Jews were not colonisers in Algeria

The campus at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA)

With thanks: Silke; Eliyahu

A PhD history laureate named Sung Choi gave a lecture earlier this monthat UCLA on the Jews of Algeria in the run-up to Algerian independence.

One wonders why she came to this subject in the first place: I suspect it was to prove that Jews were collaborators with the settler-coloniser French, who conquered Algeria in 1830. Her original intention had been to demonstrate Jewish participation in the right-wing pied noir pro-French OAS movement, until her research showed the Jews were also courted by the pro-independence FLN.

The Jews do not fit the fashionable paradigm of colonisers versus colonised. Miss Choi seems to have discovered quite recently – from her friend Susan – that Jews had been in Algeria since Roman times (in fact, as early as 600 BCE). What she hasn’t grasped is that the Jews were indigenous, preceding the Arab Muslims in Algeria by several hundred years. As a ‘Europeanist’, Miss Choi betrays her ignorance of Jewish history when she says ‘quite a lot of Berbers and Arabs were converts to Judaism’. Berbers may well have converted to Judaism at first, but the overwhelming majority of Jewish and Christian Berbers would have in turn been converted to Islam; and no Arabs converted to Judaism – on the contrary, thousands of Jews were lost to Islam.

She describes how these Jews clung to the French citizenship granted to them by the 1870 Cremieux Decree. She correctly identifies the trauma of being stripped of their French citizenship by the Vichy regime during WW2.

But missing from her analysis is the main reason why the Jews of Algeria held on to their French citizenship: it was not just a matter of acculturation – ceasing to speak or dress like Arabs. Citizenship allowed them to escape centuries of dhimmitude, in which Jews were humiliated as inferiors by the local Muslims.

The word ‘dhimmi’ does not so much as escape Miss Choi’s lips. She doesn’t seem to grasp that the Jews are the ‘colonised’ of the ‘colonised’ Muslims.

Moreover, it is not true to suggest that French citizenship was only offered to Jews. As late as 1865, it was also offered to the Muslims of Algeria. The latter refused it because it would mean submitting to French civil law.

Miss Choi does not effectively convey the soul-searching that went on in the Jewish community before 1870 : the rabbis lobbied against French citizenship, fearing inevitable assimilation and weakening of religious and cultural ties (this actually came to pass). At first only 5 percent of the Jews welcomed citizenship. The Decret Cremieux was eventually imposed on the community, mainly for domestic electoral reasons.

Of course, acquiring French citizenship exposed the Jews to antisemitic hostility from the pieds noirs on the one hand, and resentment from the Algerian Muslims on the other, who suddenly had fewer rights and lower status. The antisemitism culminated in the wartime statut de Vichy. French citizenship was only restored in 1943, a year after the Allies had liberated North Africa, because the Allies had wished to appease the Vichy officers who still ran the Algerian army.

Sung Choi does not give her audience much of an inkling of the dilemmas facing Algerian Jews with the outbreak of the Algerian war in the 1950s. The community tried to maintain neutrality between the OAS and the FLN, but what Miss Choi euphemistically calls ‘hostilities’ forced the Jews to throw in their lot with the pieds noirs. With their French citizenship restored, it was obvious that efforts to coax the Algerian Jews to Israel would fail. But some 14,000 Algerian Jews, out of 160,000 did flee to Israel.

The trouble with academics nowadays is that they try to fit their conclusions into preconceived notions: one of the most pernicious is that Jews were accomplices of European colonialism. In order to convince, they have to leave out half the story: the historic oppression of the Jewish natives by Arab Muslims.

Sung Choi’s lecture


  • Bataween,
    No problem about posting my comments. Accually, I have written more, but it did not accept my entry because of the size. I had to cut a paragraph or two for it to be submitted.



  • Dear Sammish
    I hope you don't mind but I have posted your excellent comment as a stand-alone post.

  • Eliyahu,
    It should not be a surprise for these new academics to suppress the case evidence of Arab hatred and discrimination against the Jewish community in the Mzab region when the latter did not even had the chance to reap the benefits of the fleeting French citizenship of the Cremieux decree. This can be partially explained by geographic and economic factors. I am speaking here as to why the Jews of the Mzab region were denied French citizenship.

    The French colonial agenda was to protect the Algerian regions that were vital for the economic interests to the Metropole (France proper). These included all of French Algerian urban cities with their industrial bases, businesses and trade sectors as well the social infrastructures and institutions and finally the important wealthy agricultural regions. The Sahara where the Mzab’ region is located was hardly given an economic value until the oil fields were found in the deep southern part of this extended desert region in 1940’s. The Mzab region was not a priority at first. It had no economic value, and was not settled by the colonial French pieds noirs.

