- Medical Imperialism in French North Africa: Regenerating the Jewish Community of Colonial Tunis Richard C. Parks
How did the medical and scientific discourse about “regeneration” transform Jews in colonial Tunis? How did such a population adapt to, and even reframe, the French and Jewish elites’ attempts to regenerate, to “civilize” this North African community, and even to save their bodies? Parks’ book looks at three specific examples of colonial transformations and Jewish adaptations: the separation of races, religions, and classes and, more precisely, the reconfiguration of Jewish neighborhoods (or hara) in the main city of Tunis through a health and hygienist policy (Chapters 2 [End Page 174] and 3); the divide among young Jews who supported Zionism and those close to the French and the assimilationist Alliance Israëlite Universelle (Chapter 4); and finally the control of Jewish women’s health (Chapter 5).
By framing such questions, Parks’ book rests on Foucault’s assumption that medical and scientific paradigms (biological determinism and social positivism) shaped state policies, including the policies implemented within the colonial world.1 Parks is one of the many scholars who interestingly writes a history of science embedded in a sociopolitical context. But was this concept of “regeneration” the only or even the main impetus for the transformation of Tunisian Jewish communities during the colonial period? What about other messianic religious and political (even Marxist and revolutionary) discourses of hope and change that were still influential among Jews in North Africa at that time?
Parks goes from broad arguments about science and politics to specific case studies among Jews in colonial Tunis. He argues for a reliance on “local microhistory” to study social constraints and the agency of individual actors at the same time. However, his own definition of microhistory (building on local case studies) does not align with the microhistory of Italian scholars, such as Cerutti or Torre.2 Theirs focused not only on specific cases but also saw in local cases opportunities to interpret primary sources intensively, showing that reading primary sources cautiously and paying strong attention to the conditions of their writing would help historians to recover a specific social context made of conflicts and specific interactions. Moreover, in most of the cases studied in this book, Parks, though presenting state policies in detail, does not really focus on the local Jewish agencies except in the last and fascinating chapter in which he convincingly shows how Jewish women combined their own practices with colonial medicine and how “French-acculturated Jewish women preached the ‘gospel of germs’” to “working-class ‘Arab’ Jews” (119).
From the first case study about Tunis, Parks infers major changes between the “pre-colonial” period and the colonial era. He states, for instance, that “Tunis was radically transformed from a diverse city in which residents of various identity groups freely and, for the most part, peacefully shared space in a city that was Balkanized into ethnic, religious, and class-based enclaves” (29). However, the Jewish neighborhood existed long before the French conquest of Tunis in 1881. Throughout the nineteenth century, Tunisian authorities were concerned with European migrants moving to Tunis. Local officials invited these migrants to live outside the old city (or madina).3 Social and cultural distinctions were [End Page 175] therefore already there before French colonial domination. They have only been redefined.
Beyond its various case studies, the book argues that a “modern” Tunisian Jewish identity emerged during the colonial period. Parks also admits that this identity was highly diverse, made of tensions. He sees mainly the creation of this modern identity through the lens of French colonial sources. But what would other sources not used in this book (such as rabbinical sources in Hebrew and newspapers published in Judeo-Arabic or even in Arabic) reveal about the changes and diversity of Jewish identity in Tunis and the neighboring lands, knowing that Jewish communities were connected throughout the Mediterranean?
By stressing the fact that among the Arab population, the Jews were the ones clearly targeted by French...