Algerian Jews between Disenchantment and Nostalgia: uprooting duel and eternal regrets

20.12.2020 - Rabah Arkam

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Algerian Jews between Disenchantment and Nostalgia: uprooting duel and eternal regrets

Desire for the past, and illness from a distant land, two emotions not taken into account as pathological. The origin of the Algerian Jews is very old and little known. As for the whole of North Africa, the Jewish presence on Algerian soil since at least the Roman period (Caesarean Mauritania).

By Rabah Arkam

Berber lands welcomed Christians and Jews very early in the Roman Empire. Successive migratory movements since Antiquity, Palestine, Rome, Egypt or Cyrenaica, their arrival was linked from the 1st century of the Christian era, and the destruction of the second temple of Jerusalem by Titus Caesar Vespasianus in 70, having caused the dispersion Jews in the Mediterranean basin and the deportation of the first Jews to North Africa as slaves and prisoners of war. To which can be added the phenomena of conversion into Judaism of certain Berber tribes. Among the Jewish Berbers stood out the Djerawa, a tribe who lived in Aurès to which the Queen Kahina belonged, a woman killed by the Arabs during the first invasions. The other Judeo-Berber tribes were the Nefouça, the Berbers of Ifrikia, the Fendelaoua, the Mediouna, the Behloula, the Rhyata and the Izaïanes.

After the Arab conquest, and after a relatively tolerant early period, the Jews of North Africa in the 12th century were subjected to terrible persecution by the Almohads. From 1165, a policy of forced conversion was introduced: prohibition of marrying Muslims, of practicing large-scale trade. They then had to practice clandestinely, or go into exile in Egypt (as the philosopher, doctor, Talmudist Maimonides did), in Palestine or in Italy. In addition, they had to wear a particular garment, yellow, under the Almohad Al Mansur, from 1198. This tendency to mark the Jews with a color or a badge, variable according to the country and the time, is repeated in Europe from the Middle-Age.

At the turn of the 16th century, in the years following the last expulsions of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, Algeria had become a fragmented political mosaic. Between 1505 and 1510, the Catholic kings launched a new “crusade” and seized several ports in Algeria, Mers-El-Kébir, Oran and Bougie, where they set up fortified garrisons. Opposite, the Muslim corsairs, the “raïs” are organized and, in 1516, the raïs Arouj and Khaïr-ed-Dine known as “Barbarossa” seize Algiers and, in 1518, Khaïr-ed-Dine makes allegiance to the Ottoman sultan who named him Beylerbey and made him admiral of his fleet.

During the Ottoman period, the Algerian Jews were strictly subject to the status of “dhimmi”. Good neighborly relations and even friendship, were able to be established, in particular on the occasion of the celebration of Jewish holidays. In 1830, following the French colonization of Algeria, the Jews were freed from the status of dhimmi: they initially received equal rights with “native” Muslims, in application of the act of capitulation passed between General de Bourmont and Dey d’Alger, who guarantees respect for all religions.

Also, from the opening of the first French schools in 1831, the Jews sent their children there. They then quickly gave up their religious courts, unlike the Muslims, to submit to the French courts of common law, applying the Mosaic law (with the expertise of a rabbi). The French government granted to the Algerian Jews French nationality by the Crémieux decree of October 24, 1870. Such a decree could not then have been taken in favor of the Arab Muslims, who would not have supported, like the Jews, the withdrawal of their religious status, who had little desire to undergo military service from French citizens.

The Crémieux decree was the trigger for many anti-Semitic reactions. These reactions, fueled by Edouard Drumont then the Dreyfus affair, lasted until the beginning of the 20th century. From this period, the Jews were able to lead a normal life. After the defeat of France in June 1940, there was a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Algeria. Leaflets, posters and graffiti appeared in large numbers in cities during the summer. The boycott of Jewish stores has been declared. Libels are circulating in favor of the repeal of the Crémieux decree and the expulsion of Algerian Jews.

