile, a sanctuary from being a hated minority in the diaspora, an opportunity to establish Jewish values and honor God, a Biblical promise, a chance for redemption. As someone with years of interfaith experience I should have known all this, but I didn’t. For this, I blame both the exhaustive use (and some Israelis say abuse) of the Holocaust narrative from Zionists to win over Western populations, and also because in the U.S., interfaith work means talking about everything except Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It shows the deep flaws in current interfaith models when the most burning issue remains unspoken.

They are also an affirmation that there is still hope for dialogue and relationships that can actually make a difference. Until now, both parties have been speaking inside their own bubbles, safe in dialogue with people that agree with them. The walls have been built so high that breaching them to reach out to the other side is tantamount to treason. Hartman and the participants both took huge risks in being part of this program with hopes to forge a new way forward. This fellowship proves that building relationships between people who fundamentally disagree can uncover empathy and mutual recognition that despite differences, everyone deserves dignity, security, prosperity and self-determination.