… "If you believe that a great number of your coreligionists, overcome by twenty centuries of misery, of insults and prohibitions, can find again their dignity as men, win the dignity of citizens…If you believe in all these things, Jews of the world, come hear our appeal, join our society and give us your help."
Founded in 1860 by emancipated French Jews, the Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU) commenced operation with this stirring call. As an organization the Alliance compiled a formidable record that by 1914 included more than 180 educational facilities in virtually every major Muslim city in North Africa and the Middle East, attended by some 43,700 students. Yet precisely because of its great success at penetrating Jewish communities and its broad agenda, the AIU proved able to convey and espouse an array of potentially conflicting goals. In particular, the Alliance's devotion to “the emancipation and moral progress of the Jews”  was part and parcel of an ambitious attempt to recast the identity of the Jews of the Muslim world, and it was in this attempt that the AIU strove to redefine the position of Jews in these lands. Thus the Alliance found itself simultaneously committed to bringing western European culture to its students, to preparing its students to be better integrated as citizens into their surrounding societies, and to making the Jews of North Africa and the Middle East members of a new global Jewish community. While in theory not necessarily contradictory, these ideals of westernization, integration, and universal Jewish brotherhood led in practice to serious conflicts within and beyond the AIU.
On the question of westernizing, the Alliance was unequivocally positive. It is no mistake that in its 1903 instructions manual for professors, the AIU states, “First, the goal is to bring a ray of Western civilization into communities which have degenerated as the result of centuries of oppression and ignorance." This follows directly from the situation experienced by French Jews who squarely credited the enlightened ideals of revolutionary France for their emancipation. Accordingly, they considered the emancipation of the Jews of Muslim lands to be contingent upon the adoption of such western ideas in the regions where un-emancipated Jews lived. Importantly however, the Alliance’s view of westernization encompassed aspects of life far beyond political ideology.
The most important aspects of the AIU’s goal of westernization are evident in its curriculum. French language, both spoken and written, was among the compulsory subjects noted in the AIU’s instructions for its instructors. As Alliance teacher Albert Sagues noted in a letter on AIU education in Tunisia, acquiring “a significant mastery of the French language, whether French be the goal or the means…” was of greate importance. The Alliance was particularly emphatic that French be taught in such a manner as to supplant the native dialects of the Jews, such as Judeo-Spanish in Tangier, or Judeo-Arabic in other parts of North Africa. Calling such languages “corrupted”, the AIU promoted the view that “French is the language par excellence for instruction and education”, and so it is by French, “that we can raise our children up from the state of dejection imposed by centuries of oppression and moral stagnation.”
On the other side of the coin, westernization for the AIU meant establishing western European conventions among its students. The AIU certainly supported the use of European dress by its students, arguing that it would help raise the students up in local eyes, as well as promote other western notions such as neatness, and cleanliness. In the eyes of the Alliance, moral education was an imperative: “One of the principle tasks of the teacher will be to combat the bad habits which are more or less prevalent among eastern populations: selfishness, pride, exaggerated egotism, lack of original thinking…” and so on. All these changes and more were considered vital if one was to “elevate the soul and mind of the student.”
Although less clearly articulated, the Alliance also supported the citizenship of the Jews of Muslim lands in their respective societies. From the AIU’s original call, there is the reference to helping Jews gain the “dignity of citizenship.” A report by an AIU instructor in 1939 further elucidates this goal. “The only bond that exists between Jews and Arabs is in commerce…” he observed, and so it is necessary to “… fill in the gap and establish a bridge between the two communities.” As citizens of France who gained their rights through integration at the height of the French revolution, the leaders of AIU are naturally cognizant of the advantages of full citizenship, and so in that context, their declaration of the need for citizenship seems particularly pertinent.
