The Merchants of Oran
A Jewish Port at the Dawn of Empire
Joshua Schreier



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.1 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.”2 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.3

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.”4 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.5 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.6

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.7 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.8

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 republic to transform and uplift the debased.9 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.10 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.11

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.12 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.13 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.14 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.

The second central argument of this book is that the limits of the term community emerge when one considers the case of Jews in early-nineteenth-century Oran. For scholars of Jewish history, community is an almost inevitable term. It constitutes a justification for undertaking Jewish history by offering a rationale for generalization and simultaneously opens up a line of questioning that interests us. Were Jews saddled with restrictions or subject to persecution? Or, conversely, were they free to pursue commerce, practice their faith, or exercise a measure of communal autonomy? Regardless of the answers to these questions, reified notions of Jewish community also suggest collective power or powerlessness, which is a schema into which Oran’s complicated precolonial and early colonial historical reality does not exactly fit.

So, to what extent did this remarkable class of North African merchants serve as notables of a well-defined Jewish community? As in neighboring Morocco, Jews in Algeria were a diverse group of people.15 They lived under different circumstances, had different origins, and even more important, had different narratives of their origins. Also, as in Morocco, the notion of a collectivity of “Algerian Jews” would crystalize only over the course of the colonial period. Even on a local level, such as in the city of Oran, the recent arrival of immigrant Jews to that port, their diverse provenance, their high proportion relative to Oran’s overall population, and the fierce dissonance between different individuals and groups within that community all shed light on the limited utility of the term.16 Interrogating the value of community as a descriptor of Oran’s Jews is all the more important given that French colonial administrators adopted a blanket use of the term indigenous to describe the city’s Jews as a group. In the interest of avoiding the crude conceptual errors of early colonialism, a more nuanced understanding is necessary.

Oran’s Jews were a diverse lot. They included Moroccan and Gibraltarian merchants of Lasry’s stature but also midlevel purveyors of goods imported or brought in from the interior and intermediaries with nomadic traders who brought their goods to the port. Other Jews purchased goods off the boats to sell in the city’s shops. Among Oran’s artisans, Jews served as tailors, embroiderers, tinsmiths, coppersmiths, watchmakers, and shoemakers. Rabbis may have earned a living by working at an elite Jew’s private synagogue or, if circumstances demanded, giving lessons to local children.17 As for Oran’s Jewish elite, they may have lived better than other denizens of the city, but they did not live in isolation from them. For example, feuding members of the elite often saw their private synagogues become centers of social life, further dividing the Jewish population. Well into the colonial period, French officials complained of the intra-Jewish schisms manifest in part through Jews’ gravitation toward different places of worship.18

Well into the colonial period, distinctions also endured between people of different origins. According to one historian, descendants of the early arrivals from Tlemcen, Mascara, Mostaganem, and Nedroma were conscious of being “native” to Oran, in contrast to Jews who arrived in subsequent years. These included people from Algiers, the villages of the Moroccan Rif such as Oujda or Debdou, and Saharan oases such as Figuig and Tafilalet.19 The Jews in Oran enjoyed different economic circumstances, claimed different origins, were protected by different local and foreign powers, and were divided by fierce, even lethal, commercial rivalries.

By exploring how Lasry and other Jews struggled with each other and with local authorities, it becomes clear that it was the French who created the singular community they later boasted of (or alternatively, regretted) having emancipated. This creation was a process. Colonization strove to reduce a diverse array of Jewish people into an easily identifiable actor in a very French drama, at once eternal victims of religious intolerance and eternally indebted to their colonial saviors. The community of Israélites indigènes did not form a preexisting and unified social group; rather, it was a product of the dynamics of French imperial expansion.

Jews in Oran may have been a discordant lot, but their presence was deeply rooted and significant to the economic and social fabric of Oran. As such, it speaks against an official and popular tendency to avoid talking about, or simply to forget, Algeria’s Jewish past.20 Transformations leading up to, during, and following the Algerian War of Independence, of course, were central to this forgetting, as was the emergence of the Israel-Palestine conflict.21 As hard as it is to imagine today, given the ethnopolitical topography of the region and given that attitudes toward Jews (and about Muslim-Jewish relations) have, over the past century, been mediated by nationalist narratives which have painted Jews as separate, “inauthentic,” untrustworthy, or unwelcome compatriots, they were once an indelible component of the Islamic Arabo-Berber social fabric of North Africa.22 In an era of religiously informed nationalism in North Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, it is not immaterial to recall that Lasry dealt closely with Muslims and Christians, sought rulings from Muslim courts when it suited him, owned significant tracts of land, and possessed strength and influence. This is all the more important to remember today, half a century or so after the departure of most of Algeria’s Jews; many younger Algerians have only a vague recollection of Judaism’s deep roots there.

Lasry’s life also complicates a narrative of Jewish weakness in North Africa that first became polemicized and mobilized as a political issue in France during his lifetime. This development arguably did not gather steam until a great deal of ink was spilled regarding the Jewish victims of the Damascus blood libel of 1840 (when Lasry was in his mid-40s); an incident which began when Capuchin monks in Damascus accused Jews of killing two members of their order to use their blood for Passover rituals. This new interest among French liberals in protecting Jews of the Mediterranean basin reached milestones with the founding of the Franco-Jewish philanthropy known as the Alliance Israélite Universelle in 1860 and shared republican themes with the Crémieux Decree in 1870, which granted French citizenship to Algeria’s Jews.23 In the following decades this particularly French narrative dovetailed with a broader, international discourse of Jewish powerlessness. In the face of this, it has been argued, both critics and supporters of Zionism accepted a view of Jewish outsiderness (and political impotence) before the rise of the State of Israel.24

The problem is that in North Africa, as in Europe, Jewish history “cannot be divided into distinct periods of power and powerlessness.”25 Even before the massive dislocations of the twentieth century, Lasry’s wealth and political savvy present a stark counterpoint to both colonial-era discourses and a good deal of subsequent scholarship that hardly allowed for Jews to have power, thrive, or even truly belong in an Arab or Islamic environment in the postmedieval period.26 Lasry helps us imagine other potential North African modernities in an Islamic world that is frequently, if unhelpfully, cast as eternally hostile to religious difference.27

The third contribution of this study is that it illuminates the underexplored dynamism of North Africa on the eve of conquest. Even as it redefines the place of Jews in precolonial and early colonial Algeria, the story of Jacob Lasry’s Oran also sheds new light on the new commercial energy of a small North African city in the 1820s. European interest in the societies of North Africa, or “Barbary,” as they often referred to it disparagingly, evolved over time, but decadence, corsair activity, and slavery remained powerful concepts shaping European thought about these places.28 In this study of Lasry’s Oran I offer a different perspective. The city hosted ships from around the western Mediterranean, and access to the city was considered vital to the British colonial office, which kept a vice-consulate there.29 Oran was conveniently close to the resource-poor British colony of Gibraltar and, under loose Ottoman rule, was friendly to its commercial development. Jews and Muslims settled in Oran, which was still a frontier of sorts, to take part in the business of exporting Algerian grain and cattle to the British garrison. At the dawn of colonialism, Oran was not a world apart from the currents of Mediterranean and European commerce but was rather a small, lively port situated within these flows of people and goods.

