In the past ten years or so, there has been an efflorescence of English language writing regarding the modern North African Jewish past. This efflorescence builds on major historiographical interventions of the 1990s into the early 2000s that pushed at the boundaries of Jewish studies and Middle Eastern studies to include North Africa, and with North Africa, its Jewish history. The interventions of the 1990s and early 2000s laid the foundations for contemporary Sephardi studies (“Sephardi” means “Spanish” in Hebrew, in reference to Jews exiled from Spain in 1492 and their descendants) as well as Mizrahi studies (the term “Mizrahi” means “Eastern” in Hebrew; Mizrahi is an umbrella category referencing Jews from the Middle East and North Africa). The scholars with pioneering works of the 1990s and early 2000s include Michel Abitbol, Joëlle Bahloul, Jamaâ Baïda, Esther Benbassa, André Chouraqui, Marc Cohen, Shlomo Deshen, S.D. Goitein, Harvey Goldberg, Mohammed Kenbib, Michael Laskier, Frances Malino, Susan Gilson Miller, Aron Rodrigue, Daniel Schroeter, Ella Shohat, Moshe Shokeid, Julia Clancy Smith, Norman Stillman, Benjamin Stora, Yaron Tsur, Lucette Valensi, and Haim Zafrani, among others. This generation of pioneering scholars from the 1990s paved the way for the recent reinvigoration of modern Jewish history of North Africa. There are several themes that connect the works below, above all questions central to modern Jewish studies such as those regarding citizenship and national belonging, as well as those related to the broader regional currents, including colonial intervention, political economy, urban, and legal histories central to modern Middle Eastern studies. Studying the history of Jewish North Africa reveals as much about the Jewish past as it does about that of the region, and is an incisive, important vantage point from which to examine local, regional, national, and trans-national transformations over time.
There is a great mountain of work from previous academic generations from which the selected works below benefited greatly and built upon. For the purposes of this piece, I will only address relatively recent works written in English that speak to central debates at the heart of current modern North African Jewish scholarship. There is an expansive, rich literature for modern North African Jewish history written in French, Hebrew, Arabic, and Spanish among others. “North Africa” itself can also include a number of modern nation states in shifting amalgamations–for the purposes of this piece, I will restrict the geographic scope to Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Finally, while most of the authors cited below are historians, there is a strong body of scholarship in anthropology and literature that has made tremendous contribution to the field in addition to the works listed below.
Boum, Aomar. Memories of Absence: How Muslims Remember Jews in Morocco. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013.
Boum’s book explores four generations of Muslims recalling Jewish life in Morocco. Boum addresses the roots of what scholars often call the “Moroccan Jewish Exodus”–that is, the years of mass Moroccan Jewish migration during the 1950s and 1960s, and how this mass exodus is remembered in contemporary Morocco. In addition to extensive oral histories as well as archival work, the individual narratives and stories enrich and enliven a subject that is fundamentally about loss and belonging in national memory. Boum’s text not only establishes the historical context of mass Moroccan Jewish departure, it also demonstrates the complications of post-colonial national formations and citizen identities and the dissonance between state narratives and daily life.
Boum, Aomar and Sarah Abrevaya Stein, eds. The Holocaust and North Africa. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019.
This edited volume represents the most recent contribution to the burgeoning field of studies linking the Holocaust and the Middle East and North Africa. Historically, the Holocaust has long been considered a uniquely European phenomenon. However, as this volume and other recent works in the field demonstrate, the connection between the Holocaust and the colonial is insidious and profound, with long-ranging repercussions for Jewish life in the region. The volume is divided into four major subcategories: “Where Fascism and Colonialism Meet”; “Experiences of Occupation, Internment, and Race Laws”; “Narrative and Political Reverberations”; and “Commentary,” which includes meditations on the place of North Africa in Holocaust studies and collective memory. The volume includes important contributions regarding the popularity of fascism in North Africa; the fate of Libyan Jews under fascist Italian rule; the experiences of Tunisian Jews under the punishing rule first of Vichy and then under direct Nazi German occupation; the conditions of forced labor and punishment camps in Morocco and Algeria; and much more. My own piece in this volume, entitled “Fissures and Fusions: Moroccan Jewish Communists and World War II,” explores the politicization of Moroccan Jews during the WWII years and the catalyzing of Moroccan Jewish participation in national liberation politics through the Moroccan Communist Party.
Gottreich, Emily Benichou and Daniel Schroeter, eds. Jewish Culture and Society in North Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011.
This edited volume from Gottreich and Schroeter is star-studded with contributions from prominent scholars of North African Jewish history, including Mohammed Kenbib, Susan Gilson Miller, Aomar Boum, Oren Kosansky, Yaron Tsur as well as Gottreich and Schroeter themselves, among other scholars. The volume is divided into five subsections: “Origins, Diasporas, and Identities”; “Communities, Cultural Exchange and Transformations”; “Between Myth and History: Sol Hachuel in Moroccan Jewish Memory”; and “Gender, Colonialism, and the Alliance Israélite Universelle.” The volume is fundamentally interdisciplinary, drawing from the work of anthropologists, literature scholars, as well as historians. Above all, the contributions in this volume demonstrate the mutually constitutive nature of North African Jews and their Muslim majority contexts.