    Mzab’s culture although Muslim is nonetheless Berber in its foundation and some of their dynasties were even more virulently against anything non-muslim. Mzab’s culture has its primordial seed in the war of succession after the so called prophet Mohamed died. Their sect in Iraq called the Mutazalit faction was fought bitterly by the last 4th caliph Ali (Mohamed’s cousin) where he killed many of them in many battles because they were deemed heretical by the standards of the day. Some took refuge in many Oasis of the Sahara. One dominant one was the Mzab region of Algeria. Through time they became insular and fundamentalists and even detesting main stream Muslims. They became even more fanatical than average. One can think of them as pre-dawn Islamic Wahabists. In fact the major Mzab town of Guardaia was known even in the 1950 and 1960 to not allow any non-Mzabi Muslim to spend the night in the city. The city doors were closed after sunset and reopened each day at dawn. This can only suggest how far they have become as segregationists and discriminators. Some people sometimes think that Berbers are less fundamentalist s than Arabs, but this is not true. The example of the Mzab is a case in point. Of course I am not generalizing here in the modern social context. I also can remind you of the devastating consequences of the 12th Century Moroccan Berber fanatical Muslim dynasty of Almohad who wrecked to rubbles the Iberian peninsula when it was at its apex of social development and integration and under which the illustrious thinker Maimonides’s family and many countless others suffered tribulations of humiliation, forced conversions, debasements and finally exile.

    By deduction one can only deduce that the Jewish community in the Mzab region lived precariously, although they were allowed to live there because they were better artisans, black smiths, jewelers, and traders. In sum they were the backbone of the economy. This is the same narrative played over and over in which one encounters the anti-Semitic elites and rulers asking (maybe begging) the Jews to settle within their realms for the only reason to generate wealth through economic activities. The Mzab is no exception. Even with the French colonization, the Mzab region still retained its relative autonomy, thus making the Cremieux Decree less attainable therefore less useful for the Jewish subjects of the Mzab region.

    As for Choi’s ignorance of the facts, it is no surprise. It is again the case of academic suppression of evidence. Whether her institution should grant her the doctorate, I am not sure about it…. “They are many ignoramuses with PhDs even in Harvard and Ivy League schools” ( I am quoting Alan Dershowitz here).

  • . . . somebody who does not KNOW the basics of his or her subject. . .

  • Sammish, I just read the two posts about the Jews of Ghardaia in the Mzab. The post from April 2012 explains that the Jews in the Sahara, including in the Mzab, were not covered by the Cremieux Decree & did not have French citizenship. Yet they were still persecuted by Arabs/Muslims despite not having French citizenship.

    This is another factual rebuttal of young Dr Sung who used weak logic, blaming the Algerian Jews' acceptance of French citizenship as a reason to indict them for being "disloyal" & "ungrateful" to the Arabs.

    How can UCLA publish the work of or give a PhD to somebody who does not the basics of his or her subject, as Ms Sung clearly does not?

  • another weakness of her research, she does not mention using the archives of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, a very important source on Algerian Jews in the 2nd half of the 19th century. Yes, she could have checked letters and books of travelers in the 19th century who observed the Jews' status in Morocco and Tunisia. So the PhD dissertation is –as Americans say– "lite" on research [as in "lite" on calories]. We could go on about the "liteness" of this doctoral dissertation.

  • by the way, Prof Georges Bensoussan has written that the situation in MOrocco, outside of the Ottoman Empire, was even worse than in Algeria, that was part of the Empire. Anyhow, I forgot to mention –of course it might confuse young Miss Sung– the anti-Dreyfusard pogrom in Algiers circa 1900 in which "petits-blancs", European settlers, joined hands with local Arabs against the local Jews, in a pogrom inspired by the Dreyfus Case. Then there was the Constantine pogrom of 1934, in which local French authorities encouraged the local Arabs to attack Jews in that city [an article on this appeared in Les Temps Modernes about 10 years ago].
    She also misses –deliberately or ignorantly– that the Algiers coup d'etat of November 1942 was made up of about 85% Jewish participants. This coup in conjunction with the American consul in Algiers, allowed the American troops to land at Algiers without firing a shot, whereas Vichy troops at Casablanca resisted the US Army causing heavy losses to the Americans.

    Another insinuation on Ms Sung's part is the phrase "elite Levantine Jews". She almost sounds like De Gaulle talking about Jews as "a domineering and elite people."
    BTW, Ms Sung was a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Nantes.

