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Arabs of the Jewish Faith: The Civilizing Mission in Colonial Algeria, by Joshua Schreier. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2010. 233 pp. $49.95.
Joshua Schreier’s work constitutes an important contribution to the modern history of a singular community, the Jews of Algeria, who have experienced most of the challenges and tragedies of colonial domination. Schreier focuses on the initial part of the French colonial conquest, i.e., the 1830s until the 1870 Décret Crémieux that granted French citizenship to Algerian Jews. The author analyzes the establishment of France’s colonial policy towards a country with a substantial Jewish population. Indeed, within Middle Eastern and North African modern history, the Jews of Algeria had a unique destiny after the colonial conquest. Like most of Middle Eastern and North African Jewries under Muslim rule, they had been subjected for several centuries to the Ottoman dhimma system towards non-Muslim populations. While subjected to this status of collective inferiority, they had also been able to develop strong commercial, cultural and religious connections within the circum-Mediterranean Jewish world and beyond. The Jews of Algeria had also been deeply entrenched in the Arab-Muslim dominant regional and local societies and cultures while maintaining solid internal community structures. They had developed a Jewish version of the Arabic language and even of the Berber language spoken in the middle section of the country, in Kabylia. This long history was dramatically turned around with the mid-nineteenth-century French conquest and its subsequent establishment of a civilizing mission among the country’s Jews. Schreier explores the details of this active process of civilization, reveals its many actors and beneficiaries, and analyzes their relationships, their role, and their ereactions towards the French policy throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. From that viewpoint, Schreier’s study is also a contribution to the study and analysis of colonialism as it has affected one of the religious minorities of the country. This scholarly initiative is welcome, as very few pieces of historical research have been focused on the place of Jews in the colonial process in North Africa. Indeed, post-World War II historical scholarship has essentially treated colonialism as a process of modernization and Jewish emancipation, too often ignoring the very political stakes that it involved for affected Jews.
It is a France in profound political turmoil that eventually launched the civilizing transformation of the Jews of Algeria with the active contribution of progressive French Jewish politicians. The French version of the colonial enterprise, refined during the Second Empire in the 1850s, was to emancipate through cultural homogenization, an authentic form of colonial ethnocentrism by which Jews were going to be emancipated by becoming adoptive Europeans in their private and public lives. Schreier concentrates his reading of the archives on the Northwestern coastal city of Oran, which was, at the time of the French conquest, a crossroad of trans-Mediterranean, trans-Saharan and trans-Atlantic commercial activity. The Jews were at the center of this regional trade system and were a major part of the city’s demography, making up about a quarter of the local population.
In the first chapter, the author describes the relationships between Jews and the French colonial administrators in the early years after the conquest. At the time, the large majority of Algerian Jews resided in large cities of the coast or the inlands. Colonial administrators describe a Jewish population in misery and with little education. But there were also some wealthy Jews involved in transcontinental trade and who usually occupied leading positions in the community’s institutions. The French colonists experienced major difficulties in trying to subjugate these Jewish leaders, who were viewed as dominating the commerce of food and other supplies, a major area of the local economy which the French tried to control. With the political pressure of French Jewish politicians, Second Empire colonial administrators elaborated a policy of granting emancipation to Jews to better control their economic, religious, and political activities. But that included a wide range of legal measures including the establishment of Consistories in 1845, viewed as religious institutions that were granted the authority of domesticating the Jewish family, marriage, and private life in Algeria. The Algerian consistories (or religious local confederations of synagogues) were created by a French government decree and organized along the model of French consistories established by the Napoleonian regime in the early nineteenth century. In Algeria, they were conceived as the first institutional step towards the country’s emancipation of the Jews. The consistories’ entire administrative and rabbinical staff was affiliated with the French Ministry of War, which viewed them as the institutional support, at least among Jews, of its colonial enterprise. Local Jews did not always perceive this initiative in its positive historical light, but reacted often in hostility against a religious system designed to control their entire social life, from professional and economic, to private matters such as their domestic cleanliness, their religious rituals, and their marriage practices. The imposed French education system was another domain of cultural domination which local Jews often resisted. To become a deserving French citizen, Algerian Jews had to comply, in their public and private lives, with the Republican laws and morality of their adoptive country/nation, France. They also had to make sure that their children were educated to become good French citizens with a good command of the French language. Schreier effectively reveals how the power of civilizing Jews in Algeria has been more profound than anywhere else in nineteenth-century colonial history.
Supported by sophisticated and diversified archival documentation, this study is a convincing demonstration of this complex process as it has affected the country’s Jews in overturning their historical destiny for the following two centuries. This book is necessary reading for scholars of modern Jewish history, of colonial history, and for social scientists of contemporary Jewries interested in the understanding of the modern relation between Jews and the Republican idea, the source of their emancipation.