Jews and Muslims in France: Rethinking a History of Conflict, Colonialism, and Coexistence – by Rachel Eva Schley

Rachel Schley on Ethan B. Katz’s The Burdens of Brotherhood

Ethan B. Katz, The Burdens of Brotherhood: Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France, Harvard University Press, 2015, 480pp., $35
Ethan B. Katz, The Burdens of Brotherhood: Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France, Harvard University Press, 2015, 480pp., $35
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For well over a decade there has been an active debate about the increasingly vexed state of Jewish-Muslim relations in France. Since 2000, with the start of the Second Intifada, France’s National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (CNDH) has noted a correlation between the escalation of prejudice and violence against Jews in France and events in the Middle East. More immediate factors have also exacerbated relations between Muslims and Jews in recent years: a weak French economy, soaring unemployment rates for Muslim immigrants, mounting Islamophobia, and the growing threat of terrorism on European soil. While numerous agencies have reported a surge in anti-Semitic acts across Europe, observers remain fixated on France, where the deadliest of such acts have occurred, like the assault on a kosher supermarket in Paris in 2015 and the shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012. France is home to about five million Muslims and 500,000 Jews, and amid broader concerns about migrants, security, and secularism, the subject of “Jewish-Muslim relations” is growing in controversy and complexity. Yet as historian Ethan Katz contends, it also remains a subject perennially structured — by academics, journalists, and officials alike — around mutually exclusive categories: Jewish, Muslim, and French.

This taxonomy has perpetuated longstanding assumptions about identity, power, and history. Such assumptions have propounded notions of a “natural” amiability between Jews and France (and French colonialism), an age-old and inexorable conflict between Jews and Muslims, and a distinctly unassimilable nature to Muslim identity. In recent years, scholars like Naomi Davidson, Joshua Schreier, Todd Shepard, and Sarah Abrevaya Stein have tackled how such categories and assumptions were crafted over time. Meanwhile, scholars like Aomar Boum, Emily Gottreich, and Jessica Marglin have offered vivid reappraisals of relations between Muslims and Jews south of the Mediterranean. Relations between these two groups in France, however, have been explored far less. Previous studies have tended to focus on Jews or Muslims, but generally not both communities together. With important exceptions — like Maud Mandel and Shmuel Trigano to name but a few — there has been little effort to rethink the abiding oppositional framework that has conventionally structured the way we think about interactions between Jews and Muslims in France.

Ethan Katz’s ambitious book, The Burdens of Brotherhood: Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France, strives to “set aside” this oppositional framework in order to reconsider the history of relations between these two communities. In so doing, he tackles a series of questions that lie at the heart of contemporary Jewish-Muslim affairs in France. “How has it come to be the case,” Katz asks, “that relationships in France between ‘Jewish’ and ‘Muslim’ individuals and groups are commonly reduced to ‘Jewish-Muslim relations’ and linked automatically to transnational webs of ethnoreligious solidarity and conflict?” Furthermore, he posits, if we were to eschew the assumptions of this framework, how would it improve our understanding of the relationship between these two communities and the origins of their seemingly intractable animus? The Burdens of Brotherhood suggests that the answers to these questions lie in a past obscured by ethnoreligious and transnational polemics. This oppositional discourse, Katz further suggests, elides a more nuanced story about the mutual experiences, differing struggles, and complex affinities that ensnared both groups in broader debates about identity and rights within and beyond French colonial and postcolonial society.

Drawing on an impressive research base — from public and private archives in France and Israel, to French Jewish and Muslim periodicals, memoirs, novels, films, and more than thirty-five oral interviews — Katz illuminates a world of shared spaces and experiences that defy the rigid divisions often ascribed to Muslims and Jews. By relying on the conceptual framework of “situational ethnicity,” he demonstrates how the identities of these two communities were endlessly articulated and redefined in dialogue with the variable landscape of twentieth-century France. And by emphasizing the diverse “terms of interaction” between Jews and Muslims, it is clear that for much of the last century, relations and boundaries between them were not firmly oppositional, but rather fluid and dependent on circumstance. They were shaped by everyday challenges and structural inequalities, as well as the seismic shifts that transformed France and its North African Empire throughout the twentieth century. Most importantly, relations between Jews and Muslims were never binary. Instead they were always first and foremost a “triangular affair, with France as the third party.”

