Ethan B. Katz


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

Cover Interview of November 15, 2016

A close-up

The book begins by plunging us into what is in many ways the heart of the story. Thus for the reader browsing in the bookstore, the opening pages are as good a place as any to look.

I start the book by recounting the story of Simon Zouaghi and Martin Mardochée Benisti, two Jewish men just arrived from Algeria who show up in late August 1961 at the government’s Service of Muslim Affairs in Marseille looking for help. Zouaghi and Benisti, despite the existence of various other state resources and the substantial aid efforts of Jewish community organizations, were only two of the roughly 1000 Jews from Algeria in 1961-1962 who sought assistance at this government agency designated specifically for Muslims. This is all the more striking because it was during the very period when increasing numbers of Jews in Algeria were essentially fleeing from the prospect of living under majority-Muslim rule as the bitter struggle over Algeria’s future drew to a close.

What are we to make of such a story? It is hard to be certain of why these Jews chose to try their luck at the Service of Muslim Affairs. What we do know is that these Jews came mostly from modest socio-economic backgrounds. Many were small shopkeepers and artisans. On average, these were the Jews in French Algeria most likely to maintain traditional North African religious customs, clothing, cuisine, and culture, Arabic language, and – correspondingly – to have close relations with their Muslim neighbors. Therefore, Muslim fellow emigrants may have told some of these Jews about the Service. At a minimum, the choice implies the relative comfort of these Jews with things labeled “Muslim.” Moreover, it reveals that ethnic or religious labels did not define all Jewish-Muslim interactions or decisions at this time.

The document from which we learn about these Jews is also highly revealing of this moment where so much was uncertain and a great deal hung in the balance. At the top of the list that includes these Jews, a French bureaucrat has scrawled the label “French coming from Algeria received at the Service of Muslim Affairs.” Remarkably, this label was made atop a list that only included Jews and European settlers from Algeria, even as all Muslims coming to this service were also themselves full French citizens. Within several months, the French state would begin to strip Muslims from Algeria of the French citizenship that they had acquired in 1958, and to separate all newcomers from Algeria officially into two distinct ethnic categories as “Europeans” (French citizens, a group that included Jews) and “Muslims” (non-citizens). Therefore, we can see that one member of the French administration was trying to impose a hard separation here between different groups from Algeria at a moment when such categories were in tremendous flux. The outcome of the months surrounding the end of the war, wherein the French state cast millions of Muslims out of the French body politic – while at the very same moment guaranteeing the French citizenship of all 130,000 Jews who came to the mainland – proved decisive. This difference paved the way for all kinds of divergences between many Jews and Muslims in France for decades to come – in terms of available social services, residency patterns, education and employment opportunities, and more.