Books: Brotherhood or burden?

Ethan B. Katz explores the long history of relations between Jews and Muslims in France.

People hold a placard at a vigil in Paris which reads ‘I am Muslim, I am Jewish, I am Catholic, I am Charlie’ following the shooting of 12 people at the satirical magazine ‘Charlie Hebdo’ in January 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS)
People hold a placard at a vigil in Paris which reads ‘I am Muslim, I am Jewish, I am Catholic, I am Charlie’ following the shooting of 12 people at the satirical magazine ‘Charlie Hebdo’ in January 2015
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In many ways, France is fighting a condensed version of the West’s existential problems. The world is watching closely how the ideals of liberté, égalité and fraternité stand up to massive migration and terrorism.
In this vein, the relationship between France’s Muslim and Jewish communities epitomizes this battle for the country’s soul. Our recent memory is so crammed with horrifying events involving the two groups – Hyper Cacher and the Toulouse Jewish school shooting, for example – that it’s hard for outsiders to imagine French Muslims and Jews coexisting.
In The Burdens of Brotherhood: Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France, American historian Ethan B. Katz attempts to deconstruct this relationship through a chronicle of Jewish-Muslim relations in France over the past 100 years. Winner of the National Jewish Book Award for 2015, this readable text is based on archival research, media and oral histories.
The book is not for beginners; readers need to understand some French basics, such as the seminal events of its modern history, the notion of laïcité – secularism – and French Jews’ unrelenting patriotism (“state Jews”), even after the Nazi occupation and Holocaust.
Katz zooms in straight to the way these phenomena affect the two communities.
He draws gracefully on colorful stories far from the headlines and textbooks to capture the real people who lived history.
As such, the ultimate pleasures of The Burdens of Brotherhood are the street-level anecdotes and narratives.
The foundational event of Katz’s study occurred 40 years before it begins, when France bestowed French citizenship on Algerian Jews in 1870. Algerian Muslims, by contrast, remained indigènes, and inferior in status. This inequality became the blueprint for relations between Muslims and Jews in 20th-century France.
During the Great War, Jews and Muslims fought together under the tricolore.
Yet, in some instances, Jews were viewed as executors of France’s colonial mission vis-à-vis Muslims. Jewish interpreters were charged with monitoring Muslim men’s sexual behavior to ensure that the latter were not “polluting” the nation through intimate relations with French women.
While World War I and the interwar period were something of a golden age for Muslim-Jewish relations, WWII shook them to the core. Katz documents the ambiguous behavior of Muslims – who were considered para-Aryan and often acted neutrally or against Jews to save themselves, rather than out of anti-Semitism.
Paris’s Great Mosque, for example, served as a refuge to Jews while also hosting warm encounters between Muslim leaders and Nazi brass.
Katz also recounts the little-known story of Jews disguising themselves as Muslims to evade Nazi deportation. Salim Hallali, an Algerian Jew and popular musician in a Jewish-Muslim ensemble (one of several popular among mixed audiences of the era), was abandoned by former partners during the war. Eventually, one of them provided him with Muslim certificates and had his grandfather’s name engraved on a Muslim tomb, thus saving his life.
Through fascinating, the chapter on WWII leaves the reader feeling empty at the lack of attention given to such a pivotal event in French history – one that remains a gaping wound and largely taboo in French society. In this chapter, as in others, Katz is too forgiving of Muslim anti-Semitism.
In the postwar period, the Algerian struggle for independence, the Six Day War and the 1968 student riots fueled change and unrest in French society.
During this time, Jewishness and Zionism became intertwined, while French Muslims identified more fiercely with the Palestinian liberation movement. Thus the Israeli-Palestinian conflict usurped Muslim- Jewish relations in France, transforming domestic politics irrevocably.
During this time, the Parisian Belleville neighborhood became a meeting point for Muslim and Jewish immigrants, witnessing both neighborly relations and interreligious riots. The photo of Rabbi Emmanuel Chouchena and Tunisian ambassador Mohamed Masmoudi walking together through the neighborhood to urge calm following the 1968 riot is something unimaginable today.
Within the Jewish community, the outpouring of support for Israel in the late ’60s is telling of the Ashkenazi-Sephardi divide.
“The presence of Jews from North Africa, who had not grown up with the same type of expectations about public displays of loyalty to Jewish nationhood or religion, proved vital to the shift underway,” Katz writes. He continues, quoting Adi Steg, a former head of CRIF, a French-Jewish umbrella organization: “The Jews of North Africa uninhibited us [the Ashkenazim].
They pushed us to scream, to cry, to sing, to invade the streets. They had no complex.”
Indeed, into the 1970s and ’80s, Muslims and Jews adhered more vehemently to their “sides” of the conflict. The breaking point coincided with the start of the second intifada in 2000, when “things went horribly wrong.”
Nevertheless, the book’s title indicates Katz’s longing for the good and the companionship between the two communities; the whole book is guided by this aspiration. In this way, it is idealistic; the reality that Katz portrays is probably somewhere between how it looks now and how the author would like to see it.
As such, The Burdens of Brotherhood begs for a follow-up book. If Muslims and Jews existed as “brothers” previously, how could relations have deteriorated so brusquely? What’s more, Muslim-Jewish relations must be studied in a wider context: France’s difficulty integrating migrants, the rising threat of global terrorism, poverty, and other international and national issues.
Ultimately, Katz’s interpretation is engaging and eye opening. He unearths history that has been forgotten or ignored, or is simply unknown, especially to a non- French audience.
The question remains whether French Jews and Muslims can return to better days. Based on Katz’s work, the answer is inextricably linked to the resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Furthermore, he implies that French Muslims and Jews could serve as examples for their relatives in the Middle East. Yet, as France becomes a battleground for competing ideologies, further alienating both communities from each other and from the state, this appears unlikely.