The story of men such as Lasry also shows that despite France’s obvious military superiority, its forces still relied on local talent to make their way in Algeria. In other words, they did not have a monopoly on modern forms of knowledge during the conquest.30 Lasry’s previous work in commerce and real estate investment prepared him well to cater to the needs of Algeria’s new masters, by offering translation, negotiating, and financing services. In addition to the lack of discipline, poor planning, weak supply chains, flagging morale, and unimaginable sadism that have been recognized as prominent characteristics of France’s Army of Africa, we must also add the desperate need of local experts for guidance and financial help.31 Men such as Lasry, Joseph Cabessa, Judah Sebbah, and Mordecai Amar continued to do business during the conquest, and archival trails of their activities remain: disputed payments to governors, defaulted loans, real estate investments, and forays into consulting for the military. Others, including Solomon Sarfati and Abraham Kanoui, appear as figures in the early colonial administration. All this serves to illuminate the idiosyncrasies of the French invasion. Sorting through the messiness of the conquest, France and its local proxies relied on local people to advise and fund their rule. Through these men’s eyes, we witness French generals seeking North African assistance in their attempts to manage and further the conquest. Thus well before Lasry represented France as president of the consistory of Oran, he had a hand in the shaping of colonialism. Rather than seeing this as loyalty to the French or disloyalty to the (quickly toppled) bey of Oran, it is more properly seen as evidence of Lasry having and maintaining a form of power that others lacked.

These stories, therefore, expose some fluidity between precolonial and colonial periods and the multipolarity of the actual conquest.32 With the arrival of the French, Jewish merchants continued to export cattle and grain from Oran to Gibraltar, and their expertise and British connections in this trade allowed them to put together deals that financed the French campaign on the eastern Algerian city of Constantine. The British, concerned about French intentions in Algeria, advocated for the Jewish merchants with whom they had worked, hoping to maintain British access to local markets. Given British power in the Mediterranean in general and in the Algerian arena more specifically, French officers had to respond to these men. Because Jews worked, actively, to grease the wheels of commercial relations in precolonial, early colonial, and colonial North Africa, these merchants’ experiences disrupt the notion that colonial rule augured a quick and comprehensive end to the interlinked, multipolar Mediterranean world that preceded it. Instead, Lasry’s history blurs slightly the periodization of the precolonial and colonial eras and fragments the unipolar view of France’s entrance into the North African arena that occludes other Mediterranean and European actors.

My fourth objective is to uncover the dynamically individualized experience of colonial occupation. This argument has two components—one concerning race and the other class. Lasry and his contemporaries offer a view that complicates the early colony’s nascent racial hierarchy. Over the first decades of the conquest, French law generally used a subject’s religion to assign him or her a “personal status.”33 This status helped determine the subject’s family and inheritance laws, access to citizenship, and several other marks of privilege. Even though Algerian Jews eventually received French citizenship in 1870 and even though the “Jewish” personal status was (besides some important exceptions in the Sahara) abandoned in Algeria, the category of “Jew,” like “Muslim,” remained racialized.34 In both cases the status category generally rendered someone “indigenous” in the French understanding. Lasry’s ability to transform himself from a Moroccan Jewish merchant into a French colonial notable several decades before the Crémieux Decree is therefore worthy of note. It demonstrates how social class sometimes prevailed over religious or racial status in the assignment of indigenousness. This is important to recall in the ideological wake of some classic works that, though revolutionary in their insights into the nature of colonialism, have left us with an occasionally schematic binary view in which the only visible categories are colonized and colonizer.35 If Algerian Jews already presented a liminal category, people such as Jacob Lasry and, as we shall see, Solomon Sarfati created more wrinkles in the colonizer/colonized divide. Notably, their wealth and position allowed them—well before the Crémieux Decree—to transcend the emergent taxonomy of races devised by French human scientists and the legally codified colonial hierarchy.36 Though native to North Africa, these men remained towering figures as Oran transitioned from the rule of the Regency of Algiers to that of France.

Lasry’s successful evolution from a North African merchant into a colonial “civilizer” on the one hand and the ghastly fate of so many Algerians at the hands of the French on the other put into relief the importance of economic status in considering how North Africans experienced the conquest. As noted, the French conquest of Algeria was unfathomably violent.37 In addition to the number of those killed was the evolution, in one historian’s terms, of a particular French language of violence whereby gruesome killings were easily explained as a necessary adaptation to “African” behaviors. Indeed, the new language helped demarcate the “essential barbarism and difference” of this theater of war.38 Jacob Lasry, though bearing the brunt of dehumanizing anti-Semitic diatribes spewed by officers and ministers, avoided serious harm. His ability to adapt and thrive amid the violent campaigns in the first decades of conquest is in itself a testament to privilege. Despite scholars’ justifiable focus on religious or racial categories in colonial processes, Lasry’s fate probably points less to French indulgence toward Jews (many of whom suffered greatly during the conquest) than to the influence of social class in determining people’s fate.

Fifth and last, by presenting some of the disputed deals and sordid dramas in which Lasry was involved, I elaborate on the paradoxes of France’s colonial civilizing mission mentioned at the beginning of this Introduction. Certainly, there was no universally accepted doctrine of the civilizing mission, and various parties offered their own perspectives on the underlying purpose and meaning of France’s empire—including whether other races could be successfully civilized in the first place—until its demise.39 Yet, in the spectrum of opinions as to whether France’s civilization was fundamentally Enlightened, Republican, Catholic, or otherwise, few questioned that the “civilization” as it existed in Algeria under the French was imported. Certainly, it was based on principles rooted in Enlightenment-era discussions that took place in Europe, but like so many ideas, they traveled and evolved such that assigning an essential geographic or, worse, national, identity to their subsequent incarnations is misleading. Furthermore, civilization was far more a claim to authority than a consistently defined or cultivated set of beliefs and behaviors. A clear expression of this is the fact that in 1854 the French administration chose to entrust the project of French civilization in Algeria to the wealthy, Moroccan-born, Arabic- and Spanish-speaking Jacob Lasry, a British protected subject whose first visits to France were probably undertaken when he was already a middle-aged adult.

Reconstructing a brief biography of Hayyim Yisra’el Rafa’el Ya’akov al-‘Asri (1793–1869), or Jacob Lasry as he came to be known in French Algeria, is destabilizing, for it challenges core inherited narratives about the somber and immobile lives of Jews living in Algeria on the eve of France’s 1830 landing at Sidi Ferruch.

