Victims or Collaborators?

Challenging myths about the relationship between Middle Eastern Jewry and European Colonialism.

Elie Bensimon and his family, Constantine, Algeria,1881 (family archives)

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the end of the Algerian war. Immortalised in the film The Battle of Algiers, the struggle for Algerian independence pitted the French colonists against the FLN (National Liberation Front) fighters. It became a template for wars of national liberation against colonialism.

The 130,000 Jews who were forced to leave have long been invisible, subsumed into the great mass of pieds noirs – the 800,000 French settlers who fled Algeria. The loss of Algeria, the jewel in the crown of France’s colonial empire, was a humiliation which French society was glad not to be reminded of. And independent Algeria has chosen to erase all traces of Jewish presence, culture, or history.

But what was the experience, attitudes, and strategies of the Jews in North Africa and the Middle East in relation to European colonialism? It is fair to say that there are two dominant answers to this question in the academy today. On the one hand, Arab nationalist historiography has portrayed Jews as colonizers or collaborators with European colonization. These historians claim that Algeria’s Jews cast their lot in with France in a betrayal of Algeria’s Arabs. The Jews are therefore to blame for their own plight. Some historians make further parallels between France’s colonial war in Algeria, and Israel’s war with the Arabs. The ‘colonized’ Arabs of Palestine will triumph just as surely as they did in Algeria, they confidently predict.

On the other hand, over the last decade, young academics are now trying to portray the Jews, who were virtually indistinguishable from Arabs in colonial eyes, as victims of European colonialism. In the case of Algeria, take Joshua Schreier’s book Arabs of the Jewish Faith as a prime example of this new historiographical strand. 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. Schreier’s thesis clearly views colonialism as coercive, intrusive, and largely unwelcome.

The two approaches – colonialist and anti-colonialist – fail to account for basic features of the history of Jews in the region before European colonialism – namely  that Jews were ‘dhimmis’ – inferior to Muslims and with few rights under Sharia law. A middle-class elite reaped the benefits of colonialism, while the poor remained comparatively untouched. Many questions remain unanswered.

Arab nationalist historiography says Jews were colonists or collaborators with colonists, but how then does one explain ambivalence to European citizenship in certain sections of the community? Take the case of Algeria, part of metropolitan France since 1830. It took until 1870 for Jews to attain French citizenship. The Jewish religious establishment resisted it for forty years, fearing it would lead to secularization and assimilation. Then the Decret Cremieux imposed French citizenship on the entire community. Incidentally, Muslims were also offered French citizenship by the Senatus-Consulte of 1865. However, they overwhelmingly rejected it, as it would have meant compromising their personal status, which was governed by Muslim law.

More importantly, the ‘Jews-as-colonists’ narrative cannot account for the fact that Jews were victims of European colonial antisemitism. Equal rights did not mitigate anti-Jewish abuse. Indeed, paradoxically, as Western influence increased, the tropes of European antisemitism were spread by local Christians. The Damascus Affair of 1840 was the first of dozens of antisemitic blood libels. The British financier Sir Moses Montefiore and the French politician Adolphe Crémieux, who had benefited from the Enlightenment and emancipation in Europe, embarked on a mission to secure the release of a group of Jewish notables, jailed and tortured for the murder of a monk they did not commit. The Damascus Blood Libel shocked 17 largely secular and educated French Jews into setting up the Alliance Israelite Universelle and its schools in Muslim countries so that Jews would be best equipped to defend their newly-acquired rights. The pieds noirs in Algeria, led by the notorious anti-Dreyfusard Edouard Drumont, parliamentary representative for Algiers, were a repository of European antisemitism. They resented the Jews for acquiring an equal status – French citizenship – they did not deserve. The pieds noirs even incited anti-Jewish riots.

The British and the French would exploit the educated Jews for their skills and languages, but never accepted them fully. Jews defined themselves by aspiration while the British defined them by occupation.  Of colonialism, the historian Michel Abitbol remarks: “Its values were open-minded and universal, but in effect it was rigid and racist.”

However, if Jews were as anti-colonialist as Schreier wants us to believe, why did they nevertheless work with the Europeans, seek European citizenship, or emigrate? If Jews resisted European encroachment, why did they actively seek Western consular protection? The answer is pretty clear: to offset their insecure ‘dhimmi’ predicament: Under the Capitulations system, foreign nationals were exempt from local prosecution, taxation, conscription, and home searches.  A privileged merchant elite became the interface between North Africa and Europe. Until the Turks declared all the Sultan’s subjects equal under the law in 1856, the best guarantee of one’s inalienable rights and security was Western citizenship. The Livornese Jews (Grana) of Tunisia were Italian since 1846.

