Journalist’s Notebook: A rabbi, three young Muslims and a minibus

What happens when a rabbi, three young Muslims, a psychologist, and a journalist go on a road trip?

In October, I tagged along with Rabbi Sefarty and his team at the Jewish-Muslim Friendship Association (AJMF) for an event in Denain, France.

I first interviewed Rabbi Sefarty in 2015 about the future of the Jewish community in France following the attacks on Charlie Hebdo.

When I met the group in a Parisian suburb, I didn’t know what to expect. Despite having written about Europe’s largest Jewish community, I had never met a rabbi before or been to an active synagogue.

Towering above me with his large black hat, Rabbi Sefarty welcomed me on our two-day expedition. He was friendly and professional, eager to ensure we arrived at our destination on time.

Sefarty has a lot of experience working with the media and didn’t mind having a journalist on board. Catching him in candid moments proved to be a challenge since giving interviews has become second nature to him.

As the minibus pulled away from Paris, I quickly began chatting with Mélanie, the psychologist working with the organisation. Fresh from living abroad, we spoke about our shared love for travel, as well as multiculturalism and identity in modern France.

The three young Muslim men working as outreach workers, Hassane, Karim, and Oussama, joked all the way to Denain. While they have all faced challenges in life, the three have become role models in their community, a tough banlieue outside Paris.

Most international media perpetuates stereotypes about Muslims, so when I interviewed the three young men, my goal was to understand what an initiative like AJMF means to them and their community. How deep do tensions run? Is AJMF making a difference? Has working with Rabbi Sefarty changed their lives?

Meal times were my favourite moments. I listened eagerly as the group discussed religion and political issues, such as the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the recruitment of young French Muslims by ISIS.

Rarely does one have the opportunity to hear from representatives of both communities at the same time. As a lapsed Catholic, I am not usually privy to such conversations, which have become a rarity in France.

As a journalist who has been covering France for four years, I honestly question whether French people will ever accept each other, despite their religious, ethnic, or political differences. I am not sure.

France is a less tolerant place than it was when I arrived in 2011. Forces like the National Front are only further polarising the country and hardliners in all communities continue to dominate the discussions, refusing to work together for peace.

This rejection of cooperation has also touched the AJMF. At 73, Rabbi Sefarty is past retirement age. However, he refuses to resign until he finds a replacement, which he says is an impossible task.

The next generation of rabbis and imams are apparently more hesitant to collaborate than their predecessors, threatening to destroy any hope for a sustainable dialogue between the two communities.

As a journalist and a human being, I tend to veer towards the positive. However, in this case, I have a feeling things are likely to get worse in France before they get better.

Journalist’s Notebook takes you behind the scenes into my life as a reporter. The article was published in the Middle East Eye on November 1, 2016.