French Jewish-Muslim relations are always troubled, says historian
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French Jewish-Muslim relations are always troubled, says historian

New book by Ethan B. Katz probes the complex political problems — bound up in issues of race, cultural diversity and religion — that continue to plague the Fifth Republic today

Benjamin Amsellem, right, a Jewish teacher stabbed by a 15-year-old with a machete who claimed Islamic State inspiration, speaks to the press as he leaves the main police headquarters in Marseille, southeastern France, January 12, 2016. (AFP/ BORIS HORVAT)
Benjamin Amsellem, right, a Jewish teacher stabbed by a 15-year-old with a machete who claimed Islamic State inspiration, speaks to the press as he leaves the main police headquarters in Marseille, southeastern France, January 12, 2016. (AFP/ BORIS HORVAT)

LONDON — Equipped with AK-47 assault rifles, on an overcast morning in Paris on January 7, 2015, two brothers with ties to al-Qaeda in Yemen, Said and Cherif Kouachi, entered the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and murdered 12.

Two days later, a Kosher supermarket in a Parisian suburb was the scene of another bloodbath when Amedy Coulibaly murdered a further four people.

Both attacks were portrayed as retaliation for the magazine’s regular caricaturing and blaspheming of Islam. But clearly, deep-rooted anti-Semitic feelings were on the agenda too.

Eleven months later on November 13, 130 people were killed in various locations throughout Paris in a terrorist attack led by a so-called Islamic State that coordinated the entire operation from Brussels, in real time, via smart phone technology.

Prof. Ethan Katz (Hagit Caspi)
Prof. Ethan Katz (Hagit Caspi)

As panic continued to spread across numerous European cities after these dramatic attacks, three questions were asked by most observers: Why have Islamic militants carried out these barbaric atrocities on French soil in recent times? Why are relations between Jews and Muslims in France currently at breaking point? And how exactly does Israel’s relationship with France — both historically and presently— fit into this multifaceted clash of civilizations?

“The crisis in relations between Muslims and Jews in France has been there for over a decade,” says Ethan B. Katz, a professor of history at the University of Cincinnati, and an expert on social relations between the two groups. Katz recently published “The Burdens of Brotherhood: Jews and Muslims from North Africa To France.”

Cover of 'The Burdens of Brotherhood' by Ethan B. Katz (Harvard University Press)
Cover of ‘The Burdens of Brotherhood’ by Ethan B. Katz (Harvard University Press)

“There has been much reporting about this crisis in France since 2000,” says Katz. “But not many people seem to have a proper understanding or historical perspective on it.”

The historian believes the two major terrorist attacks in Paris over the last year are not that surprising.

“I don’t want to ignore the present crisis, because I think it’s important. ISIS is new. But the rise of global Jihad in the 21st century is not,” says Katz.

A straight forward analysis of events in Paris last year, predictably, tend to give simple answers. Many on the left, for example, have argued that France’s involvement in the bombing of Syria, Iraq, and Mali in recent years has cost the French State the security it previously took for granted.

This argument, says Katz, is too reductive and one-dimensional to properly dissect a subject bound up in complex forces of French history. The simplistic view ignores the disastrous integration policy which unfolded between Jews, Muslims, and the wider French State as French imperialism in the Middle East and North Africa collapsed after World War II.

This is a subject that Katz explores with great aplomb in his latest book. The narrative is a compelling analysis on the complicated — and often fraught — relationship of Jews and Muslims vis a vis France from the late 19th century to the present day.

‘The relationship historically is like a triangle. In one corner you have Jews, in another, Muslims, and then you have the French State’

“The relationship historically is like a triangle,” says Katz. “In one corner you have Jews, in another, Muslims, and then you have the French State.”

“What’s striking historically in this triangle is how often Jews and Muslims are relating to each other.”

Katz’s book is essential reading for those seeking to understand the complex political problems — bound up in issues of race, cultural diversity and religion — that continue to plague the Fifth Republic today.

Over the course of the narrative we meet Jews and Muslims across France and its colonies over the course of the last century and a half. They share common and divergent political visions, culinary experiences, as well as musical traditions.

Katz’s narrative argues that Jews and Muslims may have spent a considerable portion of French history in constant opposition to each other. However, he also points out that they’ve fought side-by-side as soldiers in war, formed close bonding friendships, lived peacefully in the same neighborhoods, and even become lovers at times too.

‘I want to get away from the idea that Jews in France are in one category, and Muslims are in another’

“I want to get away from the idea that Jews in France are in one category, and Muslims are in another,” Katz explains.

The book’s main raison d’être, says the historian, is to ask, “What were the key dynamics that shaped Muslims’ and Jews’ interactions, in settings of both co-existence and conflict, rather than continuing to ask: were they good or bad?”

While Katz’s narrative primarily attempts to understand the relationship between Jews and Muslims within France itself, international factors have been hugely influential too.

Most notably, the founding of the state of Israel; de-colonization in North Africa after World War II; and the Algerian War of 1954 to 1962.

Katz also lists a number of other important historical epochs: the Crémieux Decree, which made Jews in Algeria full French citizens in 1870, a clear indication of Jews being given privilege over Muslims in their relationship to the French State. He also cites the 1930s, when the far right in France continually attempted to divide Jews and Muslims against each other, and WW II, when the Vichy regime was in power in France, where Jews experienced extreme persecution and betrayal by the French State.

