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Where the burdens lie: positioning French Muslim-Jewish relations (from the outside?)

Samuel Everett
The Burdens of Brotherhood
Ethan B. Katz, The Burdens of Brotherhood. Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France, Harvard University Press, 2015, 480 p., ISBN : 9780674088689.
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Belleville library today

  • 1 1979 marks the beginning of a relative de-escalation of Egypt-Israel conflict and the instauration (...)
  • 2 Katz himself gives many of the literary and cultural references that have contributed to this image (...)

1The Bibliothèque de Couronnes, renamed Bibliothèque Neguib Mahfouz in 2014 after the famous Cairene writer, can be found on the corner of rue de Couronnes and rue Julien Lacroix, two central axes of a neighbourhood called Belleville in the 20th arrondissement in the North East of Paris. Commensurate to its size and scale, the library’s collection has a significant Arabic language and literature focus, reflecting the Maghrebi heritage of Belleville. The space within the library is one of public Republican secular neutrality (it belongs to the Mairie de Paris) that strives to recognize the specificities and commonalities of the area’s diversity, layered by different historical flows of migration, notably Chinese, West African and of course Jewish – first Polish, after the First World War, and then Maghrebi, after the Second World War – and North African Muslim, populations that are reflected, still today, in the library’s users. Neguib Mahfouz himself was among the very few Egyptian intellectuals who endorsed publically the Israel-Egypt peace treaty in 19791. Mahfouz’s name is thus synonymous geopolitically, and no doubt locally given the demography of Belleville – intrinsically tied in the French psyche as an area of co-existence2 – with a conception that one might term (in this case peaceful) ‘Jewish-Muslim relations’. Such a contemporary discursive framing, predicated on an essentialist understanding of Jews and Muslims and their relations as primarily conflict-based and sectarian – innately so, both internationally and historically – reveals a Manichean and rigid conceptualization of such interactions. These are viewed through a geopolitical lens despite the fact that such a relationship (at the level of individual and collective experience, organizations and movements identifying or pertaining to Jews or Muslims, Judaism or Islam) have long been a fluid feature of socio-cultural life since 1950s in certain urban localities of France. Instead, these local instances of everyday interaction and communal identification, often revolving around Maghrebi socio-cultural affinities, have been set against powerful transnational political currents and a state framing of how Jews and Muslims should treat one another. This is perhaps the key nexus of existential and discursive tension that Ethan Katz unpacks in his historical monograph The burdens of brotherhood: Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France (from now on The burdens) (2015).

  • 3 The choice of the Maghreb, with a focus on Algeria, clearly gives a point of comparison between mig (...)
  • 4 Interestingly, Katz returns to the issue of fixed identities in reference to ‘the larger set of ass (...)
  • 5 Situational ethnicity as conceptualized by Barthes – a new horizon for anthropological theory in th (...)

2From my position as a temporary resident of today’s increasingly gentrified Belleville for the purposes of ethnographic fieldwork concerning community initiatives relating to social welfare and societal cohesion, and as someone situated predominantly in a Franco-British context, of North African Jewish descent, and well traveled in and around the Mediterranean, this library felt like a place from which it is appropriate to write about Katz’ book. Our object of study is ostensibly similar: Jewish-Muslim co-existence in Paris3, in spite of the problematic nature of terminology pertaining to ‘religious identity’ itself. Recognizing the issue of definition and boundaries Katz puts it succinctly, and intelligibly, in effect opening up his text to the widest readership possible: ‘we necessarily write in the discernable terms of our time’ (p.5)4. However, intersecting with the theory of ‘situational ethnicity’5 that Katz sees as a groove into which relations at a local level, particularly in a place like Belleville, might slide, there is an important difference in my perspective and reading of relationality. In the main I approach this through the lens of phenomenological communal Maghrebi identification, particularly via a longitudinal and localized empirical participant-observation (whence my specific interest in Belleville, whereas the book paints a fuller national picture), while Katz approaches the subject above all historically and more generally geographically, in particular through archival research (drawn from official and non official sources), at times triangulated with oral histories. My reading of The Burdens is therefore predicated on an interpretative lens through my witnessing and the recounting of lived, organic relations and experiences, that I have actively been collating and engaging with as a researcher since 2010. Consequently, it is not the historical minutiae of the monograph nor its two critical junctures – how Vichy collaborationism and accommodationism re-formulated Jewish-state relations in France and how the Algerian war of independence fashioned liberationist Muslim identity – cornerstones of the book’s thesis, on which I focus here, but rather the broader contemporary inferences of ‘Muslim-Jewish relations’ in France as they refer to key cultural and historical understandings of the French political situation. I first look at presentist readings of the past and vice versa, and their confusion, before looking at some of the issues the The Burdens engages with.

