Dr. Ethan Katz to Provide Insightful, Historical Look at Jewish-Muslim Relations in France
In the wake of recent tragedy in France, including the shootings at kosher supermarket Hyper Cacher in eastern Paris and at the offices of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, Muslim violence against French Jews has suddenly burst into the headlines. But historian and University of Cincinnati Assistant Professor of History Dr. Ethan Katz, who is coming to the Jewish Community Center at 7 pm on May 31, will demonstrate how relations between Muslims and Jews in France have a much longer and more complicated history.
Katz explores this history from World War I to the present in his pivotal new book, The Burdens of Brotherhood: Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France.
“The hostility of many – though certainly not all – Muslim-Jewish relations in France today is a product of many factors. There have been on average at least 600 reported anti-Semitic incidents in France each year since 2000, and for the last several years, a majority of the known perpetrators[…] have been of Muslim descent. Murder has been one of the rarest types of anti-Semitic incidents, thankfully, but it has happened on several occasions,” Katz said. Therefore, the alarming headlines coming out of France over the last few months did not suddenly spring out of nowhere. Anti-Semitic incidents on the part of a small but visible minority of Muslims began to grow with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in autumn 2000.
But attacks such as the 2012 attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse and the 2006 kidnapping, torture and murder of Ilan Halimi, which is examined in the new film 24 Days, can only be understood in the context of a much longer history of coexistence and conflict between Jews and Muslims in France, going back a century. “The legacy of colonialism is still very present, especially in terms of where Muslims and Jews tend to live, the kind of opportunities that have been open to them, and the ways that they perceive each other.”
“You really can’t see Jews and Muslims in France as simply two ethnic groups related to each other,” Katz explained. “You have to understand those relationships as what I call a triangle, with France and the larger French society being a third piece of that triangle.” Katz will illuminate the dynamics of this triangle during his Gaynor Lecture, the JCC’s free annual lecture series sponsored by the Gaynor Fund and, this year, being presented in partnership with The Ohio State University’s Melton Center for Jewish Studies, the Jewish Federation of Columbus, and JCRC.
 Katz’s original entry point into years of researching Jewish-Muslim relations in France began with questioning the traditional narrative of how and why the hostilities arose between the two ethnic groups. “People had various diagnoses for what was happening, but none of them were very historically based. They all seemed to suggest that Jews and Muslims in France had only lived together for a very short time or that all had been harmonious for decades and then with the Second Intifada suddenly tensions arose,” Katz explained. But his research uncovered a richer story.
As the situation intensified at the beginning of the 21st century and gained attention on an international scale, Katz began to wonder more about the historical complexities of Jewish-Muslim relations. He had long been interested in France from a boyhood spent going on trips there with his family, and his interest grew as he was studying for his Ph.D. in history at the University of Wisconsin (which he received in 2009).
Katz expected his research to turn up some surprises, but the biggest surprise turned out to be that, “For at least the first half-century of Muslim and Jewish interaction in France, the Israeli-Arab conflict was far less important to the politics of relations than was the French colonial empire and French Algeria, in particular,” he noted.
According to Katz, a greater understanding of recent events in France can be gleaned by looking at the larger political history of France and its complex relationship with democracy, freedom, identity, and colonialism. To understand Jewish-Muslim relations in France, he said, you have to first “understand the tradition of democracy in France and the forms it’s taken since the French Revolution of 1789.”
While France prides itself on being one of the world’s great democracies—similar to the U.S.—it differs from the U.S. with its particular, republican form of democracy, which is tied to the notion that one must be French first, especially in public. “It didn’t mean you had to cast off other identities, but it did mean that in order to enjoy the full rights of citizenship, you needed to show your loyalty to the State and that there were no contradictions— whether it was having a different ethnicity or a non-Catholic religious faith or even, for a long time, a gender difference,” said Katz.
This political context underlies all of France’s recent tensions, especially those of disenfranchised ethnic groups, and must be taken into account as reforms and attempts at positive change are made. With French laws like the 2004 ban on wearing the hijab in French schools or the 2008 ban of the burqa in any public space, any ground gained by reforms and interfaith dialogue is set back. “To create a stigma around Islam, you probably only isolate people farther and empower radicals,” said Katz.
“I think that horrific events sometimes have silver linings and become catalysts for positive change. There is a clear coming to consciousness about the level of severity, in terms of the social crisis, faced by many of France’s Muslims that has emerged since the attacks of January,” Katz elaborated. This “coming to consciousness” has resulted in a variety of reform proposals, including attempts to improve the conditions of impoverished neighborhoods on the outskirts of Paris where many Muslims have long lived. These areas have long been severely run-down and neglected by public services, with sky-high unemployment and crime rates.
