The history of Algerian Jews has thus far been viewed from the perspective of communities on the northern coast, who became, to some extent, beneficiaries of colonialism. But to the south, in the Sahara, Jews faced a harsher colonial treatment. In Saharan Jews and the Fate of French Algeria, Sarah Abrevaya Stein asks why the Jews of Algeria’s south were marginalized by French authorities, how they negotiated the sometimes brutal results, and what the reverberations have been in the postcolonial era.
Drawing on materials from thirty archives across six countries, Stein tells the story of colonial imposition on a desert community that had lived and traveled in the Sahara for centuries. She paints an intriguing historical pictureof an ancient community, trans-Saharan commerce, desert labor camps during World War II, anthropologist spies, battles over oil, and the struggle for Algerian sovereignty. Writing colonialism and decolonization into Jewish history and Jews into the French Saharan one, Saharan Jews and the Fate of French Algeria is a fascinating exploration not of Jewish exceptionalism but of colonial power and its religious and cultural differentiations, which have indelibly shaped the modern world.
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About the Author
Sarah Abrevaya Stein is professor of history and the Maurice Amado Chair in Sephardic Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is the author of Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce and Making Jews Modern: The Yiddish and Ladino Press in the Russian and Ottoman Empires, and coeditor of A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica: The Ladino Memoir of Sa’adi Besalel a-Levi and Sephardi Lives: a documentary history, 1700-1950.
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Saharan Jews and the Fate of French Algeria
By Sarah Abrevaya Stein
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Anthropology and the Ghost of the Colonial Past
When, in the summer of 1962, the last remaining Jews of Ghardaïa joined the stream of pieds-noirs, harkis, and northern Algerian Jews in emigration to France, many observed their departure: their non-Jewish neighbors; members of the French military, state police, and Mzabi "native regiment"; international Jewish and Zionist philanthropies; and the international press. Among these observers was Lloyd Cabot Briggs, an American anthropologist and employee of Harvard University's Peabody Museum. Author of The Living Races of the Sahara Desert (1958), Briggs had lived in Algeria on and off for some twenty years. Together with his research assistant, Norina Lami Guède [née Maria Esterina Giovanni], a nurse of Italian background, Briggs was in Ghardaïa in 1962 conducting research on the town's Jewish community for No More for Ever: A Saharan Jewish Town, a book he would publish two years hence with Guède as junior author.
To Briggs and Guède, the Jews inside Ghardaïa's Noumerate Airport appeared as mindless bodies—brutes, even. In the authors' account, the Jews stand and squat, attired in "gaily colored native dresses and head shawls," "chattering with their mouths full while flies and little children, equally unperturbed, continued to crawl and clamber everywhere." The hours passed, the women "munched and chattered incessantly," while "orange peel and bean skin accumulated all around them like gently falling snow." Briggs and Guède stood to the side, in the shadows, "ideally placed to photograph the exodus." The observers retreated for food and drink, returning after a two-hour break. Still the Jews waited in the "breathless heat," "dozing where they sat or sleeping curled up in the litter on the floor of the waiting room." The plane at last arrived, and the passengers, returning home from hajj, slowly disembarked. The Jews "milled about furiously for a few minutes like frightened cattle in a stockyard pen," and eventually "trotted and stumbled" toward its doors, scarcely visible beneath their swirling clothes and enormous bundles, appearing, to Briggs and Guède, less like individuals than "a shifting kaleidoscopic knot of brilliant colors."
No More for Ever has had an extraordinary reach. Briggs and Guède's research exerted a tangible influence on French policy toward the Jews of Algeria's Southern Territories; indeed, the 1961 legal reclassification of the Jews of this community as French citizens (and the extensive conversation that led up to this reclassification) bore the distinctive "watermark" of the scholars' preliminary findings. Librarians and archivists the world over have continuously referred me to the book to explain the documents their collections' hold. To this day, the book is cited by scholars of Jewish studies and Maghribi studies as a definitive source on the Jews of Ghardaïa: a transparent documentation of an extinct community, an enduring source of a world that is no more, and a requiem to a Jewish community that abandoned its ancestral home in the midst of war. The book's legacy has obscured a stormy past. Far from a neutral account, No More for Ever was informed by contentious anthropological methods, was laced through with Briggs's own complicated politics, and, finally, can be reread less as a mirror on the Jewish community of Ghardaïa than as a pro-colonial scrim. Watching the last Jews of Ghardaïa leave their homes for France, Briggs and Guède anticipated their own departures, mourned the abandonment of Algeria by a fickle Fifth Republic, and elegized the ruin of a colonial system they had long lived in and benefited from. Like Jewish Ghardaïa, the Algeria they knew was to be "no more for ever."
