History of the Jews in Algeria

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The History of the Jews in Algeria refers to the history of the Jewish community of Algeria, which dates to the 1st century CE. In the 14th century, many Spanish Jews emigrated to Algeria following expulsion from Spain and Portugal; among them were respected Jewish scholars, including Isaac ben Sheshet (Ribash) and Simeon ben Zemah Duran (Rashbatz).[1]

Following Algerian independence in 1962, almost all of Algeria's Jews, having been granted French citizenship in 1870, left with the pied-noirs. The vast majority moved to France, and the rest moved to Israel. Those who remained resided mostly in Algiers, while some settled in Blida, Constantine, and Oran.

In the 1990s, the trials of Algerian Civil War led to the emigration of most of the remaining Jews. A decisive event was the rebel Armed Islamic Group's 1994 declaration of war on all non-Muslims in the country. That year Jews abandoned the Algiers synagogue.


Early Jewish history in Algeria[edit]

A Jew of Algiers, late 19th century

There is evidence of Jewish settlements in Algeria since at least the late Roman period.[2] Epitaphs have been found in archecological excavations that attest to Jews in the first centuries of the common era. Early descriptions of the Rustamid capital, Tahert, note that Jews were found there, as they would be in any other major Muslim city. Centuries later, the Geniza Letters (found in Cairo) mention many Algerian Jewish families.

Muslim dominance era[edit]

In the seventh century, Jewish immigrants came to North Africa after fleeing from the persecutions of the Visigothic king Sisebut[3] and his successors. They escaped to the Maghreb and settled in the Byzantine Empire. Whether they influenced the Berber population, making converts among them, is an open question. In that century, Islamic armies conquered the whole Maghreb and Iberian peninsula. The Jewish population was placed under the Muslim domination, along with other minorities.

Later many Sephardic Jews forced from Spain by the persecutions of Catalonia, Valencia and Balearic Islands in 1391 and the Spanish Inquisition in 1492[4] took refuge in Algeria. Together with the Moriscos, they thronged to the ports of North Africa, mingled with native Jewish people and formed large communities in places such as Oran, Mostaganem, Bejaïa and Algiers. They also penetrated into the cities of the interior such as Tlemcen and Constantine, with the permission of the Muslim authorities. Some Jews in Oran preserved Ladino language—which was a uniquely conservative dialect of Spanish—until the 19th century.

Jewish merchants did well financially in late Ottoman Algiers. The French attack on Algeria was provoked by the Dey's demands that the French government pay its large outstanding wheat debts to two Jewish merchants. Between the 16th and 17th centuries, Jews from Livorno in Italy started settling in Algeria. They became highly involved in commercial trading and exchanges between Europe and the Ottoman Empire, reinforcing the Jewish community. Later again in the 19th century, many Sephardic Jews from Tetouan settled in Algeria.[citation needed]

French Algeria[edit]

In 1830, the Algerian Jewish population was between 15 and 17,000. Some 6,500 Jews lived in Algiers, where they made up 20% of the population; 2,000 in Oran; 3,000 in Constantine; and 1,000 in Tlemcen.[5] After their conquest, the French government rapidly restructured the Ottoman millet system. While Muslims resisted the French occupation, some Algerian Jews aided in the conquest, serving as interpreters or suppliers.[6]

At the time, the French government distinguished French citizens (who had national voting rights and were subject to French laws and conscription) from Jewish and Muslim "indigenous" peoples, who each were allowed to keep their own laws and courts. By 1841, the Jewish rabbinical courts (beth din), were placed under French jurisdiction, linked to the Consistoire Central of Paris. Regional Algerian courts--consistoires—were put in place, operating under French oversight.[6]

In 1845, the French colonial government reorganized communal structure, appointing French Jews (who were of the Ashkenazi tradition) as chief rabbis for each region, with the duty "to inculcate unconditional obedience to the laws, loyalty to France, and the obligation to defend it".[7] Such oversight was an example of the French Jews' attempt to "civilize" Jewish Algerians, as they believed their European traditions were superior to Sephardic practices.

This marked a change in the Jewish "relationship with the state." They were separated from the Muslim court system, where they had previously been classified as dhimmis, or protected minority people. As a result, Algerian Jews resisted those French Jews attempting to settle in Algeria; in some cases, there was rioting, in others the local Jews refused to allow French Jewish burials in Algerian Jews' cemeteries.[6] In 1865, the Senatus-Consulte liberalized rules of citizenship, to allow Jewish and Muslim "indigenous" peoples in Algeria to become French citizens if they requested it. Few did so, however, because French citizenship required renouncing certain traditional mores. The Algerians considered that a kind of apostasy.[6]

The French government granted the Jews French citizenship in 1870 under the décret Crémieux. For this reason, they are sometimes incorrectly categorized as pieds-noirs. The decision to extend citizenship to Algerian Jews was a result of pressures from prominent members of the liberal, intellectual French Jewish community, which considered the North African Jews to be "backward" and wanted to bring them into modernity.

The French Jews encouraged the Algerian Jews to adopt a more European mindset. (A similar pattern occurred in Morocco, where Italian Jews became interested in educating and modernizing Moroccan Sephardic Jews, encouraging them to learn Italian language and culture.)

