An Issue of French Citizenship for Algerian Jews

In the 1960s, history was rewritten and modified in Algeria. How, you might ask? Professor Sarah Stein looked into just this question with her presentation and research project Decolonization and the Jews of the Sahara: National Myth Making in Israel, Algeria and France. Her research took her to the French colonization of Algeria starting in the mid-1800s, and followed the lives of the Jewish communities there into the present day. The issue that has raised concerns in the past decade has to do with the nationality and citizenship status of Algerian Jews living in France.

When the French colonized northern Algeria, they granted French citizenship in 1877 to the Jewish communities living there. However, when France later occupied southern Algeria, they did not immediately grant citizenship to the Saharan Jews until much later. The French differentiated between northern and southern Jews for about 80 years.

When the Saharan Jews were finally given citizenship status, it was discovered that their rabbi had not been keeping adequate tabs on the community. Records regarding births, deaths, and marriages were missing and had to be quickly compiled. At around this same time, a civil war was going on in Algeria, and the Jewish communities were in a hurry to leave. Since the compilation of accurate information was taking too much time, the French government decided that it would be better for the Jews to simply forge their identifications to make the process go more quickly and smoothly. Of course, when the option to forge documents came up, a number of people wanted to change their information. Some individuals wanted to change their name, some changed their ages to make themselves appear younger, and a whole slew of misinformation was created in this time period. In addition, Israel sent over an emissary to register Jews for Israeli citizenship. His efforts were cut short and lost after he caught wind of an assassination attempt.

All this misinformation has created problems that have lasted until the present day. Because history had been rewritten, Algerians who have moved to France are encountering difficulties in becoming true citizens. There have been attempts by France and Israel to procure the original historical documents, but to no avail so far. In the end, it may be archaeology that can resolve these issues. History can be rewritten to represent an individual’s desires, but the science of archaeology is harder to alter.

Where do Saharan Jews Belong?

When Professor Sarah Abrevaya Stein spoke at Vassar College she discussed the Jews of the Sahara.  Which country does their history belong to?  France, Israel, and Algeria all seem to gain control of the community.  Rabbinical records are unclear, so it is difficult to tell which country has the right to write the history of the Jews of the Sahara.


During the end of the Algerian Revolution, France finally gave Jews of the Sahara citizenship.  They had previously given citizenship to Jews in the North, and division between the two groups had grown.  When giving the Saharan Jews citizenship, France had to review records held by the rabbinical leadership that had previously controlled the Saharan Jews.  Finding the documentation sloppy, France decided to have documentation for Saharan Jews forged.


But Israel created another body of papers for Saharan Jews.  Israel argued that all the Saharan Jews belonged to it because Israel is the Jewish homeland.  Israel did not see how France could attempt to repatriate Algerian Jews if Jews never originated from France.  France on the other hand, considered the Jews as their people.  The French wanted to unwrite an unpopular history.  If France had been in control of Algeria, then in the French logic, the Jews were French.

A Saharan Jew that believes Saharan Jews do not belong in France

If archaeology was done, we could see how much Saharan Jews interacted with the French, prior to being repatriated.  Archaeology could tell us whether the Jews connected themselves more with France, Israel, or neither.

However, both France and Israel stooped to using pseudoscience.  Nationalism has “served as a motive for extreme or unsubstantiated…claims” (Feder 11).  The Algerian government has no interest in sharing the real documents, so creating documents was the best way to claim a people.  Probing more, countries could find out information against them. Good results are easier to obtain and better if you make up your own documentation.  It is unethical, but productive, for countries to flat out lie.

Unfortunately the issue is not only limited to Saharan Jews.  Similar stories are common in North Africa and the Middle East.

Nationalism is not an excuse from following the scientific method.  If a country cannot properly follow science that sets a terrible example to its citizens.  The reason why there is such confusion about whom the Saharan Jews belong to is because too much has been made up.  The truth is hidden by lies and a lack of cooperation.

The Epic Battle Between Archaeologists and Looters

There is much controversy and misunderstanding in the public sphere over which practices make for sound archaeology and which make for looting. In reality, the difference between the two is very simple: the goal of an archaeologist is to learn about culture through objects that have been preserved through time, whereas the goal of a looter is to collect and profit from these objects. Looting is dangerous because looters are often extremely reckless in their dealings with artifacts; since they do not have the training required to deal with precariously preserved sites, they often end up destroying huge parts of a site’s historical record, even if by accident. Slack Farm provides just one example of what happens when looters demolish a site: once hailed as one of the last untouched and preserved Mississippian settlements, Slack Farm is now a wasteland of destroyed human and cultural remains. Its historical record is completely wiped out.

