Column » ‘By the Book’ with Joseph Preville
by JOSEPH RICHARD PREVILLE and JULIE POUCHER HARBIN for ISLAMiCommentary on NOVEMBER 20, 2015:
How did Muslims and Jews create and inhabit shared spaces in post-World War I France? Historian Ethan B. Katz examines the “triangular affair” between Muslims, France, and Jews in his new book, The Burdens of Brotherhood: Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France (Harvard University Press, Nov. 2015). Katz states that “it is impossible to understand the history of Jewish-Muslim relations in France if we fail to place the French state at the heart of the story.”
He argues that Muslims and Jews “related to one another through their respective relationships to the French state and society and to definitions of French national and imperial belonging.” Katz draws on a wealth of sources to show how Muslims and Jews interacted with each other in common and communal ways. “To date,” he writes, “the lived interactions of ordinary Jews and Muslims in France have been almost entirely overlooked in both collective memory and scholarship. A complex history of varied encounters risks being lost in the powerful current of contemporary events.”
Katz is Assistant Professor of History at University of Cincinnati. He was educated at Amherst College and University of Wisconsin-Madison. His scholarly work has appeared in Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, Journal of European Studies, Jewish Quarterly Review, and Journal of North African Studies. He is a contributor to A History of Jewish-Muslim Relations: From the Origins to the Present Day (Princeton University Press, 2013), edited by Benjamin Stora and Abdelwahab Meddeb.
Ethan B. Katz discusses his new book in this interview.
Why do you think it is important to place Jews and Muslims “within a single story” to understand their history in France?
Even though historians have tended to study Jews and Muslims in France separately, the two groups’ fates have often been intertwined. In addition, their respective histories in France can be better understood when the two groups are compared. In the late nineteenth century, France decided to give full French citizenship to Jews in Algeria but not to Muslims in Algeria. Both advocates and policymakers defended the decision by actively contrasting Jews, as allegedly Western, modern, and civilized with the larger native Muslim population, depicted as barbaric, primitive, and disconnected from Western norms.
It’s also important to note that large numbers of Jews and Muslims from North Africa who came to France had much in common: language, food, dress, music, even certain rituals. Therefore, their daily encounters often did not fit our contemporary assumptions – or those of French policymakers at the time – about sharp inter-group divisions. Continue reading