The confrontation between the "indigenous" Jews of Algeria and the French colonial administration has been the central drama in the historiography of Jews in modern Algeria. This encounter was, until recently, narrated in the modernizing language left over from the civilizing mission, whereby the "isolated" and "oppressed" indigenous Jews haltingly came to appreciate and assimilate French culture over the course of the nineteenth century. With the aid of liberal reformers who successfully advocated for the extension of the French system of Consistoires Israélites (official community organizations) to Algeria, so the story goes, the "regeneration" of indigenous Jews was eventually realized through the 1870 Crémieux Decree that made French citizens of thirty thousand indigenous Jews of Algeria's northern cities. It is a tidy and triumphalist story, whose success was seemingly confirmed in 1962 when the vast majority of Algeria's Jews departed for France—despite initial Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) calls for Jews to stay in Algeria, and Zionists' efforts to encourage them to emigrate to Israel.
Such narratives leave very little room for "people's history," if by that we mean histories of people of poorer classes traditionally understudied in historical narratives. Scholars engaged with such histories—from—below began integrating these groups into the historical record several decades ago, focusing not on North Africa but on other regions in the Middle East such as Egypt, Iraq, or Palestine, such that the category of "people's history" is, for Middle Eastern Studies, by now a somewhat dated term. For various reasons, this has been less the case for histories focused on Jews in the Maghreb.
One reason perhaps, was that the central problematic in the historiography of Jews in French Algeria was the supposedly progressive campaign to "emancipate" them. The merits of the civilizing project directed at the supposedly "poor," "isolated," and "oppressed" Jews of Algeria appeared beyond reproach to a previous generation of scholars: the struggle, in their eyes, lay between "liberal" and "tolerant" French statesmen and, first, the conservative, anti-Jewish elements in the French military, and, second, the intolerant yoke of Islam that had ostensibly relegated Jews to misery. As I have discussed elsewhere, this contest was one expression of the larger fight unfolding in France between liberal or emancipatory republicanism and clericalist, military, and/or royalist forces (it is no coincidence that the 1870 Crémieux Decree was one of the first acts of the new Third Republic; a self-conscious legislative reference to the Revolutionary Decree of 1791 that emancipated the Jews of France). Accordingly, Algerian Jews' own voices in response to French colonialism were consistently belittled or pared to fit either a liberal French teleology of modernization, or conservative (frequently anti-Semitic) critiques of this vision that objected to full Jewish rights.
This historiographic tendency cloaks some of the wider dynamics that bear on a people's history. Notably, the traditional narratives emphasizing the triumph of emancipatory, colonial republicanism manifest in the Crémieux Decree elide the poor, rural (and largely non-Jewish) people to whom full rights were never offered. Even as French conquest subjected millions of rural pastoralists or peasants to dispossession, rape, and massacre, many in France justified it as an "emancipatory" project evidenced by the fact that Jews would be liberated from oppressive Islamic rule (similarly, the spread of civil rule in Algeria was also painted as a "liberation" for white colonists bowed under an arbitrary military rule). In other words, the same rhetorical structure deployed during the French Revolution against the Old Regime's "intolerant" and "fanatic" persecution of French Jews was later used to justify the emancipation of Jews from Islam. Colonialists used emancipation for some in Algeria as a cloak for the exclusion of the many.
This brings us to the colonial category of "indigenous," a term the "people's" historian needs to unpack. Jews in Algeria were a varied lot, with Judeo-Spanish-speaking Moroccan Jews in the west hardly identifying with the Berberophone or Arabophone Jews of the M'zab or the Jews of eastern Algeria. The well-to-do merchants of Algerian ports towns, meanwhile, were often part of a trans-Mediterranean commercial network, speaking Italian, Spanish, English, or French, with partners or family members in Gibraltar, Livorno, Algeciras or elsewhere. A people's history, then, must involve uncovering varied, historic lines of identification between different groups of Jews that were collapsed by French colonial terms.
