Middle-aged men and women sit on blankets and laugh together, snacking on carrots and Middle Eastern pastries. A circle of women dances wildly to the tunes of a guitarist and tambourine player.
But many of the 100 or so people there have never met -- at least not face to face.
They are part of a groundbreaking group that is trying to build bridges between Muslims and Jews in France by fostering a community on Facebook where members can interact directly online about the issues that divide them, and then meet at occasional social gatherings like the recent picnic in Paris.
The group is called Shalom | Paix | Salam -- the Hebrew, French and Arabic words for peace.
“It’s revolutionary,” says Mohamed Kamli, a Muslim law student at the Sorbonne and one of the group’s assistant directors. “You don’t have to go up to a random person on the street and say, ‘You have a kipah, let’s talk about some issues.’ ”
The group is trying to change the nature of the relationship of Jews and Muslims in France -- one that is marked more by friction and conflict than by friendship. Shalom | Paix | Salam, which is coordinated by five Muslims and five Jews, all volunteers, was launched after Muslim-Jewish tensions in France boiled over during the Gaza War of 2008-09.
The idea wasn’t to avoid the points of conflict but to facilitate debate about complicated issues without allowing participants to “import the conflict between Israel and Palestine,” says Shalom | Paix | Salam’s co-president, Corine Goldberger, who is Jewish.
“Here, we are not in Gaza. We’re not in the West Bank. Here, we are in Paris,” Goldberger, a journalist at the French version of Marie Claire magazine who reports on human rights issues, tells JTA. “There’s no need to fight.”
Shalom | Paix | Salam now has 1,600 fans on Facebook. Aside from online chatter, the group organizes film screenings, museum tours, lectures, picnics and other meet-ups. Members even held a peace march at the Eiffel Tower.
Patrick Conquy, president of the Paris branch of the Jewish-Muslim Friendship of France, or AJMF, one of the country’s best-known interfaith institutions, says Shalom | Paix | Salam’s use of social networking sets it apart from other dialogue programs.
“A lot of people came to the group by typing something online, very young people tired of being called a Jew or ‘you dirty Muslim,’ ” Kamli says. “In Shalom | Paix | Salam, they found a shelter of positive ideas.”
The organization doesn’t take overtly political stances, though it is pressured to do so, such as after Israeli forces killed nine Turks in a confrontation aboard a flotilla in May 2010 that was trying to evade Israel's naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.
“Putting aside politics is something that isn’t done here in France by the other organizations,” Kamli says.
That approach is what drew two young Parisian Muslim sisters, Sana and Rizlaine Atifi, to the organization.
“It’s very important to connect all people,” Rizlaine Atifi says. “In the world, there are so many problems about religion. In France, we don’t need that.”
Her sister agrees. “You can think whatever you want, but the most important thing is to respect the differences between us,” Sana says. “We can live together very well.”
Beatrice Szwec, a former journalist and longtime Jewish activist, says it’s important to support fledgling groups like Shalom | Paix | Salam.
“Most of us have something else to do on a Sunday, but it’s important to support this,” Szwec tells JTA. “This association is quite young, but if you don’t start something, nothing moves.”