The Forgotten Jews of Algeria

The history of Algeria’s Jewish community dates back to the 1st century, but it was In the 15th century that it became sizeable when many Jews from the Iberian Peninsula (megorashim) emigrated to Algeria following expulsion from Spain and Portugal.

Five hundred years later, 130,000 of Algeria’s Jews are now in France, but it hasn’t been an easy ride.

Jewish Algerians

Jewish roots in Algeria go back 2,700 years when Jewish traders arrived in North Africa with the Phoenicians, 1,000 years before Islam; and the first Jewish slaves and expellees from Judea settled among the Berbers soon after the destruction of the 2nd Temple.

Some Berber tribes were said to have converted to Judaism. The most famous Jewish Berber of all, the warrior Queen Kahina, fought the Arab Muslim invaders in the 7th century – in vain.

The toshavim, the settled indigenous Jews who managed to survive islamisation, were joined in the 15th century by the megorashim, Jews escaping the Spanish Inquisition. Under Ottoman rule, most Jews lived in abject misery as dhimmis – inferior subjects under Islam.

One 19th century traveller, Signor Pananti, wrote: “there is no species of outrage or vexation to which they [jews] are not exposed…the indolent Moor, with a pipe in his mouth and his legs crossed, calls any Jew who is passing, and makes him perform the offices of a servant…. Even fountains were happier, at least they were allowed to murmur.”

French Algeria

When Algeria became part of metropolitan France in 1830, the oppressed Jews greeted the French as saviors and liberators. Forty years later French nationality was given to the entire Jewish community.

It’s often claimed that only Jews were offered French nationality; The Muslims were offered it too, but overwhelmingly rejected it, as it would mean compromising their personal status, which was governed by Muslim law.

In Muslim eyes, the fact that the dhimmi Jews could have greater rights than they did caused great resentment. But the Jews were also resented by the pieds noirs. How dare these natives be given the privilege of French nationality and suppose themselves equal to true Frenchmen?

A rock and a hard place

The Jews had been between a rock and a hard place for quite some time already. Muslim antisemitism reached its peak with the eruption of the Constantine pogrom of 1934, in which 25 Jews were killed. French antisemitism reached its zenith in WW2. Under Vichy rule, Jews not only were stripped of their French nationality, but were sacked from public service jobs and subject to quotas and restrictions.

Citizenship was reinstated in 1943 as the Vichy regime collapsed. Many Jews saw themselves as Frenchmen of the Jewish faith – Français israelites.

Arab Algerians embarked on an ever more brutal campaign of decolonisation in the 1950s, while the pieds noirs engaged in equally brutal counter-terror. The Jewish community originally maintained an official position of neutrality, but they joined the French camp after violent attacks including the burning of the Great Synagogue in Algiers in December 1960. Arabs went on the rampage ripping memorial plaques from the walls, and torching books and Torah scrolls.

Like the pieds noirs, the Jews were faced with a stark choice: suitcase or coffin. They scrambled to reach seaports and airports. By the time Algeria had declared independence on 3 July 1962, all but a few thousand Jews had left for France. Algeria’s ‘Nationality Code’, passed in 1963, deprived all non-muslims of Algerian citizenship, forcing any remaining Jews into exile.

Today’s French Algerian Jews

After such a tumultuous period, you would hope that arrival in France was something of an oasis, however this is far from reality.

Jewish refugees claim their needs were ignored by France because they were subsumed into the great mass of pieds noirs – the 800,000 French settlers who fled Algeria after the Algerian War of Independence.

But because the Jews saw themselves as French, they have also been neglected also by Israel because, unusually, among the 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries, 90 percent of Algerian Jews went to France, and not Israel.

Newly independent Algeria also chose to erase all traces of Jewish presence, culture or history. It is claimed that Algeria’s Jews cast their lot with France in a supposed betrayal of Algeria’s Arabs.

Almost 60 years later, the sizable Algerian Jewish community discreetly remembers its heritage and observes its traditions whilst respecting secular France. Work is being done to preserve the memory of the community’s Algerian heritage, though until now, records have not been collected due to their previous second-class status.

More information:

Study Guide: The Jewish Diaspora

Main image: Grande Synagogue, Algiers