One problem that archaeologists face when attempting to prevent looting is that popular cultural representations of archaeology often integrate looting with the archaeological process, blurring—and in some cases completely eliminating—the distinction between the two. One example of this can be found in 1999 film The Mummy: the “archaeologists” in the movie all sign on with the goal of finding gold-encrusted Egyptian artifacts that can be sold for high prices. And yet, the movie is advertised as being about an “archaeological dig.”

Misrepresentations of archaeology are not only found in movies. Recently, a new television show was created that caused uproar in the archaeology community. Called “American Digger,” the show features an ex-wrestler who digs up artifacts using “state of the art technology”—in other words, power tools—and sells them for a profit. At least two Facebook pages have been created in protest of the show, but through this medium of debate, another problem has been revealed: that of the lack of respect for professional, trained archaeologists. Many people believe that if amateurs don’t dig up certain artifacts, they will remain uncovered forever and nobody will get to enjoy them. Others implore archaeologists to stop bothering amateurs that have adopted archaeology as a hobby; after all, everyone is entitled to have fun, right?

Unfortunately, these people are missing the point of archaeology, which is to study past cultures and wider cultural patterns that relate to current times. Once an artifact is brought out of the ground and out of its matrix, it can never be studied in context again; therefore, when amateur looters take artifacts, their historical value—and what could be very important information about the past—is lost forever.

Established archaeology organizations have regulations to keep valuable information from being lost. For example, the Societies of American and Historical Archaeology and the Register of Professional Archaeology all agree that pricing or bartering artifacts is unethical, since it takes away from the educational goals of the field. Additionally, all three organizations provide for the consideration of cultures that might lay some claim to the artifacts, promoting very careful and methodical excavation. Ultimately, all three organizations aim to spread knowledge about their findings in a timely fashion, and to make their data available to the public. Organizations like these hopefully make the goals of true archaeology more clear, and garner respect among those who seek information about—and not price estimates of—the past.

The Pitfall of Nationalism in Archaeology

At its core, Archaeology is about the formation of identities. One aspect of this is the formation of national identities. In Professor Sarah Abrevaya Stein’s lecture, “Decolonization and the Jews of the Sahara: National Myth Making in Israel, Algeria, and France,” she addresses a specific example of this issue by asking who has the rights or control of the Algerian Jews’ past history? In order to answer this, one has to take into consideration the historical and archaeological records. However, due to nationalism, archaeology and history can often be misused for a country’s own benefit.

After the Algerian War of Independence, the French government wanted to allow Jews from both North and South Algeria to immigrate to France. The process became complicated and messy since before the war the French created a huge divide between the North and South Jews. They granted the North Jews legal status so that they could become French citizens. The South Jews, however, were much more resistant to French control. Therefore, France did not give them legal rights. This lack of documentation for the South Jews became a critical issue after the war since they could not immigrate to France without the legal documents. In response, the French government forged new documents for them.

Who truly has the rights to the Algerian Jew's history?

The current debates center on ownership of these documents. France, Algeria, and Israel claim rights to them for the benefit of their own nations. To the French, the Algerians are a part of their history and past. Without the documents, France would lose records of its supposed citizens and colonization and therefore a critical part of its national history and identity. Algeria claims these records since it wants to reverse France’s claims of colonization and retain its people as a part of its history. Israel took offense to the mass exodus of Jews to France instead of Israel. Due to this resentment and tension, Israel wants to claim rights the documents as well. Overall, nationalism underlies the motives of all these countries.

Thus, if archaeology is used to help settle this issue, archaeologists must be objective and implement a scientific method. Nationalism is one of the biggest reasons why archaeology is misused (Feder 11). France, Algeria, and Israel each have their own personal and nationalistic reasons for wanting rights to the documents of the Jews. If the archaeologists are biased by these reasons, then the issue will only become more problematic, and contentious debates will never end.

Givin’ Credit Where Credit is Due

The architectual, artistic, scientific and technological achievements of human antiquity seem to be universally awe-inspiring, but our sense of wonder and thirst for knowledge about human prehistory and antiquity often makes us vulnerable to wacky theories and misunderstandings about the past. These theories include but are not limited to: worldwide alien visitations, diffusion of all forms of civilization from a single mythical race of higher intelligence (Atlantis), ancient predictions of doom, etc.

Most of these myths have already been addressed in this blog already, so the focus of this post will be more about the fictitious mysteries we create, the real mysteries we want to solve, and how archaeology as a science can go about investigating them.

Many famous ‘mysteries’ surrounding artifacts and monuments such as the Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge, the statues on Easter Island and the Mayan Calendar are usually spurred by misinterpretations or misrepresentations of human antiquity.