A major implication of citizenship was language. The AIU in many cases offered programs to teach students the language, be it Arabic, Turkish, or Persian, spoken by a majority of other locals. The AIU Instructions note, “It is particularly recommended… that great emphasis be placed upon teaching the language of the country.” Consistent with their efforts to eliminate the “corrupted” amalgam of languages that constituted the lingua franca within the Jewish communities of the Muslim world, the Alliance was strongly supportive of its students speaking “correct” Arabic, Persian or Turkish to their Muslim and Christian neighbors. As one teacher observed, “…the Moroccan does not look with a kind eye upon the Jew who martyrs his language… Let us therefore teach the Jew to speak Arabic correctly.” If Jews were to be full citizens, the implication from the AIU was, they would need to be able to communicate with other such citizens on an equal footing.
Of course, the Alliance’s central theme included a call for universal Jewish solidarity. “The Alliance is less concerned with producing half-learned men than in forming good and tolerant men who feel an attachment to their duties as citizens and as Jews, who are dedicated to the public good and to their brothers…” reads the AIU instructions. In asking for this, however, the AIU also attempted to redefine Judaism for its students. The Alliance director in Algiers observed in his annual report, “… there can be no Jewish faith outside of the realm of reason and progress.” In practical terms this amounted to “making war on prejudice and superstition." On a practical level though, this made for a concerted attack on many of the traditions of the Jewish communities. Removing superstition and combating fanaticism meant weakening of local rabbinical authority and abandoning local customs. By seeking to make “better Jews”, the AIU was in effect seeking to replace the local Jewish heritage of its students with that of French Jews, and making tradition give way to “reason and progress.”
These goals proved to be paradoxical on two levels. On one level, the Alliance wanted to make its students identify with, and be identified with, Western Europe. The European language, clothes, manners, mode of education, and even course subject matter can attest to that. At the same time, it wanted, or at least claimed to want, to help its students fit more successfully into their own communities. But wholesale Europeanization meant adopting a culture and set of values completely alien to the majority Muslim population. In matters of dress, language, values and culture, non-westernized Jews had far more in common with those around them than did westernized Jews, for the simple reason that in many cases, after more than three hundred years, a certain amount of cultural drift had occurred. The Alliance’s efforts were in effect directed at erasing this.
Were the Alliance’s efforts in local integration then merely words? Certainly some Alliance teachers did express the wish that Jews could be more similar to their Muslim neighbors, be it by speaking a more proper form of Arabic, or a finding more diverse positions in the economy. In practical terms, the Alliance did on many occasions offer the local language to its students. In Istanbul, one teacher went so far as to state that as a citizen of the empire, it was his duty to teach Turkish to his pupils. The interest most certainly seems genuine.
Beyond all this, there is the more basic problem that AIU teachers did not, by and large, seem to have a particularly complete view of the local population. The non-Jews of the region serve as a sort of repository for all things in the mind of the AIU, thus at times they are virtuous, and at other times lazy and distasteful. The “East” itself, as the AIU often referred to it, was often simply a grab bag of negative stereotypes like selfishness, egotism, unoriginality and a predisposition toward “violent petty passions.” Describing what it was he was working with, one AIU teacher in Iran went so far as to declare, “We are dealing with little amoral beings to whom lying deception, denunciation and dishonesty are qualities as natural as their opposites are to young westerners.” This of course begs the question of what exactly did the AIU wish to make its students citizens of? The fact that it is defined as such, often in a one-dimensional negative fashion, and on occasion contradicting other definitions, leads to an impression that the AIU did not have a particularly clear definition for what the “East” constituted, and what citizenship in it might entail. Thus even the best intentioned efforts seem in a way stillborn, for a partial assimilation such as the AIU proposes, requires some measure of understanding of the society one wishes to join.
The AIU’s attempt to redefine Judaism also, though less obviously, created complications. By taking Judaism out of the hands of the rabbis who had in effect, rooted the Jewish communities since their inception, the AIU cut away a very powerful connection to the area, and thus to the society of that area. Instead, the very definite connection to rabbi and local history was replaced with a much more ambiguous, and weakly defined “brotherhood of Jews.” And, since the only large numbers of Jews outside of the Muslim world at the time were in Europe, it presented a further connection to Europe.