"Elite" and "popular" did not overlap perfectly with the opposition between "European" and "indigenous." The famous Cohen-Bacri family, and those of the Busnach clan, were among the most important merchants in Algiers at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Angelo Amar, a scion of the Busnach family, served as the head of the Jewish community of Oran, had roots in Livorno, and had family members settled in the Algerian regency since 1723 or 1724. My current research traces the history of Jacob Lasry, a Moroccan-born Jewish merchant long settled in Oran who had British papers, family in Gibraltar, and significant real estate holdings. He even donated land to the French-installed Consistoire Israélite when it was established in Oran. Further complicating the opposition between the "liberal" reformers and the "reactionary" military discussed above, some French generals such as Bertrand Clauzel actually partnered with elite Jews like Lasry. Some Jews served as translators, intermediaries, or experienced businessmen who could exploit their knowledge of local practices to help finance military operations and benefit themselves in the process. These Jews, though at some level "indigenous" to North Africa, can hardly be described as "subaltern."
While these merchants were an integral part of Algerian Jewish history, the majority of Jews in Algerian cities such as Oran were of far more modest means. Crucial to any people's history is the question of how these Jews themselves identified with, responded to, adapted, or resisted French efforts to bend them to forms of civic behavior and religious practice that bourgeois reformers deemed "enlightened" (éclairé). They had come to the city in the years following the Ottoman recapture of the city from the Spanish in 1792. At the time, the Dey of Algiers had moved the capital of the western beylick of the Regency of Algeria from Mascara to Oran, and offered craftsmen and merchants from surrounding towns such as Mascara and Tlemcen, including Jews banned by the Spanish, the opportunity to settle and develop the newly Muslim city. They worked in the lower echelons of import-export, ran shops in the market, sold fish or produce, or were itinerant merchants. They might have prayed at one of Oran's seventeen private synagogues, or taught in the midrashim, religious schools for young boys. By the time the French arrived in Oran, many were destitute—the war of occupation had uprooted many Algerian Jews as well as Muslims, and political troubles in Morocco would bring more Jews, many quite poor, from Tétouan into western Algeria over the course of the mid-nineteenth century.
Only occasionally do the stories of these nonelite Algerian Jews percolate to the surface in the colonial archives. Generally, when they do, it is in the event of problems. These problems emerged as certain ways of making a living came into conflict with new French efforts to either control the economy, or forms of religious learning or practice. For example, many responded with dismay when the French installed new rabbis—often Tétuanais Jews favored by reformers—throughout the provinces in 1847. Nonelite Jews also clashed with consistorial efforts to control Jewish education in Algeria. During the 1850s and 1860s, as the consistory attempted to regulate how Jewish schools functioned, many rabbis or teachers were forced to close their schools or give up providing private lessons to children. Jews also sometimes faced censure for simply practicing their trade; one itinerant Jewish trader, working with Kabyle accomplices in the mountains, was arrested when caught bringing goods deemed "unauthorized" into the province of Oran. Consistorial efforts to control synagogues, charity, and education met widespread popular revolt in 1848, as demands for republican governance spread throughout France and its territories. In these ways, merely continuing to make a living or practice local forms of Judaism came to be seen as "resistance" to civilization.
Newer work is in the process of giving us a fuller vision of modern Algerian Jewish history, including that of the nonelite. This includes Jewish experiences of virulent settler anti-Semitism during the late nineteenth century, or its reemergence in the years leading up to and including the Vichy period. Religious responses to changing sources of authority is another developing avenue for people's history. Finally, Jewish experiences of the Algerian War of Independence is also a rich topic for nonelite history, for popular Jewish responses to decolonization, Arab nationalism, and the emergence of Israel were far more varied than one might expect given today's polarization between "Arab" and "Jewish" perspectives.
What, then, are the implications for Jewish Studies of reexamining Algerian Jewish history from nonelite perspectives? Given that historians of the Middle East (among other fields) began integrating workers, peasants, and popular culture into their explanations of historical change more than a generation ago, it demands that we look beyond our field. Specifically, we shift focus from Jews alone and analyze how "civilizing" efforts with which Jews in Algeria contended were part of a wider, and far more brutal, colonial campaign. Combined with recent scholarship's emphasis on the fact that many Jews resisted elements of French rule, this approach forces a critical reappraisal of "emancipation," a consistent leitmotif in modern Jewish historiography. Finally, it exposes the limits of crucial categories of Jewish historiography, not only "indigenous," "French," "colonized," or "Moroccan," but even "Algerian" and "Jewish."