The Coastal History Blog 28: “Jews and Muslims in Twentieth-Century France: The View from a Port Town”

I’ve observed before in this blog that some of the best scholarship on port towns and urban cultures is written by people who arrive at this subject matter by a circuitous route, almost in spite of themselves.  Maud Mandel’s recent book, Muslims and Jews in France: History of a Conflict, does not present itself as a case study of the port town of Marseille, but she returns to it in every single chapter and it provides some of her best examples of how to think about Jewish-Muslim relations in a way that avoids the usual clichés. [1]

Mandel’s narrative begins in June 1948, when “North African Muslim dockworkers in Marseille refused to load freight onto boats transporting Jews or arms to the Middle East.”[2]  At each turn of events in the region, Marseille would bear the brunt of the impact.  French troops embarked for the Algerian war from Marseille.  When Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria each won their independence,  Marseille would become the arrival point for fleeing pied-noir settlers.  Almost all of the 470,000 North African Jews would leave as well, with the Algerian Jews in particular successfully claiming French citizenship and often winding up in Marseille; even migrants en route to Israel travelled via the French port. [3] Meanwhile, Muslim North African migrants, mostly seeking economic opportunity, would disembark at Marseille also.  No wonder it developed a “visibly ‘North African’ downtown.” [4]

At the time of arrival, these Jews and Muslims shared a common culture from the Maghreb region, both groups spoke Arabic, and they often settled in the same neighborhoods (in Marseille or elsewhere in France).  Mandel notes: “The cafés, groceries, restaurants, schools, and streets in mixed neighborhoods became meeting spots for those with shared culinary, cultural, and linguistic practices.” [5] Rather in the spirit of the Levantine port towns, some brought from North Africa a tradition of sharing festive holiday foods with neighbors of a different faith. [6] Continuities between North African ports and French suburbs could also work against coexistence; the 1967 destruction of the Grande Synagogue in Tunis was followed by a wave of Jewish refugees into Belleville and, in the following year, a riot in that previously calm community, sparked by a quarrel over a card game between two Tunisian migrants, one Jewish and the other Muslim. [7]

Mandel covers the committees for solidarity and the battling leaflets, slogans, and rallies, particularly as the narrative moves to the political upheavals of 1968 and beyond.  Out of the alphabet soup of small organizations, one of the more interesting was SOS racisme, which sought to forge a united front of immigrants from the Maghreb, rather along the lines of British activists who construed the category of “black” to encompass Afro-Caribbean migrants but also the new arrivals from South Asia.  French Jewish intellectuals warned that xenophobia never stops with a single group, and memorialized Algerians slain in Paris at the height of the war.  French Muslim intellectuals spoke out against President Reagan’s decision to speak at the Bitburg cemetery that contained some SS graves, and some visited Auschwitz. [8]

In the long run, however, Mandel argues that “the inequities of colonial administration in North Africa were replicated on French soil. While Muslim immigrants were trapped in a cycle of poverty passed on to their children, Jewish migrants experienced a much more rapid social ascent aided, in part, by a more favorable welcome from French authorities…” [9]  Ironically, given their earlier history in France, Jews were becoming a model minority, whose outward signs of difference were not construed as disloyal or disruptive.  Mandel notes that the appeals for “dialogue” in recent decades—the very choice of that word—imply from the outset that the experience and the consciousness of Jews and Muslims in France are separated by a nearly unbridgeable chasm.

Her main takeaway message, though, is that “Jewish-Muslim relations” as reported in the media at a national, abstract level may differ drastically from what manifests in individual neighborhoods when the encounters are face-to-face.  In Marseille, a schism within the Jewish community led to three kosher butchers losing their licenses.  This was an unfortunate side-effect of a French law that had been intended to permit Jewish communities to self-regulate on matters relating to kosher certification.  The kosher butchers (or shohets) turned to the Muslim community for aid, leading to some unlikely outcomes: “A local imam even provided one shohet with a card authorizing him to slaughter and sell ritual meat.” [10]

Mandel notes that these events unfolded in 1988 and 1989, “at the very moment when pluriculturalism was collapsing as a rallying cry.” [11]  It’s hard to envision how the Marseille partnership could have been conceived, let alone successfully implemented, without a deep—if invisible—backstory involving shared neighborhoods, casual acquaintanceships, and some degree of respect and trust.

Reading this final Marseille anecdote reminds me of a passage I came across recently by the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, denouncing the café as

a non-place for a non-society, for a society without solidarity, without tomorrow, without commitment… without responsibility… You relax completely to the point of not being obligated to anyone or anything; and because it is possible to go and relax in a café that one tolerates the horrors and injustices of the world without a soul. [12]

I’m guessing this was originally written as a retort to Habermas’ over-reliance on the bourgeois public sphere.  At the same time, we connect with people only in places; these trans-communal encounters are hardly going to occur in places of worship, and good luck bringing them off in political meetings.  Possibly the chance encounter in the coffeehouse is our last best hope.



[1] Maud S. Mandel, Muslims and Jews in France: History of a Conflict (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

[2] Mandel, Muslims and Jews, 15.

[3] Mandel, Muslims and Jews, 35, 69.

[4] Mandel, Muslims and Jews, 71.

[5] Mandel, Muslims and Jews, 68.

[6] Mandel, Muslims and Jews, 102, also of great interest on this point is Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff, Mongrels or Marvels: The Levantine Writings of Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011).

[7] Mandel, Muslims and Jews, 102-103.

[8] Mandel, Muslims and Jews, 134.

[9] Mandel, Muslims and Jews, 154.

[10] Mandel, Muslims and Jews, 155-156.

[11] Mandel, Muslims and Jews, 155.

[12] Levinas quoted in Robert Eaglestone, The Holocaust and the Postmodern (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 277.

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