Muslims and Jews in France: History of a Conflict by Maud Mandel (review)
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Reviewed by
Maud Mandel. Muslims and Jews in France: History of a Conflict. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014. 272 pages. Hardcover $35.00. ISBN: 9780691125817.

The issue of Muslim-Jewish relations in France took center stage in 2014, once again. As the 2014 war in Gaza unfolded in the Middle East, a video recording of pro-Palestinian protesters attacking a Jewish synagogue in the 11th arrondissement of Paris went viral. Newspapers across the globe reported on the modest but steady rise of French Jews immigrating to Israel, a trend commonly attributed to France’s purportedly inhospitable environment for Jews, and the rise of antisemitism amongst France’s Muslim youth. Cultural commentators in France and abroad advanced several explanations for the rise of antisemitism among French Muslim minorities, and the disconcerting tendency to attribute current events in Israel to diaspora Jewry. Some commentators pointed to the disadvantaged position of Muslim youth within French social and economic life, while others blamed age-old Muslim antisemitism, and yet others directly linked developments in France to the Palestinian–Israeli conflict. [End Page 211]

Maud Mandel’s timely and superb historical study Muslims and Jews in France: History of a Conflict nuances these reductive explanations. French Jews and Muslims indeed have a shaky relationship that has devolved in recent decades, as evidenced in the antagonistic reactions to the 2014 events in Israel by both communities. Muslims and Jews in France seeks to explain how these two French minorities, who share multiple political concerns and by all logic should strike an alliance, have instead built a relationship characterized by mutual suspicion and enmity. But rather than reducing this conflict to timeless and intractable Muslim antisemitism or ephemeral events in Israel, Mandel attributes the current state of “conflict” to developments in North Africa and France between the 1948 war in Israel and the 1980s “right to be different.” Mandel’s argument is threefold: she argues that conversations amongst Muslims and Jews that were seemingly about the Middle East actually functioned as forums to voice dissatistfaction with French administrative and socio-economic inequalities; the particular dynamics of French decolonization in North Africa and immigrant settlement patterns in France were critical in helping shape the trajectory of future French Jewish and Muslims relations; and, finally, the framing of Muslim-Jewish interactions as necessarily polarized or as a binary relationship papers over the exceedingly complex social reality and the diversity of French Jewish and Muslim experience. Throughout the study, Mandel turns to the port city of Marseille to illustrate how French Muslims and Jewish individuals could live harmoniously side by side and yet all the while decolonization, events in the Middle East, and French minority politics could inflame tensions between the two communities.

The book begins in Marseille in 1948 as war breaks out in the Middle East over the establishment of the State of Israel. Unlike elsewhere in France, the situation was especially heated because Marseille was both the new home of Algerian Muslim laborers and a hub for postwar illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine. Mandel argues that the events in Israel actually functioned as a “barometer of the country’s fluctuating and contradictory commitments to some of its most insecure citizens” (33). Postwar French Jews, who had been so recently stripped of citizenship, encouraged French administrators to support the State of Israel and ignore the stream of migrants and munitions passing through Marseille’s ports, while poor and disadvantaged Muslim laborers and pan-Arab nationalists, for their part, prodded the French state to stem the tide of illegal Jewish immigration but, just as crucially, to remain true to its stated commitment to equality of citizenship. The government’s ultimate willingness to turn a blind eye to Jewish illegal immigration brought into stark relief, for some politically active Algerian Muslims, the inequities inherent in the French system and their disadvantaged position.

The second chapter turns to decolonization in North Africa, and perceptions about the migration of North African Jews to France and Israel. Though North African Jewish migration occurred in the larger context of European migration, Mandel argues that a specifically Jewish narrative emerged that framed the Jewish experience of decolonization as distinct from Europeans or...