The Case Against “Jewish-Muslim Relations” by Adi Saleem Bharat

I have come to realize that much of my research stems from a deceptively simple question: “what are Jewish-Muslim relations?” Media professionals, politicians, and others often taken the very existence of the category of Jewish-Muslim relations for granted. Yet, such a thing may not really exist.

This might be a strange argument coming from one of the co-founders of the Jewish-Muslim Research Network, especially after Brian Klug’s beautifully evocative analysis of the hyphen in the name of our network, but it might be useful to consider it for a moment.[1]

After all, what ends up being classed as Jewish-Muslim relations and what does not? When an individual who happens to be Muslim buys bread from their local bakery, whose owner happens to be Jewish, is this an example of Jewish-Muslim relations? When colleagues who happen to be Jewish and Muslim work together on a project, is that Jewish-Muslim relations too?

Sometimes it seems that interactions only become Jewish-Muslim relations when they are explicitly framed as such, and especially when they fit a particular model of tension and polarization.

An anecdote from Yulia Egorova’s recent ethnography of Jews and Muslims in South Asia can help us make sense of this. Upon witnessing several Muslim weddings taking place in the courtyard of a synagogue in a particular Indian city, an American traveler she met tells Egorova that this was an amazing occurrence that certainly would not happen back home.

When Egorova put this to an Indian Jewish friend familiar with the neighbourhood of the synagogue, he replied in purely pragmatic terms: “There are a lot of Muslims living in this area and that courtyard is a good place for a wedding. Why not use it?”[2] What was an exceptional occurrence for Egorova’s American interlocutor was simply a set of practical interactions for her Indian Jewish friend.

The reason why the Muslim weddings in the synagogue could appear to be remarkable, amazing, or improbable to an American observer is because there exists in Europe and North America, especially, but also beyond, a dominant image, perceptible in media and political discourse, of Jewish-Muslim relations. And the Muslim weddings in the synagogue do not cohere with that image, which is one of polarization and conflict overdetermined by geopolitical issues, especially involving Israel and Palestine.

In the French context, which is the context I am most familiar with, a growing body of research suggests that, despite the diversity and fluidity of interactions between Jews and Muslims in France throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, politicians and media professionals have consistently blurred the national and the international spheres and perceived Jewish and Muslim minorities through an essentialist, transnational, geopolitical lens overdetermined by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the so-called War on Terror.[3]

At a fundamental level, the problem with the discourse of Jewish-Muslim relations or intercommunal relations in general is that they only work as concepts for understanding interpersonal and intergroup relationships if people solely or primarily interact with each other as a function of specific communal identities. This is, however, neither always nor even mostly the case.[4]

When the diversity of possible and actual interactions between people who happen to be Jewish or Muslim is subsumed into a nebulous category of Jewish-Muslim relations, especially when this category is, in the French context and beyond, heavily politicized, we lose sight of lived experience with all its varied perspectives, registers, and contingencies.

In light of this, the category of Jewish-Muslim relations, especially in France, may reveal more about how contemporary Islamophobia functions than the range of actual interactions between individuals who identify to some extent as Jewish or Muslim.

In the end, perhaps the category of Jewish-Muslim relations does not reflect actual interactions between Jews and Muslim, but rather the construction of diametrically opposed symbolic ‘Jews’ and ‘Muslims’.

The category of Jewish-Muslim relations (often reduced to an asymmetric relation between antisemitic, aggressive Muslims and passive, victimized Jews) may be one of several nodal points in the discursive network of contemporary Islamophobia, along with others such as Muslim misogyny, homophobia, intolerance, and, generally, illiberalism.

Against this conception of Jewish-Muslim relations, of course, exists a diverse range of interactions, relations, solidarities, and conflicts between Jews and Muslims (but not inherently as ‘Jews’ and ‘Muslims’). This is not to say that Jews and Muslims do not ever interact as ‘Jews’ or ‘Muslims’. Indeed, we ignore at our own peril how interpersonal interactions can and have been significantly affected by the broader, more dominant image of Jewish-Muslim relations as defined by conflict and polarization. Yet, the challenge for us as academics is to navigate this terrain without taking for granted the very terms of our analysis.

 

Adi Saleem Bharat is an LSA Collegiate Fellow in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at the University of Michigan. He is also a co-founder and coordinator of the Jewish-Muslim Research Network.

 

 

Notes

[1] Brian Klug, ‘Jewish-Muslim: What’s in a hyphen?’ JMRN Review, July 14, 2020.

[2] Yulia Egorova, Jews and Muslims in South Asia, Oxford University Press, 2018, p. 89.

[3] See Maud Mandel, Muslims and Jews in France: History of a Conflict, Princeton University Press, 2014; Ethan Katz, Ethan B. Katz, The Burdens of Brotherhood: Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France, Harvard University Press, 2015; Joshua Cole, Lethal Provocation: The Constantine Murders and the Politics of French Algeria, Cornell University Press, 2019; Adi Saleem Bharat, ‘Jews and Muslims in Contemporary French Newspaper Discourse (2000-2017),’ French Cultural Studies, forthcoming.

[4] See Rogers Brubaker, Ethnicity without Groups, Harvard University Press, 2004; Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, W.W. Norton & Co., 2006.

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