Beyond Colonial Classification – By Kimberly Arkin

Kimberly Arkin on Sarah Stein’s Saharan Jews and the Fate of French Algeria

Sarah Abrevaya Stein, Saharan Jews and the Fate of French Algeria, University of Chicago Press, 2014, 272pp., $85
Sarah Abrevaya Stein, Saharan Jews and the Fate of French Algeria, University of Chicago Press, 2014, 272pp., $85
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Since the beginning of the Second Intifada in 2000, the volume and visibility of anti-Semitic acts have increased dramatically in France. A flurry of scholarship has accompanied this increase, trying to account for what some French Jews perceive as hostility unlike anything they have experienced since the end of World War II. Scholars have raised a number of questions: since the perpetrators of these acts tend to be the children and grandchildren of immigrants from France’s former Muslim colonies, is this new wave of anti-Semitism qualitatively different from nineteenth- and twentieth-century European anti-Semitism? If “Muslim” anti-Semitism is different, why and how is it different? And what might it have to do with the forms of domination, distinction, and entanglement that existed between Jews and Muslims during French colonialism in North Africa? These kinds of questions have prompted historians (and historically inclined anthropologists) such as Aomar Boum, Ethan Katz, Maud Mandel, Jessica Marglin, and Todd Shepard to revisit the seemingly timeless, dichotomous categories of Jew and Muslim, highlighting the ways in which French colonialism and later Zionist activism and Arab nationalism helped produce mutually exclusive identities out of what were originally complex social and psychological realities.

Sarah Stein’s Saharan Jews and the Fate of French Algeria is not intended to address anti-Semitism in present-day France nor is it meant as a detailed account of the contours of relations between Muslims and Jews in colonial Algeria. But it does address some of the central concerns of this emerging scholarship on Jewish and Muslim identities in the contemporary world. Stein looks at the legal and pragmatic construction of Jewishness in colonial Algeria, focusing on a group typically handled as a footnote in most accounts of French colonialism: Jews living in the Sahara in southern Algeria (also known as the Mzab), an area that was not fully conquered or brought under French civilian rule until the late nineteenth century. Because the 1870 Crémieux decree, which granted French citizenship en masse to colonial Algeria’s significant indigenous Jewish population, applied only to the Jews living in areas that had already been annexed to France, Mzabi Jews remained classified as indigènes (indigenous inhabitants), an official legal status that they shared with their Muslim neighbors until the eve of Algerian independence. Stein suggests that this little studied distinction within Algerian Jewishness can provide new insights into colonial regimes of classification (which are often assumed to be organized around a Jewish/Muslim divide) and into understanding North African Jewish experiences.

In contrast to contemporary accounts that link the emergence of Jewishness as an all-encompassing identity to French colonial law and practices, Stein explores how the colonial legal regime produced different categories of Algerian Jews. She begins by showing how the supposedly atavistic traits attributed to Saharan Jews are, in fact, the product of very modern French legal exceptionalism. Early in her discussion, Stein introduces one of the most important anthropological texts ever produced on Saharan Jewry, an ethnography about Ghardaïa’s Jews researched during the throes of French decolonization. Lloyd Cabot Briggs’ and Norina Lami Guède’s No More Forever: A Saharan Jewish Town, published in 1964, was intended as an account of a vanishing world of astonishing Jewish difference and singularity. Briggs and Guède thought the exclusion of the Jews of Ghardaïa from Frenchness created a sort of time capsule, one that left this group of Saharan Jews uniquely untouched physically, culturally, and religiously by European norms and values. Thus Briggs and Guède used anthropometric data to prove that, in contrast to both Eastern and Western European Jews, Ghardaïa’s Jews “do not look Jewish…they do not look like other Jews elsewhere.” Briggs and Guède also provided ethnographic evidence of what they thought were unique and seemingly long-standing, “primitive” customs. Stein responds to this freezing of Mzabi Jews in an eternal past by showing how, in fact, colonial law helped produce the forms of difference that Briggs and Guède read as evidence of ancient distinctions. For example, at the turn of the twentieth century, French military officials reorganized Jewish communal and political life in Ghardaïa by creating an administrative position called chef de la nation juive (head of the Jewish nation), a purely colonial confection that combined features of Ottoman, French, and Jewish notions of community leadership and control. Even as the French government was dismantling legal mechanisms for differentiating northern Algerian Jews from non-Jewish French citizens, it was building new legal and social modes of distinction in the south. These legal distinctions thereby linked southern Algerian Jews to Algerian Muslims while simultaneously differentiating the Jews of the Mzab from both their Muslim neighbors in the south and other Jews in the north.

