Picking up the Pieces: The Alliance Israélite Universelle in Baghdad, 1917-1921

By Jonathan Sciarcon
Submitted to Session P5017 (Perspectives on Nationalism: Anti-Imperialism, Community-building and the Body, 2017 Annual Meeting
Judaic Studies;
This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the British capture of Baghdad during World War One. This development had a profound impact on the city’s Jewish community. During the late Ottoman period Baghdadi Jewish elites had come to accept Ottoman political identities. In the aftermath of the CUP Revolution, many Jews had welcomed the new government’s promise to allow religious minorities to more fully integrate into local and imperial political life. Unfortunately the Ottoman government’s harsh treatment of Baghdadi Jews during the war, especially in late 1915 and 1916, led many members of the community to welcome the arrival of their new British masters in early 1917. Over the next decade of British and Hashemite rule, Baghdadi Jews re-oriented their political and social identities away from Ottomanism and towards Iraqi nationalism.

In addition to its impact on members of the Jewish community, the onset of British rule also had a profound impact on Baghdad’s Jewish institutions. This was certainly the case with with Albert Sassoon School for Boys, which had been founded in 1864, and the Laura Kadoorie School for Girls, which had been founded in 1895. These schools, which had flourished during much of the first decade and a half of the twentieth century before closing about a year after the Ottoman entry into World War One, were the flagship institutions of the French Jewish Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU) in Ottoman Iraq. Founded in 1860 the AIU was a philanthropic French Jewish organization dedicated to spreading, via its network of schools ranging from Morocco to Iran, French Republican values and modern education to Jewish communities in North Africa, the Middle East, and southeastern Europe.

This paper utilizes the correspondence archive of the AIU to examine how the teachers and administrators of the Albert Sassoon and Laura Kadoorie Schools worked to rebuild their previously shuttered institutions following the British capture of Baghdad while adapting to both British rule and Jewish communal needs. In doing so it also aims to show how the AIU fit into Jewish communal life and British colonial goals in the four and a half year period bookended by the British arrival in Baghdad in March 1917 and King Faisal I’s ascension to the Iraqi throne in August 1921. Notably this is the first study to address the AIU’s activities in Baghdad in the direct aftermath of World War One.