Mediterranean relations: folding the past into the present

  • 6 Jonathan Boyarin, Polish Jews in Paris: an ethnography of memory, Bloomington, Indiana University P (...)
  • 7 Soraya El Alaoui « le réseau du livre islamique : parcours parisien » CNRS Editions via OpenEdition (...)

3Equidistant from two prominent places of Jewish and Islamic worship in Belleville the Neguib Mahfouz library lies at a juncture. Westward along rue Julien Lacroix lies the 1930s Tunisian synagogue (Rebbi Hai Taieb Lo Met) that was used initially by an at-the-time majority Polish population (see Boyarin 19916). Southwards, the Tablighi (South East Asian prosyletizing movement) Mosque on rue Jean Pierre Timbaud (Abou Bakr), known in the neighbourhood as la mosquée Omar, was founded in the 1970s by Tunisian businessmen who felt that North African Muslims living in the neighbourhood required further Islamization (see El Alaoui 20137). Today the military patrol the former building and survey the latter. Serving as a hinge point to the book, chapters 5 and 6 of The Burdens paint a picture of Belleville in the late 1960s and early 1970s just prior to the library’s opening, deftly demonstrating the tensions, contradictions and bi-lateral articulations of how we might envisage the theorization of a complex Judeo-Muslim relationship with its three cross-cutting sides that interconnect a triangle: (religious) Jew-Muslim, (structural) Minority-State, and (transnational) France-Elsewhere. At that time the most prominent minority communities of the neighbourhood were Muslim and Jewish, constituted in the main by Algerian Muslim workers and working class Tunisian Jews (90% of whom were from Tunis), neither of which group had, until the 1970s, undergone a significant degree of French naturalization (p. 238). In the month of June in 1968 and then again in 1970, and initially on the basis of the unpaid dues of a card game between local men, riots broke out in Belleville in which Jews and Muslims attacked one another. The synagogue on Julien Lacroix was attacked and fighting took place in and around it (p. 242). Katz postulates a time of great social change in France (the student protest and generalized strike) and serious political upheaval in the Levant (Six-Day War in 1967) as the context for this peak in inter-community violence, the aftermath of which would give way once more to ‘respectful distance’ (p. 294). Thus, for the author the immediate post-Mai ’68 in Paris signals a shift in which transnational political alliances, their construction, and their discursive formulation, begin to trump local level relations, reifying and ensnaring any and all individual or group relationships between Jews and Muslims in France and hardening community borders.

  • 8 The exception perhaps to this rule is a brief vignette-discussion of kippa and voile (p. 307), as d (...)
  • 9 Pierre Kahn ‘La laïcité est-elle une valeur ?’ Spirale vol. 39, 2007 pp. 29-37

