Medical Imperialism in French North Africa

Regenerating the Jewish Community of Colonial Tunis

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Richard C. Parks
France Overseas: Studies in Empire and Decolonization Series
  • Durham, NC: 
    University of Nebraska Press
    , October
     216 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This book represents an attempt to reconstruct the social, cultural, and historical context of the Tunisian Jewish community under French protectorate, in particular the period between the two World Wars. It presents useful information for readers who may not be very familiar with the histories and complex ethnic and religious struggles which were at play in Maghrebi and Middle Eastern societies during the Ottoman and European empires. 

Author Richard C. Parks's methodology is to focus on the discursive and material practices employed by the French to achieve its imperialist objectives. He highlights the importance of 19th and 20th century regenerative theories of science and medicine for achieving this goal, and explains how the French applied these theories in the areas of urban planning, sanitation, and public health. He examines the political and ideological motivations behind the French authorities's decision to target Tunisian Jews for regeneration. Parks suggests that after religion's loss of prestige in the late 18th century, the focus of the French shifted from saving Jewish souls to regenerating their bodies. He argues, for example, that the French founded the municipal sanitary infrastructure of Jewish neighborhoods and created a system for redrawing the map of Tunis to "segregate" populations according to religion, socio-economic status, and degrees of Westernization. They disseminated information about microbes and hygiene and were responsible, with the help of Tunisian women, in modernizing health services and lowering the rate of infant mortality. By doing so, Parks suggests that the French helped maintain "colonial power and hierarchies" (119). He argues further that, while showing concern for the well-being of Jews, the French neglected Tunisian Muslim Arabs and offers reasons for this neglect. Muslim Arabs did not benefit from the following three advantages favoring Jews: (1) an "established metropolitan tradition of attempts to modernize and assimilate" them into the national fabric of France; (2) a "strong metropolitan lobby of Jews" to represent them; and lastly (3) Muslims, "unlike their Jewish neighbors, lacked an influential metropolitan presence that could lobby" for their interests (17-18). More broadly, the French considered Arabs unassimilable. 

Parks also reviews the history and ideology of the Alliance Israëlite Universelle and its role in the administration of the project to regenerate Jews. He goes over the origins and reception of Zionism in Tunisia, describing the Alliance's response to Zionism as a fear that the movement would erode French assimilation and further describes the successful efforts of the French to increase their own presence in Tunisia, which was small in comparison with Italian presence. 

Parks's book is informative in the ways I have described and it is engaging in its approach to the material. However, I consider the term he uses to qualify Jewish Tunisian identity during the French protectorate unfitting. Parks writes: "Tunisian Jewish identity was a colonial identity with all of the resultant ambiguities, tensions, and unrequited aspirations inherent in the colonial experience." (his italics, 9) In my view, it is as if for Parks, Jewish identity was so shallow, unstable, and unreliable that it needed the qualifier "colonial" to complete it—a qualifier with pernicious associations. At the core of Parks's definition is the belief that Jews of the Mediterranean, unlike their Muslim and Christian counterparts, lack a fundamental attachment to the lands and cultures they inhabit and whose cultures they share and support. Parks position that Tunisian Jews—both Granas and Twansa—are loosely attached, easily unmoored, shifty, and ultimately disloyal is reflected in statements such as when Parks refers to "the relative ease with which Tunisian Jews ... latched onto the colonial identity." (13), as well as when he describes Granas Jews (Jews who arrived in Tunisia from Italy more than 200 years before colonial rule) as "a diasporic merchant community" that was "elastic enough to allow for a shift in political allegiance, from Italy to France, so long as the underlying political and socioeconomic protections remained intact" (14). It is as if, in Parks's mind, the quality and extent of the Jew's interaction with others were lesser than that attributable to other minority and majority populations living around them. Parks rightly argues that identity is a tricky concept when we designate a community that existed long before the political existence of Tunisia. He is equally right when he suggests that "the power to name groups of people and to determine the social, political, and geographical parameters of their identities" bestows considerable power in the hands of historians (9). However, it is a mistake to approach Jews as a foreign population frozen in time two or more centuries after they have settled in Tunisia. 

Identity is always constructed, always relational, always multiple. Tunisian Jews, like Egyptian Jews, and other Mediterranean peoples, had agency and lived—for the most part—in open and dynamic social and political environments. The best methodology for approaching such a complex environment is intersectional and not, as this study does, by selective binaries. Albert Memmi, whom Parks quotes at the beginning of each of his 5 chapters—as well as in the book's Preface and Conclusion—remarks that his own Tunisian identity is multiple, inextricably so, and fluid. 

Tunisian Jews, like their Muslim and Christian counterparts, identified with the land, with its history, and with their own history within it. In a way, Parks confirms this sentiment of belonging in the Conclusion where he recounts an encounter in the Tunis medina with an old Jew: "This elderly lady, whose name was never offered, recounted the disappearance of her community with surprising equanimity, recalling the dramatic events of the late 1960s and early 1970s that emptied Tunisia of all but a few remaining Jews. When I asked her why she stayed, she answered, as if surprised by the question, that she was Tunisian, so where else could she live?" (140).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aimée Israel-Pelletier is Professor of French in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Date of Review: 
March 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard C. Parks is an academic specialist in the history of science and medicine at Michigan State University.


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