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The Nineteenth Century and the Impact of the West / Social Transformations

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Norman Stillman

From The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times
© 1991, by The Jewish Publication Society
Used by permission of the publisher.

Section III


In Tunisia, which was an autonomous tributary state of the Ottoman Empire, the local ruler, Muhammad Beg, promulgated his own reform decree, the 'Ahd al-Aman (Covenant of Security) in September 1857, little more than a year after the Khatt-i Humayun was issued. The 'Ahd al-Aman reflected the spirit of the Ottoman Tanzimat decrees. Like the Khatt-i Humayun, it was issued under pressure from the European powers. This pressure had reached considerable intensity in 1857, after the execution of a Tunisian Jew, Batto Sfez, for blasphemy against Islam. 27 The 'Ahd al-Aman was a qanun asasi (fundamental law) that in contemporary Ottoman usage expressed the European notion of "constitution." Unlike the Turkish Tanzimat decrees, it did not spell out a reorganization or restructuring of the social units in the state along constitutional lines. It proclaimed, among other things, the equality of Tunisian Jews and Muslims before the law and guaranteed their persons, property, and honor. It abolished corvée labor, which had been particularly burdensome to the Jews. It opened employment in the state bureaucracy to all Tunisians irrespective of their religion. Like the Khatt-i Humayun, it made all citizens liable to military service, but as in Turkey and its Levantine provinces, this was not carried out. In fact, in another clause, the Jews of Tunisia are still recognized as dhimmis, which justified taxes being imposed on them as a group. Thus, the 'Ahd al-Aman did not abolish discriminatory taxation, although it did promise a progressive lightening of the tax burden. 28 With the exception of some random phrases on the natural rights of the individual, the language of the 'Ahd al-Aman was more traditionally Islamic than that of the Khatt-i Humayun. "Politically conscious Tunisians"--to use L. Carl Brown's phrase--were wary of and resistant to the Ottoman reforms. 29 Although based on an outline drafted by the British and French consuls in Tunis, the text of the 'Ahd al-Aman was formulated by the beg's secretary, Ahmad b. Abi Diyaf, the famous chronicler, in a way that was meant to be more acceptable to the country's Muslims. Despite this caution, the traditional Muslim majority considered the decree an attack on Islamic primacy imposed by hostile outside forces that aimed to undermine the very nature of its society. Popular sentiment led to a rebellion in Tunisia, and in 1864, Muhammad al-Sadiq Beg revoked the 'Ahd al-Aman and the other reform decrees that had followed it. In spite of this, many outward improvements in the condition of Tunisian Jewry remained intact. The traditional discriminatory dress code ( ghiyar ) was not reimposed, 30 nor was corvée labor. Economic inequalities with regard to tariffs were not reinstituted. 31 The overall impact of the setback in civil rights was further alleviated by the ready availability of foreign protection for Tunisian Jews as the rival European powers--England, France, and Italy--vied with each other to come to the assistance of local Jews and at the same time gain greater influence in Tunisian internal affairs. 32 In Morocco, which had the largest Jewish population in the entire Arab world, the spirit of civil reform made no headway with the Sharifan sultan or his officials. 33 It should be recalled that throughout the later Middle Ages and early modern times, Morocco and Yemen were by far the harshest Arab countries in their treatment of Jews, who were their only dhimmis. The highly ritualized degradation of Moroccan Jews included compulsory ghettoization in most towns, having to wear black garments, walking barefoot through the streets of the imperial cities and before mosques everywhere, being pressed frequently into onerous corvée labor even on holidays and sabbaths, being pelted with pebbles by children, and suffering other public humiliations. 34 Lobbying by British Jewish subjects of Moroccan origin in Gibraltar and perhaps by Jews living in the Moroccan coastal towns who had commercial contacts with Europe led to the mission of Sir Moses Montefiore in late 1863. Sir Moses, with the full backing of the British government, approached Sultan Muhammad IV with a petition that the sultan guarantee the safety and tranquillity of his Jewish subjects. The memorandum did not mention emancipation but did allude to Tanzimat reforms by noting Ottoman firmans issued on behalf of Jews during Sir Moses' missions to the Sublime Porte in 1840 and 1863. The Sharifan historian al-Nasiri, who reflects official Moroccan thinking at that period, writes that what the Jews were really seeking was "emancipation" like the Jews of the Ottoman Empire. 35 The word used by al-Nasiri for "emancipation" is hurriyya, which had the double connotation in Morocco at that time of "liberty" and "libertinism." The sultan had no intention of granting anything of the sort. For the sake of diplomacy, he issued a dahir (royal decree) on February 5, 1864, which stated his intention to protect his Jewish subjects from injustice and oppression in accordance with Islamic law. No change was made in the civil status of the Jews. Even this token gesture was considered too much of a concession by most Moroccans. According to al-Nasiri, the Jews now "became arrogant and reckless, and they wanted to have special rights under the law--especially the Jews of the ports." 36 Soon after Montefiore's departure, Muhammad IV issued a second decree that clarified his original dahir to the point of nullifying it. There would be no major change in the legal status of Moroccan Jews or in their internal communal organization until the French takeover of Morocco half a century later. Of all the Jews in the Arab world during the nineteenth century, none were more affected by the impact of Europe and none underwent more profound transformations than the Jews of Morocco's eastern neighbor, Algeria. At the beginning of the French conquest in 1830, the Jews were regarded as natives, albeit friendly ones. Their traditional corporate status and internal communal autonomy were officially recognized and reinforced. The French military authorities reconfirmed Jacob Bacri as muqaddam ( mekdam or mokdam in the French transcriptions), or "head of the Jewish nation." He was charged with overseeing and directing Jewish affairs in Algiers. 37 The French also gave full judicial recognition to the bet din, or rabbinic court, with regard to internal Jewish matters. The edict of the French commander and chief regulatory local justice stated: "All cases among Jews, whether civil or criminal, will be brought before a tribunal composed of three rabbis who will pronounce judgment with supreme authority and without appeal, according to the terms and following the procedures of Jewish law." 38 Within less than a year, the French authorities began to whittle away Jewish autonomy. The office of the head of the Jewish nation was replaced in 1836 by that of a Jewish adjutant to the mayor in each main town. The Jewish courts by this time had been reduced to dealing primarily with matters of marriage and divorce. Even this limited competence was removed in 1841. Henceforth, the French courts would hear all cases involving Jews, including cases of personal status, marriage, and divorce. The only legal role left to duly recognized rabbinical authorities was that of an expert witness who could be asked to give an advisory opinion to the civil courts in cases involving Jews. 39 Traditional Jewish judicial autonomy was no more. The communal structure of Algerian Jewry was totally reorganized by administrative fiat in 1845. On November 9, 1845, an ordinance was published creating consistories for Algeria on the French model. 40 The Consistoire Général in France and French Jewish colonists in Algeria had been lobbying for this for more than a decade. 41 Algerian Jewry was organized into three consistories--a central consistory in Algiers and provincial consistories in Oran and Constantine. Each consistory would be composed of a chief rabbi, who was appointed and paid by the state, and of lay members (four in Algiers, three in each of the others). The president of each consistory would always be a layman. The chief rabbis and most of the lay leaders were to be French, not Algerian, in order to weaken the traditionalist majority, whom the European Jews considered superstitious and primitive, and to hasten the assimilation of French culture and values. The "civilizing" role of the consistories was clearly spelled out in the definition of its functions:
  1. To maintain order in the synagogues; to see that no assemblies for prayer or religious purposes are held without express authorization; to appoint clergy in the temples and other religious functionaries, particularly ritual slaughterers.

