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The Algerian Jews

December 15, 2009

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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