Blame French colonialism for Arab antisemitism!

This book review in Haaretz by Lisa M Leff of  “The Burdens of Brotherhood: Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France,” by Ethan B. Katz ( Harvard University Press, 480 pp., $35) explains events as the result of justified Arab grievances. It seems to exonerate Muslim responsibility for antisemitism by blaming the French, the colonial power in North Africa, for hostile relations between Jews and Arabs. My comments appear in italics through the text of the article. (With thanks: Lily)

The musician Lili Labassi (real name Eli Moyal): booed by the audience after the Constantine riots

Relations between Jews and Muslims in France have been deteriorating for over a decade now, and it’s become all too common for French observers of this depressing situation to portray the two groups as eternal enemies. We hear it from conservative quarters, to be sure, but also from the lips of left-wingers who believe they’re being optimistic when they say that Jews and Muslims will eventually find peace in France – where the long tradition of democracy and secularism provides a framework for putting aside the intractable differences of religious belief in favor of a shared civic identity.

Moral equivalence casts a pall of ambiguity over this last sentence. The ‘intractable difference in religious beliefs’ is to be found among Islamic extremists, not Jews.

French policy makers have been invoking this faith in their particular path to social peace for over a century now. It shaped policy in France’s colonial empire and, since decolonization, in policies affecting post-colonial migrants and their children. If recent events – like the January 2015 Paris massacres by Islamist terrorists at the Charlie Hebdo magazine and the Hyper Cacher grocery store – suggest it hasn’t quite worked, optimists on the left have not been deterred, responding simply, “It hasn’t worked yet.”

The Charlie Hebdo massacre was targeted at that sacred French principle, freedom of speech. Hence the terrorist attack was not simply a sectarian issue.

But there’s another possibility. Perhaps France’s policies toward Jews and Muslims are themselves part of the problem. This is the possibility that Ethan B. Katz, a history professor at the University of Cincinnati, explores in his thought-provoking new book, “The Burdens of Brotherhood: Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France.”

 This is an attempt to blame European colonialism for the problem.

Katz has uncovered fascinating stories of interactions between Muslims and Jews in France and French colonial North Africa over the past 100 years that defy our expectations.

There are intriguing stories of friendship and love, of shared music and food, of help offered in dark times. For example, there was once a Paris café called Le Petit Marseillais where, in the 1930s, Jews and Muslims from North Africa gathered to listen to Arabic music together every Saturday night. There’s also the multiethnic A.S. Menora soccer club of suburban Strasbourg, in which Jewish, Muslim and Christian players remain close even today, in the wake of the 2015 terrorist attacks that have polarized relations elsewhere in France.

Ah! Happy stories of coexistence.  Doesn’t Haaretz love them.

There are stories of genuine interreligious respect: Jews offering cakes to Muslim neighbors at holiday time, and Muslims patronizing kosher butcher shops because kosher meat is also halal. Most unforgettably, there is the dramatic story of Si Kaddour Benghabrit, the Rector of the Paris Mosque who, “to a limited degree,” rescued Jews during the Holocaust.

Alongside these happy stories of Muslim-Jewish solidarity, Katz also tells uglier ones of conflict, suspicion, resentment and betrayal. There are stories of rifts between neighbors and even lovers, like the strange Holocaust-era tale of the Jewish mistress of a Muslim café owner who, during a quarrel, denounced her beau to the authorities as a member of the French Resistance, resulting in her own arrest as a Jew.

There are also terrible stories of violence, like the Belleville riots of June 1968, when conflict broke out during a card game in a multiethnic Parisian café. For days, Katz recounts, Jews and Muslims “threw bottles, rocks and other projectiles at one another. They also exchanged blows, with some reports speaking of Muslims taking razors from Jewish barbershops and knives from kosher butcheries.” Muslims attacked the synagogue, and Jews formed a self-defense force and set up barricades. Calm was restored only at the urging of a local rabbi of Algerian origin, who worked together with the Tunisian ambassador, a Muslim.

The author is scrupulously balanced in his account of the Belleville riots, treating the parties as squabbling  teenagers, but I am left wondering why only Jews were forced to resort to measures of self-defence.

These stories are striking in themselves, and they come from painstaking archival work and serious oral histories. But just as striking is Katz’s interpretation of the inner dynamic that determines how they played out. Throughout the 20th century, relations between Jews and Muslims were shaped by a variety of factors.

Transnational loyalties played a role; in particular, conflict in the Middle East has tended to disrupt the peace in Europe. So too has France’s shifting Middle East policy (France was pro-Israel from 1948 to 1967, then turned pro-Arab for decades before returning to a pro-Israel policy in the last decade).

So France bears the blame  – but  its  foreign policy is not pro-Arab enough to assuage Arab- Muslim feelings of humiliation and frustration at Israel’s 1967 victory.

But most of all, France has provided fertile ground for such conflicts because of how Jews and Muslims have been treated there. As Katz demonstrates, neither group was ever considered fully, securely French, but rather, was in a long process of becoming French. Jews were generally considered further along in the never-quite-complete process than Muslims and, for the most part, they received better treatment as a result (World War II being the exception). Shared insecurity rarely fostered solidarity, because the two groups rarely had the same experiences at the same time.

Here the author is skating on thin ice. Jews in Algeria bore the full brunt of  French colonial antisemitism, expressed at its worst in the Vichy statut des juifs.  If the Jews were not fully accepted as French, why did they take out their insecurities on the Arabs and not the French?