Within a generation, despite initial resistance, most Algerian Jews came to speak French rather than Arabic or Ladino, and they embraced many aspects of French culture. In embracing "Frenchness," the Algerian Jews joined the colonizers, although they were still considered "other" to the French. Although some took on more typically European occupations, "the majority of Jews were poor artisans and shopkeepers catering to a Muslim clientele."[6] Moreover, conflicts between Sephardic Jewish religious law and French law produced contention within the community. They resisted changes related to domestic issues, such as marriage.[8]

Under French rule, some Muslim anti-Jewish riots still occurred, as in 1897 in Oran.[9] In Constantine in 1934, Muslims killed 34 Jews.[10]

Great Synagogue of Oran, turned into a Mosque

In 1931, whereas Jews made up less than 2% of Algeria's total population, they were more represented in the largest cities: Algiers, Constantine and Oran, which each had Jewish populations of over 7%, as did many smaller cities such as Blida, Tlemcen and Setif.[citation needed]

Holocaust in Algeria, under the Vichy regime[edit]

After WW2[edit]

Since 1948, about 28,000 Algerian Jews have immigrated to Israel.[11]

Independent Algeria[edit]

After Algeria gained its independence, according to its 1963 Nationality Code, it authorized citizenship only to Muslims. It extended citizenship only to those individuals whose fathers and paternal grandfathers were personally Muslim.[12] All but 6,500 of the country's 140,000 Jews were essentially driven into exile by this change.

Some 130,000 took advantage of their French citizenship and moved to France along with the pied-noirs, settlers of European ancestry. Moroccan Jews who were living in Algeria and Jews from the M'zab Valley in the Algerian Sahara, who did not have French citizenship, as well as a small number of Algerian Jews from Constantine, emigrated to Israel at that time.[13]

After Houari Boumediene came to power in 1965, Jews were persecuted in Algeria, facing social and political discrimination and heavy taxes. In 1967-68 the government seized all but one of the country's synagogues and converted them to mosques. By 1969, fewer than 1,000 Jews were still living in Algeria.[14] Only 50 Jews remained in Algeria in the 1990s.[14]

Traditional dress[edit]

Jewish women in Algeria, 1851

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia,[15]

A contemporary [1906] Jewess of Algiers wears on her head a "takrita" (handkerchief), is dressed in a "bedenor" (gown with a bodice trimmed with lace) and a striped vest with long sleeves coming to the waist. The "mosse" (girdle) is of silk. The native Algerian Jew wears a "ṭarbush" or oblong turban with silken tassel, a "ṣadriyyah" or vest with large sleeves, and "sarwal" or pantaloons fastened by a "ḥizam" (girdle), all being covered by a mantle, a burnus [also spelled burnoose], and a large silk handkerchief, the tassels of which hang down to his feet. At an earlier stage the Algerian Jewess wore a tall cone-shaped hat resembling those used in England in the fifteenth century.

Notable Algerian Jews[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Jews of Algeria, Jewish Virtual Library". Jewishvirtuallibrary.org. 2000-09-05. Retrieved 2012-06-10. 
  2. ^ Karen B. Stern, Inscribing devotion and death: archaeological evidence for Jewish populations of North Africa, Bril, 2008, p.88
  3. ^ "Algeria". JewishEncyclopedia.com. Retrieved 2012-06-10. 
  4. ^ http://www.sephardicstudies.org/decree.html |title=The Edict of Expulsion of the Jews - 1492 Spain |publisher=Sephardicstudies.org |date= |accessdate=2012-06-10
  5. ^ http://books.google.fr/books?id=A9UUAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA166&lpg=PA166&dq=juifs+de+constantine+en+1830&source=bl&ots=CvE7CN6QTs&sig=GsJ1q4_MVS9BvkSsIom0bXonGkA&hl=en&sa=X&ei=twrgUYLVGMOU0AWBioDoAQ&ved=0CFQQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=juifs%20de%20constantine%20en%201830&f=false
  6. ^ a b c d e Friedman, Elizabeth. Colonialism & After. South Hadley, Massachusetts: Bergen, 1988. Print.
  7. ^ Stillman, Norman. "The Nineteenth Century and the Impact of the West / Social Transformations". The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times. The Jewish Publication Society. Archived from the original on August 28, 2006. Retrieved January 5, 2012. 
  8. ^ [1], University of California Santa Cruz
  9. ^ Algeria, 1830-2000: A Short History. Cornell University Press. 2004. pp. 10–. ISBN 0-8014-8916-4. 
  10. ^ Sharon Vance (10 May 2011). The Martyrdom of a Moroccan Jewish Saint. BRILL. p. 182. ISBN 90-04-20700-7. Muslim anti Jewish riots in Constantine in 1934 when 34 Jews were killed 
  11. ^ Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries - Jewish Virtual Library]
  12. ^ Algerian Nationality Code, Law no. 63-69 of Mar. 27, 1963, section 34
  13. ^ [2]
  14. ^ a b "Algeria", Jewish Virtual Library
  15. ^ "Costume". JewishEncyclopedia.com. Retrieved 2012-06-10. 

External links[edit]