Ethical Scholarship: An Imaginaries Reading List for the Israel-Palestine Conflict
Recommending fictions amidst the horrors that have unfolded in Israel-Gaza since October 7, 2023, may seem a puny gesture. How can fictions mitigate a conflict that has taken tens of thousands of lives and displaced almost 2 million people? How can fictions help us make sense of a conflict that stretches beyond Israel-Gaza to rouse bitter debate, chill free speech, and excite Islamophobia and anti-Semitism across the globe? And yet, it is in moments like these that we most need culture to foster empathy, spark creativity, and nurture the will for justice and a meaningful peace. So we offer the following links to reviews run by Imaginaries’ predecessor, Fiction & Film for Scholars of France (FFSF), reviews of books and films that remind us how profoundly linked Muslims and Jews in French-speaking worlds have been, in the past and the present. None of these books or films pretends that such links are forged easily or borne lightly. Nor do they envision worlds free of conflict. But by highlighting shared histories and common experiences, they seek new possibilities for understanding and alliance.
Some of the works under consideration look to the past in a relatively straightforward way. Dan Smail’s review of A Journey to the End of the Millenium highlights just how far back one might look. Acclaimed Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua’s novel, set in a relatively cosmopolitan Latin Christendom of 999, explores familial, commercial, and cultural ties between Sephardic Jews, Muslims alongside whom they live, and Ashkenazi Jews they encounter in the North. Ethan Katz brings us forward in time by almost a thousand years to focus on Ismaël Ferroukhi’s film, Les hommes libres, which simultaneously recalls and romanticizes the efforts of the rector of the Grande Mosquée de Paris to shelter Jews under the Occupation. The films reviewed by Julia Clancy-Smith explore the shared experiences of North African Jews and Muslims who were equally subject to French colonial power.
Many are the artists who find resonance between the persecution of Jews under Vichy and the exclusion of Muslims from full belonging in contemporary France. See, for example, Ruth Schwertfeger’s review of Anna Seghers’ 1944 novel, Transit, and its brilliant, unorthodox adaptation to film in 2018. The film, she notes, places Seghers’ wartime Marseille in a temporally indeterminate moment and so links French Jews’ experiences of the Occupation with the precarious condition of contemporary immigrants to France (the vast majority of whom are Muslim). Alyssa Sepinwall discusses Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar’s 2014 film, Les héritiers, which dramatizes a high school teacher’s teaching of the Holocaust to help her students “learn about racism and religious prejudice beyond their [predominantly Muslim] neighborhood.” As depicted on film, Sepinwall concludes, the project encourages “the students to go from thinking, ‘Jews don’t concern us,’ to understanding what it means to target a people for annihilation on the basis of who they are, rather than their actions.” Benjamin Thomas White’s review of Alain Monnier’s somewhat unclassifiable book about Rivesaltes, a detention center near Perpignan, recalls that the same camp in which Vichy imprisoned Jews prior to deporting them was later used to house harkis expatriated from Algeria in the early ‘60s. Alan Morris’ discussion of Didier Daeninckx’s celebrated novel, Meurtres pour mémoire, a roman à clef about the Paris massacre of 17 October 1961, reminds us that the same Maurice Papon who deported 1,690 Jews from France while serving as a Vichy police administrator orchestrated the 1961 massacre. Phillip Nord’s review of Christophe Boltanski’s account of his multigenerational family of Jews, Catholics, and converts, La cache, alludes to members forced into hiding by the Occupation and members who supported the FLN in its fight for Algerian independence.
Other titles keep their eyes more squarely on the present. Kimberly Arkin’s review of Karim Miské’s novel, Arab Jazz, argues that this novel is similar to Mathieu Kassovitz’s celebrated film La haine (reviewed in FFSF by Michael Gott) in its use of Jewish and Muslim characters to highlight how much social class and cultural privilege—rather than ethnicity or religious identification—divide French populations. Alyssa Sepinwall’s review of He’s My Girl—rich with allusions to other films on Muslim-Jewish relations and other reviews beyond the confines of FFSF—finds much needed hope in director Jean-Jacques Zilbermann’s “love letter to multiethnic Paris… [which] suggests that diversity and particularism enrich Parisian life rather than threaten it.”
These titles merit readers’ engagement as each, in its own way, challenges the dehumanization upon which violence—by force of arms, exclusionary laws, or incendiary rhetoric—is founded. For, lest we forget, dehumanization moves in two directions at once as it targets others and poisons its authors. Each and every one of us becomes less human when we imagine that our fellows do not deserve the same rights of well-being, free speech, and citizenship that we expect for ourselves. Reading a novel or watching a film may seem like a small act of empathy in our dark times. But let us not underestimate the vital role that culture plays in helping us understand the past and imagine new futures. Reading or watching should not be a last step but the first as we act more resolutely for a just and peaceful world.