Academic anti-colonialism can distort Jewish history

A book on the Jews of Algeria ignores centuries of pre-colonial oppression.

Postcard of the interior of Sétif synagogue in Sétif, Algeria. Photo: public domain/Wikimedia
Postcard of the interior of Sétif synagogue in Sétif, Algeria. Photo: public domain/Wikimedia
Lyn Julius
Lyn Julius is the author of "Uprooted: How 3,000 Years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Vanished Overnight" (Vallentine Mitchell, 2018).

The history of Jews in Arab countries has long been an obscure or “niche” field of study in Western universities. Lately, however, a crop of pioneering young academics have made it their specialty. Books have popped up on such varied subjects as Jewish communists in Morocco, Baghdadi Jews and Jewish musicians in North Africa.

All these forays into comparatively virgin territory are to be welcomed. But young academics in the U.S. are also products of their education and environment. The current climate is one of fashionable post-modernist anti-colonialism—and this is reflected in works on Jews in Arab countries.

Take, for example, Joshua Schreier’s book Arabs of the Jewish Faith. Schreier has done impressive research on France’s “civilizing mission” to the Jews of Algeria. The book takes its title from a statement by a former prefect of Oran, Charles du Bouzet, a year after French citizenship was imposed, for domestic electoral reasons, on “native” Jews by the 1870 Décret Crémieux. (Native Muslims were excluded.)

Du Bouzet did not see any real difference between Arabs and Jews. For example, colonial archives abound with references to Jews being corrupt and immoral, such as the claim that Oran’s prostitutes could all be found in the Jewish quarter.

In practice, however, Jews were considered more suitable for “civilizing” than Muslims. The French colonizers believed the Jews could be useful, because Jews supposedly dominated important trade networks and might even provide loyal cannon fodder for the French military.

As part of its “civilizing mission,” France sought to make inroads into Jewish homes, schools, family relations and synagogues. Schreier tries to show that the Jews did not submit without resistance. They were not passive victims of colonialism.

Schreier’s thesis clearly views colonialism as coercive, intrusive and largely unwelcome. He implies, furthermore, that such things as state intrusion in family life persists into the 21st century. French citizenship is conditional on the right French values, he claims. He produces a contemporary case: Faiza, a Moroccan woman living in France, who was denied French citizenship because she wore a head-to-toe burqa.

Claims have also been made that, following the French invasion of Algeria in 1830, unequal treatment “separated” Jews from Muslims, creating unnecessary resentment and friction between the two groups, ending in conflict and exile. This distancing of Jews from Arabic culture and society is the “first exile” described by the influential historian of Algerian Jewry, Benjamin Stora, in his book The Three Exiles of Algerian Jewry.

Missing from the context of this discussion is any in-depth examination of how Jews were treated before the colonial era, when Muslim sharia law was in place under Ottoman rule: The Jews were dhimmis, institutionally inferior to Muslims, with few legal rights.

Schreier acknowledges that Jews were not immune from humiliations, additional taxes and sumptuary laws during this period. If they enjoyed important posts, it was not as decision-makers. They could only execute orders. Jews could be assassinated by rivals and targeted by waves of mob violence.

However, Schrier claims, “a literal interpretation of dhimmi status should not stand in for social history,” which “suggests that Jews were relatively secure and an integral component of late Ottoman and early colonial Algerian society.” He points to the powerful Jewish mercantile elite, which traded in cereal, crops, wool and livestock—though he does not say that several of these successful merchants enjoyed the protection of foreign nationality. He also produces examples of semi-nomadic Jews “who were armed and dressed like Arabs,” particularly in southern Algeria.

Other scholars, often born in Arab countries, have argued that colonial emancipation was a liberation from dhimmi status. As far as most Jews were concerned, colonialism has much to recommend it. It gave Jews greater security, equality and legal rights for the first time in centuries. It introduced basic standards of health care and hygiene and put a stop to corporal punishment in schools. It gave Jews a Western education that permitted them to thrive in the modern world.

To downplay dhimmi status is to ignore the substantial corpus of testimony from European travelers describing the exactions and abuses suffered by Jews in the pre-colonial era. Schreier dismisses these reports as “exaggerated.” He holds that they should be treated with skepticism because they were written to serve a colonial agenda that promoted emancipation and assimilation to French values. Schreier’s suspicions extend to scholars like the late respected Algerian-born French professor Richard Ayoun, whose work Schreier calls “an example of scholarship echoing the colonial model of emancipation from an Oriental state of abasement.”

In fact, it was primarily to equip the Jewish communities of Muslim countries with the wherewithal to fight for their rights as emancipated citizens that a group of French Jews set up the Alliance Israelite Universelle in 1860. This institution was not just a Jewish version of the French “civilizing mission.” It was a response to the very real abasement observed and chronicled in the pre-colonial era, ranging from blood libels and forced conversions to beatings and synagogue burnings. The book Exile in the Maghreb by David Littman and Paul Fenton provides ample evidence of this—not just from European, but also Jewish and Muslim sources.

Yet the Alliance’s efforts to combat Muslim anti-Semitism barely rate a mention in Arabs of the Jewish Faith, ostensibly because the first Alliance school in Algeria was only set up in the early 20th century.

All too often, modern scholars’ anti-colonialism blinds them to or causes them to minimize Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism. “Social history” should not be an excuse for wishful thinking.

Lyn Julius is the author of Uprooted: How 3,000 Years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Vanished Overnight (Vallentine Mitchell, 2018).

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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