Joshua Schreier, The Merchants of Oran: A Jewish Port at the Dawn of Empire (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2017).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Joshua Schreier (JS): Like a number of historians of my generation, I came out of graduate school wanting to contest the older Orientalist binaries that structured Middle Eastern history. Of course, similar binaries also colored Jewish history, alongside persecution vs emancipation, or autonomy vs assimilation. I realized the study of a small but growing Mediterranean port on the coast of North Africa at the dawn of the colonial era, one that owed its recent dynamism to Ottoman Muslim expansion, its proximity to the Iberian peninsula, and its settlement by Jewish merchants, sat on enough “margins” to serve as a good vehicle for doing this. As I researched my first book, it became clear that there was a striking disconnect—even within the French colonial narratives--between the endless repetition of the trope of Jews as ignorant, despised, and miserable victims of Islamic intolerance, and the numerous references to Jewish merchants who had clearly prospered under the Regency of Algiers. For this book, I went back to precolonial consular records, early colonial military and property records, and some rabbinic writings, and they all attested to the presence of a mobile, dynamic, and powerful class of Tétuanais, Gibraltarian, and Algerian Jewish merchants in Oran. This group, along with British and Muslim partners, had been central in reviving Oran, which had been an isolated Spanish presidio before the expanding Regency of Algiers conquered it in 1792. This ran counter to received French narratives boasting of the colonial power’s unique role in rebuilding modern Oran. It also encouraged me to resituate Oran in the longue durée; not only as a “North African” town, but as a Mediterranean port with a long history, interwoven into mercantile webs connecting Iberia, Provence, Venice, Genoa, Algiers, and Tetuan. This inspired me to tell a story of how Jewish merchants, who are well documented as vectors of European commercial influence in the MENA region, nevertheless also played a part in the Regency of Algiers’ modern expansion.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
JS: There are several old but enduring narratives shaping the historiography of Jews in modern North African and Middle Eastern societies. These tend to run on several teleological rails, and both are problematic. The specifically Algerian version tends to explore questions arising on a linear Jewish evolution from ignorant, corrupt, isolated, and despised dhimmi, to enlightened, assimilating, patriotic French citizen—albeit one embattled by persistent anti-Semitism. Work dealing with other locales is similar, showcasing Jews’ inexorable movement from traditional, hierarchical Arab/Islamic societies, through the cauldron of anti-Jewish scapegoating in the period of anticolonial Arab nationalism, to their salvation and “return” to the State of Israel. These stories have been brilliantly complicated in the work of Orit Bashkin, Joel Beinin, Michelle Campos, Sarah Abrevaya Stein, and others. Inspired by this literature, while also wishing to build on work that has underlined cosmopolitanism and dynamism in precolonial North Africa, such as that by Ian Coller, Julia Clancy-Smith, and James McDougall, I saw this book as an opportunity to retell the history of Oran’s Jews not as static and long-suffering indigènes, but rather as history-makers in the drama of the Regency of Algiers’ expansion and destruction. Looking also at the onset of colonialism, this project also shows how these merchants—and their influence and business practices—continued to exert influence during and after the conquest. At some level, the book suggests that despite the older Jewish historiograhy’s focus on Jewish assimilation to French culture, we could also tell a story of how France was forced to assimilate to North Africa. Taken together, these processes challenge a more general presumption of Jewish powerlessness in the MENA region before the rise of Zionism.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
JS: The Merchants of Oran stems from the research I did for my first book, Arabs of the Jewish Faith. Chronological focus-wise, it is a prequel, but it really goes in a different direction. The first book concentrated on how France aimed a "civilizing mission" at Jews in Algeria during the mid-nineteenth century. It shows how the ideology, while rooted in French Revolutionary ideals of regeneration, enlightenment, and emancipation, actually developed as a strategic response to the challenges of controlling Algeria's coastal cities. But it also suggests that colonial institutions intended to “assimilate” local Jews to French society actually depended upon them for financial help and sought leadership expertise among local North African notables. Merchants of Oran focuses on this class of merchants while placing colonial ideologies in the background. It takes these merchants and their networks out of the French imperial sphere and places them in a wider (and longer) Mediterranean and North African history. This allows Merchants of Oran to explore how this class was important in both the pre-colonial development of Oran and in the early colonial social, administrative, and commercial life of the city. It also shows how elements of this pre-colonial elite were called upon to help finance and support France’s violent but poorly organized and resource-starved conquest of western Algeria. It closes by looking at one central character’s ability to reinvent himself as a leading voice of France’s putatively emancipatory mission, while maintaining distinct, religiously-sanctioned family practices that directly contradicted one of France’s key criteria of “civilization.”