This exposition of Jewish-Muslim relations is the core contribution of The Burdens of Brotherhood, which traces this evolution through a series of historical turning points. Katz begins with World War I, which he argues was a “foundational event for Jewish-Muslim relations in modern metropolitan France.” During the war, Muslims and Jews served together in support of France’s union sacrée, the patriotic, unified front of confessional and political factions. Though some Algerian Jews occupied prominent positions as officers, interpreters, and engineers, most North African Muslims and Jews served alongside one another as ordinary soldiers. They were often placed in the same units, and distinguished as racially superior to other French colonial troops. The war thus presented Jews and Muslims with the opportunity to prove their loyalty to France and thereby improve their respective standing within its empire.

On the eve of the war, however, Jews and Muslims in French North Africa were not legally equal in the eyes of the state. For example, since 1870 most Algerian Jews (about 34,000) enjoyed full rights as French citizens — as did their metropolitan coreligionists — while Algerian Muslims (roughly three million) remained overwhelmingly marginalized as colonial subjects. A decade after the end of the Dreyfus Affair, the war offered Jews a means of demonstrating their fidelity as both citizens and Jews to the French republic, whereas most Muslims remained beyond the boundaries of the French body politic. Not only did they have limited political rights, but they were also ineligible for institutional and financial benefits granted to state-recognized faiths (like Jews, Catholics, and Protestants in France and colonial Algeria).

Hence, the stakes of military service for Muslims were different than they were for their Jewish comrades and inextricably linked to the politics of difference that underpinned French colonial order. Throughout the war North African Muslims played an outsized role as soldiers and laborers, suffering the highest mortality rates in France’s war effort. Yet military leaders were often suspicious of their devotion to France, placing Muslim troops under strict surveillance. Even prominent Jewish leaders, like Joseph Reinach, who urged the government to expand political rights to Muslim soldiers, did so on the basis of furthering French imperial ambitions. And though military service has long been a requisite of French citizenship, by the war’s end Muslims had earned only meager political gains, remaining disenfranchised in both France and North Africa. All of this, Katz argues, laid bare the contradictions of the French civilizing mission and republican commitments to universal values of liberty, equality, and fraternity. In so doing, these contradictions — and the colonial context in which they were exposed — haunted relations between Jews, Muslims, and France throughout the postcolonial era.

If World War I was a “foundational event” in Jewish-Muslim relations, then its aftermath was arguably even more so. During the interwar years, Katz asserts, “France became increasingly defined by its Mediterranean context,” while Muslims and Jews “found themselves in the crosshairs of competing visions of French nationhood.” From the 1920s onward, both groups began articulating their identities and interactions in myriad ways, but always in conversation with, and shaped by, their respective status within the French imperium. Katz accounts for this shift by arguing that the war and its aftermath brought religious, colonial, national, and international considerations to the fore in France like never before, setting “a tone for Jewish-Muslim relations in France that would prevail for decades to come.” During this time, France underwent a profound cultural, demographic, and political transformation as millions of immigrants and colonial migrants arrived from eastern and southern Europe and western and northern Africa. In fact, after restrictions were placed on immigration to the United States in 1924, “France became the country with the highest rate of foreign population growth in the world.” Following the Balfour Declaration and the creation of the mandate system in the Middle East, subaltern and transnational political movements took hold in France and North Africa. According to Katz, these political movements intersected with struggles over the rise of fascism and the future of colonialism, reconfiguring discussions of religious and national identity and racial difference. For example, when riots broke out in 1934 between Jews and Muslims in Constantine (a city in northeastern Algeria), colonists, officials, and journalists were quick to dismiss the complicated allegiances and circumstances underpinning this violent episode. Instead, they proposed an alternative narrative; one that condemned a “Jewish versus Muslim” strife that threatened to undermine “the physical and ethnic boundaries of the French nation.”

This oppositional framing did not reflect the realities of interwar metropolitan France. The convergence of so many peoples, politics, and ideologies, Katz argues, sparked “a new era of unprecedented…interethnic and interreligious contact in France.” Jews and Muslims began residing in shared cultural and social spaces in France, just as they had throughout the Maghreb for generations. Indeed, by the time French troops commenced the protracted and violent conquest of North Africa in 1830, Jews and Muslims had coexisted there for centuries as neighbors, traders, and artisans. From World War I onward, waves of Jewish and Muslim migrants moved from North Africa to France, settling together in immigrant neighborhoods in Paris, Marseille, and Strasbourg. Through carefully detailed anecdotes, we see how the dynamics of these neighborhoods shaped the multifarious ways in which Muslims and Jews related to one another throughout the twentieth century. They lived together as neighbors, frequenting the same grocers, coffeehouses, and butchers, and exchanging traditional dishes during Ramadan and Passover, as they had done in North Africa. They shared stories, memories, culinary tastes, and customs, joined the same sports teams, played weekly card games, formed political alliances, and participated in Arabic musical groups. And, as one would expect within such an interconnected universe, Jews and Muslims forged intimate bonds as friends, spouses, and lovers.

