From the Jewish Merchants of Oran to Indigènes Israélites: Emancipation and Exclusion in Colonial Algeria

Sunday, January 7, 2018: 9:40 AM
Marriott Ballroom, Salon 1 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Joshua S. Schreier, Vassar College
French colonization in western Algeria paved the way for profound changes in the meaning of the term “Jewish,” as well as for the people identified as such. After the Regency of Algiers dislodged the Spanish from Oran in 1792, a Jewish presence was quickly reestablished. The newcomers came from cities and towns in the Moroccan Empire and what was eventually to be known as Algeria, as well as Saharan Oases further south and British Gibraltar to the west. In newly Muslim Oran, Jews could ply their trades, deal in goods from the African interior, or export grain, cattle, or hides. By the eve of France’s occupation of Algeria, a Jewish mercantile elite was well established in Oran.

Given the extent to which French occupiers after 1830 depended on Oran’s diverse, dynamic, and mobile Jewish population to finance urban improvements and military campaigns, provide land and expertise, and fill civic posts, it is a paradox that French reformers and rulers adopted a policy of “emancipating” a supposedly unitary, fixed, and oppressed community of “indigenous” African Jews. Even as the colonial order solidified, the Jewish merchants in Oran maintained their commercial, political, and social clout, demonstrating that the French conquest of Algeria did not instantly undo Oran’s pre-colonial order. Yet, by the 1840s, Oran’s diverse Jewish inhabitants were increasingly understood as a single group. This would change again in the 1870s, when legislation rendered this “community” legally superior to their Muslim neighbors. Virulent settler anti-Semitism challenged this new order, but by the mid twentieth century, “Jewish” had became a sub-category of “European” French citizen in Algeria’s harsh racial taxonomy, while “Muslim” remained nearly synonymous with “colonized.”