  • Eliyahu,

    Yes, that's what I meant precisely about Choi's avoidance of "other" facts. The truth about status of Jews in Pre-French Algeria. La mission civilizatrice de la France although seeminglly begnin was also ethnocentrically (if not to say Franco-centric) motivated, and par consequent anti-semitic (catholic mold) but many Jews followed its social possibilities and gains in order to overcome the humiliating shackles of arab/ muslim dhimitude. Also the French were the first to come up with and implement the "divide and conquer" doctrine. It worked to their benefits to have on board a semi-peripheral social group between them and the Arab masses. The emancipation of the Jews and their subsequent social mobility proved to be a nice evidence to their intended ideology to civilize the world.

    The other problem plaguing academic research are the well knowm problems of "suppressed evidence", "selective observation" and "overgeneralization". It is certainly a norm not to mention the prejudices and discrimination jews suffered under the whimsical Algerian Ottoman regency, and piracy state which served as vassal feudal enclaves to enrich the coffers of Istanbul. Of course the anti-christian religious enlightment creed to the french philosophers did not help much in this area. What else is there but only to compare the much hated second estates (clergy) with the less bureaucratic idea equality stressed by Islam when one join the fold.

    The "overgeneralization" issue is the most insideous problem in keeping this calomny alive and present to this present day and even trigger the other problem of surpressed evidence and selective observation. This has to do with the idea that Jews were prominant in trade, business and artisanat and therefore had much high status than Arabs, and therefere no discrimination existed. This even is supported by the idea that many visers, courtiers and advisors to the palaces of vassal states were Jews. Nobody can deny the fact that some court jews became powerfull due to their education, language skills and travel but to generalized this notion to all of the jewish communities is ludicrous and naive. Most Jewish people in the interior of Algeria and Morocco barely ecked a living in the semi-arid regions of North Africa. And they were never left alone to live peacefully by the local Caids and their crony thuggs, specially in times of drought, epidemics and other war waging disturbances between feudal lords. All what Choi had to do is to check the letters (albeit minuscule) written by travelors who visited these regions.

    Choi has already received her Doctorate from UCLA, at least that's what I understand from the introduction of the podcast. Our duties is to mention this missing facts relentlessly…

  • Sammish, She avoided stating "other" facts. In fact, this PhD's lecture was hardly above the level of agitprop. Her PhD ought to be cancelled and the faculty members who guided or misguided her ought to fired and censured. She avoided stating essential facts about Algeria & Jewish-Arab relations there. That is, the Jews there were oppressed, exploited & humiliated by the Arab-Muslims there [as in other Muslim lands] for more than 1000 years. Those facts either had to be left out for propaganda purpose or were left out because Sung Choi cannot do or did not want to do basic research. Actually, if she had stated those facts then she could not have argued and insinuated that the Jews in Algeria were "ungrateful" and "disloyal" to the Arabs. Really, what loyalty did the Jews there owe to the Arabs after more than 1000 years of oppression as dhimmis?? Hence she or her faculty advisors decided to leave out the main part of the history of Jews in Algeria over the last millenium. Or she and/or they are incapable of basic research and/or contemptuous of the requirement to provide a truthful historical account as a basis for her special area of research, relations between the Jews and FLN & OAS. Yet it would have been easy to get a truthful historical grounding in the subject by reading Andre Chouraqui's book in English translation, Between East and West [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society 1968]. So there was unwillingness to do some elementary study of the real history –on her part or on the part of her faculty advisors– and/or incapacity to do basic study. What with all of her nasty insinuations such as Jewish "disloyalty" & "ingratitude" to the Arabs –and the Jews were "right-wing," "reactionary" & "colonialist"– the lecture was hardly more than an agitprop exercise. Hence her PhD ought to be cancelled and her faculty advisors fired and censured.

  • I blame political correctness – the result is always bland descriptiveness, because academics are afraid to call a spade a spade.

  • Thanks for posting the podcast of Choi's lecture. I attentively listened to it. As an academic I can see her historical paradigm, which is always framed in this so-called historical "objectivity". Of course it is non-sense, there is no such a thing as objectivity in social sciences and humanities. Who is she kidding? She did not provide any deep analysis of the Jewish Algerian question. She merely stated some facts and of course avoiding to state others. It is purely a descriptive lecture. By concluding her lecture on Jacque Derrida's notion of citizenship is as if she gave the concept of citizenship its due recognition. So what about it?. She should have dealt more as to why Jews were victims of both "seemingly" emancipating French republicans core values and Arab/ muslism nationalism and its hegemonic aspirations.

    Although I do not blame this new breed of academics who come to the field just as a curiosity and making a career out of it. Sometimes one wonders if they ever will shed light of the true nature of the events. Choi's could have used her historical imagination as to why it is practically impossible to picture or even "dream" of a republic of Algeria which is politically democratic, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious.

    By the way this question apply to ALL arab and muslim countries…. Ha… the possibility of dreaming of negative utopias…..


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