Algerian Jewish tailors. (Courtesy of JIMENA)
Algerian Jewish tailors. (Courtesy of JIMENA)

He examines the end of French Algeria in 1962, when the French State made it incredibly difficult for Algerian Muslims to hold onto their European status and keep their French citizenship. At the same time, the state guaranteed Algerian Jews those same rights.

And what about France’s relationship with Israel? How does it fit in with Katz’s thesis.

He claims there are three distinct phases: between 1948 and 1967, when France became Israel’s greatest ally and weapon supplier; during the Six Day War in 1967, when France had an arms embargo against both sides, and subsequently became pro-Arab; and the first decade of the 21st century, when there was a shift in the relationship again.

“During this period — first under Chirac, and then under Sarkozy — France began to shift back towards a more pro-Israel position,” says Katz.

‘This changing relationship with France in the Middle East is a field of competition for Jews and Muslims’

“This changing relationship with France in the Middle East is a field of competition for Jews and Muslims, and it continues to play out right up to the present day as a source of tension.”

As a historian, Katz says he tries not to make moral value judgments in his work, and always wants to retain a sense of balance. However, with the exception of Vichy France, he claims the pendulum of prejudice from the French State has clearly swung towards the Muslim community.

Katz says the French State that emerged after the Algerian war was remarkably successful at integrating most Jewish immigrants. For Muslims, however, the transition was not so smooth.

“Muslims were not, for most of Algeria’s history under France, able to attain full French citizenship, go to French schools, learn to speak and write French well, or undertake liberal or skilled professions,” Katz explains. “Jews, by contrast, came to France speaking French, and with skills: therefore possibilities for upward mobility are much greater because of their education.”

Many Jews who came from Algeria to France got classified as French citizens too, says Katz. This meant they became eligible for the Repatriation Law in 1961, which guaranteed opportunities for housing and jobs.

“Conversely, Muslims who came to France from Algeria were ruled to not be French citizens, so they weren’t eligible for those same benefits,” Katz explains.

French police officers on patrol at the Boulevard de Barbes in the north of Paris on January 7, 2016, after police shot a man dead as he was trying to enter a police station in the Rue de la Goutte d'Or. (Lionel Bonaventure/AFP)
French police officers on patrol at the Boulevard de Barbes in the north of Paris on January 7, 2016, after police shot a man dead as he was trying to enter a police station in the Rue de la Goutte d’Or. (Lionel Bonaventure/AFP)

Poverty, bad neighborhood patterns, and crime are very hard cycles to break out of for certain social groups, once they get caught up in them, says Katz.

Unfortunately, he believes, this has been the case for a large number of Muslims from North Africa who have come to France, where the harsh legacies of colonialism still run deep.

Does Katz see a connection between the recent outbreak of fundamental jihadism in France with these economic prejudices?

‘There are multiple paths to radicalization’

“There are multiple paths to radicalization,” he says, rather cautiously.

However, the picture in France is very different, says Katz.

“Most of those who have been involved in acts of terrorism since 2012 have been radicalized while doing time in prison, and come from neighborhoods that are very poor,” he says.

Katz believes the militant attitude France has increasingly taken in recent years towards a secular society is not helping matters either.

“The idea that you can’t be fully French, because you are wearing a certain clothing garment in school, doesn’t seem in line with the normal ideas about French secularism historically,” says Katz. “And so this militant secularism that the French State has imposed in public spaces has made it much easier to make claims against Muslims as not belonging.”

Illustrative photo of hijabs at sale in Jerusalem's Old City. (photo credit: Daniel Dreifuss/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of hijabs for sale (photo credit: Daniel Dreifuss/Flash90)

It’s also created a vulnerability of Jews in certain settings too, he believes.

“Because Jews are much more publicly identifying with Israel and their own religion in France in recent decades, a sense of belonging in France has also posed a real challenge for Jews too,” he says.

Before we finish our conversation, Katz discusses the future of relations between Jews and Muslims and the French State. Like many, Katz predicts it’s only going to get worse, particularly with the current refugee crisis in Syria which has produced more wandering stateless citizens across Europe — fleeing war and persecution — than anytime since WWII.

‘The tiny number of refugees that France accepted from the Syrian refugee crisis clearly reflects how deep its crisis is with its Muslim population’

Katz believes France must make its Muslim population feel more at home within the nation state to improve the situation there.

“The tiny number of refugees that France accepted from the Syrian refugee crisis clearly reflects how deep its crisis is with its Muslim population,” says Katz. “Unfortunately, this negative attitude will continue to heighten tensions for the foreseeable future,” he says.

The scholar claims that there is a deeply negative attitude towards Muslims spreading across France, which is not assuming any kind of European leadership in the face of the refugee crisis.

“France is supposed to be a country that sees itself as the originator of modern human rights, coming out of the French revolution. It really is a sad moment in its history,” says Katz.

Armed French soldiers secure the access to the 'La Source' Jewish school in Marseille, southern France, on January 12, 2016. (AFP/BORIS HORVAT)
Armed French soldiers secure the access to the ‘La Source’ Jewish school in Marseille, southern France, on January 12, 2016. (AFP/BORIS HORVAT)
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