Far from being purely academic, the conflicts resulting from the AIU’s mixed messages regarding identity were borne out in student’s everyday lives. On the most immediate level, the westernization and reformed Judaism taught by Alliance schools created a clear generational gap. Parents who sent their children to AIU schools for education frequently received more than they bargained for. Westernization meant children would often speak different a language from their parents. This was hardly unintentional for as the Alliance’s use of terms such as “jargon” and “corruption” indicated, they had no interest in preserving such languages. Just as importantly, the Alliance focus on removal of superstition and indeed tradition was sure to directly set students and parents at odds. Albert Memmi’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Pillar of Salt, aptly captures these tensions regarding both language and religion: his protagonist is ashamed and antagonistic toward both his parents' language and religious practices.
Relations vis a vis Europe were similarly complicated for AIU students. Despite an admiration for western society and ideas, there was the problem of acceptance. Europeans were not often excited about accepting these westernized Jews of Muslim lands as truly western. This is as true for Memmi’s hero as it is for the thousands of highly assimilated Algerian Jews whose French citizenship was revoked during World War II with the active support of local Europeans. This is true not solely of non-Jewish Europeans but in some cases of the AIU itself. Even some Alliance documents display a lingering distrust of formerly “Oriental” Jews. Had they really changed? Or were they somehow, still, not fully cleansed of the “degeneration” of centuries?
Regarding integration of Jews within their communities, the conflict between AIU ideals and the ensuing reality was even more clear-cut. By adopting the AIU dogma of western European cultural superiority, students implicitly devalued the native culture surrounding them. Instead of integrating further into local communities, their appreciation for Europe would lead usually to an even greater isolation from their surroundings. Even the teaching of local languages seemed to prove more often useful for gaining a government job, than for necessarily increasing inter-communal interactions.
Meanwhile, the Alliance’s support of the notion of universal Jewish comradeship further undermined local sense of identity. Thus while the Alliance had a generally ambiguous or negative view towards Zionism, many AIU students later went on to become Zionists. Ideologically, Zionism matched well with the uprooting of Jews from their local sense of identity, and its replacement with a more global sense of what it meant to be Jewish.
All this of course begs the question of the Alliance’s actual influence. While the 43,000 students in 1914 was a considerable number, it is true that the vast majority of Jews in Muslim lands did not go to AIU schools. However, the Alliance’s schools were centers of considerable communal power and prestige. On frequent occasions, Alliance teachers and officials would intercede on behalf of local Jews during disputes and crises. Though not being officially tied to any government, its sheer size and Francophile outlook meant that the AIU was often able to succeed in influencing foreign governments, particularly France, to act on its behalf. Further, the skills taught by the AIU allowed the Jews who had attended it to move into jobs in the colonial or governmental bureaucracy, into European firms, and thus out of many of the more traditional professions and into the more lucrative ones.
It is true that the AIU did not manage to educate, or even reach, all Jews in the lands where it operated. There were people who went to traditional schools, to missionary schools, to government schools, as well as those who did not go to school at all. The AIU did however have a presence in nearly every major city in the Muslim world, and so indirectly affected a great many people. Many of its students reached positions of prominence as well, and so had influence beyond their small numbers. The AIU was certainly far larger than any other Jewish organization in the Muslim world, including the various Zionist movements, until World War II.
Defining identity is seldom easy, and so the paradoxes inherent to the Jewish identity envisioned by the Alliance Israelite Universelle are perhaps not so surprising. The fact that the AIU was ultimately unable to find a compatible mix of European acculturation, local citizenship and universal Jewish heritage is not a failure of them alone. Jews leaving the Muslim world and resettling in Israel and elsewhere have continued to face the same complicated realities long after the AIU ceased operating in that region. And as the experience of Jews originally from those regions in Israel today demonstrates, even Zionism, for which the AIU in some sense laid the groundwork, does not offer complete answers.
Rodrigue, Aron. Jews and Muslims: Images of Sephardi and Eastern Jewries in Modern Times. Seattle, 2003.
Stillman, Norman. The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times. New York, 1991.
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 Rodrigue, 14
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 Rodrigue 127,128
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 Stillman, 304
 Rodrigue, 7
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 Rodrigue, 97, 162
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 Stillman 125, 126
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