If the world really ends in 12 days, I'll have spent my entire life in school. Let's just take a moment to think about that.

The purpose of archaeology is to unveil these purported ‘mysteries’ through the scientific method. Because the past is gone, we are all forced to construct an image of the past in the present. This is where we begin to go awry and to allow our imaginations to run wild. Take a look at this website called “Truth Is Scary”: It hosts a plethora of misinformed ideas about human antiquity and ‘mysteries’ that are really not ‘mysteries’ at all. Many of the ‘facts’ can be easily disputed by anyone with historical, archaeological, geological or cultural knowledge of the particular people and places under discussion. The trouble lies in the average person’s easy acceptance of ‘facts’ that they can neither prove nor disprove themselves. This is where science comes in!

The goal of scientists is to construct images of the past that are verifiable (meaning that they have tried and tested evidence at the basis of their arguments – evidence that should be easily accessible to scientists and the public alike). According to Ashmore and Sharer, authors of Discovering Our Past, A Brief Introduction to Archaeology: “Science is concerned with gaining knowledge about the natural world by observation. Science is not concerned with things that cannot be ovserved or examined; these are the subjects of theology, philosophy, the occult, or pseudoscience” (Ashmore&Sharer 2012:11).

Most of the ‘mysteries’ surrounding famous monuments such as the Egyptian Pyramids can be solved by archaeological investigation. How were they built? Artifacts such as measuring tools, copper chisels and wooden mallets, wooden pulley wheels and even some rope fragments, not to mention wall paintings depicting construction processes and the nearby quarries from which the limestone blocks were carved, have been discovered by archaeologists and Egyptologists. Through science, we gain a greater understanding of how the ancient Egyptians accomplished such magnificent enterprises.


‘Real’ archaeological mysteries lie more in the ‘whys’ rather than the ‘whos,’ ‘hows’ or ‘whens.’ For example, the prehistoric (and stunningly beautiful) cave paintings in France and Spain, (some 37,000 years old based on radiocarbon dating), continue to captivate and elude us in many ways.

Were they ceremonial or part of shamanistic practices? Did the depiction of animals function as hunting magic – a sort of wishful thinking on the part of the prehistoric hunter-gatherers? Were they created purely for the joy of the creative process – art for art’s sake? We just don’t know.

One of the reasons why we believe so many ‘mysteries’ is due to our “intellectual and temporal conceit” (Feder 2011) resulting in a great underestimation on our part of the intelligence and abilities of human antiquity. Based on analysis of cranial capacity and intercranial impressions of prehistoric human skulls, our species have had the same intellectual capacity for about 195,000 years (Feder 2011).

Real mysteries currently under archaeological and scientific investigation should challenge us to accept the amazing capabilities of our ancestors, not to invent some outside source of intelligence or inspiration that undermines the ingenuity and hard work of prehistoric or ancient peoples.



Feder K. 2011. Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology. McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1221 Avenue of te Americas, New York, NY 10020.

Ashmore W, Sharer R. 2010. Discovering Our Past: A Brief Introduction to Archaeology. McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.

Controlling Historical Narratives

Who deserves control over a historical narrative when its key players are spread across nations and cultures?  This is the question that Professor Sarah Abrevaya Stein attempts to answer with her research on the documentation of Jews living under French rule in Algeria from 1830 to 1962.  She began by studying the history of the colonization and its societal impact on Jews living in both the northern and southern regions of the nation.  The French conquered northern Algeria first and subsequently attempted to transform the Jews into typical French citizens.  Therefore, they were granted the same legal status as the colonizers, a markedly different one than was later granted to the Jews of southern Algeria.  Those Jews were more resistant to subjugation and therefore declared indigenous subjects.  This label “outsourced” legal control to the rabbis and other leaders in the Jewish community.

The difference in treatment of the Jews became a problem when, towards the end of the Algerian war of independence, the French decided they wanted to undo the north/south differentiation they had created to allow Jews to immigrate to France.  To do so, they forged paperwork for those southern Jews that didn’t have any.  This documentation was particularly faulty because some Jews wished to change their names to make them sound more French or to claim a relation to a famous historical figure.

            Nevertheless, the project was eventually completed and many Jews did move to France when they had the opportunity.  The trials of such a fragmented cultural identity, however, were far from over.  Firstly, the state of Israel considered the relocation a betrayal of the Zionist project because so few Jews elected to move to Israel.  Although immigrants were apparently treated like second-class citizens while there, Israel continues to have shaky relations with Algeria to this day.  On the historical preservation front, a huge debate rose over which nation had the right to those papers of southern Algerian Jews.  French officials wanted the list to confirm citizenship and retain evidence of their colonization.  Algerians wanted the list to somewhat undo said colonization.  And Israel, to a certain extent, wanted the list because of that tension between it and those Jews that moved to France.

