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

  • Book Title:
 The Burdens Of Brotherhood
  • Book Author:
Ethan B. Katz
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The Jewish- Muslim Question in Modern France

On August 28, 1961, as the French- Algerian War neared its bitter end, two Algerian Jews who had recently arrived in the French port city of Marseille went looking for help in the same unlikely destination. Both men needed a place to live for their large families and a job to support them.

 Simon Zouaghi was married with seven children and had run a butcher shop in Constantine; he left Algeria due to a growing sense of insecurity about its future.

For Martin Mardochée Benisti, a husband and father of four who worked as a cook in Constantine, threats to him or his family precipitated his departure. Neither man could bring much with him in the way of resources when he crossed the Mediterranean to France.1

Zouaghi, Benisti, and their families were part of a growing stream of Jews and colonial settlers leaving Algeria for the French mainland in the face of continuing violence and the increasing likelihood that Algeria would soon become in de pen dent.

For many Jewish emigrants, the rise of the National Liberation Front (FLN) independence movement, in which Islam played a growing role, and uncertainty about whether Jews would be welcome in a free Algeria, became key factors in the decision to leave. On this day, Zouaghi and Benisti both chose to try their luck at Mar-seille’s government office for the Ser vice of Muslim Affairs (SAM).

Odd as the choice may sound for Algerian Jews to seek help at an agency for Muslims, Zouaghi and Benisti were far from alone. Between July 1961 and May 1962, approximately one thousand recently arrived Algerian Jews showed up at Marseille’s SAM office to ask for assistance. These Jews were more than 40 percent— a rather disproportionate number—of the twenty- three hundred non- Muslims who stepped through the office’s doors and registered during these chaotic eleven months.2

The Jews who came here hailed from cities and small towns across Algeria; professionally, most were small shop keepers, artisans, or of other modest backgrounds. Nearly all cited the ongoing events in Algeria as their cause for departure.

During the same period, thousands of Jews from Algeria looked to other sources for help. These included the social ser vices arm of the French Jewish community, Catholic and Protestant charities, the French Red Cross, the government minister of public health and population, and the recently established offi ce of the secretary of state for rapatriés (the “re-patriated” from France’s colonies and former colonies); a few even wrote directly to President Charles de Gaulle.

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Charitable organizations and government agencies found themselves overwhelmed as the trickle of im-migrants from Algeria became a fl ood of over 1 million people.3 Thus, at some level, we can see those Jews who walked into the SAM as simply a few among many who desperately sought aid wherever they might find it. And yet the question persists: With so many possi ble places to turn, why were Jews, seemingly fleeing from their Muslim neighbors, more willing than most other new immigrants to try their luck at a government office designated specifically for Muslims?

Indeed, in the context of France’s Jewish- Muslim crisis of the twenty- fi rst century, this episode defi es a host of common assumptions. It has become conventional wisdom to see Jewish and Muslim lives as strictly separated, if not violently opposed due to the impact of the Israeli- Arab conflict. We often assume that the histories of Jews in modern Eu rope and Muslims in North Africa have little to do with each other; we think of Jews as long integrated within France and Muslims as perpetually ex-cluded.

Likewise, this story does not fi t the sharp dichotomies through which we tend more broadly to understand the history of France and of Jews and Muslims in the modern world. These dichotomies include as-similation and difference; power ful and powerless; privileged and under-privileged; colonizer and colonized; secular and religious; citizen and foreigner. In the French Mediterranean of autumn 1961, today’s assumptions were hardly the norm; what appears in hindsight as clearly defined was rather more fluid at the time.

Although it remains difficult to interpret the choices of the one thou-sand Jews who entered the SAM office, it is evident that their decision was emblematic of a moment— crucial to the history this book recounts—of transition and deep uncertainty.