Lasry was born into a Jewish family in Morocco at the end of the eighteenth century.40 As a young man, he traveled north to join the small but dynamic community of Moroccan Jewish merchants installed in Britain’s garrison of Gibraltar.41 The population of Gibraltar, barely 6 square kilometers of British territory perched on a southern outcrop of the Iberian Peninsula, was small when he arrived, probably 15,000 civilians and soldiers. The garrison’s Jews, mainly Moroccan-born merchants and their offspring who helped provision the colony with goods from Morocco and the Ottoman Regency of Algiers, was proportionately important and would increase to more than 1,500 in coming decades.42 Gibraltar’s location at the mouth of the Mediterranean and its close proximity to rival powers’ naval ports rendered it strategically vital to the growing British Empire, a fact that would lead it to be declared a crown colony in 1830.

Through connections in Gibraltar, 14 kilometers across the eponymous strait from his native Morocco, Jacob Lasry gained British protection. Although it would be difficult to confirm, this may well have been facilitated by the family of his first wife, Rica (Rivka) Bergel (1809–1847), whom Lasry married in 1823.43 Rica was a Gibraltar native and the daughter of a wealthy local shipbuilder. Soon after the wedding, Lasry and his then-small family sailed eastward over the Alboran Sea, the westernmost section of the Mediterranean, to pursue expanding business opportunities in Oran, which had recently been captured from the Spanish by the Ottoman Regency of Algiers. The city, which had been in decline for much of the eighteenth century, became a small but growing port in the dey of Algiers’ western territory.

Even when Lasry made the trip in the 1820s, the journey between Gibraltar and Oran was not very long. Assuming that he sailed on one of the brigs that frequented western Mediterranean ports in the 1820s (steamships were still rare), the trip could have been completed in a day or two. The distance between the two ports is 428 kilometers (266 miles), primarily to the east. As I explore in Chapter 1, the tight links between Oran, its interior, and the Iberian Peninsula were hardly new in the early nineteenth century; we cannot properly imagine Oran’s existence outside its placement and role in the evolving web of western Mediterranean commerce. During most of the year, currents and common winds along the north coast of Africa help to push east-bound ships from Gibraltar.44

In the 1820s Oran’s built environment was still rough around the edges, but overall it was probably a pleasant town. Its architecture was shaped by its previous Spanish inhabitants, whose king had only surrendered their presidio in 1792. Oran possessed a number of broad, straight streets and was built on several levels: an upper section built on the surrounding hills and a lower part near the port. A stream, the Ras al-‘Ayin, bounded by a ravine divided the upper town into two sections, which were joined by an older, Spanish-built bridge. The stream not only irrigated the surrounding land and provided fresh water to the inhabitants but also was strong enough to power several grain mills. The ravine, meanwhile, was rendered all the more inviting by its gardens, extending beyond the town’s walls, beautifying the site, and enriching the inhabitants’ diets. Oran’s hinterland was semi-arid, but enough rain fell in the winter months to support cattle and sheep husbandry and the cultivation of cereals. The town was unquestionably provincial, and the landscape still bore testimony to the devastating earthquake of 1790. But by most accounts, Lasry’s new home had a certain charm.

FIGURE 1. The bay of Oran in the 1840s. From the collection “Vues d’Oran prises au daguerréotype.” Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (image 94.R.3).

It was, however, on the eve of a cataclysm. Lasry had been settled for only a few years when French troops occupied Oran at the beginning of 1831, about six months into their decades-long and obscenely violent conquest of Algeria. Unsurprisingly, the conquest had important consequences for a merchant like Lasry: It disrupted the trade networks, which stretched from the western Algerian interior to other Mediterranean ports such as Tétouan, Genoa, and especially Gibraltar, on which he depended for his livelihood. It also opened the city to a flood of European immigrants, who helped inaugurate a new, racialized social hierarchy.

Lasry did, however, adapt, and his peculiar biography illuminates how the precolonial power of the Jewish merchants of Oran profoundly influenced the early colonial order. Yet his biography also suggests how this wider Mediterranean history of Oran’s Jewish merchants was occluded in subsequent historical narratives centered on the French Empire and its claims to have emancipated Algerian Jews. Born a subject of Morocco, Lasry lived much of his life under British protection. His wealth, connections, and language skills led him to work and make deals with conquering French generals in the 1830s. His investments in real estate, which predated the conquest, expanded under the French, and he continued exporting under the new government. Lasry married a much younger, probably Moroccan-Gibraltarian, second wife, Semha Cabessa (1821–?), in the French city of Aix-en-Provence but spent most of his adult life in Oran, where he joined the Chamber of Commerce and became a French citizen and eventually the president of the consistoire israélite de la province d’Oran. Barely a year before the newborn French Third Republic emancipated Algeria’s Jews en masse—a politically symbolic nod to the first French Republic’s emancipation of Jews in 1790 and 1791—Lasry died a Frenchman and an emissary of French civilization.

The obscuring of Oran’s pre- (or extra-) colonial history in the shadow of the French Empire is understandable given the archival record. When looking at Jacob Lasry, for example, through the lens of the French civil government, the picture that emerges is one of a wealthy and well-connected French colonial notable. Lasry became one of the largest property owners in Oran, was called on to help finance major urban improvements, was a member of the city’s municipal council and its Chamber of Commerce, and donated land to the consistory of Oran. Furthermore, about a decade after the French occupation, he traveled to France, was married there, and founded a synagogue in Oran, through which he underwrote Torah study and charitable works. He spent a considerable amount of time in France, and his official correspondence expresses a desire to help spread reason and progress. Even early military records, such as the ones in which generals lambasted the morality of his business practices, point clearly to Lasry’s French affiliations. At some level, Lasry personified the French civilizing mission: a Gallicized Algerian Jew who would dedicate his later years to the spread of French culture among the putatively decadent Jewish communities of Islamic North Africa.

Yet, as we broaden and deepen our examination, from French état civil records, registers of Gibraltar’s Jewish community, and Gibraltar’s government archives to the records of the British Foreign Office, family records held in Jerusalem, and even rabbinic literature, we see that Lasry’s story is not just a story about the French Empire. He may have become French in a land that, during his lifetime, became French, but as we will see, he was a product of a corner of the Mediterranean world. And he was not alone; networks connected Oran to other cities, shaping the life stories and intellectual orientations of other Jewish notables and rabbis in western Algeria over the course of the nineteenth century.45 Maintaining this Mediterranean perspective as we consider Lasry’s story is important, because it shows how Jews in Oran and elsewhere were part of a vibrant economy and intellectual world before and apart from the French colonial state. This differs from an all too common paradigm that explores the history of North African Jews (and their Muslim neighbors) largely in the context of French imperial laws and practices. Seeing Lasry in his wider Mediterranean world helpfully widens the frame of our story beyond France.

