North Africa has long been home to ancient, diverse communities of Jews, originally from Spain, Italy, Palestine, or elsewhere. Many claim to have inhabited the area stretching from Morocco to Tunisia for nearly two millennia—since around 70 CE—although others trace their roots even farther back in time to the Punic or Carthaginian period (ca. 814-146 BCE). Traditionally, Morocco boasted a large Jewish community whose numbers reached in the hundreds of thousands. As the notion of the civilizing mission spread throughout the French empire during the nineteenth century, French Jews from Paris embraced this idea to promote the cultural regeneration of non-European Jews—mainly in North Africa and the Middle East—by introducing modern education.
In 1860, a new, private Jewish organization was founded in Paris—the Alliance Israélite Universelle—whose goal was to teach modern French ideas in the realms of social, political, and cultural life, above all, in primary education, to Jews outside of Europe. To that end, French or European Jewish teachers trained in modern pedagogy, books, and curricula were dispatched as “missionaries” to places like Morocco. The kind of education and social organization advocated by the Paris-based Alliance Israélite constituted a revolutionary break with the past for North African Jews. At first, schools were only for boys, but by the late nineteenth century, girls schools had also been created in Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. One of North Africa’s leading Jewish writers and novelists—Albert Memmi, born in 1920 in Tunis—was educated in a school established by the Alliance.
Despite their good intentions, French Jews attempting to modernize their fellow Arab Jews encountered resistance, particularly when it came to changes in gender relations, women’s legal status, and girls upbringing. In Mrs. M. Coriat’s 1902 report, “A Sympathetic Account of the Condition of the Women of Marakesh, submitted to the Alliance, ” we see some of the same attitudes that Christian missionaries held toward non-Christian peoples in Asia and Africa, or, indeed, middle-class social reformers in the United States or Europe toward working-class peoples in American or European cities.
Source: Clancy-Smith, Julia. “Albert Memmi and The Pillar of Salt.” In African Literature and Its Times. Edited by Joyce Moss. Los Angeles: Moss Publication Group, 2000.
Education. What most surprises the parents of your girls is the cleanliness and the polite manners acquired by the children at the school.
All of our efforts in this direction have been crowned with success.
Prior to the foundation of our school the young girls one would see in the streets were dirty, unkempt, and barefoot; now they are unrecognizable, as they come to school every day perfectly presentable.
Even today, at the end of the school day, a good number of women stand in their doorways to watch the “girls from the school” pass by. There is whispering and chattering. “Look over there. So-and-so’s daughter is wearing stockings and shoes; see that other one with the hat?” These little scenes are played out day after day.
At present our girls laugh about it and are amazed that, not long ago, they could have gone out of the house without stockings, sometimes even without shoes.
In my first letters to the Central Committee, I found many occasions to discuss the character of our girls: dishonest, sly, selfish. Those were the principal faults against which we had to fight. They would not hesitate an instant to accuse one of their friends, even their best friends, or to try and fool the teacher. Some progress has been made in this direction also. I am not saying that the girls are models of solidarity, cooperation, and kindness. But I have noted with satisfaction that there is no longer the same spirit of cunning and deceit among my students. Before, it was always a question of who could find the best ruse to get out of a difficult situation. There was joy on their faces when one of their classmates was being punished. Now they have stopped trying to trick their teacher, and when they have done something wrong, I am able to get at the truth of the matter, something that was impossible in the beginning.