Ethan Katz muddies the waters of Muslim antisemitism

Ethan Katz is to give the Maurice Freeman Trust lecture at the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck College in London on 1 May. He is a history professor at the University of Cincinnati and the author of Burdens of Brotherhood,
a study of 100 years of interaction between Jews and Muslims in North
Africa and contemporary France. In italics I am reproducing  the blurb advertising Katz’s lecture. I
have interspersed my comments.

Headlines from France suggest that Muslims and Jews have renewed an
age-old struggle. But the past tells a different story.

Academics like Katz have come under fire for ‘whitewashing’Muslim antisemitism. They are accused of muddying the waters and confusing the reader/student  with ‘complexity’ where
actually, matters might be quite simple. The 100-years war in Palestine it is
not a struggle between Muslims and Jews, but a Muslim/Arab struggle against
Jews. Prior to the colonial era in the Maghreb, Muslims had power. Jews were a defenceless minority  in an
Arab/ Muslim majority country.  All Jews were eventually forced out.There is no equivalence between the two groups.

The past Katz work refers to is the comparatively recent past. It fails to delve
into the dhimmi status of Jews in the Maghreb before French rule – a
history of subjugation and even forced conversion. Then Jews were
confined to ghettoes – for their own protection against a hostile population.
Jews and Muslims were never brothers – Muslims always assumed they were
superior and entitled to wield power over non-Muslims. Both Jews and Muslims in
Algeria were offered French citizenship by the 1865 Senatus-Consulte, but the
Muslims refused, because it would have meant compromising their personal
status.  The constitution of independent Algeria discriminates against
Jews, for only a person with a Muslim father or grandfather is entitled to Algerian
citizenship. Non-Muslims would never be accepted as part of the Algerian
nation, even those who had supported the FLN nationalists.

In this talk, Ethan Katz discusses the findings from his prize-winning
The Burdens of Brotherhood. He traces the simultaneous development
of coexistence and conflict among Jews and Muslims in France across the
twentieth century and up to our own time. Katz takes us inside little known
relationships between individual Jews and Muslims around common culture and
shared interests cafes, concert halls, neighbourhoods, and athletic clubs.

The prominence  given by post-modern academics like Katz to
cultural and socio-economic factors over people, historical events and politics
has served to falsify the history of Jews from Arab countries. No matter how
many cups of coffee they shared with their neighbours, even the most ‘arabised’
of Jews, such as the Jews of Iraq, were eventually driven out. Friendships between Jews and Muslims did not remain immutable – they could turn to enmity at the drop of a hat. 

At the same time, he shows how the defining events of the past hundred
years – from the rise of fascism and the Holocaust, to the French-Algerian War
and decolonization, to the Israeli-Arab conflict and the rise of global jihad –
have become increasingly difficult to escape and have had a far-reaching impact
on the interactions and mutual perceptions of Jews and Muslims in France.

The underlying assumption is that Jews and Muslims lack any kind of
agency, and are buffeted about by external forces beyond their control. However,  the driving force behind the Israel-Arab conflict, for instance,  has always
been Arab rejectionism. The  global jihad is the product of an ideological, 
anti-modern and antisemitic movement in the Arab and Muslim world. Some ten Jews have been murdered by Muslims in France in the last decade. No Arabs have been murdered by Jews. These murders did not
just happen in a vacuum, and cannot be blamed on French colonialism, or economic, civil or social grievances.

To book for Ethan Katz’s lecture Jews, Muslims, Frenchmen: The Promises and Perils of Fraternity click here.



  • I went to Ethan’s talk and was underwhelmed.

    He selectively chooses dates and cherry picks examples to support his prognosis.

    No mention of dhimmitude..

    No mention that the imam he showed in the recent photograph has 24 hour protection and has received death threats.

    No mention or consideration of the large number of Moslem migrants and asylum seekers who have moved to France over the past 20 years. This is very important as his thesis appeared to be based on the Moslem / Jewish / French relationship in Algeria. Also how is it relevant to the 2nd generation born in France?

    If you selectively choose your facts, then it is easy to say they fit the conclusion.

    He admitted as much in his closing comments “enable different set of perspective and tools …. to be able to think in more imaginable ways”

    I leave you to draw your own conclusion.

  • I read Ethan’s book about a year ago. Despite all the brilliant historical research vigor of supporting evidence one uses to analyze for the complex network of social factors that made Jewish and Arab relationship go bad to worse (because they were never ever transparently good) after and before the independence of Algeria. I found the book leaning apologetically towards minimizing the role the perennial Arab/Muslim anti-Semitism. This is not the result of an underpinning ideological stance, far from it, it is rather the product of all social scientists failings to eschew their reductionist trappings, no matter how hard they try to avoid them.

    Despite the cautionary historical method to avoid being reductionist, I am afraid to say that I cannot accept the conclusion that it was the French colonial policy that was the primary source of conflict between the Algerian Jewish and Muslim communities. Yes, it was a factor and its trail will ultimately lead us to the famous dicton francais: “Diviser pour Mieux Dominer”. However, one misses the point about the nature and extent of ethnic or class divisions. From the French’s “mission civilisatrice” critic context, divisions among the conquered never existed, they were a product of the colonial policy. Jewish and Arab division was not only real but perhaps even deep and ideologically and spiritually irreconcilable. The seemingly common culture and habits are a deceptive, and used only by the members of each community as a dramaturgical play acting to avoid clashes, misunderstanding and outright violence, which by the way, never abated ever since the spread of Islam in North Africa. But also to show the outside world that all is perfect and vibrant under the sun.

    By mentioning all the anti-Semitic violent events with their devastating consequences, as a mere citations to remind the reader that it is the problem is more complex than one thinks, does not help at all, in shedding light on the silently undisputable and convictional attitude among Muslims of the superiority of Islam and humiliating inferiority of Judaism. I am not sure if any research can tackle this issue.

    Although I commend the author for his research, my critic of the book overarching (and unintentional one I may add) French policy conclusion stems from me being a sociologist by training and also (admittedly) as member of a poor Jewish family expelled from Algeria in 1962. I was 6 years old and I had a blanket in my hands the whole boat ride from Algiers to Sete.

  • Response from the author: It does not appear that this commentator read my book. If he/she did, they severely misunderstood parts of it. I urge those with open minds to read the book for themselves. The one thing this commentator does get right is complexity. I'm sorry if that "muddies the waters" for readers, but making everything simple in order to adhere to a certain narrative will not do when the reality is far more complex. Anyone who reads my book will see that I in no way minimize conflict between the two groups and I detail numerous cases of Muslim attacks against Jews and show how and why Muslim animosity toward Jews has grown in recent years. I do not minimize political factors. I do not minimize Jewish and Muslim agency — on the contrary, I emphasize it. The book is the product of 10 years of research and contains about 1200 notes, based upon thousands of sources. You may not like everything the book has to say, but at least pick it up and read it in a serious way before you lob grenades or become convinced by the misleading commentary that is posted here.


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