Jacob Lasry was born in 1793 to Eliahu Lasry and Preciada Zaken in either Rabat or Tétouan, Morocco—the état civil records are not consistent.46 There is some evidence that he was born in Rabat but as a young person moved to the northern, Spanish-influenced Moroccan town of Tétouan, which sits on the Mediterranean coast. Commercial and migratory links between Rabat and Oran were far weaker than those between Oran and the Moroccan north, and Lasry’s Arabic-derived last name (from al-‘Asry) cannot be easily localized.47 Furthermore, not only did Rabat (and the adjacent city of Salé) have a significant Jewish community and a port, but also several migrations from there had fed the Jewish community of Gibraltar in the past.48

Regardless of Lasry’s actual place of birth, Tétouan clearly had an important influence on his life. Possessing one of the more important ports on Morocco’s Mediterranean coast, Tétouan lies just over 40 kilometers from the Strait of Gibraltar. It had a large Western Judeo-Spanish- (Haketia-) speaking Jewish community that fed the communities of Gibraltar and the towns of western Algeria, such as Tlemcen and Oran, well into the middle of the nineteenth century.49 Isaac Lasry (1808–1851), Jacob’s brother and sometime business partner, is also mentioned in at least one record as being born in Tétouan.50 Furthermore, certain aspects of Lasry’s life suggest involvement in the communities of the north, including the facts that he founded a Moroccan Sephardic-rite synagogue in Oran in 1843 and later established a charitable fund to help Jewish refugees from Tétouan.

Meanwhile, though French papers frequently refer to Lasry as a “Gibraltar Jew,” his links to and status in the territory are not entirely clear. As noted, in 1823 Lasry married his first wife, Rica Bergel, a member of a wealthy local merchant family, in Gibraltar, where their names appear on the Jewish community register.51 By 1829, two years before the French occupied Oran, Lasry applied for a Gibraltar passport to travel to Oran.52 Confusingly, however, when he applied for a Gibraltar passport, the clerk wrote down his nationality as “inhabitant of Oran,” a phrase that simultaneously avoids actually mentioning his nationality and raises other questions. What was his status at the time, and if not simply Moroccan, how long had he possessed his current status? Even allowing for the fact that possessing a given country’s passport in the 1820s was not as tightly linked to citizenship as it is now, why was Lasry deemed worthy of the passport in the first place?53 Given that others who applied for Gibraltar passports at the same time were nearly all listed as “natives of Gibraltar” or “British subjects,” Lasry’s record is unusual if not unique. Further complicating the case, the official register of the government of Gibraltar currently has no record of him ever being a resident of the garrison.54 Of course, Jews and others could have passed years in Gibraltar without official permission to do so. Although it is not far-fetched to assume that his wealth and value to the garrison brought him official British protection and a passport, we are left wondering how long Lasry stayed in Gibraltar, exactly why he was granted the passport, and whether he ever officially became a British subject.

The timing of Lasry’s passport is auspicious—or more likely, the result of a specific need. In October 1828, shortly before he applied for the Gibraltar passport, Lasry sought British consular help in response to the bey’s seizure of a shipment of cattle hides from Oran headed for Morocco.55 In the record of this event the vice-consul lists Lasry unambiguously as a “British Subject.” Lasry’s British protection also served him when the French military authorities were obstructing his business several years later, in 1831. It would be fair to guess that by the end of the 1820s, Jacob Lasry was more or less permanently settled in Oran as a British protected subject and, as we will see, probably enjoyed a profitable relationship with Nathaniel Welsford, the British vice-consul in that city.

Mapping Lasry’s path from Moroccan merchant to British subject to (eventually) French colonial notable onto larger political and demographic trends highlights the importance of viewing his story, those of his fellow North African Jewish merchants, and that of Oran through a wider optic than that contained within the French imperial sphere. Since the late eighteenth century, Morocco had been pushing against increasing Spanish influence by encouraging maritime trade with Britain through Gibraltar.56 Meanwhile, the British had come to rely on Morocco and western Algeria to supply the garrison, partly because of the paucity of resources in Gibraltar and Spain’s refusal to accept British claims to it (a state of affairs that persists to the present day). This hostility led to a number of notable sieges, including those of 1704 and 1727 and the Great Siege of 1779–1783. Jews, as notable players in Morocco’s own merchant economy, were key to the networks that supplied Gibraltar in the face of Spain’s efforts to remove the British garrison.57 In Lasry’s time 27 percent of Gibraltar’s wholesale dealers—those most likely to be involved in international commerce—were Moroccan or Moroccan-descended Jews, and as early as 1814 most of these traders were native-born Gibraltarians.58 Because Lasry was someone who exported agricultural products from Oran to Gibraltar, we can imagine how the authorities in Gibraltar might find it advantageous to offer him protection. He was not born in Gibraltar, nor is there conclusive evidence that Lasry spent a substantial amount of time there. Yet it would be impossible to imagine his life unfolding the way it did without the influence that Gibraltar had in the movement of goods and people around the western Mediterranean at the time.

The French occupation of Algeria in 1830 disrupted local trade networks and caused widespread chaos, but it did not erase the need for goods in Gibraltar. Accordingly, Lasry managed to adapt to and prosper in the new environment despite significant initial setbacks. In the early 1830s he was actually at the center of a trade dispute that pitted him and his English protectors against the country’s new occupiers. The outcome was not in his favor; Lasry maintained for years that he had lost significant sums because of disruptive French measures. Nevertheless, within a couple of years, Lasry became a confidante to the French general Bertrand Clauzel, a man who would serve at least for a short time as the highest ranking French military officer in Africa. Perhaps hoping for compensation for previous losses, Lasry helped General Clauzel make arrangements to secure “contributions” from the people of Tlemcen, in Algeria’s far west, and even loaned money to General Yusuf, France’s much celebrated (and also much maligned) “indigenous” military commander (and Tunisian renegade). As Oran began its growth from a small town into a significant city, Lasry, as a significant property owner, threw in his lot with the city and its new masters. But his ability to adapt to the French conquest and, by extension, his utility to the French officers who employed him were the direct result of his background in regional circuits of commerce.

In the years that followed, Lasry’s family grew, and as it did, it naturally became interwoven in the story of France. Lasry had eight children with two women over the next several decades.59 Rachel and Fadmossa were born to his first wife Rica; the first in Gibraltar and the second, about whom we know very little, probably in Oran. Lasry married Semha Cabessa, his second wife, in a purely religious ceremony in France in 1843. His daughter Estelle (Esther) Louise was born in the eighth arrondissement of Paris in 1846, and the twins Sarah and Elie were born in Aix-en-Provence the following year. Semha, perhaps accompanied by Lasry, was back in Oran for the births of their remaining children, Faduena, Meriem, and Dona, all of whom arrived relatively late in Jacob’s life, during the late 1850s and early 1860s. At about the same time, the facts that Rica, Lasry’s first wife, died in 1847 and that his marriage to Semha occurred (if a correction in Aix-en-Provence’s état civil records is to be believed) several years before, in 1843, during a period when France did not permit divorce, point to a certain relativism regarding Lasry’s professed devotion to France’s civilization, especially as expressed in its family laws.60 Although it is possible that Lasry had been divorced according to Jewish law, his second marriage was almost certainly polygamous, reflecting family practices far more socially and legally acceptable in North Africa than in Europe. I return to the implications of Lasry’s marital practices in the conclusion to this volume.