J: One of the key figures in your book, the merchant Jacob Lasry, seems kind of sleazy. Given the rather idealistic goals you outline above, what made him a good vehicle for exploring these issues?
JS: It is true that the Oran merchant, Jacob Lasry, was a self-interested businessman who had few loyalties besides to himself and his own advancement. He worked with bey Hassan and the British vice-consul, and continued to seek help from the British during the first year of the French invasion. When it proved more logical to work with French generals, however, he did, though not without enraging them with supposedly “unfair” business practices. For influential French observers, he embodied their anti-Semitic stereotypes. This book makes little effort to rehabilitate him. But if Lasry himself was unsavory at times, his rivalries, disputes, and deals gone sour have left a well-blazed trail of archival evidence into a lost world. This world was one where Jews were not only seemingly indispensable features of North Africa’s dynamic urban society and commercial landscape, but a helpful class in the Regency’s expansion to the west of Algeria. These Jews were also became pillars of a “European” colonial elite that was not entirely European. This world was also one where people and goods circulated between areas that were in the process of being declared separate “civilizations” and divided up into states. If we look beyond the personalities of the figures involved, merchants of Oran like Jacob Lasry help us revisit a number of received ideas about Jews, Muslims, and North Africa at the beginning of the colonial era.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JS: It goes without saying that I hope scholars of North African, Jewish, French, and Middle Eastern history read it. But I would also like people like Mohamad Aïssa to read it. He is the religious affairs minister of Algeria who, in July, 2014, announced that twenty-five of Algeria’s synagogues would reopen. After a week or two, however, he shelved the plans, arguing that Algerian society would not accept it, given that “the Jewish State is in the process of bombarding and killing children, women, and elderly…” By associating synagogues in Algeria with the Israeli slaughter of innocents in Gaza, he suggested that Algerian Jews are more connected to Israel (a country very few of them ever emigrated to) than to Algeria’s past or potential present. I would like readers who might be open to reconsidering such unwitting support for the Zionist claim that Israel represents all Jews, as well as this amputation of healthy limbs of Algeria’s own rich history. On a very different register, I would also love my book to be read by those ready to entertain the notion that the nascent Algerian state was not dormant before the French arrived, nor that there was a clean divide between the European and Islamic North African worlds before colonialism. I want readers interested in historical figures that are difficult to imagine now: “Mediterranean” personalities whose passports or places of birth tell only one side of their experiences and perspectives. I would also like it to be read be those whose political viewpoints, colored by recent decades’ oppositions, would otherwise find it difficult to imagine how Jews were once very much integrated into, and sometimes even powerful figures in the Arab world. I am hopeful that my book will come to the attention of at least some of these readers, as it has been listed as a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, Mimi Frank Award for Sephardic Culture, 2017.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
JS: Currently I am planning a project that would look at Muslims and Jews in the last decades of colonial rule in Algeria. I have written one article on this, which appeared a bit over a year ago in Comparative Studies in Society and History, using a Jewish riot against Muslims in late 1961 as an optic for exploring the polemical use of “Muslim-Jewish relations.” I am particularly interested in how both Muslims and Jews, at a moment of unprecedented tension, found common cause in narrating their friendly relations in the past. From there, I hope to research how Jewish and Muslim writers imagined the future of a potentially independent Algeria.
Excerpt from the Introduction:
On October 22, 1855, the minister of public instruction in Paris, in approving the proposal of the prefect of the Province of Oran, named Jacob Lasry, a wealthy businessman, president of the consistoire israélite de la province d’Oran (Jewish Consistory for the Province of Oran). Lasry’s selection for the post, which he assumed on November 23, was a statement of great confidence in both his moral character and his patriotism. The first Jewish consistories, which Napoleon had established in France several decades earlier, in 1808, were intended to supervise the moral, social, and cultural “regeneration” of France’s Jews, a group in which the emperor had little trust. As president, Lasry was now at the helm of the first colonial consistories, agencies charged with organizing the Jewish religion, uplifting its practitioners, and assimilating the supposedly uncivilized Jews of France’s new North African territories to France’s Jewish community. French Jewish journalists who took interest in the affair lauded the choice of Lasry. One writer extolled Lasry’s “gentle but firm” character, which was distinguished by a “spirit of charity” and great “knowledge.” The same report noted that “the friends of progress” particularly celebrated his ascent to the presidency of the consistory. Another journal, lamenting the sorry moral state of most of Oran’s Jews, offered hope that under Lasry their “errors of civilization” would not go unchecked and that the new president’s efforts to “attach” them to France and its putatively superior “civilization” would be rewarded with success.