The history of No More for Ever begins not in southern Algeria but in Boston, Massachusetts, and not in the realm of scholarship but rather that of international intrigue. Briggs's entrée to Algeria was not exclusively anthropology, it seems, but also espionage.
When Lloyd Cabot Briggs submitted an application to the FBI in April 1942, hoping to serve the Office of Strategic Services [OSS], the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency, as a civilian in North Africa, he identified himself as the recipient of a 1931 bachelor's degree in anthropology from Harvard University, a 1932 diploma in anthropology from the University of Oxford, a 1938 master's degree in anthropology from Harvard and nearly a decade's experience as a stockbroker; a fluent speaker of French and a passable speaker of German and Spanish; a graduate of ten army extension courses and holder of a Restricted Radio Telephone Operator's License; and member of various academic societies in England and the United States. Briggs required only one week's advance notice for deployment and was willing to accept "any" pay. His application did not state that the applicant could also boast a powerful genealogical lineage—both Lloyd Cabot Briggs and his wife of seven years, Eleanor Moncrieffe Livingston, hailed from Boston Brahmin families. What a fine match Briggs made for the OSS, called by some the "Oh So Social" due to the significant number of socially prominent men and women it attracted. As for Briggs himself, he was—in the words of his interviewer at the OSS—"cool" and "tough." Six months after lodging his application with the FBI, Briggs arrived in Algiers. He was thirty-four years old. Blue blood, personal connections, an elite education, a robust work portfolio—combined, these elements ensured that Briggs would "occupy the equivalent of the position of a Major in his assignment in North Africa" and be paid $443 each month, including $250 in base pay, $105 for lodging, $63 for "subsistence," and $25 for "foreign duty." It was a significant sum and a lofty title for a young man with neither military nor intelligence experience to occupy in war-torn Algiers.
Created by presidential military order of Franklin Roosevelt but a year prior to Briggs's arrival in Algeria, the OSS existed for three years, from 1942 to 1945, after which the obligations of the organization were assumed by the Department of State and Department of War, an arrangement maintained until President Truman created the Cenral Intelligence Agency in 1947. Because they possessed linguistic skills that were rare among members of the armed forces, social scientists (numerous anthropologists among them) were targeted by the OSS as would-be employees; as such, the scholars were tasked with supplying the Joint Chiefs of Staff with information pertinent to the war effort (much of which was obtained through espionage), conducting special assignments and spreading Allied propaganda. David Price has argued that the Second World War ushered in an era of optimism within the anthropological community, which overwhelmingly supported the idea of scholars' contributing to the war effort; this was a departure from the skepticism of earlier years (in 1917, Franz Boas famously warned fellow anthropologists against putting their skills to the service of the state) and in no way signaled the tremendous discord and rancor that would divide the profession in the Cold War era.
In subsequent years, Briggs evinced neither modesty nor shame about his service to the OSS. In the heady year 1967 he chose the Fellow Newsletter of the American Anthropological Association to reminisce about his mutually informing work as an OSS officer and anthropologist (this amidst a controversy over a proposal that the AAA to endorse a "Resolution against Warfare" that censured the American government's means of fighting the Vietnam War, including "deliberate policies of genocide" that "offend human nature"). A similarly sanguine spirit surfaces in the memoir of Carleton Coon, an erstwhile mentor of Briggs's at Harvard, who also served the OSS in North Africa during the war. Coon was a self-proclaimed adventurer who had already spent some two decades living, working, and traveling in North Africa, mostly in the Rif Mountains of Morocco. His account of his time as an OSS employee, in which he boasts of training assassins and kidnappers, is nothing short of swashbuckling, occasionally straining credulity and not infrequently raising ethical questions.