By the mid-1840s Jacob Lasry was an established figure in French colonial Oran. In 1843 he established a private synagogue in Oran that was intended to cater to what he called the European Sephardim in Oran.61 Given the near absence of European-born Jews in Oran at the time, it is safe to assume that the synagogue was actually meant for fellow Jews of northern Morocco—the Spanish- or Haketia-speaking Jews from Tétouan, who were perhaps also involved in the Gibraltar trade. The city’s municipal and property records and data from the Chamber of Commerce attest to Lasry’s acquisition of property and continued work in the export business. He was elected to the Municipal Council in 1848 and served there until 1853.62 For a man who had been raised in Morocco, probably spoke a variant of Spanish, carried a British Gibraltarian passport, and tussled with French generals with the backing of the British vice-consul, Lasry was also becoming French. Not only was he married in Aix-en-Provence, but in 1853 he also chose to become a French citizen.63 As recalled in the opening lines of this Introduction, he was lauded in the metropolitan press for his charity and support for progress. His family, meanwhile, became part of what one might be tempted to call Oran’s Jewish royalty. In 1863 Lasry’s his daughter Estelle Louise married Shimon al-Kanoui (shortened to Kanoui), the son of the wealthy Jewish merchant and notable Abraham al-Kanoui. Both Abraham and his son Shimon served at various times as presidents of the consistory of Oran. When Lasry died, according to a death notice in 1869, his funeral was attended not only by many Jews but also by a great number of the city’s non-Jewish elite.64

At the same time, Lasry’s efforts in favor of his Beit ha-Knesset Européen Lasry, the official name of his synagogue (more commonly referred to as the Synagogue Lasry), serve as an optic into the enduring rivalries in colonial Oran’s diverse Jewish population. The synagogue, whose name is an interesting mélange of Hebrew and French (though its charter was submitted to authorities in French and Spanish), was established several years before “civilizing” the Jews of Algeria became an official policy of the French administration. But Lasry and his supporters quickly redefined the synagogue as his patriotic contribution to the colonial administration’s new effort to attach a motley local collection of people, newly baptized as indigenous Jews, to France. This was despite the fact that the consistory was charged with regulating or closing Oran’s privately owned synagogues, which, some argued, included Lasry’s.65 Because Lasry was at the same time an insider to the consistory, acrimonious discussions erupted over how many Jewish rites existed, exposing the fissures in the French colonial policy that defined Jews and other diverse collections of people with different histories and perspectives as simply indigenous.

Lasry’s synagogue, then, could be seen as one side of his wider Mediterranean identity, despite his place in French colonial notability and outward allegiance to France’s “civilization.” For example, more than a decade after he founded his synagogue, Lasry continued to publicly advocate the particularities of his Moroccan rites and his social commitment to Tétouan’s Jews. Lasry was making donations to London’s Sephardic Sha’ar HaShamayim (Bevis Marks) synagogue in 1859, well after he began officially working for the French colonial administration as president of Oran’s Jewish consistory.66 In the 1860s Lasry advocated for Abraham Ankawa, an embattled Moroccan rabbi installed in Oran, by publishing endorsements from rabbis in Tunis and Jerusalem.67 Regardless of the consistories’ official French rabbis, Lasry insisted that the decisions from Tunis and Jerusalem remained authoritative for Oran’s Jews.68 A relative of his, Samuel Lasry, served as the chief rabbi of Gibraltar from 1870 to 1887.69 Lasry, despite a trajectory that brought him to the heart of French Oran’s civic life and economy, his eventual French citizenship, and his close work with French generals, despite even his emergence as a public face of the French civilizing mission, could be said to be the product of Mediterranean currents of migration and trade more than of France’s colonial project. And if we pan out to look at his adoptive city with a long-term view, one that emphasizes its consistent reliance over the centuries on its mercantile links with a revolving cast of Mediterranean ports, Lasry could be said to fit right in.

The six chapters of this book are organized chronologically and hew roughly to the nested arguments laid out in this Introduction. Beginning with Oran’s history well before Lasry’s birth, in Chapter 1 I set the stage for the discussion of the episodes in Lasry’s life. I emphasize the city’s reliance on its sea links over a longue durée, showing how Oran was not just North African but a product of the western Mediterranean. In other words, Oran was always an expression of its integration into larger networks and the fluctuating ability of its merchants to export and import goods. As such, I demonstrate how, if Gibraltar’s particular importance to Lasry’s Oran was a modern development, the city had long been intimately linked to the Iberian Peninsula. At the same time, in the centuries leading up to Oran’s second Ottoman conquest in 1792, the city had become increasingly isolated, a fact showing all the more clearly how important Oran’s integration into commercial networks had always been. In contrast, for those who inhabited the region in the late medieval period, the distance between Europe and Africa was short.

Chapter 2 focuses on the city that attracted Lasry and his merchant milieu in the decade leading up to the French occupation of Oran in 1831. I show that after the Ottoman conquest of the city from the Spanish in 1792, Jews and Muslims were invited back into Oran with important consequences. No longer a presidio burdened by hostile relations with the interior, the city opened to its North African hinterland and, in so doing, opened the Iberian Peninsula to products shipped from Oran. The city’s commercial importance grew because of efforts by the Regency of Algiers to expand the commercial importance of both Algiers and Oran. Not only did inhabitants of nearby Tlemcen, Mascara, Milianah, and Médéa settle in the town, but also Jews from further afield—Morocco and Gibraltar—came to take advantage of an increasingly active port. It is here that we briefly encounter Jacob Lasry once again, as an exporter of hides from Oran, drawing on the help of the local British vice-consul. I illustrate the commercial and social currents that attracted a Moroccan-Gibraltarian Jew such as Lasry, with roots in far larger cities, to what was still a small but remarkably Jewish city.

In Chapter 3 I bring Lasry to center stage. During the first several years of the French conquest, Jacob Lasry attempted, with mixed results, to pursue his export business. I use these efforts to emphasize how Oran had clearly already become the site of lively trade but also to show how France’s early rule in the Maghreb interrupted commerce and spread confusion and violence to Oran. By following Lasry’s prolonged efforts to recuperate a lost investment in tiskeras (export permits), I show how North African Jewish merchants like Lasry were hardly hapless observers of the French conquest. Rather, the wealth, acumen, and consular backing of Jewish businessmen such as Lasry allowed them not only to continue operating in the upper echelons of Oran’s commercial life but also to evade an inferior ethnoreligious category in the taxonomy that would structure French colonial rule and later scholarship on it.70 Meanwhile, merchants like Lasry were part of a dynamic western Mediterranean economy in which Britain was deeply involved. I demonstrate that despite colonialism’s frequent association with economic modernity, the North Africa that France encountered in 1830–1831 was already part of an interconnected Mediterranean world, and its merchants often had information and skills that the new French arrivals lacked. As much as colonialism transformed North Africa, the generals in charge also had to bend to local figures and institutions.