Discussing one of the reform proposals, Katz explains: “These are neighborhoods that help to cultivate radical ideologies. So, to take those neighborhoods and integrate them into Paris— legally, transportation-wise by making the subways run more efficiently, and financially in terms of the level of investment in their schools and infrastructure— that kind of effort, while not necessarily the silver bullet that will solve all problems, is something that could have a major impact over time in terms of taking people who feel marginalized from society and giving them a greater opportunity to be and feel fully integrated. That is one hopeful initiative, and I think the future of Muslim-Jewish relations in France is inseparable from the future of social integration for France’s Muslim minorities,” said Katz.
“Jewish-Muslim relations are never shaped entirely by conflict. Even today, there are a number of neighborhoods in France where Jews and Muslims live together and co-exist reasonably well, and have different things they work together on or share in common, especially because 70% of French Jews are of North African descent, so they share that with the majority of France’s Muslims. Empirically, there are Jews and Muslims in France who are not in conflict. But there’s clearly a lot to be concerned about, if the events of recent months are any indication. They certainly have been alarming, but some of the responses to those events have the potential to carve out better paths over time,” Katz reflected, with a hint of optimism.
Much of Katz’s discussion will focus on long-term patterns of relations between Jews and Muslims in France. Tensions between the two groups have often related to the Arab-Israeli conflict but rarely have they simply been spillover from the Middle East. These issues, Katz explained, “often become connected in the minds of Muslims and Jews to issues of social inequality, memories of violence in the colonial context, and attitudes toward the French state.”
Katz will also explore what distinguishes the most recent terrorism in France from previous terrorist attacks, including those perpetrated by pro-Palestinian activists in the 1970s. “One thing that is new is the self-radicalization on the part of a small number of Muslims in France who have been influenced by jihadist thinkers or clerics. Generally, they have had a least some experience abroad in places like Afghanistan or Yemen, and they have decided to carry out murderous acts often not exclusively against Jews, but against what they see as a constellation of enemies, including Jews. Previous terrorist attacks, including those against Jewish targets, were often not carried out by French citizens. They didn’t have the same path to radicalization that we’re seeing today,” said Katz.
“Even though we’ve seen a wave of anti-Semitic acts in France since 2000, these acts have generally been things like threatening letters or graffiti, or yelled insults. I don’t mean to minimize these things, but there are huge leaps to take you from feeling that you don’t really like your pro-Israel neighbors to feeling that you want to murder them. This small minority of actors is doing something that is new and not very representative of the vast majority of Muslims in France. We’re obviously hoping that this is not a trend that is going to grow or continue, but it’s hard to tell,” Katz continued.
For American Jews, there is a lot that can be learned from the alarming series of recent events in France. “I think that the biggest thing we can learn is to try to help and be in conversation across various kinds of ethnic and religious boundaries in our own communities. We need to be conscious of the impact of racism and the need to build a society where people of all backgrounds can find opportunity. None of that is to excuse what are heinous acts and horrifying ideologies around them, but generally the people who have been led to become radical or violent are people who’ve faced significant, structural racism for their whole lives in France and whose communities have generally faced that for decades. I think it’s important for us as Jews to realize that not only do we have a very strong tradition — particularly in this country but also in France, of wanting to care for the ‘stranger’ that comes from our own Jewish texts and our own sense of social justice, but we also have a self-interest in forging dialogue and lifting up communities facing discrimination.”
Beyond improving conditions for the French Muslims as a key to repairing ties and improving relations, the broader issue facing Jews is a growing uncertainty for their future in France. Katz’s final thoughts were not so optimistic, as he said, “We have a really old, storied Jewish community that remains to some degree in shock from the events of January, that is questioning—more than it has at any time since World War II—its future and what it means to be Jewish in France. We have Jewish institutions large and small that are being guarded by the police or the Army. And people are grateful for that protection but unsure what will happen when the Army leaves. We have a community that will be struggling with these issues for some time to come.”
To RSVP for the free May 31st Gaynor Lecture at which Katz will offer his fresh perspective on recent Jewish-Muslim interactions, contact Melanie Butter at email@example.com. A dessert reception will follow the lecture.
I would take this out because it really will not be dealt with in a substantial way in my lecture, though I’d be happy to answer questions about it afterward.