How did Briggs spend the war years? In the wake of the war, when Briggs was nominated for a Medal of Freedom, his supervisor, Rudyard Boulton, would describe Briggs's wartime activities in warm but vague terms: "Mr. Briggs was appointed Security Officer of the Regiment with duties of devising ways and means of indoctrinating regimental personnel, forestalling attempts at penetration on the post of enemy agents, screening and vetting foreign personnel to be employed locally and behind the enemy lines and assuring the safety of the classified documents of the Regiment." In fact, Briggs's experience of war was brief. During the Allied invasion of southern Europe, he joined the Seventh Army as a special security detail in France, but was forced to return quickly due to ill health. By then, most Americans stationed in North Africa had been withdrawn. Briggs was desperate to stay. In a series of frantic letters to his supervisors in Washington, he insisted that the OSS required a man on the ground in Algiers, "certainly the most important city south of Marseille and west of Cairo." Without such a representative in North Africa, Briggs fretted, the OSS would "lose face," and "the U.S. Government will lose face (but seriously, and I believe it is serious)," and certain career diplomats with whom he viewed the OSS (or, perhaps, himself) to be in competition (American Consul Robert Daniel Murphy was one) would win "a rather violent scramble ... for North Africa."
So began a strange few years, in which Briggs lived in Algiers as a civilian but served, undercover, as "Chief of Station, OSS, Algiers"—a title he either adopted or was assigned in December 1944. In this capacity, he voluntarily adopted a code name for himself ("179") and for others with whom he communicated; he entered into an increasingly embattled relationship with the office of the American Consul General; and he labored without pay for at least six months (from October 1944 to April 1945) because, it seems, no one was directly supervising him. Perhaps the single strangest document generated during these ambiguous months was by Briggs's father-in-law, Gerald Livingston, who wrote a caustic letter to the OSS in October 1946 begging the agency to order Briggs's return. Briggs, Livingston wrote, "has very important responsibilities here [in the United States]," including an elderly mother, a wife, a daughter "who is rapidly growing up," (his daughter Eleanor was then seven years old) and a business that was allocating Briggs "a good proportion of the firm's earnings" despite the fact that he was "doing no work." Briggs "has certainly done his duty for our country," his father-in-law continued, cautioning, "No one is essential in any job." "All the husbands of my daughter's friends have returned and are back in their former positions in civilian life," Livingston concluded: "It looks to me as though Mr. B thinks the world will come to an end unless he runs your affairs at Algiers."
Briggs's father-in-law may have been a crank, but he was not the only discontent; nor was he wrong in sensing something was amiss with his son-in-law in Algiers. Briggs and his wife would divorce within the year, and he was to remarry Madeleine Dañus, a native of Marseille, soon after. In the professional realm, too, all was not as it seemed. In the unruly, immediate postwar years, a number of grievances against Briggs were lodged with the OSS. One was by Harold Finley, newly appointed American consul in Algiers, who expressed concern about "the erroneous character of the information [Brigggs] transmits to the OSS." Finley's attention had apparently earlier been drawn to the unreliability of Briggs's reportage, but his letter to the American Consulate General focused on two recent episodes. The first of these was a report of 29 July 1946, concerning the ostensible arrival, from Brazzaville, of the renowned Algerian nationalist Ahmed Ben Messali Hadj. Briggs's report describes the political activist being "received with an impressive informal spontaneous demonstration consisting principally of numerous Moslem owned vehicles forming a cortege to accompany him, and also rushing about certain sections of town, with their occupants shouting "Vive Messali" and similar sentiments." This information, Finley noted, did not square with that generated by his own sources, including Air France (which had no evidence of Messali's arrival from Brazzaville), government officials, or the city's "newspaper men": he speculated, further, that Briggs's report may well have confused Messali with André Marty, secretary of the Communist Party, "who was in transit through Algiers on July 27, and for whom a 'tea' was given at the Hotel de Ville."
