The Story of North African Jewry Doesn’t Fit into Academic Narratives about Colonialism

December 8, 2022 | Lyn Julius
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For many years, conventional wisdom held that North African Jews were beneficiaries of European colonialism, given a favored status by French rulers over their Arab compatriots. Lyn Julius notes that this version of events, which draws on the work of Arab nationalist historians, leads to the claim that, in her words, “Jews are responsible for their own plight.” More recently, a new generation of historians have argued that Maghrebi Jews were victims of colonialism. To Julius, neither approach comes close to capturing the truth:

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 [Algerian] Jews to attain French citizenship. The Jewish religious establishment resisted it for 40 years, fearing it would lead to secularization and assimilation. Then the Décret Crémieux imposed French citizenship on the entire community, [thus putting them in a different legal category than Algerian Muslims]. Incidentally, Muslims were also offered French citizenship [in] 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 anti-Semitism. Equal rights did not mitigate anti-Jewish abuse. Indeed, paradoxically, as Western influence increased, the tropes of European anti-Semitism were spread by local Christians. . . . The pieds noirs [French settlers] in Algeria, led by the notorious anti-Dreyfusard Edouard Drumont, parliamentary representative for Algiers, were a repository of European anti-Semitism. They resented the Jews for acquiring an equal status—French citizenship—they did not deserve. The pieds noirs even incited anti-Jewish riots.

However, if Jews were as anti-colonialist as [the newer group of historians] 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.

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