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A French town shows what friendship can look like amid Jewish-Muslim tensions

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

France is home to Europe's largest Jewish and Muslim populations. Many fear that anger over the Israel-Hamas conflict could spill over into French streets, but one place touts how it has fostered friendship across religions. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

MOULOUD EL OUASSIA: (Speaking French).

MICHEL SERFATY: (Speaking French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Rabbi Michel Serfaty and Imam Mouloud El Ouassia greet each other on the sidewalk in front of the synagogue in the Paris suburb of Ris-Orangis. The imam has walked over from his mosque just up the street. The two religious leaders, who've known each other for 30 years, are about to sit down for their annual couscous lunch put on by the rabbi.

SERFATY: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: As people take their seats at several long tables set up inside the synagogue, Rabbi Serfaty welcomes them.

SERFATY: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "The deeply rooted mutual regard we hold for each other all these years secures our friendship," he says. "We have the same face, and our humanity comes before all our beliefs and religion." This is the 15th annual rabbi's couscous, featuring the North African staple made from wheat granules served with meat and sauce. Marzouk Miman, who is Muslim, has attended every one.

MARZOUK MIMAN: (Through interpreter) We come out of friendship to discuss lots of things together. Maybe it's a little rare. I don't know of another town where you have the Jews and the Muslims together like this on the same street.

BEARDSLEY: These diners say the violence playing out on TV screens has not dented their friendship. Marc Ithar, who's Jewish, says most agree on what needs to happen in the Middle East.

MARC ITHAR: (Through interpreter) After this, there has to be a structure that reconciliates and integrates everyone. There have to be two states and peace. This violence has been going on for too long.

SERFATY: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: (Speaking French).

Two days earlier, Rabbi Serfaty showed me around his synagogue, where the couscous sauce with carrots, zucchini and chickpeas was already simmering away, its spicy aroma wafting through the air. This synagogue was built in the 1960s after massive Jewish emigration from North Africa following the independence of former French colonies. Seventy percent of French Jews trace their origins to Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, where they lived side by side with Muslims for centuries and shared many traditions like couscous. Muslim immigration to France from these same countries picked up about a decade later.

EL OUASSIA: Bon appetit, everyone.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Bon appetit.

BEARDSLEY: Bon appetit, Imam El Ouassia wishes everyone at the lunch. Both he and the rabbi emigrated from Morocco. He says over the weekend they visited each other's houses of worship.

EL OUASSIA: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "They came to the mosque, and we had tea and laughed and discussed the Torah and the Quran," he says. "Our friendship is very important." There has been a resurgence of antisemitism in France since the conflict broke out October 7. French Jews are on edge. Muslims fear being scapegoated or conflated with terrorists. Mayor Stephane Raffalli, who is neither Jewish nor Muslim, laments that the rest of France can't be like Ris-Orangis.

STEPHANE RAFFALLI: (Through interpreter) French society is having troubles these days with the resurgence of violence in the Middle East, but things are good here. I call it the spirit of Jean Moulin Street.

BEARDSLEY: Betty Ithar, whose Jewish family hails from Tunisia, says she has very close Muslim friends.

BETTY ITHAR: (Through interpreter) It's not rare if you want it. It's wonderful to share our religions and cultures, especially over food.

BEARDSLEY: This is exactly what French secularism and integration is supposed to look like, says Nordine Siana, head of the town's fire department and a Muslim.

NORDINE SIANA: (Through interpreter) We all live together under the same flag, and we defend France. We are also trying to teach our kids how to share and learn about different cultures.

SERFATY: (Speaking French).

(LAUGHTER)

BEARDSLEY: "You all look ready for seconds," says a beaming Rabbi Serfaty. I ask him if the lunch is a success considering the times.

SERFATY: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "We are not looking for some flashy success," he says. "This is a natural ritual when you live together. It's what I call family conviviality." Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Ris-Orangis, France. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.