Blog post

Dear Benjamin Stora

Ariella Azoulay responds to the historian Benjamin Stora's new official report on the French colonization of Algeria. 

Ariella Azoulay24 February 2021

Dear Benjamin Stora

Dear Benjamin Stora, 

In 2017, French President Emanuel Macron acknowledged that the colonization of Algeria was a crime against humanity. Along with many others, I was looking forward to reading your recently released report on the subject, which you wrote on commission from the president. Having read it, however, I am dismayed at the absence of discussion of crimes against humanity, crimes that attack human diversity and diverse modes of life. I fail to understand these omissions. Though there are many, I will focus on one: the destruction of Jewish cultures in the Maghreb.

Like you, I have a personal stake in these matters. I was born in 1962, the year when my family, yours, and 140,000 other Jews were forced to leave Algeria, as the direct consequence of its long colonization. As you noted in your 2006 book The Three Exiles of Jews from Algeria, two other exiles preceded this one. The first occurred in 1870, when the Crémieux decree separated the Jews from the rest of the Algerian population and turned them into French citizens in their own country; the second in 1940, when the Vichy government revoked this decree and French citizenship along with it. Your book was very helpful to me when, more than a decade ago, I started to ask questions about the fabricated identity that was assigned to me at birth—“Israeli.” The more I studied the structures put in place to dissociate me from my Algerian Jewish ancestors, the less I recognized myself in this assigned identity. I rejected it twice over: first as a form of belonging, and second as an imperial template of history—an effort to mark a new beginning (in 1948), a rupture between what was made “past” and what was allowed to be the future. The creation of the state of Israel proclaimed previous affiliations and formations either nonexistent (Palestine) or inappropriate (Algerian Jews, Iraqi Jews, and so on). It devalued the singularity of diverse groups of Jews, reshaping and concocting them into an undifferentiated group. This move effectively continued the Napoleonic project of regulating Jewish life, making “the Jewish people” into a historical-national subject that can only be fully realized by a sovereign state of its own.

When I started to gather histories and memories of who we Algerian Jews were until not so long ago, I noticed a striking similarity between the settler colonial identity assigned to me and the one assigned to my Algerian ancestors in 1870. My father left Algeria for Israel in 1949, and the rest of my family had to depart in 1962 to France, leaving behind more than two millennia of Arab Jewish life in the Maghreb. We can say that we are of Algerian origins but colonialism destroyed the shared world in which this identity materialized. It is a crime against the Jews but it is against humanity since its diversity is endangered. Thankfully, even when Arab-Jews were born to forget, those from whom they were ripped out do not allow themselves to forget it, or in Houria Bouteldja’s address to the Jews: “you can’t ignore the fact that France made you French to tear you away from us, from your land, from your Arab-Berber identity. If I dare say so, from your Islamic identity. Just as we have been dispossessed of you. If I dare say so, of our Jewish identity.” When my ancestors were made French citizens, they didn’t stop being colonized; “granting” them settler colonial citizenship was another form of French colonization, not its end. Indeed it initiated a process of deracination. Jews were set apart from the people among whom they lived and with whom they shared language, cosmologies, beliefs, experiences, traditions, landscapes, histories, and memories. Some Algerian Jews welcomed French citizenship, but in 1865 most had refused to apply for it. The three exiles you describe in your book are examples of the heavy price Jews paid for their colonizers’ citizenship, a decision that impacted their descendants as well. The fact that some chose to comply—and later found ways to profit from their citizenship—doesn’t make it less of a colonial technology, which forcibly engineers people to become other than who they are. 

Studying the connection between these two settler identities, the French and the Israeli, helped me to understand the role they played in serving the interests of major European colonial powers: namely, to dissociate the Jews from Arabs and Muslims and to incorporate them into the fabricated “Judeo-Christian tradition.” Of course, some Jews volunteered to place themselves within the “larger framework of Western civilization,” as Susannah Heschel describes it. But this fact only demonstrates the important role that the colonial attack on human diversity and its incentives to “assimilate” played—and continue to play—within the colonial project. As Maghreb and Middle Eastern Jews were forcibly assimilated into the European persona of the Jew as citizen, they were trained to see Arabs and Muslims as others. And through the state of Israel, they came to see them as their enemies.

Distressingly, this context is entirely lacking in your report, which makes no mention of the three exiles you previously wrote about. Yet the first exile should be understood as the background on which the settler colonial state of Israel—premised on the destruction of Palestine—could be created. And when the third exile came in 1962, Israel already cemented enmity between Jews and Arabs into a fixture of the Jewish condition. To put it bluntly, the state of Israel functions, among other things, as the liquidator of French accountability for France’s colonial crimes against Jews in Algeria and in other Muslim countries. In this transaction, colonial citizenship and a Jewish settler state are colonial “gifts” meant to repay its victims with colonial currency in order to keep the colonial project going. “Granted” French citizenship and a Jewish nation state, imperially engineered Jews and their descendants are expected simply to move on, to forget about the destroyed world of which they could still be part, and to become instead part of the imperial world, citizen-operators of the technologies that continue to perpetrate crimes against humanity.

Well, I refuse. These bargains do not end colonization but rather perpetuate it. They facilitate the appointment of some Jews to persecute other Jews who continue to struggle for full decolonization of all those who were and are colonized and of the institutions that were put in place for the colonial project. Our ancestors in the Maghreb were directly victimized by colonial violence, even as they gradually accepted the bargains imposed on them through these three exiles. Must we, their descendants, accept and be bound by them? Are we not entitled to continue the struggle against French colonialism and Israeli colonialism, and to fight to reverse the outcome of imperial crimes?

