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The Algerian Jews

December 15, 2009
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Houwari at Algerian Review (great new blog!) has an interesting post up about the Algerian Jewish community. Below are some of my own reflections on the matter.

The history of the Algerian Jews is as fascinating as it is tragic. There existed a large indigenous Jewish population when France arrived in the 1830s (in fact, two Algerian Jews played an unfortunate and entirely unintended role in France’s invasion). They had lived there peacefully if not always happily under Muslim rulers and within the larger body of Muslim Arabs and Berbers, since many hundreds of years; most of the community were descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, alongside Muslims, after the Christian Reconquista. As France extended its writ throughout the country, and began a serious effort at settler colonization, a decision was taken to assimilate the local Jewish community into the European settler community. The turning point in this process was the Crémieux Decree of 1870, which granted Algerian Jews citizenship in France, while their Muslim neighbours were refused similar political rights. (It’s text can be found here.) The background is complex, but while colored by religious prejudice, the emancipation of the Algerian Jews took place for essentially external political reasons, as an outgrowth of the emancipation movement in France, but also to split them off from the Muslims, in a colonial strategy of divide and rule. It brought great benefits to the Jewish community, which suddenly found itself in a position to act politically and construct social and economic ties with mainland France; but in the longer term, it also caused its total unravelling, along with the fall of French rule.

As Algeria’s Muslim majority drifted into violent confrontation with the French authorities during the 1900s, the Jewish population was caught in the middle, without good options. Both sides courted them and tried to bring them to their side, but the Crémieux Decree was of course deeply suspect in the eyes of nationalists, while the Arab-Israeli conflict began bringing in anti-Jewish propaganda from the Arab east after 1948 (making things worse, France and Israel were closely allied during the period). But at the same time the pied noir settler community was thick with Christian anti-Semitism, with much of its political activism influenced by reactionary far-right groups. Under the 1940-1942 Vichy government in Algeria, Jews were stripped of citizenship as a result of German pressure, and to their horror they realized that the Christian settler population by and large supported this. After liberation at the hands of the US, UK and Free French in 1942, the community was deeply shaken.

During the war of 1954-1962, few Jews were overtly involved on either side. Jews did play a notable role in the pro-independence Communist movement (eg. Henri Alleg), but they were mostly immigrant settlers, strictly secular and somewhat cut off from the conservative traditionalist local community. Both France and the FLN did appeal to the community for support: France was clearly more successful, being the state power to which most Jews had no choice but to cling, but the nationalist leadership made some efforts to dispel French claims that the FLN was anti-Jewish.

As the French evacuation approached, however, the Jewish community was by and large swept away in the panicked emigration of pied noirs and pro-French Muslims towards the mainland. While Jews were never really a target for either side, there were abuses, and the vast majority of Algerian Jews — regardless of their view on the legitimacy of the Algerian struggle — simply packed up and left with the European community. It was not necessarily about fears of nationalist anti-Semitism, although that lurked in the background, and the thought of an Arab nationalist government wasn’t exactly reassuring; you’ll recall that a major inspiration for the Algerian rebels was Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had been treating the Egyptian Jewish minority pretty roughly, in the context of Egypt’s battle with Israel. Most importantly, however, there was the general chaos that prevailed in 1962. The European settler group OAS had launched a terrorist campaign in which thousands of Muslim civilians were butchered indiscriminately, in the hope that this would derail the independence process. What it did, rather, was to finally wreck the hopes for an organized and bloodless handover to the independence movement, as FLN groups and rogue militias began responding in kind, and summarily executed suspected collaborators (“harkis“) as they swept the cities. There were also increasingly obvious tensions within the FLN, and a nationalist civil war seemed unavoidable to many — it did indeed take place, but only to end as quickly as it had begun, when the “border army” of Houari Boumédiène squashed all opposition and installed Ben Bella in power.

In this climate of violent anarchy, the vast majority of Algerian Jews — some 130,000 at the time — opted for safety by fleeing the country. So, of course, did many Muslims whether they had worked with France or not, but unlike Muslim Algerians, the Jews had citizenship rights and could count on being received by France, and also Israel (although only a minority went there), and presumably several other European countries too. As the majority of the community finally threw in its lot with the French — for lack of better options — the number of Jews rapidly dwindled, communal cohesion vanished, local Muslim prejudices towards Jews increased (as they were now more or less totally identified with the French) and so did the hopes for a continued, strong Jewish presence in Algeria. Even many who had wanted to stay, at that stage opted to leave while they still knew they could, and the refugee exodus snowballed until it had all but vanished. The disappearance of the remainder was just a question of time, as Algeria’s economy failed to ever seriously take off, the government’s socialist policies destroyed the traditional occupational choices of most remaining Jews (private business and Mediterranean trade), while the option for secure emigration to both France and Israel remained open. When civil unrest broke out in the 80s/90s and Islamists took aim at the tiny minority that remained, most of the last remaining Jews left the country.

Today, only a handful remain, and an ancient community in Algeria is no more.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. December 15, 2009 16:15

    A fascinating history. I can just barely dredge up from my Grad school days studying crazy anti-Semites, that the famous muckraker Edouard Drumont (author of the highly influential 1880s “La France Juive”) began his political career in Algeria. He and his “Ligue Nationale Antisémitique de France” party were drafted in from Paris, and Drumont was Deputy from Alger from 1898 to 1902.