4It goes without saying that Katz’s book is timely: 2015 was the year of Charlie, Vincennes, November 13th, a constant military presence on the streets (in particular around Jewish institutions both religious and otherwise), and an extended state of emergency. Consequently, in 2016 the now somewhat hackneyed notion of vivre-ensemble (societal togetherness) and the difficulties of defining and accepting identity politics are more in than out of the French news. Underpinning much current commentary is a civilisationalist rhetoric that has reconfigured French understandings of laïcité8, and in which, somewhat paternalistically, Jews are the bon élève of the Republic while Muslims (particularly Arabs) are its ongoing mouton noir. Ethan Katz tackles the parameters of this shift by eliding the laïcité leitmotif for the fifth French Republic that has come to signify a type of normative national value (see Kahn 20079). The author engages instead with the more subtle, philosophical, and oft forgotten concept of fraternité (brotherhood) across la longue durée of the 20th century, with a deep, multi-layered, and multiple source approach, in particular for the inter-war period, and the postwar period until the 1970s. What Katz demonstrates through detailed, dense, and lively ethnographic-historical descriptions of individual relationships and collective atmospheres in conjunction with the broader community-political picture throughout his book, is that the lives of Jews and Muslims (with a primary Algerian and secondary North African focus) often intersect. This can occur contemporaneously along shared socio-cultural lines through a re-constructed and displaced Mediterranean-style lifestyle in French urban commerce, café culture, and musical traditions, while diverging in relation to post-colonial Arab politics towards Israel. In addition, Katz shows the different and uneven stages of a specifically North African negotiation of frenchness (at once Muslim and Jewish), socially and politically in relation to the French state, that preceded decolonization. He argues that a simultaneous reading of colony and metropole as mutually influential both politically and in terms of North African diaspora relations therefore continues to be necessary after cross-confessional migratory movements from the Maghreb to France, in particular between 1956 (independence of Tunisia and Morocco) and 1967 (the Six Day War) when many Jews left Morocco and Tunisia. These simultaneous movements and re-settlements re-folded metropolitan France back into a broader Mediterranean context that would come to redefine France. Though Belleville is only one of multiple sites of Muslim-Jewish exchanges in Paris – elsewhere Katz concentrates on the Marais, not to mention Belsunce in Marseille, and Strasbourg, the centre, and some of its peripheral towns (Cronenbourg, Schiltenheim) – it is nevertheless the involucre around which his argument of continued trans-local tension, remarkable solidarity and Mediterranean potentiality are most clearly connected.

Race and identity: the blinkers of debate in the Republic

  • 10 On this note and for a more up-to-date (and semi-fictional) treatment see Ilana Navaro’s wonderful (...)

5In spite of the clearly pain-staking work that went into recreating the details of the ambiance of the neighbourhoods that render France such a wonderfully complex and contrasting nation, what will no doubt be heavily problematized among intellectual circles in France will be the author’s own position and his acceptance of community as a part of self and group definition (both Jewish and Muslim). For those still drenched in an insufferably jingoistic passé narcissism it might be asked: How could a (North) American possibly understand French Republican neutrality? Those with a little more empathy and critical distance might question: How could he understand a love affair between a Jew and a Muslim as anything other than the product of a secular Republican idealism? (love affairs, or is that les affaires du coeur – matters of the heart – is a recurrent trope in The Burdens that complicates a necessary differentiation of the two groups)10. More interesting perhaps is the fact that the most in-depth period covered in The Burdens spans 1914 (p. 26), which signaled Muslim-Jewish engagement in the French army with a view to self and community emancipation, to 1974, when the French state recognized the PLO (p. 298). Yet it is precisely during the Mitterrand and post-Mitterrand periods, directly after this, that behaviour denoting a desire to ‘integrate’, such as out-marriage to a non-Jewish or a non-Muslim spouse or an alternative (private or extra-schooling) education, began to be re-considered at an organized community level. In other words, taxing Katz’s monograph, or US scholarship in general for that matter, with a (US) communitarian a priori was more likely to have made sense a generation ago; today community organizations for Jews and Muslims, in particular around religious education, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic acts that hold particular transnational political currency, are part of an ongoing process of negotiation for both minority recognition and positioning. The Burdens demonstrates how this ethno-religious prism on which Jewish and Muslim identification are often predicated today were constructed across generations by bodies representative of both communities in conversation with transnational politics. Such a sharpening of the religious as ethnic has distilled identity along particularistic lines disregarding much of the complexity of human relationships and isolating alternative ways of being and seeing. Thus Katz’ refreshingly honest historical approach to current tensions offers an outlook that cannot be compared to the invariably vacuous contemporary French sclerosis towards identity-politics. This is highlighted by tit-for-tat television debates and the increasingly paternalistic in tone and discriminatory in content political commentary concerning Islam in France (and often Muslims tout court) including a supposed relationship to radical politics.