I feel that we are not only entitled but obliged to do so. I don’t consider imperial crimes past events; they are still operative, and the institutions, structures, and laws that enable them must still be dismantled and abolished. History cannot generate the miracle that imperial architects expect from it—to make us believe that imperial crimes came to an end when the imperialists proclaimed that they did. Your report performs a similar function, attempting to consign these events to the past, even as they endure in the present. 

In fact, your report exemplifies what I propose to call the fourth exile of Algerian Jews: their erasure from the history of the colonization of Algeria. In 160 pages, your report gives only two paragraphs about a formerly existing Jewish community in Algeria. In reality, there was not one community but multiple and diverse Berber-Jewish Arab-Jewish communities. Only through the colonial crime against humanity were they forced to become one, as a prelude to its disappearance. The liquidation of these thousand-year-old communities is thus made a non-event in your report, and styled as a sign of progress. No mention is made of the crimes perpetrated against them: the three exiles, imported European antisemitism, forced re-education, detachment from their culture, confinement in Algerian concentration camps. 

The obliteration of this history reflects the colonial bargains that turned these exiles into the supposed “achievements” of the Jews, their entrance into the enlightened world of secular modernity. You have, in this way, supplied the state of France with scholarly “proof” that its colonization targeted exclusively Muslims and Berbers (the latter assumed to exclude Jews). These omissions have serious consequences. Having been impacted by both the French and Israeli colonial projects of human engineering, it is only when I turned fifty that I was able to piece together the story of thousands of years of Jewish life in the Maghreb and acquire some of my ancestors’ memories that I was denied in the process of making us good citizens of 1962

For this retroactive removal of Jews from 132 years of colonization, one has to endorse the outcome of imperial violence as progress. Why else erase this group from the history of the French colonial project? But is it so easy to buy into this narrative of progress? Did Jews choose to be the target of settlers’ antisemitism once they became French? Did they desire to leave Algeria in 1962? Did they choose to be complicit in the ending of Jewish life in Algeria? Did they sign up for a collective departure from their ancestors’ world? How did you come to take upon yourself the role of burying that world? 

This final question—why you, in particular, were selected to write the report—requires attention. Beyond your expertise, I suspect I am not the only one who thinks you were selected in part because you are Jewish—and because of the position of the Jew in the colonial project. It is difficult to talk openly about this possibility at a moment when the meaning of antisemitism is guarded by imperial nation states that support the regime-made disaster of the state of Israel. Nevertheless, we must consider what it means.

For the government to select a Jew to write this report is not a coincidence, but a trap. In this still imperial world, Jews are expected to act as blank citizens—to prove, as Houria Bouteldja writes, their “willingness to meld into whiteness . . . to embody the canons of modernity.” This position was created through at least three imperial deals that are not to be questioned. The first is the bargain of citizenship: a good French citizen of Jewish origins should not fail to leave his Jewishness at home, especially when practicing his profession. Already in your book, you proved this kind of French patriotism by depicting these three exiles of the Jews as past events, objects of historical inquiry. As their shared life with Muslims was turned into a bygone past, they could be integrated into European history. The second deal accepts the Crémieux decree as its architects conceived of it—as the granting of a gift rather than a unilateral use of force, which was instrumental in the destruction of their diverse modes of life. This portrayal omits how it stole from Jews their heritage, world, and traditions. The third supposes that France had already settled its debts to “the Jewish people” as a historical subject in 1995 when the nation recognized its responsibility in deporting Jews from France during World War II. Never mind that Vichy crimes against Algerian Jews occurred in Algeria and their lives in Algeria cannot be retroactively transported to France.

Accepting these deals, your report represents itself as unbiased history, dutifully advancing the state’s mission. But this is exactly the problem. There is nothing solemn about engaging with imperial crimes. Empire invented the past and charged archivists and historians to turn its crimes into objects of unbiased historical inquiry. It even employs its victims to say that no crime was perpetrated against them. To resist these imperial erasures, one must not be unbiased: we must, in particular, demand that history be written by victims of these crimes. Only those among them who refuse to forget, who can speak from that vantage, are in a position to undo the work of empire and to further the cause of what I call unlearning imperialism. No historian should be allowed to perpetrate such major omissions. Nor should you assume victims of colonial crimes and their descendants consent to these deals whose meaning was and continue to be the liquidation of their diverse world. 

Instead of serving this imperial project, your report could have offered an uncompromising repertoire of French crimes committed against Algerians and of colonial crimes against humanity. It could have sketched a cartography of the connections between these crimes and the imperial institutions—police, prisons, racial capitalism, archives, museums, citizenship, and more—that enabled them and continue to facilitate their ongoing consequences in France, in particular toward Algerians, targeted at once by state Islamophobia and antisemitism. If you had replied to this invitation, asserting your position as an Arab-Jew,  victim of the French colonization of Algeria, you would have also asked to co-author it the report with a Muslim French Algerian. That would have been an opportunity to depict a fuller picture of imperial crimes and their lingering consequences, and to reverse the fifth exile of the Jews—their alienation from Arabs and Muslims in the new world they found themselves sharing outside of their homeland, in France.

With these gestures, even an official report could have provided our descendants with resources to continue the work of abolishing imperialism. Without them, your report only serves to entrench it.

Ariella Aïsha Azoulay

Pawtucket, February 3rd, 2021

This text was originally published by Boston Review.

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