- Arabs of the Jewish Faith: The Civilizing Mission in Colonial Algeria
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, that is, the [End Page 141] 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 reactions 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. [End Page 142]
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...