My paper will discuss Jacob Haim Lasry, a powerful Oran-based Jewish merchant whose career spanned the first several decades of the French occupation of Algeria. Like other Sephardim conducting trade between ports such as Gibraltar, Oran, Marseilles, Tunis, and Livorno, Lasry (who had Moroccan roots) had close ties with merchants and leaders of other faiths (from British consuls to Tunisian beys), and he grew quite rich working within the pre-colonial Mediterranean order. But he also suffered from this order's dissolution; the French occupation of Oran in 1831 and its attendant change in leadership led Lasry to lose a considerable sum.
Fearing further fallout from new French policies, he made explicit efforts to make the new masters of Algeria understand that he, as a Sephardic Jew, did not belong to the local (largely Arabic-speaking) Jewish community of Oran. Yet, within a decade of the conquest, the French made him a local leader of the very same "indigenous" Jews of Oran, with an official position within the French civilian administration devoted to the "civilizing" his Jewish contemporaries. Lasry's transformation from a North African Jewish merchant to an emissary of European civilization offers to shed constructive doubt on the existence of pre-colonial Jewish "communities."
Scholars have generally assumed these communities were central to North African Jewish social identity. The solidity and functionality of these units has never been critically probed. Yet trans-national merchants such as Lasry maintained close ties to Arab and Berber nomads, British consuls, and Muslim governors. Preliminary research has revealed considerable references to alliances that did not observe confessional boundaries. The multiplicity of contacts upon which they relied suggests that the "Jewish community of Algeria" was neither insular nor rigidly delineated in this pre-colonial moment.