Governing board of World Jewish Congress meets in Paris for first time

Location selected as way to reach out to French Jews unsettled by torture death of a French Jew early this year.

Leaders of the World Jewish Congress met Sunday in Paris for the first time, reaching out to French Jews unsettled by the brutal torture and death of a young Jew near Paris early this year. French Roman Catholic and Muslim leaders joined the two-day gathering, which began late Saturday, condemning anti-Semitism and calling for dialogue among religious leaders. "Muslims are naturally attracted to the ideas of peace, dialogue and tolerance, and friendship and brotherhood of peoples," said Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris Mosque and leader of the French Council of the Muslim Faith. Boubakeur said he was concerned about a possible rise in anti-Semitism in France that has taken the form of attacks against schools, synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in recent years. Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, a Jewish convert to Catholicism, said Mideast tensions play a "clear" role in fanning anti-Semitism in France - and he worries about a "reactivation of durable prejudice." Arsonists set fire Thursday to a Jewish school north of Paris that had been badly damaged in another arson attack in 2003, police said. No one was injured. The World Jewish Congress selected Paris for the rotating site for its governing board meeting because France is home to the largest population of Jews in Western Europe, group leaders said. Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the congress's policy council, said French Jews find themselves often in a "mercurial" situation: "At one moment, Jews in France view themselves as being on top of the world, at another they see themselves as being in the worst possible situation." Many Jews in France were shaken by the death in February of 23-year-old Ilan Halimi, who was found naked, handcuffed and covered with burn marks in the Essonne region south of Paris. He died on the way to the hospital after being held captive for more than three weeks. The killing, which police suspect was carried out by a gang that had demanded a ransom, rekindled concern about anti-Semitism in France. Eighteen people were detained by police in a sweep of suspects. "I'm not afraid of individual incidents as violent - and as ugly as they are. I'm afraid of waves of anti-Semitism; I don't see any here in France," Singer said. However, he said the WJC chose to meet in Paris as a way to show its support for the French Jewish community, which had been shaken by the Halimi case. Israeli security, the European Union's role in the Middle East peace process, and the fight against anti-Semitism were among subjects discussed at the meeting. The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, a US non-profit group, showed WJC leaders a new, multilingual advertising campaign denouncing anti-Semitism that features hip-hop industry veterans Jay-Z and Russell Simmons. It is to be aired across Latin America and Europe. "The impact this will have on young people in building awareness will be very significant in these particular countries, in Europe and Latin America," said foundation president Rabbi Marc Schneier. "We cannot fight our battles alone." WJC leaders were to meet with French President Jacques Chirac on Monday.