Building on the previous chapter, in Chapter 4 I look at several contemporaries of Jacob Lasry. The stories of these other merchants complicate previous narrations of the conquest as the beginning of a total and immediate transformation of Algeria’s preconquest reality into the unmitigated benefit of the putatively oppressed Jews of Algeria. In contrast, in this chapter I provide a personal view of the first years of conquest through the stories of local merchants, revealing not only how the conquest caused problems for Jewish merchants but also how their commercial importance and adaptive strategies forced the French to adjust their policies. Furthermore, I show how these merchants maintained serious, even lethal, rivalries with each other. Rather than seeing these feuds as an example of the cultural immaturity of Algerian Jews, as French colonial observers did, I see them as a product of the longer and geographically far-reaching history of Oran’s commercial life, or in other words, as a nasty side effect of Oran’s recent growth and dynamism.

Chapter 5 moves ahead several years, when the French occupation was still young, to track the process by which Lasry assumed a decidedly more French personality. In this chapter I do not examine psychological or political process so much as events that brought Lasry into partnership with the French military and by extension rendered him a participant in the construction of French Algeria. The first episode I examine is the expedition to Tlemcen, in which Lasry played a role as an intermediary for General Bertrand Clauzel. The second episode involves the first French campaign to take Ahmed Bey’s Constantine, during which Lasry lent a great deal of money to the commanding officer Yusuf, a Tunisian Muslim who became commander of the irregular French cavalry forces known as the sipahis. These two episodes are important because they show how military campaigns relied on local merchants of the former Regency of Algiers, a fact that complicates the narrative of a modern French army taking over a country populated primarily by a traditional, and ultimately primitive, native population. Instead, it illuminates how France’s underfunded and ill-supplied conquest of Algeria depended on local experts possessed of local knowledge. The French relied on these North Africans, whether a businessman like Lasry or a renegade commander like Yusuf, to organize, underwrite, and carry out their exploits.

The last chapter pans out again from Jacob Lasry’s individual experience to a wider shot of the city of Oran—specifically, Jewish Oran—in the 1840s. Drawing on local property records, official correspondence of the consistory, minutes of Municipal Council meetings, rabbinic literature, and published sources of the period, I show that France’s civilizing mission was in significant ways dependent on, if not outright sponsored by, established and wealthy North African Jewish merchants and property holders. This contrasts with the unquestioned assumption in popular and academic renderings that the French brought in resources to enlighten and ultimately emancipate an isolated, poor, and oppressed Jewish community. Also, building on the discussion of rivalries in Chapter 4, I look at how the French civilizing mission itself helped fashion the community that was its supposed beneficiary. Indeed, the dynamics of French imperial expansion helped to create the Israélite indigène out of a diverse and newly arrived Jewish population.

Despite Oran’s rich Jewish legacy, the city lost almost its entire Jewish population in the span of several years, starting in 1961. In the Conclusion I leave the reader with some thoughts about what Lasry’s experience tells us about the undoing of Jewish life in North Africa in the recent past. Currently, in the shadow of North Africa’s undemocratic regimes and hostility between so many Jews and Muslims, the departure of Jews from the Arab world appears almost inevitable: If Jews were in North Africa in the first place, it was only because something more acceptable was not available. Recently, this sort of narrative has been extended to France and Europe more broadly, with significant attention devoted to speculations that Jews’ departure from the continent, with its growing Muslim population (frequently associated with contemporary anti-Semitism), may be inevitable.71 The story I tell in this book, of powerful Jews who made their homes across significant swaths of the Mediterranean and who were simultaneously central to the history of modern North African cities, challenges these perceptions and effectively reopens a discussion about what profound social cleavages emerged during colonization and decolonization that erased, in so many of our imaginations, the very possibility of Jacob Lasry’s world. Paradoxically, Lasry’s oft-criticized pursuit of wealth, his flexible loyalty and morality, and his efforts to secure status might convey a message of possibility: even regions that are dismissed in our historical moment for their hostility to cosmopolitan societies have in the past and might again host a dynamic diversity.


1. On the ideology and practice of regeneration in France, see Berkowitz, Shaping of Jewish Identity); Birnbaum, L’aigle et la synagogue; Schwarzfuchs, Du Juif; and Sepinwall, Abbé Grégoire.

2. L’Univers israélite 11 (1856): 239.

3. Archives israélites 17 (1856): 51.

4. Service Historique de l’Armée de la Terre (SHAT), Vincennes, fol. 1 H 12.

5. Debates questioning the sincerity and impact of ideas such as assimilation, association, and civilizing in French imperial policy goes back a long way. Some important contributions to this literature are Betts, Assimilation; Conklin, A Mission to Civilize; Daughton, An Empire Divided; Martin D. Lewis, “One Hundred Million Frenchmen”; and Schreier, Arabs of the Jewish Faith.

6. I owe great thanks to the organizers and participants of two rich scholarly meetings that provided forums to develop the ideas I put forward in this Introduction. The first was the conference “Jews and the Mediterranean,” held at the University of Southern California and the University of California at Irvine, April 3 and 4, 2016; this conference was organized by Clémence Boulouque, Jessica Marglin, and Matthias Lehmann. The second was the summer symposium “The Intimate Sea: Jews, Families, and Networks in the Mediterranean,” held at the University of Salento in Lecce, Italy, May 30–31, 2016. Great thanks are due to my co-organizers, Tara Coyle, Hartley Lachter, Fabrizio Lelli, and Sarah Abrevaya Stein. The Berman Center for Jewish Studies at Lehigh University generously funded the event.

7. Laura Robson, Minorities, 1–16.

8. On this colonial narrative and the policies it justified, see Schreier, Arabs of the Jewish Faith. The French applied the term indigène to most Algerian Jews and Muslims, until the 1870 Crémieux Decree naturalized most Jews in Algeria, making them a religious minority among French citizens. The term did not parallel the post-1390 (or 1492) Jewish historiographic distinction between toshavim, or natives, and megorashim, those who had been expelled from Spain or Portugal and their descendants. On colonial policies that created indigenous Jews out of some Algerians while making Frenchmen of others, see Stein, Saharan Jews. For French views on North African Jewries, see Abitbol, “Encounter”; Birnbaum, “French Jews”; Leff, “Impact of the Napoleonic Sanhedrin”; and Leff, Sacred Bonds.

9. Schechter, Obstinate Hebrews, 5–17.

10. This trope concerning North African Jews emerged early in the conquest and was continued decades later by the teachers and administrators of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, which was not founded until 1860. On the first encounters, see Ayoun, “Les efforts d’assimilation”; and Stora and Dermenjian, “Les Juifs.” On the efforts of the Alliance Israélite Universelle to educate Jews of the Mediterranean basin and a discussion of the discourse that justified the project, see Benbassa, “L’éducation féminine en orient”; Laskier, Alliance Israélite Universelle; Laskier, North African Jewry; Rodrigue, French Jews, 1–24; and Rodrigue, Images.

