Conflict or Brotherhood? Two Studies of Muslim-Jewish Relations in Urban France

Ethan B. Katz, The Burdens of Brotherhood: Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France, Cambridge, Mass./ London: Harvard University Press, 2015, 480 pp, $35.00/ £25.95/ €31.50, ISBN: 9780674088689.

Maud S. Mandel, Muslims and Jews in France: History of a Conflict, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014, 272 pp., $35.00/ £24.95, ISBN: 9780691125817.

Reviewed by Laura Wollenweber, Freie Universität Berlin

Since the attacks on the Jewish supermarket “Hypercacher” in Paris in January 2015, the tense triangular relation between Jews, Muslims, and France has once more received tragic attention. French cities – which, partially due to the country’s colonial past and postcolonial migration, today hosts the largest Jewish community in Europe – seemingly have become again a place dangerous for Jews to live in. Two recent and very thorough studies – Maud S. Mandel’s Muslims and Jews in France and Ethan Katz’s The Burdens of Brotherhood – shed light on the shared history of Muslims and Jews in France. Both give more complex accounts of their interaction than the mutual hostility portrayed in the news would suggest.

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“Here We Drown Algerians” – Painting on a Seine quai after the October 17, 1961, massacre of Algerian demonstrators, which prompted comparisons to the Shoah, Photo of L’Humanité

Maud Mandel’s main argument sees “episodic moments of Muslim-Jewish conflict cement[ing] a narrative of polarization” (2). She starts from the incentive to give a different account than the common story of mutual disdain, but often ends up reinforcing this powerful narrative. This might be due to her focus on political history and discourse history, in which she looks at places and events of polarization while attempting to trace how the relationship between Muslims and Jews developed along these events.

Ethan Katz’s focus on urban and migration history first underlines the exchange between North African Jews and Muslims, and second, points to how Jewish and Muslim ethno-religious understandings and roles have always been situational and in a process of negotiating. Third, he hints at the centrality of the French state in shaping ethno-religious identities. He concludes that a different path than conflict was possible for Muslims and Jews in France since friendly relations and exchange as well as violence occurred in the same spaces, which shows that Jewish-Muslim relations were always more fluid than fixed. He explores the neighborhood of Belleville in Paris, for example, where both Jews and Muslims lived side by side, and which was struck for days by heavy uproars and vandalism in June 1968 after a Jew and a Muslim had quarreled over a card game.

Despite their common thematic grounds, the two works pursue different approaches. Whereas The Burdens of Brotherhood, as the title suggests, looks in particular at Jews and Muslims migrating from North Africa to France, Maud Mandel’s work circles around Jewish and Muslim populations in Metropolitan France, regardless of the specific regional background. If Ethan Katz perhaps sometimes overplays the importance of contact, Maud Mandel highlights existing differences within the Jewish community. Based on varying regional backgrounds – Eastern and Central Europe or North Africa and the Levant for example – Jewish communities carry specific histories and cultural values, which meant finally that a majority of Jews and Muslims in France did not interact at all.

Cover Mandel Katz

The strength of Ethan Katz’s work lies in his long-term perspective, which starts with Muslim-Jewish relations under colonial rule in North Africa, attempting to overcome the omnipotent explanatory power of the Israel-Palestine conflict. He alerts the reader for example to the fact that both ethno-religious groups had different legal statuses under colonial rule in Algeria – Jews were French citizens while Muslims merely held French nationality, which already created a divide among the Muslim-Jewish populations in French Algeria.

Maud Mandel starts her analysis in 1948, when the state of Israel was founded, and follows up on the development of relations well into the 1980s. She only refers to the colonial past in passing, when she deems it important for Jewish-Muslim relations in postwar France, for instance in a section on the effects of decolonization in North Africa on Muslim and Jewish migrant populations in France. The authorities in Marseille – a city particularly contested by incoming migrants and refugees from North Africa during the decolonization period – cramped migrants from both ethno-religious groups on the outskirts. While Jewish migrants still were slightly better off and could hope either for the very basic comfort of transit camps, Muslims had to live in the slum-like bidonvilles located even further away from the city center than the transit camps; an experience Muslim labor migrants in Paris had as well during the period of tense labor migration in the 1950s until the 1970s.

Primary sources in both works come from national and private institutions and archives in France. Moreover, Maud Mandel has worked with Jewish institutional archives in the United States, while Ethan Katz makes further use of archival material from associations and private persons, books and films, as well as of 35 oral testimonies. His extensive look on contacts on an everyday-life-basis makes this genre of sources necessary. These sources allow the reader to delve into the reality of North African Jewish and Muslim life in France.


Injured Algerian demonstrator (Oct. 17, 1961), pictured by French-Jewish photographer Élie Kagan, BDIC

For related reasons, urban historians might be more interested in The Burdens of Brotherhood since this work does not only concentrate on the shared history of North African Muslims and Jews, but it also gives insights about the urban micro-level of encounters between the two groups. The particular attention given to neighborhoods where contact and exchange was common contributes to the urban and migration history of Paris, Marseille, and Strasbourg.

Ethan Katz lets the reader dive into the everyday life of shared urban spaces like cafés, restaurants, kosher butcher shops, markets or music halls, which became outposts of a common North African cultural background in France. He acquaints the reader with musicians, lovers, and with the members of the A.S. Menora – a soccer club in Strasbourg, where Jews and Muslims played together. Furthermore, he recreates their lives by specifically mapping those areas of contact. His frequent use of pictures and maps enables the reader to visualize the everyday life of Muslims and Jews in France.

Even though Maud Mandel agrees with Ethan Katz about the “shared outposts of a North African culture” – for example in the city center of Marseille – and detects interactions between North African Muslims and Jews in France, she does not study urban themes in great depth. Her work focuses in fact rather on aspects of political, social and cultural history, highlighting a “discursive narrative” and not so much the spatial particularities of everyday encounters. The strengths of Mandel’s well-researched and consistent book lie in the clear structure, which guides the reader also into high complex subjects, such as racism and the French multipluralist anti-racist movement of the 1970s and 1980s, when Jews and Muslims fought together against racism in organizations such as SOS Racisme. Although her work is, ultimately perfect reading for scholars interested in political and discursive history, Katz’s work in the end benefits from Mandel’s analysis on this period, rendering the two books wonderfully complementary.

Laura Wollenweber is a research associate in global history at Freie
Universität Berlin, where she also pursues her Ph.D. Her research project
looks at Cambodian refugee migration to France, 1970-1990.


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