Ethan B. Katz


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

Cover Interview of November 16, 2016

The wide angle

I first became interested in this topic because of a few long-standing interests: French history, Jewish history, and the past and present of the struggle between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. France’s persistent Jewish-Muslim crisis since 2000 seemed to reflect the impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on life in France. Ironically, as I went about my research for this book, I quickly came to understand that other dynamics were perhaps more central to the story. To be sure, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would become very important for Jewish-Muslim relations in France, especially after 1967, but its relevance has in many ways been filtered through a series of other factors specific to France.

In the long term, the history of France’s colonial empire in North Africa, especially in Algeria, forms the most important political context for understanding relations between Jews and Muslims in France. Algeria’s centrality comes from the fact that this very large territory was ruled by France from 1830 to 1962 and in large part annexed to France proper. Large numbers of migrants from the empire came to France, particularly during and following the period of the independence struggle in Algeria (1954-1962). Throughout the colonial era, the French state struggled to come to terms with what it meant to be at once the country of the French Revolution of 1789 and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the first country in Europe to emancipate its Jews, a country that proclaimed that the Muslims of Algeria could assimilate and become equal over time, on the one hand, and on the other, a vast global empire with brutal inequalities in many of its holdings, including Algeria. Simultaneously, France sought to negotiate the place of minority faiths in a country that since 1905, has had a strict separation between religion and public life, but where Catholicism long remained key to large parts of the culture.

Jews and Muslims were repeatedly in the crosshairs of these struggles over universalism and secularism. The two groups faced many of the same challenges, but their positions were rarely equivalent. To cite what is perhaps the most important example, Jews in Algeria became full French citizens in 1870, acquiring all the corresponding rights and privileges. Muslims, meanwhile, faced systematic legal discrimination and frequent violence at the hands of both the French administration and the European settler classes. They only acquired equal rights as French citizens in 1958, four years before Algerian independence.

So from the case of Jews and Muslims, we learn a great deal about the complexity and unevenness of inclusion and exclusion in modern France, and the factors that made it more and less possible for Jews and Muslims in the Francophone world to coexist. We see as well that there are many contexts for Jewish-Muslim relations in modern times that do not begin or end in Israel/Palestine.