11. The Crémieux Decree, named for its chief sponsor, Adolphe Crémieux, naturalized Algerian Jews living in the northern provinces of Algeria. The decree was subsequently subject to challenges; the Vichy Regime abrogated it in 1940, only to abrogate it again in 1942 (Petainist general Henri Giraud used pressure to eliminate racial laws after the Allied landing as an excuse to condemn the decree as “racial law” that distinguished between Jews and Muslims). The Crémieux Decree was reinstated in 1943. On efforts to attach Algeria’s Jews to France and the contested rhetoric that accompanied this campaign, see Ayoun, “Les efforts d’assimilation”; Ayoun and Cohen, Les Juifs d’Algérie; Godley, Almost Finished Frenchmen; Schreier, Arabs of the Jewish Faith, 88–103; Schwarzfuchs, “Colonialisme français”; Shurkin, “French Liberal Governance”; Szajkowski, “Establishment of the Consistorial System”; and Szajkowski, “Struggle for Jewish Emancipation.” For work specifically on the Algerian consistoires israélites, see Assan, Les consistoires israélites. On Algerian Jews’ evolving memory of the conquest and colonization, see Katz, “Between Emancipation and Persecution.”

12. Scholars who have criticized the colonial aspect of Jewish reform efforts in Algeria have been less focused on how French institutions such as the consistory depended on local resources to function. See Friedman, Colonialism and After; and Schwarzfuchs, “Colonialisme français.”

13. Most work on the upper strata of North African Jewish commerce focuses on the Livornese Jews of Algiers and Tunis. See Filippini, “Les Juifs d’Afrique du nord”; Tsur, “Prélude”; and Tsur, “Two Jewish Societies.” See also Tsur, “Jewish Sectional Societies.”

14. On Jewish commercial networks, see Stein, “Mediterranean Jewries.” Early modern Mediterranean Jewish mercantile networks are discussed in Israel, Diasporas Within a Diaspora; and Trivellato, Familiarity of Strangers. On global Jewish networks that included Algeria, see Stein, Plumes.

15. Schroeter, “Shifting Boundaries.”

16. The recent arrival of the Jews of Oran, not to mention the various levels of commerce at which they operated, offers a different image from that painted by earlier scholarship. In these renderings the Jewish populations were starkly bifurcated between the Livornese or Grana population and the “indigenous, Judeo-Arabic” groups found in other North African cities painted by the scholarship. See, for example, Tsur, “Two Jewish Communities”; and Tsur, “Jewish Sectional Societies.”

17. Schreier, Arabs of the Jewish Faith, 15, 23–55.

18. Schreier, Arabs of the Jewish Faith, 86–113.

19. Ayoun, “Problématique.”

20. In a conversation at a conference several years ago, an Algerian scholar told me that few people in Oran actually know that one of the city’s large mosques previously served as a synagogue. The city’s Jewish past, she said, was forgotten among the young. On the difficulty of even talking about Jews in contemporary Algeria, see Farah Souames, “Home”; and Stein, “Algeria’s Jewish Past-Present.” See also JTA, “Algeria to Reopen Shuttered Synagogues.”

21. Choi, “Complex Compatriots”; Eldridge, “Remembering the Other”; Katz, Burdens of Brotherhood, 201–41; Mandel, Muslims and Jews in France, 35–58; Schreier, “Jewish Riot”; Shepard, “Algerian Nationalism”; and Shepard, Invention of Decolonization. See also the essays in Robson, Minorities.

22. This was felt by Jews and Muslims alike in Algeria. See Stora, Les trois exils. See also Eldridge, “Remembering the Other.” On Moroccans’ evolving sense of Jews as separate, see, for example, Boum, Memories of Absence; and Schroeter, “Shifting Boundaries.” The belief among North Africans that Jews are not (or could not be) a valuable part of their society extends to Egypt, generally seen as possessing a history apart from the Maghreb. See, for example, Beinin, “Egypt and Its Jews.”

23. Rodrigue, French Jews, 1. As mentioned earlier, there has been a larger polemic about the eternal precariousness of Jewish life under Islam. On the political significance of the founding of the Alliance as a part of the maturing of French republican culture, see Nord, Republican Moment.

24. Biale, Power and Powerlessness, 6.

25. Biale, Power and Powerlessness, 6.

26. Recent work has helped correct this picture. See, for example, Bashkin, New Babylonians; Campos, Ottoman Brothers; and Cohen, Becoming Ottomans.

27. Stein, “Field of In-Between.” The most well-known example of conservative, Zionist historiography in which the modern period is characterized primarily by the rise of anti-Semitism in the Muslim world is B. Lewis, Jews of Islam. A popular rendition of this view of Middle Eastern Jewish modernity is found in the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise’s online reference, the Jewish Virtual Library ( My phrase here is adapted from Orit Bashkin’s term “potentialities of modernities.” See Bashkin, “Middle Eastern Shift.” Discussions about the history and identity of Jews from Arab countries are often charged. See Gottreich, “Historicizing”; and Levy, “Historicizing.”

28. Colley, Captives; Valensi, Eve of Colonialism; and Weiss, Captives and Corsairs.

29. See Lespès, “Oran, ville et port.” Some scholarship has noted Muhammad al-Kabir’s efforts to bring Jews and others to Oran and the resulting trade with Gibraltar and other points on the Iberian Peninsula. See Benkada, “Moment in Sephardi History”; and Bloch, “Les Israélites d’Oran.” Other scholars have, of course, drawn attention to precolonial economic development in other parts of the Islamic Mediterranean; see, for example, Doumani, Rediscovering Palestine; Gran, Islamic Roots of Capitalism; Phillipp, Acre; and Scholch, Palestine in Transformation.

30. In rightfully pointing out the extreme violence during the French conquest, critics of France’s ideological claims of modernity have on occasion lent the notion an undeserved coherence while unfairly implying that France possessed a monopoly on it. See Hannoum, Violent Modernity.

31. Brower, A Desert Named Peace, esp. 9–52.

32. In this sense colonial Algeria could be compared to colonial Tunisia, where France similarly contended with the ongoing presence of other peoples and powers. See Mary D. Lewis, Divided Rule; and Smith, Mediterraneans.

33. France allowed for three statuts personnelsFrançais, Israélite, and Musulman—until the second was eliminated (at least in territories outside the Sahara) in 1870. These status categories determined which laws of marriage and inheritance would apply to the subject in question. Given the permissibility of divorce and polygamy under Muslim and Jewish statuses, these personal statuses precluded their holders admission to citizenship. See Schreier, “Napoléon’s Long Shadow.”

34. Jews of the Saharan oases retained their distinctive “Jewish” personal status. On the “racialization” of Muslim status, see Davidson, Only Muslim.

35. Some early critiques of colonialism that cast a long shadow often relied on a stark binary, despite their importance and insights. See, for example, Fanon, Les damnés de la terre; and Memmi, Portrait du colonisé. Of course, Memmi was well aware of the complicated status of Jews in late colonial Tunisia. See Memmi, La statue de sel. The same binary is apparent in the masterful 1966 film by Gilo Pontecorvo, The Battle of Algiers.

