Hundreds of thousands of Sephardi Jews are indebted to the Alliance Israelite Universelle, an international schools’ network which has just celebrated its 150th anniversary. Lyn Julius writes this tribute in The Jewish Chronicle:
A Jewish teacher journeys 1,000km from Paris to a remote community in southern Morocco. The boys whom he has come to teach sit on the floor in their djellabas, learning Torah.
This is how Jews were “educated” in Muslim countries until the Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU), a schools’ network founded in 1860 in France, transformed their lives.
In the early days of the AIU, teachers would sometimes build classrooms, provide meals and send for drugs to treat diseases.
But their core tasks were to teach reading and writing – in French, Arabic and Hebrew – and to include unmarried girls in classes.
The men and women dispatched by the AIU to the far flung corners of the Ottoman empire as teachers and administrators regularly filed reports back to headquarters in Paris.
Much of what we know about the wretched conditions of 19th century Jewish life in Muslim lands come from these reports.
Today, the Alliance has educated one million Jewish children in Muslim lands.
Little could the AIU founders have predicted it, but they created a social revolution, establishing an educated and modernising Jewish middle class across the Middle East and North Africa.
Multilingual Jewish civil servants and businessmen emerged from some 160 Alliance schools, from Iran to the Maghreb. The Alliance also pioneered the development of agriculture in Palestine at the turn of the last century, setting up the Mikveh Israel agricultural school.
Members of the Arab bourgeoisie also sent their children to be educated at the elite schools. Tawfik al-Suweidi, the Iraqi Prime Minister in the late 1940s/ 50s, was an alumnus, and the Alliance has produced five Moroccan ministers.
Still today, two schools in Casablanca educate Muslims as well as Jews. In Israel, it has pupils of all faiths and none, including the children of foreign diplomats.
In 1872 the Anglo-Jewish Association was established as the Alliance’s UK branch. Faithful to its founding humanism, the Alliance’s post-war president was Rene Cassin, who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Since 1950, as Jews fled Muslim countries, the Alliance has lost the constituency it was set up to serve: schools from Beirut to Tehran have shut down.
The boardroom at the Alliance’s headquarters in Paris is where the French antisemite Edouard Drumont imagined the Elders of Zion were plotting to rule the world. The AIU has a humbler objective: to run 45 schools with 25,000 pupils, mainly in France and Israel.
The AIU has been an astounding success. But its extraordinary story is not over, and it is looking confidently ahead to the next 150 years.