Those burdens in 2016: decolonization and abandonment

  • 11 For background information on Bouteldja and the movement that she leads see the Aidi, Hisham, ‘What (...)
  • 12 Brigitte Stora, not to be confused with Benjamin Stora (or his family for that matter), is a writer (...)
  • 13 Katz demonstrates how solidarity with Israel marked a departure from a Franco-Jewish quietist tradi (...)

6Two books published in 2016 voice these irreconcilable, dichotomous views that divide sharply into Republican and non-Republican in terms of laïcité and race. The theses developed in each of these books find historical justification in Katz’s monograph. Each of Houria Boutledja’s11 Les Blancs, Les Juifs et nous. Vers une politique de l’amour révolutionnaire and Brigitte Stora’s Que sont mes amis devenus: les Juifs, Charlie, puis tous les nôtres12 in their own way, show that the centrality of minority-state relations, historically, is fundamental to an understanding of the political conjunture of present day France. Bouteldja’s text is underpinned by both what she considers has made Jews the arbiters of Whiteness: the state of Israel and the French postcolonial vice in which Jewish-Muslim relations are wedged. Katz provides historical depth for the second idea by exposing this impossible bind across the longue durée, though he is rightly careful to note the structural imbalances in state treatment of Jews and Muslims from the Maghreb and the differences of cultural capital and community aid upon arrival. Nevertheless, the cross-confessional socio-ethnic milieux in the metropole, of which Belleville is one, and their public orientalization and political instrumentalization during key moments of historical tension such as the Algerian war of independence underscore continued historical state-level political disregard of non-majority groups (not to mention of black and white). Katz repeatedly shows the variable geometries of Jewish and Muslim integration into the French state and the extent of essentialized labeling and surveillance as a function of purportedly geopolitically inspired violence between Jews and Muslims (p. 275-76). He shows French state responses to exogenous influence such Nasserism, Arab mobilization around Palestine (as connected to North African workers’ rights and how this bled through into leftist anti-racist politics p. 288), and Jewish solidarity with Israel13. Bouteldja herself claims to understand indefatigable French-Jewish identification with Israel on the basis that postcolonial French Muslims would undoubtedly take any way out of (unrecognized) postcolonial subjecthood (which is the case for a majority of Maghrebi descent Jews also) that forces French Muslims into a position of having to constantly self-justify and publically show loyalty to the French state. For her, this is why it is imperative to decolonize attitudes as contemporary urban and cosmopolitan France hemorrhages its diverse young talent.

  • 14 See Maud S. Mandel’s Muslims and Jews in France Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2014, for mo (...)

