The Merchants of Oran

9780804799140: Hardback
Release Date: 16th May 2017

Dimensions: 152 x 229

Number of Pages: 216

Edition: 1st Edition

Series Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture

Stanford University Press

The Merchants of Oran

A Jewish Port at the Dawn of Empire

Hardback / £43.00

The Merchants of Oran weaves together the history of a Mediterranean port city with the lives of Oran's Jewish mercantile elite during the transition to French colonial rule. Through the life of Jacob Lasry and other influential Jewish merchants, Joshua Schreier tells the story of how this diverse and fiercely divided group both responded to, and in turn influenced, French colonialism in Algeria.

Jacob Lasry and his cohort established themselves in Oran in the decades after the Regency of Algiers dislodged the Spanish in 1792, during a period of relative tolerance and economic prosperity. In newly-Muslim Oran, Jewish merchants found opportunities to ply their trades, dealing in both imports and exports. On the eve of France's long and brutal invasion of Algeria, Oran owed much of its commercial vitality to the success of these Jewish merchants.

Under French occupation, the merchants of Oran maintained their commercial, political, and social clout. Yet by the 1840s, French policies began collapsing Oran's diverse Jewish inhabitants into a single social category, legally separating Jews from their Muslim neighbors and creating a racial hierarchy. Schreier argues that France's exclusionary policy of "emancipation," far more than older antipathies, planted the seeds of twentieth-century ruptures between Muslims and Jews.

Contents and Abstracts
chapter abstract

Jacob Lasry (1793-1869), a North African Jewish merchant, offers a useful optic for reevaluating Jews' role and influence in pre- and early-colonial North Africa, as well as the early effects of colonialism on the society and economy of the small Mediterranean port of Oran. Against traditional accounts that emphasize the pre-colonial desolation of Oran and the precarious status of most Algerian Jews, this study underlines Oran's nascent revival, as well as the influence, dynamism, and worldliness of Jews such as Lasry in late Ottoman/early colonial Oran. French forces actually relied on local North African talent (such as Lasry) not only to help finance and coordinate the conquest, but even to direct some of colonialism's "ideological" work, such as bringing local Jews into the French orbit. By following these threads, this study offers an unprecedented "personal" account of French colonialism in Algeria.

1Mediterranean Oran
chapter abstract

This chapter recounts Oran's history over the longue durée. It speaks of a city situated on the northern coast of Africa, but also on the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Oran was a creation of Spain and southern Europe as well as of Tlemcen, the Sahara, and the African sources of goods that lay beyond it. Indeed, in the first century or two of its existence, Oran owed its existence to its proximity to the Iberian Peninsula. The westernmost section of the Mediterranean, stretching from Cape Tenès in the east to the Straights of Gibraltar in the west, has been described as a medieval "Ibero-African English Channel," linking North Africa and Spain with a constant flow of commercial ships. Oran's dependence on larger circuits of western Mediterranean commerce would continue into the nineteenth century.

2Rebuilding Oran: Jews, Beys, and Commerce, 1792-1830
chapter abstract

After 1792, the regency of Algiers invited Jews and Muslims to settle in Oran, opened Oran to the interior, and reopened the Iberian peninsula to products shipped from Oran. As a result, many of the late medieval commercial links discussed in the last chapter were renewed, with Oran increasingly seeing ships arrive from Iberian, European, and other North African ports. Drawing on commercial records of and consular notes from the years before the conquest, this chapter argues that late Ottoman Oran was well integrated into the economic life of the western Mediterranean and showed signs of growth. This runs counter to a colonial historiography that emphasized its pre-colonial marginality and insignificance. Jewish merchants were key to this small port city's commerce and society.

3Making Money in a Time of Conquest
chapter abstract

This chapter offers a fresh perspective on the onset of French colonialism. Rather than seeing the French conquest of Algeria as ending a static old order and initiating a modern, integrated, and dynamic (if oppressive and racist) new order, this chapter argues that the French military presence in the Maghreb interrupted commerce and spread confusion and violence to Oran. Focusing on a business deal that the merchant Jacob Lasry attempted to carry out in this chaotic early period shows how North African Jewish merchants, as well as western Algerian traders more generally, were not simply victims or hapless observers of the French conquest. Rather, men like Lasry continued to operate in the upper echelons of Oran's commercial life and push back on policies that harmed their interests.

4Struggles For and Between the Merchants of Oran
chapter abstract

This chapter explores a series of rivalries between Jewish merchants whom in order to illuminate the intricacies of Jewish power and identity in Oran at the dawn of conquest. It illustrates the remarkable power of certain Jewish merchants in Oran and highlights the serious conflicts that erupted between them. It also underlines how rivalries could prove threatening for European consuls involved in the region's commercial life. Among merchants, business interests (as well as the disputes they engendered) could be more meaningful than boundaries of religious affiliation—especially in a town that was so Jewish. These stories allow us to consider the French conquest of Algeria through the history of local merchants, revealing how the conquest caused problems for Jewish merchants, and how their commercial importance and adaptive strategies forced the French to adjust their policies.

