An interview with Maud S. Mandel, author of Muslims and Jews in France: History of a Conflict
How does your book speak to the current dialogue about tensions between Muslims and Jews in France, particularly in the wake of Charlie Hebdo?
First, my book helps contextualize recent events by placing them in a longer history of Muslim-Jewish relations in France. It thus helps us understand why the violent outburst against Charlie Hebdo became intertwined with an attack against a kosher market, two sites that might not seem obviously linked to contemporary on-lookers. Secondly, I think it also helps us understand the diversity of Muslim-Jewish responses during and after the violence. While French-born Muslim citizens perpetuated the attacks, a French-Muslim policeman died in the conflict and a Muslim immigrant hid Jews in the grocery store. Some Jews have opted in the aftermath to leave France for other countries, while many have never considered such an option. My book helps us get a better grasp on this diversity of possible responses by showing the complex evolution of Muslims and Jews to the French state and each other.
Why did you write this book?
I wrote this book in response to the outbreak of anti-Jewish violence in France in 2000, after which a number of stories came out in the media referring to the “new antisemitism” in France. The term “new” often gives an historian pause, and so I became interested in investigating what was “new” about the events that were unfolding in France. What had changed in Muslim-Jewish relations over time? And what were the forces shaping the evolution of those relations?
What was the most interesting thing you learned from writing this book?
Given the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle to so much of the media coverage of Muslim-Jewish conflict in France, I had expected the story I was writing to focus largely on that issue. And yet the further I delved into the topic, the more clear it became that the legacy of French colonialism and the evolution of French politics had as great an impact on Muslim-Jewish relations as events in Israel/Palestine. Although this conclusion should not have been a surprise to an historian, given the significance of context to the study of history, I was surprised by the long shadow of French colonialism in shaping my story.
What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?
As in all historical projects, my goal is to complicate simplistic understandings of the problem before us, to challenge notions of inevitability, to force us to question how and why the past took the shape that it did, and to push against monocausal explanations. This approach has pointed me to the diversity of socio-religious relationships between Muslims and Jews in France; conflict is not the only–or even the primary–way of understanding these relationships. This approach has also directed me away from conceptualizing Muslim-Jewish relations in France as arising inevitably from conflict in the Middle East. Rather, I argue that where conflict does exist, its origins and explanation are as much about France and French history as they are about Middle Eastern conflict. While global developments created fault lines around which activists began to mobilize, the nature of that mobilization (i.e. who was involved), the political rhetoric employed, and the success or lack thereof of their appeal emerged from French political transformations.
What was the biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life?
The biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life was my stage of life when I wrote it. Newly tenured at Brown and with two young children, I faced the difficulty of finding long stretches of time away from campus and the responsibilities of home life to conduct research abroad. This book would have benefited from much longer periods of ethnographic research in Marseille, one of my key sites of investigation, but it was extremely difficult to balance all the demands of my life in such a way as to accommodate long research trips. The result was that it took me a long time to write this book, and I never felt I could immerse myself as deeply in the project as I desired.
Describe your writing process. How long did it take you to finish your book? Where do you write?
As I mentioned in my answer to the last question, the book took me a long time to write. I began the research when my oldest child was two years old and it came out in print just before he turned fourteen! I wrote most of it in my home office that I share with my husband. Much of the writing happened during a couple of sabbaticals in which we shared that space with several cats. I have fond memories of those long days of writing. My process is to write everything out in long detail and then to pare down to my central argument. First drafts of most chapters thus numbered around 250-300 pages. The work of crafting chapters came in the revisions process, which I really enjoy.
What is the biggest misunderstanding people have about what you do?
People often assume the study of history is either a process of learning about the facts of the past (dates and names) or laying out new information. To my mind, however, the study of history is far more of a humanistic exercise than a social science. Historians are storytellers and interpreters.