7From The Burdens, clear patterns emerge of Jewish and Muslim historical similarity in group experience, minority positionality, and divisive state policies or at least reactions, that differentiate and segregate these groups. Concomitant feelings of solidarity appear in line with universalistic republican values and the fear, for many Jews, that anti-Arab sentiment is in fact a not-so-distinctive anti-Semitism that will ultimately focus on Jews once more (p. 299). This form of union sacrée between Jews and Muslims (the genealogy of which Katz traces back to the First World War), was thus championed by SOS racism amongst others in the 1980s. (Katz only briefly exposes this period and this re-formulation of solidarity14). However, such a union has been muddied and checked by an anti-Zionist radical left aggressiveness which Brigitte Stora argues, in particular with relation to the post 9/11 period, has succumbed to Arab political popularism, which includes anti-Jewish feeling via the potentiality of a French ethnic/Muslim vote, whilst satisfying its fascination for ‘direct action’ in entangling itself with post 9/11 violent Islamism. Once more Katz’s book proves historically instructive, he shows a concordance of the Mai ’68 movement and public attitudes in France subsequent to the Six Day War in tandem with North African consular engineering after independence that sought to channel North African diaspora political activity towards Palestinian solidarity. Katz’ book shows that, to a degree, leftist politics have incorporated an element of ambiguity towards the French Jewish population because of the elision of state-organized pro-Palestinian militantism with North African workers’ rights in France. Generation on generation this form of ‘Arab’ contestation would go from an anti-Zionism that sat alongside a deep recognition of Jewish Diaspora experience (p. 289) to a total disregard for any differentiation of the terms Jew, Jewish and Israel. Until Sarkozy (Chirac’s anti-FN plebiscite was so unusual as to not render it indicative of electoral trends) the organized Jewish community vote was left-leaning. Brigitte Stora argues, however, that today many Jews feel abandoned by the alternative left, self-indoctrinated by a re-formulated anti-Semitism.

Conclusion: towards a Mediterranean intellectual space?

  • 15 See Katz’s previous work Katz, Ethan, ‘Did the Paris Mosque Save the Jews? A Mystery and its Memory (...)

8So why is it that a historian based in the US manages to reconcile what in France would be perceived of as conflicting North African Jewish and Muslim histories that have traced very distinct paths to present positions held by distinctive political coalitions? Is it merely a matter of the distance and clarity that comes with not being cluttered and encumbered by the political apparel and historical blinkers of the postwar period as it is represented and reformulated structurally in contemporary France? Perhaps so, but how is it that a prestigious body of scholarship written in the US, broadly in the field of Jewish studies, can perceive of a French case beyond anti-Semitism and nation-state borders, and give subtle, informed, and empathetic readings of those very actors who produce the material that underpins a simplistic and ethno-centric understanding of Islam and Judaism in France both historical and contemporary?15 Katz, for example, elucidates on subjects as sensitive as Algerian Jewish involvement in the Organisation d’Armée Secrète (OAS) and likewise sheds light on some retrospectively painful instances of North African Muslim-Nazi collaborationism – little known occurrences that make up a part of the two scars of Jewish and Muslim history that run deepest in France. He does this rigorously, giving deep context, and showing intellectual honesty, his work in no regard resorts to assumptions about what behaviour a faith or a religious culture might dictate. In fact, in my opinion, and as I have tried to show, his work opens up a comparative discussion about Mediterranean space both intellectual and experiential, an air of which can be found in the library in Belleville, which might be taken forwards for example in connecting the non-conversation between Bouteldja and Stora (both of whom are deeply connected to today’s political conjuncture and both of whom were born in Algeria).

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Notes

1 1979 marks the beginning of a relative de-escalation of Egypt-Israel conflict and the instauration of a process of normalization, scaling back an ongoing low-grade war. Given that Israel constituted an enemy presence in Egypt (at the time it occupied the Sinaï) Egyptian public opinion was opposed to a diplomatic solution, President Sadat who signed the treaty and Mubarak after him wanted to continue a policy of economic liberalization (Intifah) which required a level of stability.

2 Katz himself gives many of the literary and cultural references that have contributed to this image. For example he cite’s Romain Gary’s 1975 La vie devant soi (The life before us) at length (p.279-282), Farid Boudjellal’s comics that have since been compiled into a graphic novel Juifs et Arabes, a fascinating 1973 French television documentary (p.276) not to mention the works of Claude Tapia (p.294) and later Simon that put Belleville on the map sociologically.

3 The choice of the Maghreb, with a focus on Algeria, clearly gives a point of comparison between migrations of Jews and Muslims, though at times Katz’ stretches this to its limit by incorporating a much broader geographic Ashkenazic Jewishness into a community experience which becomes increasingly less precise (though of course in France Ashkenazic and Sephardic cultures do live side by side and increasingly closely from the 50s onwards). The question of Muslim definition can also be posed: is this a category that has superseded a vast and varied group of people that were formerly called ‘Arabs’ in France?