  2. To see that families send their children to nurseries and schools.

  3. To encourage Jews to exercise useful professions, more particularly agricultural work.

  4. 4. To oversee the use of funds designated for synagogue, charitable institution and school expenses . . . and all other expenses of a similar nature. 42

In addition to his obvious religious and ceremonial duties, the chief rabbi, who was a civil servant, was supposed "to inculcate unconditional obedience to the laws, loyalty to France, and the obligation to defend it." 43 Through the combined efforts of "French and Jewish colonialism" (to use Simon Schwarzfuchs's phrase), the communal structure and governance of Algerian Jewry were transformed more radically than any other Jewish community in the Arab world. The changes went far beyond those of the Tanzimat. Constitutionally, Algerian Jewry had been recast into a mirror image of the Jewish community of France. The reforming efforts of Chief Rabbi Michel Weill and his colleagues did not always go unopposed by the traditionalists, but there was little that the traditionalists could do since the consistories were state institutions. 44 When the Algerian consistories were placed under the authority of the Central Consistory in Paris in 1862, Algerian Jewry became an official branch of French Jewry. The Jews of Algeria were still not French citizens, but "natives" ( indigènes ) under the rule of French law. The final step toward total emancipation was not far away. On October 24, 1870, the provisional government of the Third Republic, meeting in Tours, issued a decree granting French citizenship to the Jews of Algeria. The document became known as the Crémieux Decree, after Isaac Adolphe Crémieux, the minister of justice and French Jewish leader who was the moving force behind the declaration. 45 By the single stroke of a pen, some 30,000 Jews living in the three northern departments of Algeria (although not the Jews in the Saharan south) had become citizens of a democratic Western European state and were no longer considered--and most no longer considered themselves--Jews of an Arab land. The various changes in the civil status and community structure of the Jews living in the Arab world during the nineteenth century were accompanied by socioeconomic and cultural transformations as well. These internal metamorphoses, like the more external political ones, differed greatly in their degree of intensity from one country and one region to another--and even in a single place from one stratum of Jewish society to another. Once again, as in the case of political reform, the impact of European forces and influences was crucial, although not exclusive. < Previous    Next >




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