It was Tuesday, November 28, in the northern districts of Marseille, at the foot of cities swept by an icy wind. In the distance, a light: welcome to the Bleuets mosque (13e arrondissement), where an “unidentified religious object” was held for three hours, mid– “press conference for the fraternity” as announced, mid-debate, thanks to around thirty faithful remaining in the pretty prayer room – thick carpet, ornate wooden seats and shelves lined with books.
Facing them: Rabbi Haïm Bendao, 51, a well-known figure in interreligious dialogue in Marseille, who presides over one of the rare synagogues in the northern districts, unfailing optimism and devastating humor. At his side, imam Ismaïl, whose real name is Smaïn Bendjilali, 41 years old, a “minot” who grew up in Marseille, a self-taught man who now officiates at Bleuets, and, beyond that, on social networks, where his audience exceeds 120,000 people. In the fragmented landscape of Islam in Marseille, which has around 250,000 believers, his supposed Salafism has led him to be placed, since 2018, under the surveillance of territorial intelligence: “He maintains a rigorous vision but he has evolved,” tempers one of his friends, Nassurdine Haidari, an imam of Comorian origin with assumed reformism.
A friendship that bothers
Rabbi Bendao is a free spirit in the city’s Jewish community, which has around fifty synagogues. In other words, for their respective communities, the two men of faith represent only themselves. The symbol of this meeting, however, is intended to be strong: “What brings us together today is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” summarizes Rabbi Bendao by way of introduction. For Imam Ismaïl, it’s simple too: “We want peace, only peace. »
Beyond words, the friendship of the two men is astonishing. And sometimes annoying. Even rocks, as in May 2023, during the death of a mutual friend, Benjamin Haddad, 42, a Marseillais killed during an attack in Djerba (Tunisia), in front of the synagogue where he had come to pray. “Ismaïl was one of the first to call me but I couldn’t answer him, admits the rabbi. Everything was mixed up in my head. » Since October 7, Haïm and Ismaïl have felt that tensions are testing the fragile cement of Marseille: “The following Friday, Haim asked me if he could come to the mosque for prayer, as he often does, says Ismaïl. I immediately said yes. »
“Haim and Ismaïl behave like righteous people”
Still a sign of a certain ambient excitement, the Muslim faithful – particularly women, many of whom this Tuesday evening – are asking a series of questions: “Would you have the same open attitude if you were a rabbi in Israel? », “Would you accept to receive a veiled woman in your synagogue” (the rabbi says he has done it several times, even if it means shocking some of his faithful), “How do I explain to my children that the police only protect synagogues? »… Haïm and Ismaïl defuse with humor but populism arises, particularly when the media are accused of deliberately pitting communities against each other, “to make sales”.
Another symbol that evening: Jean-Jacques Zenou and Lazare Groune, the presidents of Jewish Radio Marseille (RJM) and Radio Gazelle (that of the Maghreb community of Marseille) insisted on coming together, side by side: “Haim and Ismaïl behave like righteous people, greets Jean-Jacques, while Lazare nods his head in agreement. Our responsibility is in France, in our neighborhoods, where we must maintain hope. »
At the end of the evening, the applause resonates so loudly that a question remains unanswered: have we just witnessed the beginning of a movement of lasting dialogue between two communities of believers, or an event limited to the atypical personalities of ‘Ismail and Chaim ? While in Marseille the institutional Judeo-Muslim dialogue is at a standstill, Rabbi Bendao and Imam Ismaïl in any case show a way forward.