Arabs of the Jewish Faith: The Civilizing Mission in Colonial Algeria

Rutgers University Press  2010

In his well-researched book Arabs of the Jewish Faith, Joshua Schreier demonstrates how a cluster of forces—including colonialism, anti-Semitism and the drive to “civilize” the population—came together to re-shape the Jewish community of Algeria in the 19th century. Schreier focuses on the period between 1830 and the Cremieux decree of 1870, “which naturalized Algerian Jews en masse.” Although rooted in the French Revolutionary ideals of enlightenment and emancipation, French leaders and Jewish “liberals” set about implementing an oppressive “civilizing” mission designed to take the “corrupt” and “primitive” Jews of Algeria and mold them into worthy members of the French Empire. They established “consistories” staffed by French rabbis in order to reform communal and family structures. The practices of divorce and polygamy were particularly targeted.

Schreier argues that while earlier scholars tended to view liberal French Jews as responsible for the campaign, he believes that it was actually the French military (with their own innate anti- Semitism) that laid the groundwork, and first established the programs for this undertaking. Schreier argues, however, that the Algerian Jews were neither enthusiastic nor passive in their response to the “civilizing mission.” They evaded and resisted its policies and institutions in an attempt to preserve their traditional faith, institutions, and marriage customs. Schreier has utilized a number of archival sources and provides an index and endnotes but no bibliography. The book is well suited for an academic or research library.

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