Jews and Arabs in Postcolonial France, a Situated Account of a Long Painful Story of Intimacy NACIRA GUÉNIF-SOUILAMAS
Up until now, France has remained an unscrutinized nexus of racial confl icts, especially regarding one of its most volatile tensions: Arab-Jewish relations. One could object to such a statement by pointing out that Arabs and Jews are not races and that, furthermore, if ever the race issue was to be raised in a constructivist perspective, it wouldn’t focus on these two “people” who since time immemorial have ironically been bound together in the same ethnic and mythological group, the Semites. Perhaps since
there was never any sign of a merging of the two groups for historical and political reasons, the discussion still goes on, using the same old terms, occasionally reframed and refreshed. In addition to the persistence of the entangled and universalized myths of the Israel/Ishmael enmity, and the symptomatic episodes of betrayal and mutual hatred that still shape the common imaginary of European culture and polity, one could stress that at a local level, while both groups have been part of the French landscape for a while, one should not ignore that these presences were neither simultaneous nor equivalent in their political and symbolic dimensions. The 1789 Revolution, the colonization of Algeria which closed the era of French slavery and opened the Imperial one, the collective naturalization of Algerian Jews episode by the “décret Crémieux,” the Dreyfus affair, the interlude of the Vichy collaboration, the Holocaust, the creation of the Israeli nationstate, the Palestinian Naqba, the Algerian War and, fi nally, the wars in the Middle East trapped in the colonization of the occupied territories as well as the impossible and always deferred peace process: all these events work as episodes of an intimate history of Arabs and Jews in France. The French postcolonial moment has brought to coincidence two histories, the one of the French and North-African Jews and the one of the new French of indigene descent, and their specifi c embodiment of otherness that so far have excluded one another in the French mythology. This scheme is informed not so much by mutual hatred, a false idea and decoy put into curency in the service of reasserting a post-Holocaust orientalist European frame. Rather, this obliviousness can be explained by the fact that their close and longlasting encounters were staged at a distance from metropolitan France and its blinding Enlightenment before a “repatriation” triggered by decolonization. Stories that long belonged to the Oriental scene recently became part of the Western one. Actors and fi gures who were scattered all over both the wide and narrow paths of history are now gathered together on a crowded multicultural and multiethnic local stage. Unheard secrets and invisible wounds of former dhimmis (protected and subaltern non-Muslim minorities living in the Muslim Umma) and indigènes (subaltern local status of natives under the colonial law) suddenly burst onto the contemporary scene while accelerated changes affect, in one of the strongest modernity gestures since the Revolution, the cultural and political weave and fabric of France.