Most of the discriminatory laws affecting French Judaism from October 3, 1940, date of the promulgation in Vichy of the law establishing the statute of the Jews, was applied in Algeria, with a delay which varied, according to the cases, from several days to several months. The Vichy government repealed the Crémieux decree on October 7, 1940. It annulled the granting of civil rights that the Algerian Jews had enjoyed for seventy years. The law of June 2, 1941 prohibited Jews from a large number of functions and excluded them from several professions.

French citizenship was officially returned to the Algerian Jews on October 20, 1943, nearly a year after the Allied landings. From 1943 to 1945, many Jews took part in the fighting in Tunisia, Italy, France and Germany. At the end of the war, Algerian Jews felt that they had recovered their most precious possession: their French identity.

When the War of Independence began, Jews were called in from all quarters. They lived the conflict in turmoil, sometimes even with a bad conscience. On June 22, 1961, the singer and musician Raymond Leyris, known as “Cheikh Raymond”, one of the great masters of Arab-Andalusian music, was shot dead in the Jewish quarter of Constantine.

After Algeria’s independence, the government of the day adopted the 1963 Nationality Code, granting citizenship only to Muslims. This law only extended citizenship to people whose paternal father and grandfather were Muslims. Eighty-five percent of the country’s 140,000 indigenous Jews went into exile after the law was passed. About 130,000 Jews left Algeria. Moroccan Jews who lived in Algeria and Jews from the M’zab Valley in the Algerian Sahara, who did not have French nationality, as well as a small number of Algerian Jews from Constantine, also emigrated to Israel in this time.

The coming to power of dictator Mohamed Boukharouba, known as Houari Boumediene coincides with the final installation of the military in power. The coup d’état of June 19, 1965, inaugurates an authoritarian regime where state power is perpetuated exclusively from above, by co-option within a group holding the armed force, and the onset of the beginning of elimination little by little opponents and others who fled live in exile by being arrested or executed, Algerian Jews and Berbers have been persecuted in Algeria, so social and political discrimination and heavy taxes set in. In 1967-1968, the government seized most of the country’s synagogues and converted them into mosques. In 1969, less than 1,000 Jews still lived in Algeria.

There is no doubt that the history of Algeria since independence is above all the history of the emergence of an “Algerian identity”, which borrows at the same time from the federal, republican, Islamic and nationalist models. Faced with contradictions and doubts, the synthesis turns out to be the most difficult for the authoritarian regime to cede power.

After fifty-eight years of this dictatorship of governance, the current crisis still bears witness to its failure. Based on the lie of a “unanimous people” and claiming the exclusive heritage of the struggle for independence, the Algerian authoritarian regime will not succeed in compensating for this lack of democratic legitimacy nor even in hiding the tutelary and omnipresent shadow of the staff.

Taking into account the hegemony of the idea of nation and the political model of the “nation-state”. The question of the definition of the nation, the object of recurrent controversies, has never given rise to a real substantive debate because of the doctrinal and organizational rigidity of the Algerian authoritarian regime.

This is the reason why this regime, continues to dominate and to instrumentalize the “people” who, not constituted in nations, in its different components to achieve the goals that we know.

Because without being a nation, the people have no political weight and are not a force. In short, it is not a “political entity”.

Nowadays, almost all the Algerian Jews have left their homeland, with wounds to the heart and soul that had never healed, although most still express their attachment to Algeria, their homeland, have a family feeling very deep, and what remains lives hidden, often under a pseudo nickname, for fear of being persecuted by the dictatorial regime.

Therefore to understand that “democracy” must, to embrace the realities of Algeria without nations, be etymologically revised to refer to the “nation” and not to the people in order to build a new vision on the future of Algeria, which will allow all the children of Algeria, the Berbers (Kabyle, Chawis, Targui, Mzabi, Chelhi) of the indigenous peoples, as well as (Jews, Arabs and Pieds-Noirs) of Algeria, to live in this free state where each one respects himself, would lead to a strong Algeria.

Categories: Africa, Culture and Media, Indigenous peoples
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