Gottreich, Emily Benichou. The Mellah of Marrakesh: Jewish and Muslim Space in Morocco’s Red City. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.
Gottreich’s monograph explores the history of the Jewish quarter (the mellah) of Marrakesh with a particular focus on the nineteenth century and the liminal spaces of Jewish-Muslim interaction across the walls of the mellah. Gottreich emphasizes the permeability of the mellah as a cite of Jewish-Muslim exchange, uncovering illicit markets of Jewish substances as ingredients for magic, and Jewish urban space as the location where Muslims might more easily access such haram substances as mahia, a strong Moroccan Jewish fig liqueur. Further, the mellah was most frequently the space of European Christian habitation, shedding light on the position of Moroccan Jews as intermediaries between political and social orders. Gottreich’s focus on urban segmentation highlights the porosity and fluidity of Muslim-Jewish relations within this southern, imperial Moroccan city and political and social dynamics that would be challenged, yet in many meaningful ways persist, through the colonial period.
Katz, Ethan B. The Burdens of Brotherhood: Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.
Katz’s tome meticulously details the fraught legacy of French colonialism in North Africa among North African Jews and Muslims primarily during the twentieth century, not only in North Africa, but in the French Metropole in the post-independence period. Katz rejects the simplistic yet monotonously repeated notion of Jewish-Muslim relations in North Africa and in France as marked only by hostility and antipathy. Instead, Katz paints a sensitive, nuanced portrait of the traumas of colonial policy and the daily lives of Jews and Muslims contextualized within complex systems of colonial and state violence, legal, physical, and ideological.
Levy, André. Return to Casablanca: Jews, Muslims, and an Israeli Anthropologist. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2015.
An Israeli anthropologist born in Morocco, Lévy’s book is an excellent companion piece to Aomar Boum’s Memories of Absence (discussed above). Where Boum discussed how Moroccan Muslims remembered their Jewish neighbors, Lévy examines how Moroccan Jews who immigrated to Israel (largely in the 1950s and 1960s) remember their Moroccan Muslim neighbors and their homeland. The book is simultaneously a memoir and a scholarly work of anthropology. Lévy assess the complex intersections of historical and personal narrative, motivations and mythologies as he, as well as other Israelis of Moroccan origin, negotiate the meaning of traveling from one Diaspora to another, that of one’s birth and that of national and religious narrative. Lévy also examines the lives of those Moroccan Jews who stayed in their birth country and how contemporary Moroccan Jewish institutions and social identities have evolved (and, to use his word, “contracted”) as well as the connections of the contemporary Moroccan Jewish community to Muslims and Israelis of Moroccan origin.
Marglin, Jessica Maya. Across Legal Lines: Jews and Muslims in Modern Morocco. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016.
Marglin’s book follows one Moroccan Jewish family in the late nineteenth century and the family’s participation in Morocco’s multiple legal systems: Jewish courts, Muslim courts, and international, consular courts. Marglin’s book simultaneously traces the tumultuous political context of late nineteenth century Morocco as well as Jewish-Muslim legal (and thus, social and economic) relationships to one another on the eve of the colonial period that began in 1912 with the establishment of French and Spanish protectorates. It is meticulously researched and written, exploring through one Moroccan Jewish family the very foundations of legal practices and definitions of “Moroccanness” in all its late nineteenth-century fluidity.
Miller, Susan Gilson. “Moïse Nahon and the Invention of the Modern Maghribi Jew,” French Mediterraneans: Transnational and Imperial Histories edited by Patricia Lorcin and Todd Shepherd. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016: 293-391.
This article centers around the Moroccan Jewish writer and teacher Moïse Nahon, of Tangier on Morocco’s Mediterranean coast. Nahon was part of a literary circle of Moroccan Jews in Tangier at the end of the nineteenth century, participating in the intellectual crosscurrents of the Nahda, the Haskalah, as well writing from France and Spain. The Dreyfus Affair and the status of Jews in neighboring Algeria informed this ambivalence and skepticism among Nahon and his cohort. Through Nahon’s writings and activities, Miller sheds much needed light on Moroccan Jewish ambivalence toward the prospect of French and Spanish colonial intervention, and engagement with Arab Jewish identities on the eve of colonization.
Parks, Richard C. Medical Imperialism in French North Africa: Regenerating the Jewish Community of Colonial Tunis. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017.
