Ethan B. Katz


On his book The Burdens of Brotherhood: Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France

Cover Interview of November 15, 2016

In a nutshell

Today, headlines from France depict the country’s Muslims and Jews as ever, inevitably in conflict. Numerous commentators suggest Muslim attacks against Jews are the newest chapter in an age-old anti-Jewish struggle. Others assume that tensions between France’s Muslims and Jews are simply “spillover” from the Israeli-Arab conflict. The Burdens of Brotherhood shows that each of these accounts is far too simple. The past tells a more complex, often surprising story.

The book offers a history of social, political, and cultural interactions between Jews and Muslims in France from World War I to the present. As I say in the introduction, I encourage the reader to begin by rethinking the assumption that relations between Jews and Muslims are necessarily best understood as “Jewish-Muslim relations” and that these relations have essentially been hostile. The book shows that Jews and Muslims in France have often perceived their relations through categories other than those of ethnicity or religion. Jews and Muslims have interacted on myriad terms: as fellow migrants, political allies and opponents, citizens and subjects of the French empire, shopkeepers and clients, fellow North Africans, musicians or athletes, neighbors, friends, and even lovers and family members. The book also argues that the importance and the very meaning of Jewishness and Muslimness in their interactions has been highly contingent, or what I term “situational,” varying from person to person and context to context. For instance, being Jewish and Muslim might be relatively incidental for two neighbors exchanging pleasantries in the street. But it might be terribly important to the same neighbors if they exchange pastries on each other’s religious holidays. And Jewishness and Muslimness might also be important but carry very different meanings when these same neighbors exchange views – or avoid doing so – regarding violence between Israel and its Arab neighbors in the Middle East.

Finally, the book contends that one cannot understand Jewish-Muslim relations in France without placing France itself at the heart of the story. This has been what I term a “triangular” affair, so that the French state, French society, and notions of what it means to be French have always been at the heart of the way that Jews and Muslims perceived and interacted with each other.

Unlike other works that deal with Jewish-Muslim relations in contemporary France or in the second half of the twentieth century, my book begins with the earliest relations between large numbers of the two groups, during World War I. This long-term perspective is crucial. We see how wars, migrations, and the twinned rise of the nation-state and fall of empires transformed identity and politics for Jews and Muslims. In the process, the same developments etched new boundaries between the two groups. The book also tries to understand the consequences of these changes not only for state actors or elites but in the lived lives of ordinary people. In part, the book does this with a focus on local factors. Throughout, I compare relations between Jews and Muslims in three very different French cities – the capital and great metropolis of Paris, the country’s Mediterranean port city, Marseille, and Strasbourg, long-time commercial center in the disputed region of Alsace on the Franco-German border. We see that even rising international and national tensions did not dictate the tenor or terms of relationships between all Jews and Muslims. Readers thus hopefully can see that this is neither simply a story of ever-escalating conflict nor one of peaceful coexistence suddenly shattered in the early twenty-first century by events in the Middle East.