The fact that Jacob Lasry was chosen to lead the consistory, a moralizing institution specifically intended to attach Oran’s putatively uncivilized Jews to France, could be seen as a paradox. When the French began the conquest in 1830, the Moroccan-born Lasry was already installed in the Ottoman-controlled port of Oran, in the west of what is now Algeria. He might be described as a Mediterranean merchant, a speaker of Arabic and Spanish (and perhaps French and English as well), or as a British protégé and a close associate of the United Kingdom’s vice-consulate in Oran. French generals used a range of terms to describe Lasry, including “English subject,” “Moroccan,” and “Juif de Gibraltar,” but they never called him “French” or even “European.” Lasry’s religious and commercial networks were no more French than his background. They tied him closest to Gibraltar but extended to Morocco and Spain and possibly to Livorno, Genoa, and Tunis. Furthermore, military officers often held Lasry in decidedly lower esteem than the journalists cited earlier. In a number of letters to Paris, they spoke contemptuously of “the Jew Lasry,” whom they described as “immoral” and duplicitous. One officer accused him of “unlimited avarice.” His patriotism was also suspect; his usurious loans plunged a celebrated (and vilified) Tunisian commander who had become a French officer into debt, and for two and a half decades into the conquest Lasry made no visible effort to obtain French nationality. In fact, he took French citizenship only in 1854, barely one year before becoming president of the consistory. All in all, Lasry was a seemingly odd choice for a position putatively bound to the mission to spread French civilization across North Africa.
Yet the fact that a “Moroccan Jew” of “unlimited avarice” with a history of incensing the French military was chosen to represent French civilization is only a paradox when one takes France’s civilizing ideology at its word. When we do, Lasry’s appointment to the consistory sheds doubt on it and many of the consistory’s other lofty moralizing claims. Clearly, other concerns were more important. Perhaps the occupying forces, still in a rather precarious position, actually depended on the knowledge, skills, and financial resources of North African notables such as Lasry and hoped to bring them into the administration. Their familiarity with or ability to promote abstractions such as French civilization, then, was actually secondary to their material and militaristic goals. In such a framing, Lasry’s appointment to the consistory adds to the many existing stories that expose the cracks and contradictions in French colonial policy and ideology. It also suggests that local Jews, whom many French observers reduced to an oppressed unity, may have been more diverse, influential, and worldly than previously imagined.
But something just as valuable is learned when we put aside the moralizing ideology that adorned the colonial consistories’ installation. Removing Lasry’s story, at least for a moment, from the French imperial context brings equally compelling but less frequently told stories into view. Western Algeria, long linked into western Mediterranean networks of commerce, was hardly static when the French showed up in 1831. Lasry and other Maghrebi Jewish merchants, searching for opportunities, were by then already on their way to remaking a town that had been more or less devastated several decades before. They did so by extending the town’s trade with Italian, English, and Spanish ports, shaping local institutions, making profitable deals with Christian and Muslim agents, and competing fiercely with each other. By the time the French entered the scene (and the archival record expanded considerably), Jews were, unsurprisingly, some of the town’s most important landlords and merchants. Lasry’s dynamic history therefore offers a glimpse into a Muslim and Jewish city before France’s conquest began transforming the societies of the Mediterranean. Beyond illustrating colonial paradoxes, Lasry’s example illuminates how precolonial Oran was growing and increasingly linked with other Mediterranean locales. Lasry’s history, seen within the context of regional and transregional affairs, tells a story of Algerian Jews that is decidedly not a purely French imperial story.
In this book I use the experiences of Lasry and those of several others in his milieu of the city of Oran to gain a new perspective on a number of larger processes. These people and their city are relatively unknown figures. Although Oran was a small town at the time of Lasry’s arrival, by the time of his death Oran was well on its way to becoming Algeria’s second largest city. Focusing on Oran helps shed light on underexplored sides of late Ottoman Algeria, its commercial life, its robust and influential Jewish presence, and the idiosyncrasies of early French colonial rule. The fact that one of my primary subjects is a Jew—an aspect of his identity that shaped his public persona—is also central to this discussion. Following Lasry and the circle of Jewish merchants and property owners among whom he traveled focuses attention on the deeply rooted and dynamic Jewish current in modern North African history, a current that can easily be forgotten in the wake of the upheavals, including the mass Jewish departure, that have intervened during and since the Algerian War of Independence.