The legal, national, and ethnic status of all those from Algeria remained in fl ux; for many Jews and Muslims, complex and multiple allegiances existed. The socioeconomic background of most Jews who came to the SAM was not incidental. Among Algerian Jews, who had been French citizens for most of the previous ninety years, those of modest background were the most likely to continue to follow traditional Algerian customs, speak a Jewish dialect of Arabic, and maintain personal and professional ties to their Muslim neighbors.4

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The registration of these Jews at the SAM possibly reflected the recommendation of Muslim fellow arrivals from Algeria; at the very least, it indicated how entangled the lives of thousands of Jews and Muslims had long been on both sides of the French Mediterranean. Furthermore, the choice suggested that in spite of the current challenges, some degree of comfort endured among many Jews with regard to peoples and things called “Muslim.”

Jews from Algeria appeared as likely to feel affinity for Muslims as for Eu ro pean settlers. Perhaps most im por tant, ethnoreligious labels, although surely signifi cant, did not determine everything; Jews and Muslims could understand themselves and one another in myriad ways.

The document that informs us about these Jews having entered a space designated for Muslims also reveals a great deal about the insecurity of this moment for the French state. The names listed in this registry are placed under the heading of “French coming from Algeria received at the Ser vice of Muslim Affairs.” This phrase implied that Frenchness set apart Jews and colonists from the main group served at this offi ce: Muslims.

Of course, Muslims from Algeria were French too. In fact they continued to enjoy the fully equal legal rights as French citizens that they had ac-quired only three years earlier, with the 1958 Constitution of the Fifth Republic. Nevertheless, by late 1961, government memos that reaffi rmed those rights had also begun to separate “Muslims” and “Eu ro pe ans” of Algeria into two discrete categories.5

 The title scrawled at the top of this list thus constituted one government administrator’s attempt, fraught with anxiety about the future, to assign clarity where little in fact existed.

 As is so often the case with sources that illumine the complex history of Jews and Muslims in France, this document has a multilayered meaning. The list’s heading carries the veneer of hardened ethnic categories that are by now familiar to us; in fact, however, the author has imposed the very boundaries between groups that he or she claims merely to describe. Such a realization points us toward a far less familiar and more pliable reality that demands our attention.6

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Rethinking the Jewish- Muslim Question

This book offers a history of Jewish- Muslim relations— social, po litical, and cultural—in metropolitan France, from the Great War to the pre sent. How has it come to be the case that relationships in France between “Jewish” and “Muslim” individuals and groups are commonly reduced to “Jewish- Muslim relations” and linked automatically to transnational webs of ethnoreligious solidarity and conflict?

Why do we assume that actors and observers imagine their interactions as principally between Jews and Muslims? What is gained or lost by understanding relations in these ways and projecting this framework onto the past?7 How could such relationships be understood differently depending on their time, place, and articulation?

To answer these questions, we have to begin by thinking ourselves back into a series of moments in modern France where relations between Jewish and Muslim individuals and groups were not necessarily conceived by either participants or observers as “Jewish- Muslim interactions.” As this book undertakes such an effort, it advances three principal arguments.

First, historically, what we now call Jewish- Muslim relations in France were neither inevitably ethnoreligious nor necessarily oppositional. Rather, Jews and Muslims in France interacted on a wide range of terms. I use the phrase terms of interaction to explore the various categories and milieux through which Jews and Muslims defined, perceived, and related to each other.

Many Jews and Muslims inhabited the same or adjacent locales; enjoyed common culinary and musical traditions; faced similar or divergent paths to integration as new arrivals in France; participated as allies or opponents in local, national, and international conflicts; patronized the same cafés and grocery stores; and interacted on more intimate terms as neighbors, friends, and occasionally even lovers and family members.

This book first traces, from World War I until the era of decolonization, the opening of a rich, complex tapestry of possible terms of Jewish- Muslim interaction. Next, focusing on the second half of the twentieth century, I analyze how relations between Muslims and Jews became defined increasingly by potentially conflicting ethnoreligious categories.

However, even in this context, Jews and Muslims continued to interact in a multiplicity of ways that far escape the narrow framing of their relationships as encounters between Jews and Muslims.

As such I argue further that both the primacy and the very meaning of Jewish and Muslim ethnoreligious identities are best understood as highly

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