Saha­ran Jews and the Fate of French Algeria

  • Review
By – November 24, 2014

Exam­in­ing a neglect­ed but impor­tant top­ic, based on exten­sive archival research and pub­lished stud­ies, Sarah Abre­vaya Stein has pro­duced a schol­ar­ly yet very read­able study on a rel­a­tive­ly neglect­ed Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty: the Jews of the Alger­ian Sahara, most of whom lived in Gharda­ia in the Mzab Val­ley of south­ern Alge­ria. The study focus­es on the French colo­nial peri­od, last­ing from the mil­i­tary occu­pa­tion of the region in 1882 until Algeria’s indepen­dence in 1962, and on the back­ground of the pre­vi­ous peri­ods and the fate of the Mzabi Jews fol­low­ing Alger­ian inde­pen­dence. Liv­ing for most of this peri­od under mil­i­tary rule, most of the Mzabi Jews, until the very end of French rule, did not receive French cit­i­zen­ship based on the Crémieux decree of 1870 as did the Jews of north­ern Alge­ria. Instead, these Jews were regard­ed as indige­nous sub­jects gov­erned by local civ­il sta­tus laws, rec­og­niz­ing the legit­i­ma­cy of Mosa­ic laws, but with their polit­i­cal rights rad­i­cal­ly cur­tailed. The study begins and ends in the 1960s, when a French offi­cial and a local Jew retroac­tive­ly assem­bled a civ­il reg­is­ter for Mzabi Jews based on rab­bini­cal reg­is­ters, document­ing the Jew­ish pres­ence in the Mzab upon the French occu­pa­tion, and detail­ing con­nec­tions to indi­vid­ual Mzabi Jews in the 1960s. This was done in order to pro­vide these Jews with French cit­i­zen­ship, to enable them to emi­grate and set­tle in France.

The bulk of the study cov­ers the peri­od until the 1960s. Stein’s deep schol­ar­ship and inquis­i­tive mind are evi­dent through­out. She thor­ough­ly exam­ines what was con­sid­ered the defin­i­tive study on the Mzabi Jews: Lloyd Cabot Brig­gs and Lori­na Lami Guède’s 1964 publica­tion No More for Ever: a Saha­ran Jew­ish Town, detail­ing the back­ground of its authors, the motives behind the study and the research meth­ods used — some of which Stein finds ques­tion­able. Addi­tion­al chap­ters exam­ine the spe­cial legal sta­tus of the Saha­ran Jew­ish and Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion under mil­i­tary rule; social, eco­nom­ic and cul­tur­al con­di­tions; anti-Semi­tism; the effect of World War II on the region, and how the dis­cov­ery of oil and the Alger­ian War of Inde­pen­dence affect­ed the region and its Jews. Pho­tographs from the var­i­ous archives and some tak­en by the author fur­ther strength­en her arguments.

Thanks to the huge amount of data Stein used and her excel­lent analy­sis, this is a ground­break­ing study of impor­tance for Jew­ish stud­ies, North African stud­ies, and French colo­nial­ism. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, index, maps, notes, photographs.

Relat­ed content:

Rachel Simon, a librar­i­an at Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, does research on Jews in the mod­ern Mid­dle East and North Africa, with spe­cial ref­er­ence to Libya, Ottoman Empire, women, and education.

Discussion Questions