REVIEW: Jewish Culture and Society in North Africa

(Reposted from Intertwined Worlds)

9780253355096_300W[1]Jewish Culture and Society in North Africa.

Edited by Emily Benichou Gottreich and Daniel J. Schroeter. Bloomington

Indiana University Press, 2011. pp. 372.

Reviewed by Aomar Boum

There are few classic edited works on Jewish-Muslim relations, Jewish Culture and Society in North Africa could be one not only because of its clarity, depth and resourcefulness but also scientific contribution to the filed of North African historiography. It not only rethinks moments North African Jewish history and questions of historiography, but does it both through the eyes of Western scholars and local North Africans intellectuals. This approach puts this edited volume in a unique position compared to previous works written mostly from the perspectives of scholars who no longer reside in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Equally important, unlike other academic conferences on Jewish-Muslim relations generally held in France, Israel or the United States, the fact that Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian scholars, largely historians, could attend and present academic talks on the Jews of their homeland in a North African context is an important token that gives meanings to the book. Therefore Jewish Culture and Society in North Africa breaks a few taboos by allowing Israeli, North American and North African scholars to sit around the same table cognizant of the Arab Israeli conflict but still able to have a academic conversation based on mutual respect.

Each article in this collection raises new questions, revises old categories and challenges longstanding views. However, most of the themes largely revolve around social, political, cultural, linguistic and economic contexts of Jewish-Muslim encounters. The collection is divided into a number of sections including the origins, diasporas, identities; communities, cultural exchange and transformations; Sol Hachuel in Moroccan Jewish memory; gender, colonialism and the Alliance Israélite Universelle and North African Jews and political change in the late colonial and postcolonial periods. Despite these diverse themes Jewish-Muslim rapport, disengagement, symbiosis, conflict, and corporation underline all of them.

From a historiographical perspective, the majority of the contributions rely on linguistic, anthropological, literary, historical and literary approaches to rethink the existing scholarship on different aspects of Jewish-Muslim relations. Although the articles are grounded in previous theoretical and thematic approaches on North African Jewries during the colonial and postcolonial periods, they also enter uncharted terrains not only in terms of regional focus but also archival and ethnographic data. Abdellah Larhmaid uses legal Islamic documents to describe the complex relations that existed between Jews and Muslims by focusing on Jewish land ownership in southeastern Morocco. Aomar Boum invites the scholars of North African Jews to take advantage of colonial and postcolonial sources as well as local archives to formulate a better account of the deep historical connections between Jews and Muslims. Given the absence of major studies in the colonial period about the Jews of the countryside and the silence of nationalist historiographies about Jewish communities, Mohammed Kenbib suggests that a focus on one source of historical writing limits our understanding of the nuanced levels of relations between both communities.

The majority of the contributions focus on the degrees of social and cultural exchange that took place in urban centers between Jews and Muslims. These articles trace the Jewish-Muslim encounters both in colonial and postcolonial contexts in religious, education, urban and economic environments. In Fez, Tangier, and Oran, Susan Gilson Miller, Stacey Holden, and Saddek Benkada describe moments of isolation and partnership highlighting the level of fragmentation and coexistence between Jews and Muslims. These interactions would shrink as historical moments of political and social anxieties began to shape Muslim-Jewish relations especially as European powers began to extend their segregating colonial laws regarding Jews and Muslims. Fayçal Cherif’s study exemplifies this trend of simmering tensions about the question of Palestine, Jewish role in the nationalist struggle and their relationship with colonial powers. These emerging internal struggles would usher a new era of mistrust leading many Jews to leave North Africa and resettle in Israel and Europe. For Jamaa Baida, this migration movement has not only disrupted the historical connections between Jews and Muslims in North Africa, but led to the introduction of a new concept of national identity which tends to delegitimize Jewish North African identity in postcolonial local discourse. Other contributions used musical and cultural expressions as well as religious experiences and historical moments as sites to highlight moments of friendship and animosity between both communities. Belcacem Mebarki and Oren Kosansky take the reader through postcolonial Algerian and Moroccan cases to show dimension of religious pluralism, which symbolizes ongoing dimensions of Judeo-Muslim coexistence and religious tolerance despite the physical absence of Jews in today’s North Africa.

This volume is a very important contribution to Judaic Studies in particular and North African Studies in general. It is unique in its sources, diversity of the discipline of its contributions and the research agenda it set for other scholars to expand their research and raise new questions. One of the most important aspects of the volume is the growing awareness among North African historians of the importance to look at issues of minorities in general and Jewish identity in particular. The volume is not only well-edited and written, but it is also accessible to a diversity of academic and non-academic audiences. It would provide an excellent textbook to students in disciplines such as history, anthropology, religious studies, sociology, and ethnic studies.

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