Katz lectures on relationship of French Jews and Muslims

October 21, 2015 by Zoe Harvan, Executive Editor

Ethan Katz, in his lecture “Sibling Rivals,” discussed the relationship between the Jewish and Muslim populations in France.

Ethan Katz, in his lecture “Sibling Rivals,” discussed the relationship between the Jewish and Muslim populations in France. Tim Nagle-McNaughton/Photo Editor

On Oct. 19, Dr. Ethan Katz discussed the relationship between Jewish and Muslim populations in France in a lecture entitled “Sibling Rivals: Muslims and Jews in France Since World War I,” sponsored by the department of history 1960s Scholars.

Associate Professor of History and Chair of Jewish Studies Alexandra Garbarini ’94 introduced Katz, explaining that though she had planned several years ago to bring him to speak at the College, his lecture is especially relevant now after the January shooting at French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and subsequent attack on a Kosher supermarket in Paris. She noted that “the reassertion in the news of the importance of Jewish-Muslim relations in France” made Katz’s lecture all the more important and timely.

Katz’s talk focused on complicating the contemporary image of tension between Muslim and Jewish populations in France by highlighting the historical multiplicity of interactions between the two groups, as well as the vital importance of including the French state and society as a constant third party in all such interactions.

“The idea that Jews and Muslims have lived together in France for a hundred years is often very surprising to people,” Katz said. He cited the Charlie Hebdo attacks and others in the media as the typical entry points into this subject for most people, characterizing the relationship between Jews and Muslims in France as one of violence and hostility. In his research, Katz aimed to discover whether that relationship had always been that way and what forces pushed it to that point. 

Katz argued that, historically, Jewish-Muslim relations “were not necessarily based on religion or ethnicity, nor for that matter were they necessarily hostile.” The two groups, he found, interacted socially and politically, even living together in Parisian neighborhoods. He noted that France has the largest population of Jews and Muslims in Western Europe.

“The importance and the very meaning of Muslim and Jewish identity are best understood as highly situational … dependent upon circumstances and subgroups across space and time,” Katz said.

To examine the evolution of this relationship, Katz focused on two time periods: that of decolo-nization, from World War I to the 1960s, and the post-colonial era, after the end of the Algerian War in 1962. Algeria, he noted, was central to the study, as it introduced competing definitions of French identity that complicated Muslim-Jewish relations for years to come. While Algerian Jews could maintain their religion when they became French citizens, Muslim Algerians could only do so if they forfeited their religion, essentially barring Muslims from legal French status until they were given citizenship in 1958. Muslims faced “systematic discrimina-tion and violence” from the French state and colonial settlers.

Katz organized his lecture into three “snapshots” of Jewish-Muslim relations in France that complicated contemporary notions of the subject. He first discussed the shared North African identity that bonded Jews and Muslims together in Paris, as both were constantly pushed to the outskirts of French society. He used Muslim Algerian musician Mahieddine Bachtarzi, who toured France with several Jewish musicians and advocated for distinct Muslim Algerian public spaces, as an example of the social and artistic ways the two groups interact.

The far right of the French state began to pit the groups against each other, eventually provoking the 1934 Constantine Riots between Jews and Muslims. However, in 1936, Jewish Prime Minister Léon Blum emerged as a leader who both represented Jews and advocated for Muslims, pro-viding hope to the Muslim community in France.

Katz’s second snapshot focused on the Algerian War. Jews in France were caught in the middle, he said, as they were grateful to the French state but had historical ties to Algerian soil. Several leaders emerged who fought for both Jewish and Muslim populations during the conflict, as the French state denied assistance to Muslim refugees from Algeria. It was this democratic regime, Katz argued, that made ethnic and religious differences the basis for citizenship.

The third snapshot centered on the Six Hour War in 1968, a brawl between Jewish and Muslim men playing cards in a coffee shop that escalated into riots. Katz noted that while this incident was viewed as the arrival of the Israeli-Arab conflict in Paris at the time, in reality, the situation was more complex, considering the increase in immigration to France. Muslim and Jewish identities were becoming politicized, and that politicization of public identities was the defining element in any conflict between the groups.

Katz concluded his lecture by returning to the present moment, noting that when considering recent events in France, it is imperative to remember that “the dramatic escalation of Jewish-Muslim tension in France in the early 21st century has reflected several factors that converged at a precise moment in history.” He cited French secularism and the resurgence of the far right in France as additional factors in these conflicts. However, Katz noted that in his interviews of Jews and Muslims in France in the mid-2000s, many respondents could trace exactly the evolution of these relations and remembered a time when the two groups interacted in a more familial atmosphere. “Their words and histories enable us to rediscover a more malleable co-existence that was not always defined by fixed categories,” he said.

Katz is an assistant professor of history at the University of Cincinnati and a 2002 graduate of Amherst, where he majored in history and French. He received his doctorate in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he recently published a book, The Burdens of Brotherhood: Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France, the monograph on which his lecture at the College was based. 

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