The second piece of information to which Finley objected concerned the political predilections of Algiers' Jewish community. In a memo of 30 July, Briggs informed his supervisors of negotiations between the Jewish Consistory and "Moslem Nationalists," "by which, in the event of the granting to Algeria of partial or complete autonomy, the Arabs undertake to give the Jews a sort of 'preferred status,' that is to consider them rather as Moslems than Europeans in matters where there is a differentiation between the two. The Jews on their part [sic], have agreed to help the Moslems to achieve as great a degree of independence as possible, and to help them get the new state running." This possibility, Finley's complaint noted, was "startling news, coming at a time when Moslem-Jewish antipathies are extremely bitter." Finley's letter to his superior notes that he called Briggs to his office, remarking that it would be prudent for Briggs and the Consulate General's office to "report the same 'facts,' even if, as might be expected from time to time, our interpretations of the facts differed." Briggs replied that he was under instruction from the OSS "to report what he hears without necessarily checking his information.... He added that if the information he reported turned out to be wrong, his error would be discovered in Washington before the report was made available to the Department of State and other Departments having an interest in intelligence." Finley asked Briggs whether he might read the OSS's orders to this effect, to which Briggs retorted they were oral instructions delivered in Washington. It was an episode for which Briggs would be indirectly censured by his superiors.
Was Finley, new consul in town, struggling to assert authority over an American not directly subordinate to him, whose experience he found threatening or whose standing he felt undeserved? Was Briggs genuinely lazy in his reporting? These questions—which are impossible to answer with confidence—are less intriguing than is Briggs's attitude in Algiers, his relationship to the information he gathered, and the narratives this information emboldened him to build. For what Lloyd Cabot Briggs's early history in Algeria teaches us is that this was a lover of drama: a man animated by subterfuge, flashy names, grand encounters, moments of suspense. He was comfortable stringing loosely related anecdotes together—anecdotes gathered second- and thirdhand, their original source unidentifiable—and weaving the results into a tale whose vividness was ultimately more pleasing than its veracity. He was also a man who delighted in connections and credentials, even if their depth was exaggerated. These impulses Briggs transmitted from his days in the OSS into "the field" of the Sahara and, ultimately, into the pages of No More for Ever.
Briggs returned to the States in the spring of 1947, and found that his erstwhile mentors at Harvard were receptive to the idea of his "returning to the academic fold." (Prior to his tenure with the OSS Briggs had passed qualifying exams at Harvard that advanced him to the status of doctoral candidate.) His hope was to conduct a portion of his coursework at the University of Algiers, where he had already been approved as a doctoral candidate. Were he to return to Algeria, he wished to carry on laboratory work at the Bardo Museum of Algiers with the help of Maurice Reygasse (the museum's director and former district commissioner of Tébessa), to excavate a cave in the Gorges de Palestro, and to tour the country, looking for Paleolithic deposits. All these ambitions Briggs would realize within the decade. He successfully pursued a doctorate in physical anthropology (awarded in 1952) under the mentorship of Earnest Hooton and with the assistance of Coon, writing a dissertation that focused on the prehistory of northwest Africa and that hinged on research carried out at the Bardo's Laboratory of Physical Anthropology and Prehistoric Archeology. The year after his degree was completed, Briggs would travel to the Algerian Sahara for the first time in the company of Reygasse and the distinguished American photographer David Douglas Duncan, who was preparing a photographic essay on the Tuareg of the Sahara for Life magazine. (As Briggs wrote to his classmates at Harvard on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of their graduation: "A great place if you like deserts, which I do.") (See figure 3.)
Excerpted from Saharan Jews and the Fate of French Algeria by Sarah Abrevaya Stein. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents
Note on Translation and Transliterations
Prologue: The Lost Archive
Introduction: Inventing Indigeneity
Chapter 1. Anthropology and the Ghost of the Colonial Past
Chapter 2. Jews Northern and Southern: The French Annexation of the Mzab and the Boundaries of Colonial Law
Chapter 3. Governing Typologies: From the Conquest of the Mzab to the Touggourt/Dreyfus Affair
Chapter 4. Contested Access: Conscription, Public Health, and Education from the Fin de Siècle through the Interwar Period
Chapter 5. Saharan Battlegrounds: From the Vichy Regime to a Postwar World
Chapter 6. Oil, the Algerian War of Independence, and Competing Stories of Departure
Conclusion: Colonial Shadows
Epilogue: Dark Matter
Abbreviations of Archival and Library Collections