While the disparities that divided Muslims and Jews before the war were reinforced in different ways in the interwar years, under Nazi occupation and the Vichy government we see how the boundaries of identity (and collaboration) became both blurred and racialized. For the first time, North African Muslims found themselves elevated in the racial hierarchy vis-à-vis their North African Jewish neighbors. Though the Vichy government lauded the importance of its Muslim population, it did not expand their political rights. It did, however, revoke the citizenship of many naturalized Jews (including Algerian Jews), prompting a number of Levantine and Maghrebi Jews in France to petition to be reclassified as “Muslim” in the hope of escaping deportation and death.

The racialized boundaries that delineated Muslims from Jews during the 1940s were then redefined along national and ethnoreligious lines during the pivotal battle over empire and nationhood that took place in Algeria from 1954 to 1962. Katz argues that by 1960, the war of Algerian Independence forced both groups to choose their fate among two opposing camps: either by embracing France and its civilizing mission, or by signaling its failure with support for an independent Algerian state. At the start of the war, Jews and Muslims did not see their options in such bifurcated terms, as contemporary leaders asserted and as subsequent scholars have suggested. Focusing on everyday encounters and grassroots activism, Katz demonstrates that from 1954 to 1960, Muslims and Jews regarded their political options as fluid and manifold. For example, the Front de libération nationale (FLN) sought to garner Jewish (and even Israeli) support for an Algerian state, securing the backing of prominent French Jewish communists, while about 120,000 Muslims (harkis) sided with the French military.

Only after 1960, after an escalation in violence and the FLN’s rejection of Algerian Jews “as accomplices of…colonist crimes,” did Jews and Muslims take opposing sides in the battle over French Algeria; a cleavage that weighed heavily on both groups in postcolonial France. By 1960, the Israeli-Arab wars, the Suez Crisis, and the independence of Morocco and Tunisia (which sparked waves of Jewish immigration to Israel) had strained relations between Algerian Muslim nationalists and their Jewish comrades and neighbors. By the war’s end, most Algerian Jews regarded France as their best option, joining pieds noirs (European colonists) in a mass “repatriation” to France. Yet, Katz stresses, even though decolonization polarized Muslims and Jews, interactions between them in France continued to be shaped as much by their common heritage as they were by the disparities sowed during the colonial past. Moreover, in postcolonial France, these differences, and the asymmetrical ties to French colonial power they evinced, were reinforced by the uneven challenges of integration. For example, Jewish immigrants arriving in France from Morocco and Tunisia had a much easier naturalization process than their Muslim counterparts. Since 1860, French Jewish philanthropic organizations, like the Alliance Israélite Universelle, worked to educate Jewish communities in the Ottoman world and beyond in French language and mores. Once in France, a century later, these communities tended to be far better educated, employed, and financially stable than their Muslim neighbors, who were more likely to work as unskilled laborers, to suffer lower French fluency rates, and to struggle with integration for decades to come.

It was not until the late 1960s that relations between Muslims and Jews in France were politicized, taking a decidedly conflictual turn. In 1968, a year after the start of the Six Day War, riots erupted between Jews and Muslims in Belleville, a predominantly North African neighborhood in Paris. Scholars have long regarded the Six Day War as a turning point in Jewish-Muslim relations across the Mediterranean. And for many in France, the Belleville riots confirmed this contentious shift. Katz agrees that the Middle East conflict did indeed become more salient to Jewish and Muslim political activism and identity at this time. He argues, however, that it also inspired political alliances that cut across confessional and ethnoreligious lines. Tracing the patchwork of alliances that took shape — from the French Jewish organizations, pieds noirs, and mainstream Leftists who coalesced in support of Israel, or the collections of radical Leftists, anti-Zionist Jewish radicals, and Muslim workers who rallied against Israel’s anti-Arab racism — we see that the war was less of a turning point and more of a catalyst for the continued frustrations and uneven relations between Muslims, Jews, and the French state. In addition, Katz argues convincingly that by publicly taking on the Israel/Palestine conflict, Jews and Muslims in France could also call attention to their respective histories of suffering; for Jews it was the public invocation of the Holocaust, and for Muslims it was their unfair treatment under colonial/postcolonial rule.