In addition, a century before the creation of the state of Israel, Jews were departing every region of the Ottoman Empire and beyond. Jews left Iraq for India and the Far East, or North Africa to seek their fortunes in the Americas. The great Baghdadi entrepreneur David Sassoon did not leave just to seek economic opportunities in India and along the trade routes of the British Empire, but to escape persecution in Iraq. And we have ample testimony of the degraded status of Jews.  Foreign visitors like Reverend Brooks were shocked at the condition of Jews in Morocco. He wrote in 1841:

“In Morocco they are equally ground down by a barbarous despotism. The Moors consider the object of a Jew’s birth is to serve Musselmen and he is consequently subject to the most wanton insults. The boys for their pastime beat and torment the children: the men kick and buffet the adults. They walk into their houses at all hours and take the grossest freedoms with their wives…”

While anti-colonialist scholars dismiss these reports as “colonial” and ‘exaggerated’ they conveniently ignore that Muslim sources attest to much the same thing. Joshua Schreier holds that the substantial corpus of testimony to abuse and cruelty should be treated with skepticism because they were written to serve a colonial agenda that promoted emancipation and assimilation to colonial values. He calls the work of scholars like the late and respected Algerian-born French professor Richard Ayoun, “an example of scholarship echoing the colonial model of emancipation from an Oriental state of abasement.”

While glossing over the dhimmi status, scholars like  Schreier overlook the fact that Islamic law imposed a ‘colonial’ social order. The French historian Georges Bensoussan observes that the hierarchy under Muslim rule was built on submission. The Muslim submits to Allah, the Muslim woman submits to her husband, the non-Muslim dhimmi submits to the Muslim. At the very bottom is the slave. The slave trade was a huge Arab-run empire and Jewish law had to find ways to respond to extortionist demands. Jews were still being sold as slaves in Morocco in 1890. In 1896, in the Saharan town of Ghardaïa, Jewish women and girls were sold in the public square. Conditions in North Africa, Yemen and Persia were generally worse than in the heart of the Ottoman empire. One traveler observed: ‘As dhimmis, Tunisian Jews flourished. But of course flourishing is relative. When confined to the bottom rung of the social ladder, one is happy not to be groveling in the mud just below.’

Another difficulty of the colonialist or anti-colonialist paradigm is that political considerations were not always central. The Alliance Israelite Universelle was not simply an instrument of French colonialism: its objectives cannot be essentialized as an embrace of  the European ‘civilizing mission.’ Education was the key to improving the lives of benighted and degenerate communities that had hitherto only received a religious education. The 210 Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU) schools, established after 1860, upended the economic order. The AIU hauled the Jews out of poverty, treated endemic disease, and turned pupils into an educated and employable class speaking English, French, Turkish, Arabic and Hebrew. For the first time, Jewish girls were educated. Resistance came mostly from the rabbinical establishment. The staff and pupils of the AIU school in Baghdad were excommunicated. The school reopened in 1872 thanks in no small part to the influence of Rabbi Abdullah Somekh, who sent his own son there. This ironic turn of events makes no sense unless we understand that the AIU served a modernizing function which even traditionalists came to value.

Educated Jews plunged wholeheartedly into French (and other European) languages and culture. They thrived in a pluralistic atmosphere. Jews began dressing in European clothes, giving their children European names and moving out of the Jewish ghettoes into the ‘European quarters’ of North African cities. A Jewish elite became the engine of modernity. Jews built railways, towns, cinemas and imported bicycles, gramophones, sewing and X-ray machines. Minorities dominated trade and the civil service and even held senior ministerial posts.

Although they did begin to assimilate to European culture in Algeria, most Jews in Muslim countries still identified strongly as Jews and maintained communal autonomy.  Many adopted French language and culture without losing their traditionalism.  Few converted to Christianity despite attending convents and Jesuit schools. They cherry-picked those aspects of European culture that most suited them. This dimension too is missing from the narrative, be it colonialist or anti-colonialist.

More to the point, both the colonialist and anti-colonialist strands of historiography ignore that the interests of the Jews (whether in Algeria or elsewhere in MENA) never fully aligned with either the Ottoman imperial authorities, the local Arabs leaders, or the European colonizers. And they were not alone.

Throughout history, it has to be said that minorities always sided with the powers they thought would best serve their interests. Further back in history, this meant siding with the Muslims against the Byzantine Christians, garrisoning towns in the wake of the Muslim conquest. In the 20th century, the Assyrian Christian minority threw in their lot with the British, providing Levees to protect them. But they paid a heavy price, and 600 were massacred by Iraqi Muslims in 1933. When the French attempted to impose the Berber Dahir of 1930, a decree which would have exempted the Moroccan Amazigh population from Islamic law, they suffered a stunning backlash from Arab nationalists. For reasons of power politics, the colonial policy of championing the Amazigh, as well as Christian and Jewish minorities, gave way to appeasement of the Arab majority. Yet neither the colonialist nor anti-colonialist narratives currently acknowledge the presence of non-Arabs in the region. Schreier’s book about Algeria has almost nothing to say about the Amazigh.

