It’s a few hours before Shabbat in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris, and a Lubavitch Chasid is helping an elderly Tunisian Jew put on tefillin in the doorway of a kosher butchery.
Across the street, bearded Muslim vendors are hawking sweets and pastries to crowds of North African immigrants for the nightly Ramadan break-fast meal, called the iftar.
Further down the boulevard lined with kosher restaurants, Ouali Boussad, an Algerian Berber, prepares coffee at the Lumiere de Belleville café.
“Jews, Arabs and Berbers live in Belleville like they did in North Africa,” Boussad says. “They have the same culture.”
Despite the tensions that have marked Muslim-Jewish ties in France in recent years, this neighborhood in northeastern Paris has managed to stay relatively free of them. The Arab-Israeli conflict still complicates relations between the two communities, but residents describe Belleville as idyllic compared to the hostility between Jews and Muslims in the immigrant suburbs surrounding Paris.
“A whole generation here has worked, lived and grown up together,” says Serge Cohen, who runs a kosher bakery off the boulevard. “It’s a different situation in the suburbs. Jews are separated from Muslims and they mistrust each other.”
Locals in Belleville are fiercely proud of the climate of tolerance in their neighborhood.
“You journalists only want to write about anti-Semitism,” shouts a butcher at Henrino’s kosher butchery on the Boulevard de Belleville. “We all get along here.”
Some 350,000 Jews live in the Paris metropolitan area. In Belleville, the North African heritage shared by most French Jews is overt, which may help explain why Jews and Muslims here get along. Most Jewish residents and workers here are of Tunisian descent, and the neighborhood is affectionately known as La Goulette on Seine – named after a coastal town on the Mediterranean.
“Tunisians are the most open-minded Jews, they are basically like us,” says a Muslim customer at Soltane, a Belleville halal butchery.
Like the Jews from Algeria and Morocco, Tunisian Jews lived side by side with Arabs for centuries, sharing common food, language and music. Following the dissolution of the French colonial empire in the 1950s and 1960s, North African Jews and Muslims flocked to the urban hills of northern Paris. Many Tunisian Jews settled in Belleville, replacing an older Polish Jewish community.
On a typical Sunday on the grimy side streets off the Boulevard de Belleville, old men drink mint tea and argue in Arabic outside cafes adorned with photos of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, while restaurants feature live bands with Arab musicians playing for enthusiastic Jewish dancers.
“The older Jews feel at home in Belleville because it reminds them of Tunisia, where Jews and Arabs interacted daily,” says Laurent Allouche, director of a Jewish funeral home. “But northeast Paris is the only place where this exists.”
Belleville has not always been peaceful. Significant clashes between Tunisian Jews and Arabs broke out here following the 1967 Six-Day War, and again in 1973, during the Yom Kippur War.
Last summer, tensions ran high in the district neighboring Belleville, Paris’ 19th arrondissement, when street fights between youth gangs culminated in the savage beating of a 17-year-old Jew, Rudy Haddad. And many French Jews remain shaken by the kidnapping, torture and murder of a 23-year-old Jew, Ilan Halimi, in 2006.
This summer, 14 of the 27 gang members responsible for Halimi’s death were convicted of abetting his murder.
Some Jews, however, say Halimi’s death had less to do with anti-Semitism than gang and class warfare.
“It could have been anyone,” the butcher at Henrino’s says. “Even this guy,” he says, grabbing his Sri Lankan assistant as his workers, slicing spicy merguez sausages, look on. “Or it could have been someone named Mohammed.”
About half a mile uphill, in the Menilmontant district, Kamel Amriou says more needs to be done to make sure Jews and Muslims in Paris get along. Born in Paris to Algerian Muslims, he grew up in a building with plenty of Jewish North Africans.
“My mother would slap me if I refused to help the Atlan family during Shabbat,” he recalls.
Amriou now runs a successful printing business — with a Jewish partner — and has political aspirations. He wants to launch a political party that reflects the multicultural character of northern Paris.
While France officialdom holds that successful integration can take place only if minorities renounce their ethnic factionalism, pejoratively known as communautarisme, Amriou thinks the U.S. model would work better.
“America offers the most lasting model of integration in that communities keep their customs while respecting the other,” Amriou says. “I want to create a movement inspired by my neighborhood, where Jews and Arabs coexist but maintain their own traditions and religions.”
Annie Paule Derczansky, director of a grass-roots organization called Peace Builders, is working to deepen coexistence by organizing meetings between Jewish and Arab women from the neighborhood. This summer she held a halal/kosher picnic with some 150 local Jews and Arabs in the Butte Chaumont, a hot spot for intercommunal violence in 2008.
“We held the picnic without any police security,” she says. “Observant Jews and Muslims attended, mingled and enjoyed kosher ice cream and cotton candy — served by Muslim vendors in the park.”
Back in La Goulette, it remains to be seen if the next generation will continue the tradition of coexistence practiced by their ancestors.
Sitting in his funeral home with Rabbi Yehuda Gour Arie, a local Torah scribe and mohel, Allouche reflects on Belleville’s future.
“The neighborhood is changing,” he says. “Up until the early 1990s there were more than 200 Jewish-owned businesses. Today there are only about 15.”
Outside, Arielle, 19, stands with some friends.
“I grew up here and went to school at Ozar Hatorah down the street,” she says. “I have plenty of Arab friends. We share many of the same traditions, which are passed down from previous generations. That is the most important thing in Belleville.”