Alliance School in Baghdad, 1908 (courtesy Ezra Hakkak)
One hundred and fifty years ago in Paris, 17 young Jews met to found one of the most extraordinary social engineering projects of all time - a network of 200 schools that would transform the lives of thousands of Jews living in the Ottoman empire. The Alliance Israelite Universelle is still going strong, although most of its work is now focused on Israel and France. The AIU will be celebrating its 150th anniversary later this year with a photo exhibition at the Paris city hall, and a gala dinner attended by the French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy and Israeli President Shimon Peres. In this extract from a lecture delivered in 2008, historian Lucien Gubbay describes the origins of the Alliance, born as a response to rising antisemitism:
The Jews of France were the first in Europe to gain full emancipation and having survived the ups and downs of Napoleon's Jewish policy, they reacted with gratitude to their new status as French citizens of the Israélite persuasion.
Maintaining the lowest possible profile, they fast assimilated into French life. Though the position of Jews in nineteenth century France was far better than that of most other Jewish communities in Europe, their integration into society was threatened and obstructed by the rapid rise of a new kind of anti-Semitism – this time based on race rather than on religion as in medieval times. This modern anti-Semitism, which reached one of its peaks in the Dreyfus affair that divided the entire nation towards the end of the century, increasingly made Jews fear for their newly-won status as French citizens.
Great disquiet was caused by repeated press reports of blood-libel accusations made against Jews in the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean - for those incidents were taken up avidly by a hostile French press in a manner that were interpreted as direct attacks on France's own Jews. The most celebrated of these blood-libels occurred in Damascus in 1839 when a newly arrived French Consul in the city accused the Jews of murdering a Capuchin friar and his attendant – and of draining their blood for use in baking Passover matzah.
Fully supported by the French government of the day, and with the acquiescence of the Muslim governor of Damascus, the Consul prosecuted his accusation with unbridled energy – and in the process caused much suffering to the unfortunate Jews of Damascus, quite unable to defend themselves against so powerful an opponent.
It is to its everlasting credit that, in response to this and similar events, 19th century French Jewry began to emerge as champion of oppressed Jews throughout the world. Following the French occupation of Algeria in 1830, its Jewish population was given every encouragement to acquire French citizenship and – even more important - sufficient French education and culture to enable its members to progress as rapidly as possible to the same status as that enjoyed by the Jews of France itself. However, hostile attitudes to Jews were advancing fast. In the Mortara affair of 1858, an Italian Jewish child, who had allegedly been secretly baptised by his nursemaid, was seized from his parents by Papal guards and brought up as a Christian under the personal protection of the Pope.
That outrage caused an international furore which was reported with menacing overtones by right-wing elements of the French press. And it was the long drawn-out and ultimately unsuccessful struggle to return Edgardo Mortara to his parents that provided the final stimulus for the establishment of the Alliance Israélite Universelle. The Alliance was established in Paris in 1860; and it was headed by Adolphe Crémieux, a veteran politician with high reputation as a champion of Jewish rights.
He had already done much for the Jews of Algeria; and later was to sign the Crémieux Decree, making them all French citizens. And, as I am sure you know, Adolphe Crémieux accompanied England’s Moses Montefiore on their famous mission to rescue the beleaguered Jews of Damascus, accused of the blood-libel.
The aims of the Alliance Israélite Universelle were set out in its initial manifesto with high-sounding idealism.
If you believe that a great number of your co-religionists, overcome by twenty centuries of misery, of insults and prohibitions, can recover their dignity as men and win the dignity of citizens . . . If you believe one should moralize those who have been corrupted and not condemn them, enlighten those who have been blinded and not abandon them, raise those who have been exhausted and not rest by pitying them .... If you believe in all these things, Jews of the world, come and hear our appeal.
In other words, the Alliance sought to re‑make the Jews of North Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans in the idealised self‑image of the semi-assimilated French Jews of its own day for to French Jews, those of the East were a poor benighted lot, backward, obscurantist and in dire need of civilising influences from the West. The method chosen by the directors of the Alliance for their romantic mission of regenerating their less fortunate brethren was as extraordinary and far-sighted as it was undramatic. Setting aside the high-flown rhetoric, it was quite simply to establish a network of French-style schools to replace the traditional Talmud Torah system everywhere in the region. Once established, the Alliance schools were eagerly grasped as a lifeline by those Jews of the decaying Ottoman Empire able to do so for it seemed to them that this was the only sure way in which their children could escape from the trough of helpless poverty into which most Jews had by then descended.