5Jacob Lasry and the Business of Conquest
chapter abstract

This chapter examines two episodes in which Jacob Lasry both cooperated with and frustrated French generals. The episodes provide examples of how members of a certain class of North African merchants installed in North Africa before the conquest participated in business deals upon which military campaigns relied, and how these deals advanced and exemplified their own transition from membership in a pre-colonial Mediterranean commercial elite to their place in a French colonial elite. This chapter also illuminates how generals depended on influential local experts, whether businessmen and hired military commanders to organize, underwrite, and carry out the conquest.

6From "Juifs de Gibraltar" and "Algerine Jews" to Israélites Indigènes
chapter abstract

This chapter explores a series of interactions and struggles involving synagogues, religious rituals, and the meaning of "indigenous," to demonstrate how French colonial policies fashioned new lines of identification. The French casting of a diverse, feuding, and recently established array of Oran's inhabitants as a single community of "indigenous Jews" changed Oran's social landscape. Notably, it helped create what was later understood to be a religious "minority." Institutions such as the consistory (and later, Jewish naturalization), seeking to remedy newly conceived pathologies such as "jealousies" or "problems of civilization," formed a new Jewish subjectivity. French policies did not reflect existing racial or religious topographies in Algeria so much as reify or even create them. In the place of the collection of diverse, dynamic, and often powerful individuals explored in previous chapters, French imperialism posited an identifiable community of israélites indigènes.

Conclusion: Moralities and Mythologies
chapter abstract

French civil status records reveal that in all likelihood, Jacob Lasry was married simultaneously to two women. This returns a paradox discussed in the introduction, notably that Jacob Lasry, France's chosen agent of "civilization" in Oran, apparently maintained practices that French colonial law singled out as "indigenous." Civilizing mission notwithstanding, France could not afford to alienate this class of local Jewish merchants. It follows that colonial Oran was deeply shaped by them. With the introduction of new ideas, institutions and laws, however, all classes of Jews were increasingly understood to be "indigenous." This process led, after several decades, to a naturalization decree based entirely on religion. "Jew" evolved into a subset of "French citizen," while "Muslim" increasingly described the "colonial subject." France had initiated the process of Jewish reification, minoritization, and isolation from their Muslim neighbors.

Joshua Schreier is Professor of History at Vassar College. He is the author of Arabs of the Jewish Faith (2010).

"Joshua Schreier challenges the conventional narrative of Jewish emancipation in Algeria at the hands of the French that began with the conquest in 1830, continued through the Crémieux Decree, and ended with the departure of Algeria’s Jews for l’Hexagone during the Algerian War….Schreier not only exposes the contradictions inherent in the new colonial order but also shows how the habits and practices of Oran’s merchant elite formed prior to the French conquest allowed its members, like Lasry, to adapt and to thrive under the new regime.”—Jonathan G. Katz, H-Judaic

"Joshua Schreier challenges the conventional narrative of Jewish emancipation in Algeria at the hands of the French that began with the conquest in 1830, continued through the Crémieux Decree, and ended with the departure of Algeria's Jews for l'Hexagone during the Algerian War....Schreier not only exposes the contradictions inherent in the new colonial order but also shows how the habits and practices of Oran's merchant elite formed prior to the French conquest allowed its members, like Lasry, to adapt and to thrive under the new regime."

Jonathan G. Katz

"In this eloquent evocation of the era of French colonization of Algeria told through the life of a Jewish merchant and community leader, Jacob Lasry, Joshua Schreier challenges the monolithic French colonial representation of 'indigenous' Jews as oppressed, backwards, and isolated—awaiting to be emancipated—by revealing how Algeria's cosmopolitan Jews were active agents in shaping and transforming Jewish society under French rule in Algeria."

Daniel J. Schroeter
University of Minnesota

"Against a rising tide of large-scale histories of empire and colonization, Joshua Schreier's book calls attention to the compelling perspectives offered by individuals. Brought to life through Schreier's tenacious research, the Jewish merchant Jacob Lasry and his contemporaries give the reader a refreshing vantage point from which to rethink French colonialism in the western Mediterranean."

Benjamin Claude Brower
The University of Texas at Austin

"This is an important and thought-provoking contribution to the history of Oran and its Jewish mercantile elite; a study that will interest scholars of empire, France, Jewish history, as well as those curious about the economies of port cities amid chaotic shifts in imperial governance."

Rachel E. Schley
H-France Review of Books

"Schreier raises questions of great importance which deserve further exploration....[T]he history of French Algeria becomes much richer and much clearer when space is allowed for more than one perspective."

Julie Kalman
Journal of Modern History