“Jews have no problems with Arabs.”
Those were the words of Benjamin Hattab, the father of Yoav Hattab, one of the four killed last week in an attack on a Paris kosher grocery store, which followed the Charlie Hebdo shootings. Hattab is Tunisian and serves as the chief rabbi of the Muslim-majority North African nation — his comments, made in an interview after the attack, referred to his experience in Tunisia, not in France.
Sephardic Jews like Hattab — who originate from Spain, North Africa and the Middle East — have once again become a living barometer of Muslim-Jewish relations. To some, they represent the possibilities of co-existence. To others, they represent the sheer impossibility of that vision.
It is easy to see why that might be the case. Sephardic life has always been complex and hybrid. A friend of Yoav Hattab, Yohann Taieb, paid tribute to him by writing “In another world, he could have become a star of Arab Idol, who loved Arabic music.” His Jewish religious practice, too, was steeped in Arab culture. “When leading a prayer, it was not uncommon for him to borrow tunes from secular Arab Tunisian songs by slowing the tempo, recalling the inseparability of the Tunisian Jewish ethos and its surrounding culture.”
Of course, many question how inseparable the two are. But, Sephardim have also been remarkably resilient in maintaining their mixed cultural traditions through exile. As conflict blows up once more, the community faces many challenges, but their continued existence points to a world beyond black and white.
The Hattabs are part of roughly 2,000 Jews left in Tunisia, after many thousands migrated en masse in the 1960s and 1970s. The once one-million strong Jews living in Arab countries shrank to nearly nothing in the 20th century as a result of a messy process involving de-colonization, the rise of Arab nationalism, Zionism and the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, and economic migration that cut across all communities, as well as discrimination and forced exile. Those who chose to remain have been under increasing pressure. The Hattab’s recent loss follows the death of Yoav’s aunt, who was killed in an attack on a synagogue in Tunisia in 1985.
France’s Jewish community — depleted after the Second World War — was revived by the arrival of Sephardic Jewry in the mid-20th century. Now, Sephardim are the majority among the French Jewish community. France contains Europe’s largest population of Jews and Muslims, both hailing mainly from North Africa.
Two starkly different accounts exist of Jewish life before they left Arab countries. Some portray it as having been a perfect coexistence, with older women remembering bringing pastries to their neighbors for religious holidays. Others speak in terms of conflict, referencing only anti-Semitism, discrimination, violence and forced exile.
Neither of these opposing versions does justice to the long, complicated history of Muslim-Jewish relations, both in the Arab world, and now, in Europe.
That is why, in moments like these, the Sephardim have faced huge pressure to declare which side they are on — to choose which of these narratives defines them as a community. Living on the frontlines, their decisions — like whether they stay in France, or emigrate to Israel — will be watched intently. Their individual actions are weighted with huge significance for broader Muslim-Jewish relations, and for the future of Jews in Europe.
Of course, it’s important not to idealize Jewish life in Tunisia, then or now. The situation has become much more dire because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s polarizing effects. But Hattab’s family remind us that the hybrid nature of their personal lives, and that of their community, is resilient.
Still today, after many painful and traumatic experiences, Sephardi life continues to reflect a fragile mingling of worlds. It is by virtue of this fact that they suggest a new history of relations — however challenging — still remains possible for Jews and Arabs.
Arthur Asseraf is a Fellow at All Souls College Oxford. Born and raised in Paris, he specializes in the contemporary history of France and North Africa. Elizabeth Marcus is a PhD student in French and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York. Her work examines Francophone and Arabophone intellectuals and writers in the Middle East and North Africa.