Lethal Provo­ca­tion: The Con­stan­tine Mur­ders and the Pol­i­tics of French Algeria

Joshua Cole

January 1, 2013

Part mur­der mys­tery, part social his­to­ry of polit­i­cal vio­lence, Lethal Provo­ca­tion is a foren­sic exam­i­na­tion of the dead­liest peace­time episode of anti-Jew­ish vio­lence in mod­ern French his­to­ry. Joshua Cole recon­structs the 1934 riots in Con­stan­tine, Alge­ria, in which ten­sions between Mus­lims and Jews were aggra­vat­ed by right-wing extrem­ists, result­ing in the deaths of twen­ty-eight people.

Ani­mat­ing the unrest was Mohamed El Maa­di, a sol­dier in the French army. Lat­er a mem­ber of a noto­ri­ous French nation­al­ist group that threat­ened insur­rec­tion in the late 1930s, El Maa­di became an enthu­si­as­tic sup­port­er of France’s Vichy regime in World War II, and fin­ished his career in the Ger­man SS. Cole cracks the cold case” of El Maadi’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the events, reveal­ing both his pres­ence at the scene and his motives in pro­vok­ing vio­lence at a moment when the French gov­ern­ment was debat­ing the rights of Mus­lims in Alge­ria. Local police and author­i­ties came to know about the role of provo­ca­tion in the unrest and killings and pur­pose­ly hid the truth dur­ing the inves­ti­ga­tion that fol­lowed. Cole’s sen­si­tive his­to­ry brings into high relief the cru­el­ty of social rela­tions in the decades before the war for Alger­ian independence.

Discussion Questions

Lethal Provo­ca­tion is a mas­ter­ful account of one of mod­ern North Africa’s most infa­mous episodes of vio­lence between Jews and Mus­lims. The riots that broke out in Con­stan­tine in the sum­mer of 1934 left twen­ty-eight peo­ple dead (twen­ty-five of them Jew­ish). Cole con­tex­tu­al­izes the trag­ic events in the long his­to­ry of French rule in east­ern Algeria.

But more than a riv­et­ing his­to­ry of the Con­stan­tine mur­ders, Cole uses this inci­dent to rethink the pol­i­tics of belong­ing in French Alge­ria. Most his­to­ri­ans have viewed the Con­stan­tine mur­ders as an expres­sion of a deeply entrenched enmi­ty between Jews and Mus­lims. Cole instead his­tori­cizes the vio­lence as part of a broad­er sto­ry of con­tes­ta­tions about what it meant to be French — among Jews (French cit­i­zens since 1870), Mus­lims (colo­nial sub­jects fight­ing for greater rights), and Euro­pean set­tlers (many of whom were avid antisemites).

Cole’s exten­sive archival research offers a grip­ping his­to­ry of Alger­ian Jews and their rela­tions with their Mus­lim and Chris­t­ian neigh­bors. And he ends with an unex­pect­ed twist, show­ing that the mur­ders were not a spon­ta­neous erup­tion of hatred, but rather the work of cold, cal­cu­lat­ed provocation.