Katz’s point is important. By calling our attention to what he calls the “triangular relationship” between Jews, Muslims and the French state, he forces us to rethink our assumptions about the origin of today’s crisis.

Critical to Katz’s analysis is the idea of “situational ethnicity” i.e., that identity is not entirely fixed but rather, is expressed and understood in different terms depending on the context.

A nice piece of academic waffle to say: attitudes depended on circumstances.

Take, for example, the fascinating story of Lili Labassi, an Algerian-born Jewish singer who established a reputation in the 1930s singing North African music, often with the famous Algerian Muslim musician Mahieddine Bachtarzi. In the wake of the August 1934 anti-Jewish riots in Constantine, Algeria, the previously popular Labassi was booed by a Muslim crowd.

The Constantine riotsclaimed the lives of 25 Jews. Presumably the booing of Lili Labassi indicates that the audience identified completely with the mob and not with the Jewish victims. In this, they were being antisemitic.

 Katz deftly makes sense of the change when he writes, “It appears that at least for the moment, the violence had turned the Jewish performers from North African fellow musicians of the Jewish faith into Jews exclusively, at odds with Muslims, and absent from the nascent perception of an Algerian nation.”

 This is the nature of antisemitism. 

Situational ethnicity is something we’ve all experienced, but rarely theorize. By invoking it here, Katz brings to light a defining pattern in Jewish-Muslim relations in France and its colonial empire. Where Jews and Muslims truly share experiences, as they often did as colonial migrants to France in the 1930s, solidarity can emerge. When they are treated very differently, conflict can result, particularly in crisis moments.

Blame the French for antisemitism!

The best case for Katz’s point is the Algerian war and its aftermath. In the early part of the Algerian war, it was not a given that Jews would side with the French colonizers instead of the Algerian nationalists. But by war’s end, it became clear that Jews and Muslims were in very different positions vis-à-vis the French, and their interests would guide them in different directions. Even though the Algerian nationalists of the FLN had initially been open to Jewish participation, by 1962 it was clear that remaining in an independent Arab nation posed risks for Jews, such as potential difficulty traveling to visit relatives in Israel. Migrating to France was a far safer option.

For Jews, remaining in Algeria  posed risks far greater than travelling to Israel – it posed a risk to life and limb. By 1962 the Great synagogue in Algiers had been wrecked,  several Jews had been murdered including Enrico Macias’s father-in-law, and dozens had disappeared. There was never any room for Jews in the Algerian nation.

The French government affirmed Jews’ citizenship rights and welcomed their migration to the mainland exactly as they welcomed all other “repatriating” Frenchmen.

At that same moment, Algerian Muslims faced a different set of choices. French authorities saw all Muslims in Algeria as, by nature, “Algerian” and not French.

(In this they were fully in agreement with the secular nationalists of the FLN.) Accordingly, they stripped all Muslims of the French citizenship rights that had been granted in 1958 in a last-ditch effort to save Algérie française through reform. This included the Algerian Muslims who were already living and working in metropolitan France, as well as those who chose to resettle in France after the war. It even included the 40,000 harkis (Muslims who had fought for the French in the Algerian war) who arrived in France as foreign immigrants, not citizens, and their inferior status corresponded to inferior access to housing, jobs and social benefits.

The consequences of the “segregation of most Muslims from the French body politic” were serious and long-lasting, and stand in stark contrast to the greater integration of Algerian Jews. It made solidarity difficult despite all that these two groups shared culturally and historically.

 This is an interesting point. However, Arab Muslim statelessness did not last long and by the 1970s France was allowing the families of migrants to join them. This explanation of ‘political segregation’ does not work for Tunisian and Moroccan Jews arriving in France: unlike Algerian Jews, they were generally not French citizens.

 It’s not that Jews and Muslims are eternal enemies because their religions are different; it’s a more specific and much more recent story that involves systemically different treatment at the hands of a supposedly “secular” nation-state.

While Katz is clear that his book “is not about France’s current Muslim-Jewish crisis, but rather the long evolution in relations that preceded it,” his insights are absolutely relevant for understanding such recent trends as rising anti-Semitism among French Muslims, rising Islamophobia among French Jews and, to a lesser degree, rising rates of aliyah from France.

 It seems that  the words ‘Islamist fundamentalist’ or ‘radical islamist’ are not part of Katz’s vocabulary in this reductive account of the sins of the colonial power.

Certainly, some readers may lack the patience to read through Katz’s detailed coverage of 100 years of Jewish-Muslim relations in France and its North African empire, particularly since he has chosen to reject simplifying in order to stress complexity and variety. But if it’s the current crisis that is of interest, this book is more than worth your time.

Indeed, far from ignoring the highly troubling stories of radical Islamist vitriol and violence against Jews in recent years, including the 2015 attacks, Katz tackles them head-on in his conclusion, referring back to the patterns he’s discovered in order to account for them. “The Burdens of Brotherhood” is an important book because it gives us new ways of thinking about Muslims and Jews in France, as well as for what it tells us about the French policies that, too often over the past century, stigmatized, excluded and triangulated in the name of secularism, democracy and social peace.

Read article in full (subscription required)

One Comment

  • Here's a crazy thought: read the book before you condemn it and make wild assumptions about it. I've read it. It doesn't make have the claims you have inferred from this review (some of which you're also misreading within the review itself, but I digress…)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

Point of No Return

Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

One-stop blog on the Middle East's
forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.