Professor Stein was unable to find any easy answers to the question of ownership, particularly due to the lack of international cooperation and clear access to historical databases.  These difficulties exemplify the complexity of narrative ownership due to colonization and immigration.  Countries across the globe, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, are confronted with this same issue today.

Nationalism and Record-Keeping in Archaeology

One of the major questions that came up during Professor Sarah Abrevaya Stein’s lecture, “Decolonization and the Jews of the Sahara: National Myth Making in Israel, Algeria, and France” was who has the right to write the history of Algerian Jews? After the decolonization of Algeria, several countries claimed to be in charge of collecting documents pertaining to Jewish history in Algeria both under French rule and the following period of decolonization. Why were France, Algeria, and Israel so concerned with who got to write the history of the Algerian Jews? The answer is nationalism. Archaeological and historical evidence is paramount in establishing a country’s legitimacy and generating national pride.

In his book Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology, Kenneth Feder notes that nationalism is one of the most common motivating factors among people that try to use archaeological evidence for their own personal gain. Feder writes that the need “to show that ‘we’ were here first or that ‘we’ were civilized before ‘you’ has led some to play fast and loose with the archaeological facts”(11). One major example of playing fast and loose with the archaeological facts is seen in the record-keeping before, during, and after Algerian decolonization. There is evidence that many documents were forged, giving a false impression of the history of Algerian Jews.

an organized way to store documents?

Incongruities in record keeping further complicated the debate over who had access to certain documents which country should be in charge of storing and protecting all of these documents. During, before, and after Algerian decolonization documents associated with the Jews of the Sahara were lost, buried, hidden and falsified. Each person or group of people in charge of creating, recording, storing, and maintaining these documents at various points in history used different methods. At some points record-keepers such as the Jewish leadership of Algeria were very lax in their record keeping, at other points documents were forged and falsified. Algerian Jews immigrating to France also changed their names to assimilate into French culture and adopt a new identity which further complicated the records.

This inconsistency in record-keeping makes it extremely difficult for archaeologists and historians to go back and decipher these documents. As we discussed in class today one of the standards of being an ethical archaeologist is properly recording data in way that all other archaeologists will understand it. We also discussed the importance of sharing data and documents, something Algerian, French, and Israeli government officials were reluctant to do.

Sharing is Caring!


A Story about National Identity and Archaeology

The archaeology of historical documents can be illuminating in our search to understand human history – how identities are created and maintained through acts of documentation.

Spongebob understands the fruitful results of painstaking documentation.

During the last eighty years of French colonial rule in Algeria, laws that granted Northern Algerian Jews access to French citizenship were extended to the

A Stylish Algerian Jew in Contrapposto

Southern Sahara Algerian Jews, who had previously been denied this legal distinction. When the Sahara Jews were granted permission to immigrate to France, problems of documentation arose as the community had been overlooked for eighty years – there was no “official” documentation to legitimize their ancestry or to monitor their futures in the French governmental system. The Northern Algerian Jews had been developing a very different identity than the Sahara Jews for 80 years, even though they were the ‘same people.’

The French forged a register of the Sahara Jews’ names, which marked the first cross-cultural struggle over documentation and the identities that it would be creating and solidifying. The French wanted to control and monitor the movements of the Jews who would be entered into their system, and The Sahara Jews wanted to control what was documented about them – often attempting to ‘purge’ their historical Jewishness by creating Europeanized names for themselves. It was an example of the power of written historical documents in the creating, reshaping and maintaining of cultural and national identities.

I wonder if he identifies as French?

The end of the war of independence came before the registry was completed, however, and throughout the ensuing years the Jewish community in Algeria was faced with a dilemma as their community collapsed. Where would they immigrate to – France, or Israel? Where did they ‘belong’ legally, geographically, historically? The French government, Israel and Algeria were suddenly fighting over the forged registry that would dictate who belonged where based on rather arbitrary categories of identity. Who had access to the Algerian Jews’ historical documents – did the France or Israel have the right to store them, keep them, or utilize them?

Archaeology, with its unbiased scientific approach to studying human pasts, can help us begin to answer questions such as these. We know that archaeology is not all about digging in the dirt: the archaeological analysis and preservation of historical documents and artifacts can help us understand how and why identities are created and reshaped throughout history.