But if colonial practice created varieties of Jewishness in colonial Algeria, other colonial practices and local responses forced convergence between different Jewish populations. Stein argues that colonial anti-Semitism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often likened Mzabi, northern Algerian, and European Jewish practices, particularly through the trope of usury and the exploitation of local non-Jewish populations. In the heyday of the Dreyfus Affair, colonial reports about and court cases against Mzabi Jews depicted them as “usurers,” regardless of the actual economic facts of each case. Anti-Semitic stereotypes thus seamlessly linked Saharan Jews to French Jews (whether in Algeria or in the Metropole) while also distinguishing them from their Muslim neighbors, who were portrayed in these same reports as legitimately angry victims of predatory Jewish practice.

French colonialism also led Mzabi Muslims and Jews to pursue different strategies of upward mobility, thereby shrinking the gap between northern and southern Jewish aspirations while widening the gulf between Jews and Muslims. Following World War I, Ibadi Muslims in the Mzab were caught up in debates around Islamic reforms, Arab nationalism, and anti-colonialism; many families sent their sons to Islamic schools in Tunisia and resisted colonial institutions of all kinds, whether military or civilian. Mzabi Jews, in contrast, actively tried to gain access to the institutions associated with Europeanness and France including the military, state-run French hospitals, and public schools. As a result, throughout the post-World War II period, as their Muslim neighbors became disillusioned with reforms intended to alter Muslim civil status and electoral rights, southern Algerian Jews continued to lobby (unsuccessfully until the eve of decolonization) for an extension of the Crémieux decree — and with it French citizenship — to the Jews of the south. Even so, the distinctions in legal rights among varieties of Algerian Jews (and Muslims) were not eliminated until 1961, as part of a French attempt to create allies in an ultimately futile quest to hang on to Algeria’s oil-rich Southern Territories. Even after 1961 the legacy of this patchwork of legal distinctions continued to vex French bureaucrats and administrators.

Nonetheless, the way southern Algerian Jews saw themselves never neatly mapped onto the legal framework constructed by the French. The differences that marked Mzabi Jews’ Jewishness — including, among other things, polygamy — hardly stopped Saharan Jews from thinking of themselves as part of a universal Jewish community and especially one that after 1948 was increasingly embodied by the State of Israel. Saharan Jews, in contrast to almost all other Algerian Jews, immigrated to Israel in large numbers between the end of World War II and the Evian Accords granting Algeria independence in 1962. At the same time, the longstanding exclusion of Saharan Jews from French citizenship did not prevent many from aspiring to become European. After the initial wave of migration to Israel, the overwhelming majority of Saharan Jews still living in Algeria at the time of the Evian Accords joined their northern co-religionists and non-Jewish French settlers (the so-called pieds noirs) in panicked flight to France. Colonial laws did not prevent Mzabi Jews from seeing themselves as tied to their northern coreligionists, and unlike the Muslim neighbors with whom they shared the same legal status, Saharan Jews overwhelmingly refused to imagine themselves as Algerian in a newly independent Algeria.

Place de la république, Algiers, Early 20th Century. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Place de la république, Algiers, Early 20th Century. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

So where does this leave us, particularly in relation to the questions with which we began? Stein indeed provides a more complete and complex picture of French colonialism in general and Algerian Jewishness in particular. But Stein also hopes to reveal the ways that confused and confusing colonial categories defied stereotypical binaries (Jewish vs. Muslim; Jew-as-colonizer vs. Muslim-as-colonized) and had significant social and cultural consequences. Saharan Jews does this less convincingly. In many ways, what Stein shows is how little impact colonial jurisprudence and military policy actually had on Jewish modes of self-identification, or simply put, how Jews saw themselves in relation to Muslims and other Jews. Like Jews in Tunisia and Morocco, who were also left out of the official French civilizing mission and were victims of French anti-Semitism, Saharan Jews dreamed of French citizenship and inclusion in an ever more French Algeria. Again, like many Jews in Tunisia and Morocco, Saharan Jews often worked to distinguish themselves — using whatever means possible — from their Muslim neighbors, regardless of whether or not those neighbors were hostile to Jews. And again, like Jews all over North Africa, they responded to growing, often anti-Zionist, Arab nationalism with their own nascent Jewish nationalism.

This seems to point to something other than the legacy of incoherent and inconsistent colonial categories in southern Algeria, suggesting that rather more transcendent forces were at work among Jews in North Africa. But just what those forces might have been remains unclear from Stein’s analysis, which perhaps reflects the limitation of legal history as a method for fully excavating questions about identities and social imaginaries. In the end, the reader is left to fall back on the kinds of assumptions that animate many popular conversations about resurgent anti-Semitism in contemporary France. These include the supposedly “natural” connection between “Jews” and both France and Israel, as well as the primordial differences and animosities between “Jews” and “Muslims.”