Jews as wealthy and prominent as Lasry were not typical denizens of early-nineteenth-century North African ports, but they constituted an important fixture in the social and economic landscape. As such, these men did not simply form part of a minority community tolerated or accepted amid a national majority, which the state ostensibly represented. After all, such national majorities had yet to be conceived. Rather, Lasry came of age in an Arab-Islamic and Mediterranean world that would not have asked or required him to shed or subsume his religious identity to participate in high echelons of local society. Nor is there evidence that this precolonial Islamic world would have seen as odd a port where Jews such as Lasry conducted most commercial activities. Moreover, when the French arrived in the 1830s, they saw little contradiction in recognizing and officially sanctioning such a man’s already-prominent public position, even as they did so through an organization that assumed Jews’ need to be moralized. Granting Lasry a title that bestowed on him the responsibility to represent French civilization was as much a recognition of the preexisting status of Jews in North Africa as a strategy for changing it.
By revisiting the life of Lasry and his colleagues, this book offers fresh perspectives on North Africa, the place of Jews in it, and the early French conquest of Algeria. First, by placing Lasry in his wider context, I illustrate that some of the more powerful, dynamic, and indeed worldly figures in the urban society of late Ottoman/early colonial Oran were North African Jews. This contrasts with the common French narrative that described Jews in Algeria collectively as “indigenous.” This extremely problematic popular and social-scientific term was a creation of colonialism. It reduced a diverse array of people, some of whom had long family histories in western Algeria and others who were recent arrivals, to a single social group rooted in Algeria’s putatively static precolonial history. It also defined them as a group apart from and in opposition to Muslims, which was another category radically remade under colonial rule. As in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, colonial Algeria’s population of indigenous Jews must be seen as the result of a process of minoritization, to which French colonial rule and its social and legal categories were crucial. This is ironic, because French laws generally privileged Jews with respect to their Muslim neighbors. The concept of indigenous Jews also functioned to cast Algeria’s Jewish inhabitants as the social parallel to the unemancipated and putatively isolated Jews of prerevolutionary France.
This parallel served an important political function in the creation of the colonial order. French intellectuals of the revolutionary era cast French Jews as living examples of corruption and immorality, the epitome of the anti-citizen that rhetorically served their purposes by exemplifying the power of the republicto transform and uplift the debased. Several decades later, with the conquest of Algeria, colonial reformers, many of whom were Jews themselves, painted Algerian Jews similarly: as oppressed, ignorant, impoverished, and, as a result, isolated and superstitious.1 Liberal colonial reformers took these ills to be remediable, just as the faults of prerevolutionary French Jews had been argued to be. But the disease demanded a cure. The newly conceived pathologies of North African Jews justified an official effort to bring to Algeria a policy of Jewish “regeneration,” which had originally been conceived to uplift metropolitan France’s supposedly degenerate Jews. This official effort, inspired by the metropolitan regeneration movement but eventually understood as civilizing in the colonial context, began with the establishment of Jewish consistories in Algeria in the late 1840s. It reached an apex of sorts with the 1870 Crémieux Decree that naturalized the vast majority of Algeria’s Jews en masse. For years, French historical memory reflected this triumphalist framing, by which the conquest set the gears in motion for Algerian Jews’ regeneration, assimilation, and naturalization as French citizens.
Jacob Lasry and other wealthy and sophisticated North African Jews who had reached their lofty positions well before the conquest present a starkly different picture of the French conquest of Algeria. In fact, Lasry also complicates the traditional assumption, even among critics of colonial ideologies, that France was the motor that brought change to an otherwise traditional Jewish society in North Africa. In Oran this class did not (as many continue to assume) trace its wealth exclusively to Livorno, the origin of North Africa’s better-known Jewish commercial elite. Nor can these wealthy people, who established synagogues and schools, underwrote civic improvements, and backed certain rabbinic authorities against others, be seen as isolated from lower echelons of Jewish society. Instead, the dynamism and influence of the merchants of Oran before and during the early colonial period defy the inherited teleological tales in which North African Jewish change or progress always came from Europe.
Hardly marginal or isolated, Jews such as Lasry served as agents to the beys or in other official positions; they made high-stakes deals with leaders, invested in property, and drew on British consular support to back their export ventures. They functioned within commercial networks—in which France did not always feature prominently—that existed before and endured beyond the onset of colonialism. Far from awaiting European deliverance from a circumscribed existence, Jacob Lasry actually helped to underwrite what the French understood as the civilizing mission by contributing financially to the underfunded civic institutions ostensibly established to uplift Oran’s Jews. In all this, Lasry’s story is a window into the process by which a Jewish elite, very much a product of their North African Islamic milieu and of their embeddedness in wider Mediterranean networks that included European powers, confronted and co-opted new and evolving colonial circumstances. Lasry’s international contacts and British protection paradoxically allowed him to take advantage of France’s civilizing mission and use it to solidify his stature in Oran’s increasingly French colonial society.