Mother of slain Toulouse soldier leading trip to Israel

Latifa Ibn Ziaten says voyage for French youth is designed to create authentic interreligious dialogue.

April 1, 2015 00:51
4 minute read.

LATIFA IBN ZIATEN and Ambassador Yossi Gal (third and fourth from left) participate in a workshop yesterday at the Israeli Embassy in Paris for a group of French students heading to Israel later this month.. (photo credit: RINA BASSIST)

PARIS – Latifa Ibn Ziaten’s life changed forever on March 11, 2012, when her son was murdered.

Master Sergeant Imad Ibn Ziaten, an off-duty paratrooper, was 30 years old when Mohammed Merah, a French national of Algerian origin, shot him dead in Toulouse – the first in a series of attacks Merah carried out that month. On March 15, Merah killed two other soldiers in the small southern town of Montauban. Four days later, he came back to Toulouse, shooting dead three Jewish children and their teacher on the doorstep of the Ozar Hatorah Jewish day school before police tracked him down and killed him following a long siege.

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Returning to France after burying her son in the family’s Morocco hometown, Latifa Ibn Ziaten vowed to dedicate her life to peace between religions and peoples, especially among youngsters. She founded an organization for that purpose, named after her son: the Imad Ibn Ziaten Association for Youth and Peace.

On April 22, she and a group of young students from the Parisian region will be going to Israel – not simply as tourists, but as part of the organization’s “Voyage for Living Together” project.

To prepare for the trip, she and the 15 youngsters took part in an interactive workshop Tuesday, organized by the Israeli Embassy in Paris.

Ibn Ziaten and her associates have taken it upon themselves to work with children and adolescents in all sectors of society, including in prisons.

They are hoping to reach those who are at risk of falling into delinquency, many of whom live in marginalized French neighborhoods where crime and extremism have taken hold for many years.

The members of her association are setting up an educational network of people who could intervene and reach out to at-risk kids. Dialogue, they believe, is the most efficient tool in combating the rise of extremism, especially in view of the increasing number of young people whom Islamic State and other terror organizations have recruited in France. Official numbers show 1,200 to 1,400 French nationals having been recruited by these networks.

Most of them are in their 20s.

Ibn Ziaten told The Jerusalem Post Tuesday that she had been working on the Israel-trip project for a year and a half.

“In 2013, I brought to Morocco a group of youngsters. I wanted them to encounter a different culture, a different religion,” she said. “The year after, we had children from schools in Morocco coming to France.

And now, we are heading to Israel and Palestine. Our goal is to transform these young people into ambassadors of peace.”

During the visit, the students will meet with Israeli kids their own age, she added. “Learning to know the other is the only way to advance tolerance and peace. We must meet each other, respect each other, each other’s culture and religion.”

Once back from Israel, she plans to take the students around France so they can tell other French youngsters of their experience.

“The voyage to Israel and to the West bank is designed to create an authentic interreligious dialogue,” she said.

One of the two school headmasters who will accompany them to Israel explained to the Post that the students chosen for this trip were already involved in social and community activities.

“The children in the schools I am working with come from different backgrounds. For many of them, this will not only be their first time visiting Israel, but their first time outside France,” said the headmaster of the Sarcelles high school.

The workshop aimed to give them a small first taste of Israeli music and food.

“Such a workshop is the best way to approach young people,” said Ambassador Yossi Gal, who has been working with Ibn Ziaten since she set up her association.

Indeed, ever since the organization’s establishment, Ibn Ziaten has been reaching out to Jewish leaders at all levels.

Determined to show her solidarity, she took part in the January ceremony at the Paris Great Synagogue dedicated to the victims of the Hyper Cacher and Charlie Hebdo attacks – a ceremony that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and French President Francois Hollande attended as well. It also served as an occasion for the French Jewish community to embrace Ibn Ziaten and reaffirm its solidarity with her family.

On her organization’s website, she has written that she founded it “for the memory of Imad to live on eternally, and for all the other victims, civilian and military.”

Regarding the students’ upcoming trip, she said Tuesday: “Living together – that is the message they will bring with them, and that will be the message they must come back with.”

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