This volume nuances historical understanding of Tunisian Jews (both the Grana and Twansa populations, in all their divergences and disagreements) under French colonial rule via the twinned discourses of science and “regeneration.” Parks takes a microhistorical approach to explore larger themes of French colonial intervention within the specific landscape of Tunisian Jewish life. In doing so, Parks disentangles narratives that would collapse Tunisian Jews in a single category and uncovers intra-Jewish differences, agency, complicity, and resistance within new and old state and legal structures. By examining these threads through the prism of medical, scientific, and “regenerative” intervention, Parks intervenes in several fields simultaneously and provides a welcome English language contribution to studies of Tunisian Jewish history and identity formation in the crosshairs of colonial scientific discourse.
Schroeter, Daniel J. The Sultan’s Jew: Morocco and the Sephardi World. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.
Schroeter’s monograph tells a transnational tale of Moroccan Jewish merchant-diplomats, and Moroccan state power in the early to mid-nineteenth century. The book focuses around Meir Macnin, a Moroccan Jew born to a prominent Marrakshi Jewish family who ultimately moved (along with many other Jews) to the new port city of Essaouira. Macnin was charged with, as other Jews had been charged before and after him, with representing the Moroccan Sultan’s interests abroad vis à vis Christian Europe. Macnin’s dramatic life between Morocco and England and his relationship to prominent Moroccan Jews and the Moroccan Makhzan (central power structure centered around the Sultan) illustrates a pre-colonial period of North African Jewish history in which Jews were granted considerable power and prestige, but not without risk, and, in the case of Macnin, scandal.
Schreier, Joshua. Arabs of the Jewish Faith: the Civilizing Mission in Colonial Algeria. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2011.
Schreier’s monograph focuses on Jewish life in nineteenth century Algeria and the process of French colonial ingestion of Algeria as well as its Jews via the mission civilisatrice (“civilizing mission”). Among other things, Schreier argues that Jews were essential to French colonial policy in Algeria, in connection to the legacy of Jews in post-Revolutionary France. Indeed, Schreier posits that the logic and legacy of French emancipation of Jews in the Metropole was central to French colonial justifications for conquest of the territory. Schreier treats intra-Jewish relationships in French Algeria (they did not all embrace France and the French citizenship granted to most of them via the 1870 Crémieux decree), as well as those with Algerian Muslims and the European colonial apparatus and the tense results of French policy.
Stein, Sarah Abrevaya. Saharan Jews and the Fate of French Algeria. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.
Stein’s book is simultaneously a micro-history of the southern Algerian region around Ghardaïa and an expansive examination of Jews within French legal imperial structures. Through painstaking research and unique sources and themes (including, among others, espionage), Stein tells the story of a smaller community of Jews in the Algerian south that experienced a particular legal status; unlike the Jews of northern Algeria who were granted French citizenship via the 1870 Crémieux decree, those of Ghardaïa were not, owing to a complex tessellation of military strategy, the timing of territorial acquisition, and French policy. This unique legal status and the experiences of southern Algerian Jews have been typically subsumed within the historiography of Algerian Jews. Stein’s book challenges long held assumptions regarding Algerian Jews, nuancing colonial and post-colonial categories and emphasizing the slippage of legal categorization and social identity, across the many borders, both established and informal, in southern Algeria.
A solid grounding in the historiography of North Africa requires study of North African Jews. Likewise, solid grounding in Jewish studies writ large requires inclusion of this demographically and historically significant population of the Jewish world. The above listed works are a small sample of the rich array of works regarding North African Jews and build on the work of pioneering scholars in the field in the latter part of the twentieth century. As indicated above, very strong work has come out from anthropologists regarding the theme that Aomar Boum dubbed “memories of absence” from the vantage points of Jews and Muslims in North Africa, a genre to which André Levy (cited above) has contributed as well as Lawrence Rosen’s excellent 2015 book Two Arabs, a Berber, and a Jew: Entangled Lives in Morocco (University of Chicago Press, 2015). In a related theme, anthropologist Oren Kosansky has written on the phenomenon of shared Muslim and Jewish “saint” worship as well as pilgrimage tourism from Jews of Moroccan origin abroad in a brilliant article: “Tourism, Charity, and Profit: The Movement of Money in Moroccan Jewish Pilgrimage” Cultural Anthropology vol. 17 no. 3 Value in Circulation (Aug. 2002), pp. 359-400. There is a wide body of work in literature as well relating to Jewish North Africa, including innovative recent projects from Lia Brozgal and Olivia Harrison among others. The field of Holocaust studies in North Africa is particularly booming at the moment, with several works from prominent scholars (Susan Gilson Miller, Daniel Schroeter, Aomar Boum, Sarah Abrevaya Stein, Ethan Katz, Orit Ouaknine Yekutieli, Daniel Lee and others) on the horizon touching on questions of citizenship, refugee status, migration, and anti-Semitism. My own current book project addresses Jewish involvement in the Moroccan Communist Party and the politics of belonging in Morocco during the colonial period into the 1990s; one chapter focuses on the Vichy period as a moment of political galvanization for Moroccan Jews toward the national liberation movement. Having established “the narrative,” current and forthcoming work seeks to complicate, challenge, and nuance.
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