4 Interestingly, Katz returns to the issue of fixed identities in reference to ‘the larger set of assumptions about the nature of Jewish and Muslim identification, community, and interaction in France’ (p317) in relation to organizations such as the Amitiés judéo-musulmane de France (AJ-MF) for whom there is a definitive pathway for understanding and creating (voluntarilistically) relations between people who define or are ascribed as Jew or Muslim.

5 Situational ethnicity as conceptualized by Barthes – a new horizon for anthropological theory in the 1960s for matters relating to groups, their relations, and their borders – has been re-worked and nuanced since that time (in ways too numerous to list but in terms of Diaspora studies and transnationalism see Stuart Castles ‘Understanding global migration: a social transformation perspective’, Journal of ethnic and migration studies, vol. 36, n°. 10, 2010, pp. 1565-1586, and Silverstein 2004, who is cited in the book, but a different context, and Paul Gilroy on ‘crossing’ and post-race in Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial melancholia New York, Columbia University Press, 2004). What perhaps is more striking is that this theoretical juncture (which allies the ethnographic and the historical) appears, to my mind, to be a springboard for an interesting discussion of positionality that Katz somewhat elides (see contingent point about this book in a French context).

6 Jonathan Boyarin, Polish Jews in Paris: an ethnography of memory, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1991.

7 Soraya El Alaoui « le réseau du livre islamique : parcours parisien » CNRS Editions via OpenEdition, Jun 2013.

8 The exception perhaps to this rule is a brief vignette-discussion of kippa and voile (p. 307), as different Jewish community organs relate the difference between the wearing of each of these pieces of tissue to a discourse of civilisational confrontation between Judeo-Christian and Islamic cultures.

9 Pierre Kahn ‘La laïcité est-elle une valeur ?’ Spirale vol. 39, 2007 pp. 29-37

10 On this note and for a more up-to-date (and semi-fictional) treatment see Ilana Navaro’s wonderful ‘les traitres’: http://www.ilananavaro.com/ (accessed 7th April 2016).

11 For background information on Bouteldja and the movement that she leads see the Aidi, Hisham, ‘What will happen to all that Beauty? Black Power in the banlieues’, World Policy Journal, 33-1, 2016, 5-11: http://wpj.dukejournals.org/content/33/1/5.full (accessed 6th April 2016). Houria Bouteldja, Les Blancs, les Juifs et nous, Paris, La Fabrique, 2016.

12 Brigitte Stora, not to be confused with Benjamin Stora (or his family for that matter), is a writer and artist that has conducted interesting investigative work, for example on the involvement of Algerian Jews in the FLN (France Inter 2011). Brigitte Stora, Que sont mes amis devenus, Lorment, Le Bord de l'eau, 2016

13 Katz demonstrates how solidarity with Israel marked a departure from a Franco-Jewish quietist tradition demonstrated by the Conseil Representative des Israelites de France’s (CRIF) absolutism regarding the supposedly inextricable link Israel and French Jewish identity (p. 298)

14 See Maud S. Mandel’s Muslims and Jews in France Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2014, for more on this.

15 See Katz’s previous work Katz, Ethan, ‘Did the Paris Mosque Save the Jews? A Mystery and its Memory’, Jewish Quarterly Review, 102-2, 2012, 256-87; Schreier, Joshua, Arabs of the Jewish faith: the civilizing mission in French Algeria, New York, Rutgers, 2010 and Stein, Sarah Abrevaya Saharan Jews and the fate of French Algeria, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 2014.

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Samuel Everett, « Where the burdens lie: positioning French Muslim-Jewish relations (from the outside?) », Lectures [En ligne], Les notes critiques, 2016, mis en ligne le 26 avril 2016, consulté le 24 octobre 2017. URL : http://lectures.revues.org/20708

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Samuel Everett

JRF Woolf Institute & Research Associate St Edmund’s, Cambridge; Post-doctoral Researcher EPHE, Paris.

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