36. Algerian Jewish privilege was contingent on the fluctuating political and social environment in Algeria. This became particularly evident during the anti-Jewish crises of the late nineteenth century and in the 1930s and the Vichy period. See Abitbol, Juifs d’Afrique du Nord, esp. 21–50; Chemouilli, Une Diaspora méconnue; Dermenjian, La crise anti-juive oranaise; Kalman, Le combat par Tous les Moyens; Kalman, French Colonial Fascism; Younsi, “Caught in a Colonial Triangle”; and Zack, “French and Algerian Identity Formation.” Jacques Derrida discussed his deeply disrupting experience of being expelled from school under the Vichy Regime and its long-term effects on his thinking in, among other works, Monolingualism of the Other: Or the Prosthesis of Origin. Hélène Cixous has also discussed the contradictions of Jewish “belonging” in Algeria; see Cixous and Caille-Gruber, Hélène Cixous. On human sciences and racial categories in France, see Conklin, Museum of Man; and Lorcin, Imperial Identities.

37. Brower, A Desert Named Peace; Gallois, History of Violence; McDougall, History; and McDougall, “Savage Wars.”

38. Gallois, History of Violence, 82.

39. On debates over the meaning and feasibility of civilizing, see, among others, Abi Mershed, Apostles of Modernity; Conklin, A Mission to Civilize; Daughton, An Empire Divided; and Ezra, Colonial Unconscious.

40. IREL (Instruments de Recherche en Ligne, Archives Nationales d’Outre Mer, État Civil), (accessed May 15, 2015).

41. Colley, Captives, 23–37.

42. The Jewish population of Gibraltar was 900 in the late eighteenth century and rose to 1,533 by the 1870s. See M. Benady, “Settlement of Jews.”

43. Official Registrar of the Jewish Community of Gibraltar (RJCG), housed in the office of Mr. Mesod Belilo, Gibraltar. Thanks to Joshua Marrache for explaining the background of the Bergel family.

44. Baude, Algérie, 2: 10.

45. See, for example, Marglin, “Mediterranean Modernity.” Marglin is building on other scholars’ work that is revisiting both Braudel’s and Peregrine and Hordon’s arguments about the medieval and early modern periods, positing instead that the Mediterranean maintained a degree of coherence as a realm of connectivity well into the modern period. See Ben-Yehoyada, “Mediterranean Modernity.” Important works positing the Mediterranean as a coherent region and/or area of significant connectivity include Braudel, La Méditerranée; and Horden and Purcell, Corrupting Sea.

46. Lasry’s own death notice lists Rabat, whereas that of his first wife notes his birthplace as Tétouan. IREL, (accessed May 15, 2015). See also IREL, death of Rica Bergel, (accessed May 15, 2015).

47. Mesod Belilo, registrar for the Jewish Community of Gibraltar, suggests that Lasry was probably a more typical name for Jews from the south of Morocco, as opposed to Tétouan. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, the Moroccan leadership encouraged Jewish merchants in southern Morocco to develop the sultanates’ trade links with Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. See Schroeter, Merchants of Essaouira.

48. M. Benady, “Settlement of Jews,” 96. Rabbi Abraham Ankawa, a well-known Moroccan rabbi who caused a stir in Oran in the 1860s, had family who made a similar migration from Salé to Gibraltar in the early nineteenth century. See Marglin, “Mediterranean Modernity,” 41.

49. Haketia is a western Mediterranean Romance language infused with a good deal of Moroccan Arabic that was spoken largely in the cities of Tétouan, Tangiers, Gibraltar, the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, and eventually Oran. It is now considered an endangered language.

50. IREL, death of Rica Bergel, (accessed May 15, 2015).

51. RJCG, marriage records of the Jewish community.

52. The National Archives, Kew (TNA), FO 3/21, “Consuls at Algiers, Oran,” log entry for October 19, 1829.

53. Gibraltar Government Archives (GGA), “Traveling Passports, 1819–1830.” On the evolution of the passport, see Torpey, Invention of the Passport.

54. Gibraltar Registration Office, search under “Lasry” and multiple other spellings.

55. TNA, FO 3/31, “Consuls at Algiers, Oran,” log entry for October 19, 1828.

56. James A. O. C. Brown challenges traditional notions of Morocco’s isolationism during this period. See Brown, Crossing the Strait. On efforts among Algerian merchants to foster commerce with Britain, see Redouane, “British Trade.” See also Bennison, Jihad, 42–74.

57. We remember that Muhammad III had only recently rebuilt Essaouira in 1760 to encourage trade with Europe and settled it with the help of many Jews. See Schroeter, Merchants of Essaouira. See also Schroeter, Sultan’s Jew.

58. Constantine, Community and Identity, 60.

59. This section owes much to the genealogical research of Pierre Benoliel and Patricia Glaser, which they have shared with the public through the website:;pz=pierre+felix;nz=benoliel;ocz=0;p=jacob;n=lasry;oc=5 (accessed May 15, 2015).

60. Conformity to French family law, especially those forbidding polygamy and divorce, was central to French conceptions of civilizing in the early and middle decades of the nineteenth century. See Schreier, Arabs of the Jewish Faith, 143–82; and Schreier, “Napoléon’s Long Shadow.”

61. Archives Nationales d’Outre Mer, Aix-en-Provence (ANOM), fol. F80 1631, translation by Nahon for the Minister of War, February 28, 1846.

62. Archives israélites 30 (1869): 251.

63. Ayoun, Typologie, 1: 241.

64. Archives israélites 30 (1869): 252.

65. Ben Haim, Quelques mots à propos.

66. Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, Jerusalem (CAHJP), fol. P 95, Invoice of K. K. Shaar Ashamaim to Jacob Lasry, June 2, 1859. Although the archive identifies the synagogue as being in London, the Sha’ar HaShamayim synagogue in London is more frequently known as the Bevis Marks synagogue. It seems more likely that there was a mistake somewhere in the records and that the donation was made to Gibraltar’s Sha’ar HaShamayim synagogue (founded by Isaac Netto of London), located on Engineer’s Lane.

67. Schreier, Arabs of the Jewish Faith, 104–8; Marglin, “Mediterranean Modernity.”

68. ANOM, Algérie 3U/2, Jacob Lasry to Prefet d’Oran, January 10, 1859. See also Marglin, “Mediterranean Modernity”; and Schreier, Arabs of the Jewish Faith, 104–8.

69. CAHJP, fol. P 95, untitled document; Samuel’s relationship to Jacob remains unclear. The note gives the synagogue’s name as “K. K. Shaar Ashamaim”; I rendered it earlier with its more common spelling.

70. Historians have explored how French colonial ethnographers and military officers (often the same people) reified categories such as “Kabyle,” “Berber,” “Jew,” and “Tuareg” to advance colonial policies. See Ageron, Les Algériens musulmans, 267–92; Lazreg, “Reproduction of Colonial Ideology”; and Lorcin, Imperial Identities, 118–66. For the place where Jews fell in French legal and anthropological thinking, see Godley, Almost Finished Frenchmen; and Schreier, Arabs of the Jewish Faith. Sarah Abrevaya Stein has shown how knowledge of Saharan Jews was also deeply structured by various political and cultural currents of later colonial rule. See Stein, Saharan Jews. For an interesting discussion of mythologies surrounding the Tuareg, see Brower, A Desert Named Peace, 222–38.

71. Goldberg, “Is It Time?”