1967 was less of a turning point and more of a catalyst for the continued frustrations and uneven relations between Muslims, Jews, and the French state

Katz’s final chapter delves into the tumultuous evolution of French politics, from the 1970s to the 1990s, during which public expressions of difference were first hailed as a means of combating racism in France and then subsequently denounced in the name of republican integration. In 1972, the establishment of the Front national (FN) party revivified the French Far Right, which blamed immigrants for France’s economic woes and for undermining French identity. In response to this, and rising racial violence, a series of Jewish and Muslim-led movements arose to combat racism and to publically celebrate “the right to difference” in France. By the late 1980s, however, amid the First Intifada and the bicentennial of the French Revolution, France was in the throes of an explosive debate over national identity, immigrants, and the visibility of Islam in French society. Navigating these developments, Katz shows how Jews and Muslims found solidarity in the fight against racism and in public articulations of hybrid French identity. But as the rhetoric against Muslim difference became increasingly racialized, and as Israel/Palestine continued to catalyze triangular frustrations, these points of solidarity broke down. Indeed, many French Jews distanced themselves from Muslims, fearing “that association with Muslims could link them to foreignness” thereby imperiling their own vulnerable position in France.

As Katz elucidates the uneven pressures of twentieth-century French society — and the political mobilizations and fissures that these pressures inspired — he takes great pains to counter episodes of interethnic violence with a textured portrait of interethnic coexistence. Dozens of interviews with Jews and Muslims punctuate this densely researched portrait with personal insights and tales of muddled communal borders. For example, Patricia Jaïs, the daughter of Algerian Jewish café owners, explains that Muslims were the primary patrons of her family café in the Marais, a neighborhood in Paris. When an “Arab” they knew died, “the Jews made the collection…for his interment in the Arab cemetery.” This did not mean, however, that “Jews” and “Arabs” lived as distinct communities in what is today a center of Parisian Jewish life. Instead, in Jaïs’s recollections, they shared in an “Oriental” culture where elderly people sat together, women wore headscarves, and the “sensations, odors, sounds…were completely Arab.” Religion was equally indistinct for Jaïs. She recalls that her sister Claude was photographed dressed up for Purim as Queen Esther in front of the café of a family acquaintance, Mustapha Galy. “I no longer knew if this was a thing that had to do with Jewish religion or with Arab culture!” Jaïs remarks, “For me, all these colorful costumes, these things…that was more Arab than Jewish.”

For Saïd Bouziri, who helped mobilize a coalition of Muslim workers and Palestinian supporters across France in the 1970s, his mission was always about coexistence. Bouziri emigrated with his family from Tunisia prior to the Six Day War and despite Israel’s military campaigns during these years, he was determined to cultivate a partnership with Jews on the Left. “It was very important for us to be in contact with Jews in France,” he explains. Moreover, it was important “to familiarize ourselves with the Palestinian question but also to not completely demonize the Jews…We [wanted] anti-Zionism not to equal anti-Semitism.” Bouziri’s comments speak to a central thread woven throughout The Burdens of Brotherhood. Through a multilayered discussion of local, national, transnational, and colonial politics, it becomes clear that contrary to prevailing opinion, the discord unfolding in North Africa and Israel/Palestine did not have a uniform impact on Jewish-Muslim relations. Instead, the conflicts between colonialism, Zionism, and Arab or Algerian nationalism played out between these two groups in different ways over time — but always in broader negotiation of the politics, promises, and contradictions of French rule.

Unpacking historical relations between Jews and Muslims in modern France necessitates unraveling the evolving and often entangled milieus that fostered varying modes of identity and engagement throughout the twentieth century. Katz’s study accomplishes this task and, in so doing, offers an instructive meditation on the central questions listed above. In addition, by underlining a century of interconnected experiences that brought these two communities into conversation with one another and with the French state, we arrive at an alternative framework for thinking about the history of these two populations; one which relies on situational and triangular factors, rather than tired oppositions. This achievement, however, comes at a cost. These intricacies, laid out in 327 pages of painstaking text — results in dampening the clarity of the larger narrative. Though each chapter focuses on a turning point in the relationship between Jews, Muslims, and broader French society, the contours of that focus are often buried within the rich anecdotes and subtleties that Katz has so expertly unearthed. It is a lesson in the hazards of using an ethnographic tool like situational ethnicity to spotlight the fluidities and multiplicities of a given identity, and then relying on historical chronology to make sense of the resultant scramble. It also leaves one wondering if there is anything new we have learned about the making and remaking of ethnoreligious categories that can be usefully applied beyond the French context. Nonetheless, the rich and varied tableau of Jewish and Muslim coexistence that Katz presents is not only a remarkable contribution to the study of France and its empire, but also to the shared history of these two communities under French governance.