Before the coming of the Alliance, Jews could only get European schooling at Catholic or Protestant missionary establishments; and they were not always that welcoming to Jews reluctant to convert to Christianity.And so, it was though the European-style education provided by Alliance schools that Sephardim of the Ottoman Empire were able to acquire the rudiments of a secular education, including - and most important - some knowledge of French and English. Once again they could start building up contacts with European merchants. Once again they could travel to, and trade with, the West. Once again they could start competing with their Christian rivals.
And for the very first time they began to look to the West, not just with nostalgia but as the very key to survival and worldly success. So overwhelming was the French cultural influence promoted by the Alliance school system that my own father, brought up in Aleppo and then living in Cairo, told me that he really felt that he had finally come “home” on first arriving in Paris. At the peak of its activity before the break-up of Ottoman Empire, the Alliance was teaching some 40,000 pupils in something like two hundred schools.
Now, you will see from those figures that only a small proportion of the Jews of the Middle East, North Africa and the Balkans was exposed to the European influence of the Alliance schools. And even then, some parents could only afford to keep their children in school for three or four years of what was not much more than advanced elementary education. But a few children did proceed from Alliance schools to higher French or other European schools; and it was they who eventually formed the new Jewish upper-middle class.
In time, the Alliance created an alternative network of power and influence to replace that of the traditional communal leadership; and it extended its activities still further in the colonial period that followed the final dissolution of the Ottoman Empire; The Alliance slowly but surely moved from the margins to the very centre of Jewish life in those countries in which it was active.
But despite its splendid work, the Alliance was bitterly opposed in conservative religious circles, where it was accused of alienating its pupils from their Jewish roots.
In its enthusiasm for all things French and European - for the new world ahead - it was claimed that the Alliance failed to foster appreciation of the old, that it diminished respect for religion and opened a gulf between secularly educated children and their more pious parents. Of course the Alliance schools - with their vocational training, with their education of girls and women, and with their initial hostility to Zionism - were very different from the traditional religious schools of the poverty‑stricken Jewish areas of North Africa and the Middle East.
And there is no doubt that there often was open antagonism between the Alliance’s Paris-trained teachers and the traditional rabbis of the areas in which it operated. But the Alliance had always intended its schools to foster Judaism, which it described as 'the source of joy and energy that has enabled Jews to live through centuries of persecution and oppression without equal in history’and the study of Hebrew, Judaism and Jewish history constituted an important part of its curriculum, both at local level and at its teacher-training college in Paris.
But many Paris‑trained Alliance teachers openly despised what they regarded as the superstitious religion of the traditionalist rabbis. And as religious instruction in the schools was relegated to local rabbis, considered backward by Alliance standards, traditional Judaism was effectively marginalised and rendered less attractive to the more ambitious pupils.
It must be admitted that part of the price paid for the Alliance's tremendous achievement in liberating so many Ottoman Jews from obscurity and poverty was that many of its former pupils became very vulnerable to outside pressures when removed from their closely-knit communities and the accusation that the Alliance's work led directly to a loosening of religious ties and to the rapid assimilation of some of its graduates remains the sole question mark on its splendid record of achievement.
This problem of the clash of Western and traditional religious values was not a new one. Napoleon, you will remember, in his progress across Europe, cast down the ghetto walls and liberated Jews everywhere. And a very similar dilemma was faced by Shneur Zalman, founder of the Lubavitch Movement when he was urged to support Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812. Zalman readily agreed that the French would bring emancipation and badly needed material benefit to the oppressed and poverty-stricken Jews of Russia but for the sake of religion, he firmly opposed Jewish emancipation and brought all his influence to bear against Napoleon - and in favour of “ our father the Czar”.
What then, we may ask, what then became of the mass of Jews who were either unable or unwilling to benefit from the Alliance’s efforts and were taught only in a traditional Talmud Torah? Well, they emerged into the 20th century with very little secular knowledge - and with no command of French or English, and they proved remarkably ill-equipped to face the great migrations to which they were subjected both during and after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of modern Arab nationalism.
On the positive side, I once asked one of my wife Joyce’s elderly uncles what he really thought of them. And what this Paris‑trained ex‑Alliance teacher, very secular in his outlook, had to say was surprising. Though poor and ignorant, with no secular education or knowledge of European languages they were nevertheless people of genuine piety un-tinged with fanaticism, modest and with a high standard of morality. We may not see their like again. But it must be admitted that few echoes of that sympathetic recognition of values other than those of semi‑assimilated Westernised Jews can be found in Alliance records.