Archaeology: The Homeless Population’s Hero

Most people think of archeology as a field that solely specializes in analyzing the past through the discovery of mysterious artifacts that have been submerged under layers of soil for hundreds of years. However, this is a faulty misconception. Since archaeology is about analyzing “stuff” – material culture left behind by people – it is quite possible to gather archaeological data from a site that was deserted as little as 5 minutes ago. In fact, archaeology has the potential of being extremely valuable in the settlement of current social issues. One such present-day problem is homelessness in America.

This topic holds special weight with me. The town where I live has a large homeless population, and when I was younger I used to help my mom cook for them at our local soup kitchen. I’ll never forget the time a homeless man, setting up his bed next to a church on a cold night, told me, “Be thankful for your parents, and let them know how grateful you are each and every day”. I was eternally touched by his simple words. These people are very much human and very much like the rest of us, but the majority of society tends to view homeless people as very separate from the common person. Do we really know what they need? Do we really know who they are? That’s where archaeology comes in.

Material culture at a homeless camp.

A study was completed by Larry J. Zimmerman and student Jessica Welch that analyzed the material culture left behind by homeless people in an outdoor camp in Indianapolis. They found that the materials the homeless used can help us realize what they need, not just what we think they need. For example, they discovered a large number of canned food items, but the cans were not opened very successfully. This demonstrates how although we think we are helping homeless people when we give them canned goods, we rarely recognize that they don’t have can openers to access the food.

Most food drives are for canned foods, but we fail to realize that the homeless have trouble opening these cans. Collecting can openers would be effective.

Also, Zimmerman explains how he found lots of travel-sized shampoos, conditioners, and toothpastes. However, the toothpaste was the only item that was opened and used. Obviously, without running water, homeless people cannot wash or condition their hair. We are unintentionally ignorant to the actual needs of these people, but through archaeology we can reevaluate our view of the homeless and actually make a difference.


Therefore, with the help of archaeology, the homeless can be humanized and understood on an entirely new level. This knowledge can aid us in developing a more accurate view of their culture, and that understanding can be applied publicly and lawfully. So, all we have to do is publicize these truths about the homeless and make the community in which they live aware of their real necessities, right? This is easier said than done.

Publications are rarely made about archaeology and social matters because people don’t like hearing bad things about what they like and what they do. We don’t want to have our lives analyzed and scolded, and the truth that archaeology exposes reveals humanity’s “dirty little secrets” that we naturally want to keep concealed. Archaeological knowledge can be applied to current issues and accurately breed social justice, but this can’t occur until misconceptions about archaeology are obliterated and the field is understood by the public.

Archaeology’s Shy Side

When people think of archaeology, their mental image is skewed. They either believe it to be some big, exotic adventure constantly or some kind of trickery. People tend to believe archaeological discoveries are nothing but adventures and proving outrageous legends because most of the “discoveries” that are being spoken of in the news and on the internet are the stories of these means meant for personal gain and not reliable stories that one can trust. These “discoveries” continue to be published because they are what is thought to be interesting and exciting. They are most closely related to what the average person associates with archaeology. The tall tales are what reach the public’s ear because they are fast and easy. People in today’s society do not like to wait for results. To have to wait for an article to pass through the long process of reviews and edits is much too long for the average person’s attention span. A quick Google search is the answer that most people’s hearts desire. When I Googled “current archaeological discoveries”, this was the first website on the list:
This website was a sort of compilation of other sites that can be added by users. There is no way for average people to know if any of these sites have any credibility to them whatsoever. Anyone can contribute and people will take it as truth. Minds are very mold-able.
Perhaps the thing people associate the least with archaeology is sitting at a desk all day long. But, as I discovered, that is a very large part of archaeology. Archaeologists do not just run off to a site and start digging

around. There is a lot of planning and pouring over maps that happens prior to any survey of excavation. I sat at a desk for 3 hours staring at map after map after map comparing the areas surrounding the Ashokan Reservoir and seeing how the areas have changed over time. A large part of archaeology is understanding how large changes to areas can impact everything that has any sort of relationship to the area. The maps have to be overlaid and surveyed to note changes in towns, like if they move to a new location or if they are no more, and roads, and the like. What is now

underwater needs to be noted as well. After all these notes are made about the areas, you need to look at maps of public access areas and compare them to the topographical maps so you can see what possible sites are readily available for surveying and possible excavation. When you are first getting oriented with the maps, you get completely and utterly confused. However, the confusion aids your work, ultimately. It helps you work harder to try and understand just what it is you are looking at and for. Once you work passed this bewilderment, you get into a flow and can continue the work with slightly more ease. After

plotting all these sites and pouring over these maps, your brain does start to hurt, though. I found that listening to David Bowie and Elton John helps that particular affliction.