The change in the legal status of Jews in Muslim countries was part of a general process of Westernization that took place in these societies between the end of the 18th century and World War I. Basically, this meant the revocation of the Pact of Omar — the series of regulations applied to the dhimmis (protected Christians and Jews) from the days of the first caliphs (religious and civic rulers of the Muslim world who claimed succession from Muhammad). Indeed, the advent of European-influenced reform, which left its mark on all countries in the Middle East and North Africa (except Yemen and Iran), brought with it considerable improvement in the social and political status of the Jews throughout the Muslim world.
The Western powers’ concern with minorities — including Jews, Christians, and Greeks — in the Islamic countries was not simply humanitarian in nature. Dealing with these minorities conveniently served as a means of intervention and control in regions of great strategic and economic importance. For example, Sultan Abd Al-Majod’s proclamation of two important decrees, the Hatt-i-Sherif (1839) and the Hatt-i-Humayun (1856), which inaugurated a whole series of measures granting equal rights for all communities in the Ottoman Empire, were issued as a concession to European pressure.
Emancipation in Tunisia was precipitated by the Batto Sfez affair, which concerned a Jewish coach-driver executed in 1856 for having blasphemed Islam. Scandalized, Jews and Europeans in Tunisia sent a delegation to Napoleon III requesting his protection. The emperor responded immediately: he sent a squadron and ordered the commanding officer to instruct the bey (the provincial governor) to implement the principles of the Hatt-i-Humayun. On September 9, 1857, the “Pacte Fondemental” proclaimed equal rights to all Tunisian subjects, freedom of religion, and the abolition of the jizya, the humiliating poll tax imposed on all the dhimmis. The Muslim masses, however, regarded the pact as further evidence of capitulation to the Christian west, and an insurrection of tribes ensued. While the revolt resulted in a suspension of the pact, it also led to increased European pressure to stabilize the region and ultimately to the establishment of the French Protectorate in Tunisia in 1881.
In Morocco, the situation was even worse. The reigns of Mulay Abd al-Rahman (1822- 1859) and his successors were marked by the pressure of the Christian powers, and by increased Jewish involvement in the economic and diplomatic spheres. As a result, Moroccan hostility toward the Jews increased. During the Spanish-Moroccan War of 1860, anti-Jewish riots took place in several towns. Prohibitive measures even more severe than restrictions of Muslim law were imposed upon the Jewish populace in the interior. Although Mulay Muhammed IV, in response to a plea from Sir Moses Montefiore, promulgated a dahir (royal decree) granting the Jews equal rights in 1864, there was no significant change in their status, which continued to be determined by the Covenant of Omar. The royal decree was ignored by local magistrates and pashas who accused the Jews as being agents of European influence. As the date of the imposition of the French Protectorate approached (1912), attacks on Jewish communities intensified.
The Jews in all Muslim lands, caught in the vicious cycle of pervasive European influence and the rise of hostility against it, had no alternative but to seek the protection of the western powers. Therefore, the emancipation of these communities was entirely different from the process in Europe. Rather than aspire to citizenship and integration with the local society, the “Jews of Islam” measured their social success and emancipation by the distance placed between themselves and the native population.
From this point of view, Algeria constitutes a perfect model. Forty years after the conquest, the Cremieux Decree (1870) granted the Jews of Algeria French citizenship with all its rights and obligations. Thus, with the stroke of a pen, France erased their previous humiliating status as dhimmis, elevating the Jews of Algeria to the status of European colonists, and completely distinguishing them from their Muslim neighbors, who remained simple “subjects.”