    On the other extreme, the now often discussed role of Jews in the medieval trans-Sahara trade has garnered much writing J.O. Hunwick’s 2006 “Jews of a Saharan Oasis: Elimination of the Tamantit Community” traces the 15th century purge of a longstanding Jewish community in a Touat oasis town (in modern Algeria). The famous photo of the “last Jew of Timbuktu”, a rabbi of a small dying community in the 1880s, which the French publicized at the time (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jews_of_Bilad_el-Sudan ) actually masks a much older history. The 1880s community was “new”, a small band of folks from the north who settled there in the 1850s. But vibrant Jewish communities existed in what is today northern Mali in the Medieval period. I was just reading something about Essouk (a latter name for Tadmakka, north of modern Kidal) that mentioned that the area is surrounded by rock graffito in Tifinagh (Tuareg), Arabic, roman, as well as Hebrew, scripts.

  2. Ahmed permalink
    December 15, 2009 22:06

    Interesting story. Too simplistic for my taste. I would add some information into the “tas” 1. it is not accurate that during 90s crisis Jews were targeted by islamists. it flat wrong and also it means that the writer of this article doesn’t grasp the dynamic of the Algerian war and the 80-90s crisis. the Jews of the 90s were not of any interest to the Islamist of that time since they had quite another issue to deal with which was one: “le Pouvoir” and the western world that just hypocritical agreed and “pushed” the government to cancel the elections that they won! saying they (islamist) took aim at the jews it simply shows the orientations of the writer[!]

  3. December 15, 2009 22:51

    Tommy — Very interesting comment as always, thanks. Would love to see the rock paintings if you find any pictures… Adding to that, I’ve read that there is tribal lore about how some artisan caste families (m’allemin) in/around today’s Mauritania are supposed to be of distant Jewish descent. I don’t know if there’s anything to it — tribal genealogy is a rather less than exact science — but similar stories seem to exist in many tribal environments.

    Ahmed — The fact of the matter is that the last tiny remains of Algeria’s Jewish community fled during the early nineties, barring the odd few that may remain and keep a low profile even today. They clearly felt that there was a threat, and given the way the GIA treated its surroundings I’d say they made a wise choice. If you think my “orientation” is in favor of the Algerian military, I advise you to have a look around the blog.

  4. December 16, 2009 01:24

    Great writeup, couldn’t be more informative and so concise.

    While the original FIS/AIS did not publicly declare that foreigners were a target, all hell broke loose post 1994 and the death of the French priests. The formation of the GIA, the infiltration of the armed groups and the rise of the takfirist ideology all resulted in a decade of who kills who. No doubt all foreigners, not just jews felt threatened and felt the need to leave.

  5. December 17, 2009 20:25

    Houwari – Thanks!

    No doubt all foreigners, not just jews felt threatened and felt the need to leave.

    True, although those particular Jews weren’t foreigners… But I see what you mean, and even more, it wasn’t only minorities who wanted out. Again, I suspect that the fact that Algerian Jews & Christians & ex-pied noirs could more easily get a foreign passport played a large role in wiping out the last of their communities. Lots of people wanted to leave for all sorts of reasons before and during the war, but they were the only ones to have an open exit. A mixed blessing.

    (I did actually run into an Algerian Christian lady in Algiers, who had lived there her entire life and intended to stay, who was from her looks probably of European or part-European family. She described the 90s as “tough”.)

  6. December 17, 2009 21:53

    That was a lapse :-) Outside the hot spots there are still quite a few, in places like Annaba, Taref, Mostaganem or Oran. Most keep a very low profile and mostly work in the education sector, teachers of French or English. Many are staying there because of marriage. In Annaba there is still a russian community left over from working in the steel plant.

  7. December 18, 2009 09:03

    When Algeria came under French rule in the 19th century, it is nearly always assumed that the Jews of Algeria were granted French nationality under the ‘Decret Cremieux’, whereas the Muslims were not.

    Interesting post, but I’d like to clear up some confusion about the Decret Cremieux.

    In fact, all native Algerians were offered French nationality in 1865, but only the Jews chose to take up French citizenship, an academic in law at the university of Aix-en-Province, Fernand Derrida, points out.

    “One should never confuse nationality and citizenship,” Derrida writes in a letter to Information juive (February 2007).

    The leaders of the Jewish community agreed no longer to submit to Jewish law but to French civil law. The leaders of the Muslim communities refused to give up Islamic civil law. A French citizen then, as now, could not practise polygamy, for instance.

    • ibnkafka permalink*
      December 18, 2009 10:46

      Not really, bataween. Muslims had nationality (wouldn’t really know since when, I suppose through the 1865 sénatus-consulte) but without citizenship rights, as the two were differentiated during the colonial period (this is still true in the UK, where you still have UK nationals without of right to abode in UK territory except their own overseas territory).

      The Jews who chose to take up French citizenship, as opposed to nationality which the 1865 sénatus-consulte already conferred on them, did so on an individual basis, and there’s no indication that they did so en masse. The décret Crémieux, taken in 1870 after the débâcle in the Franco-Prussian war, conferred French citizenship on Algerian Jews (which excluded Jews in the Sahara, not administratively part of Algeria – these were given French citizenship in June 1962 if I’m not entirely mistaken).

  8. axkJackJ permalink
    September 22, 2013 03:12

    It only include jews. Muslims and Berbers were just second class

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