Europeans interfered increasingly in favor of Christians and Jews from the 19th century onwards, but this was always a pretext for other interests as well. When their interests aligned with Muslims, they had no qualms supporting them against the Christians and Jews. While the British authored the Balfour Declaration, they also whipped up the 1920 anti-Jewish riots in Palestine – the mob is said to have chanted, ‘The government is with us.’  In 1928, during a visit to Baghdad by Sir Alfred Mond, a mob was instructed to shout, ‘Down with Zionism’ (Zioniyya). Instead, however, not knowing what Zionism was, they shouted ‘Down with the security tax’ (Paswaniyya)! In order not to antagonize the Muslim population, examples abound of anti-Jewish pogroms which the European colonial forces of law and order were in no hurry to quell. In 1898 in Tunisia, Jewish homes were looted and shops wrecked, but the authorities pointedly arrested twenty Jews as well as 62 Muslims. During the Iraqi Farhud of June 1941 (at least 179 Jews murdered) British forces stood outside Baghdad, under orders not to intervene until the rioting had spread to Muslim quarters. During the Libyan pogrom of 1945, which claimed 130 Jewish lives, British soldiers were ordered to their barracks. Of the 550 Arab rioters arrested only 289 were tried. But the greatest European betrayal took place during WWII. Tunisia came under direct Nazi control, the Italian fascists enacted race laws in Libya and the pro-Nazi Vichy regimes implemented antisemitic legislation to exclude Jews from jobs, schools, and public spaces. Algerian Jews were stripped of their French citizenship. The Jewish response to this oppression is also part of the story.

The end of WWII signaled the end of the colonial era. Disillusioned Jews turned to Zionism or Communism. Although a partisan of decolonization and Arab independence, the great writer Albert Memmi, a poor boy from the Tunis ghetto educated at an Alliance school, saw clearly that non-Muslims had no future in post-colonial states: ‘These colonized people turn out to be greedy, aggressive, bloodthirsty fanatics,’ he wrote.  Islam became the religion of state. Sharia law, the principal source of legislation, threatened to return Jews to their subjugated dhimmi status. At best Jews were viewed as foreigners, though they predated the Arabs. All Jews were driven out from Arab countries – whether Communists, Zionists or nationalists.

Memmi was one of few leftwing thinkers to reject assimilationism, as advocated by Maxime Rodinson or Isaac Deutscher. A Jewish state was not only justified, but required. Memmi saw Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jews, as the solution to the Jewish dilemma. It was not reactionary, although it should remain avowedly secular: “The tyranny of Moses must be overcome for the modern Jew to be liberated,” he wrote. Yet, like Memmi himself, many North African and Middle Eastern Jews remained enamored of European culture, while remaining proud Jews and Zionists. This factor too remains unexplored in the current paradigm.

Finally the two strands of scholarship – colonial and anti-colonial – don’t fully account for the xenophobia of Arab nationalists, who submitted non-Arabs to Arabization and rejected non-Muslim minorities. Greeks were driven out of Egypt, for instance, and Maltese from Egypt and  Tunisia, though neither Malta nor Greece were colonial powers. Arab League countries Arabized the very peoples to whom the Europeans promised states after WWI, most notably the Kurds and Assyrians. To Rodinson’s claim that the Middle East and Palestine are Arab Muslim lands, Memmi forcefully addressed the trope that Israel was a colonial settler state: ‘By what mystical geography are we not at home there too, we who descend from the same indigenous populations since the first human settlements? Why should only the converts to Islam be the sole proprietors of our common soil? Israel rests on a scrap of the immense common territory which belongs to us too, though it is called Arab.’ Memmi’s sentiments are echoed by Ferhat Mehenni, president of the movement for self-determination of Kabylia (the Berbers of Algeria). After making a controversial visit to Israel, Mehenni declared: “We are in a hostile environment. Both countries share the same kind of path, but Israel already exists – that’s the only difference.”

Trapped in the ideological straitjacket of Edward Said’s Orientalism and Fritz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, the two common strands of scholarship on Jewish communities in North Africa and the Middle East today display a disturbing Eurocentricity – viewing only colonial Europeans as oppressors. The ‘racism of low expectations’ ignores the history of Muslim colonial oppression prior to European colonialism and the catastrophic impact of postcolonialism on minorities.

The colonial paradigm also ignores the complex relationship Jews had to Europeans and  European culture in relation to their own religious and cultural traditions. The European colonial era should be credited with liberating Jews from an earlier era of Muslim colonialism and providing them with education and opportunities. This perhaps what explains why middle-class Jews remember it as a golden age, despite its vicissitudes.  Their idealized view of the period must also be understood against the backdrop of post-colonialism, which proved a greater disaster for non-Muslim minorities: almost all have been persecuted or ethnically cleansed. Yet this is far from the whole story.

The history of the Jewish relationship to European colonialism is yet to be told. To do so it will have to first move out of the binary of ‘European colonist versus Arab native’ and instead explore the reality of multiple peoples and empires in the region. Only in this context can we fully understand the attitudes and strategies of the Jews during this crucial period.

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