History of the Jews in Algeria 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 15th 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
Algeria won its independence in 1962, and by the Nationality Code of 1963 denied citizenship to all non-Muslims. Algeria's Jews, most of whom had been entitled to French citizenship since 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
, and Oran
In the 1990s, the trials of the Algerian Civil War
led most of the remaining Jews to emigrate. In 1994, the rebel Armed Islamic Group
's 1994 declaration of war on all non-Muslims in the country was a decisive event for Jews remaining in Algeria. That year, Algerian Jews abandoned their last synagogue, the Great Synagogue of Algiers
Early Jewish history in Algeria
A Jew of Algiers, late 19th century
There is evidence of Jewish settlements in Algeria since at least the Roman
period (Mauretania Caesariensis
Epitaphs have been found in archeological excavations that attest to Jews in the first centuries CE. Berber lands were said to welcome Christians and Jews very early from the Roman Empire
. The destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem
by Titus in 70 CE, and thereafter by the Kitos Wars in 117 CE reinforced Jewish settlement in North Africa and the Mediterranean. Early descriptions of the Rustamid
, note that Jews were found there, as they would be in any other major Muslim city of North Africa. Centuries later, the Geniza
Letters (found in Cairo
) mention many Algerian Jewish families.
Muslim dominance era
In the 7th century, Jewish settlements in North Africa were reinforced by Jewish immigrants that came to North Africa after fleeing from the persecutions of the Visigothic
and his successors. They escaped to the Maghreb
and settled in the Byzantine Empire
. It is debated whether Jews influenced the Berber population, making converts among them. In that century, Islamic armies conquered the whole Maghreb and most of the Iberian peninsula. The Jewish population was placed under Muslim
domination in constant cultural exchanges with Al Andalus
and the Near East
Later many Sephardic Jews were forced to take refuge in Algeria from the persecutions in Spain of Catalonia
, Valencia and Balearic Islands
in 1391 and the Spanish Inquisition
Together with the Moriscos
, they thronged to the ports of North Africa, and mingled with native Jewish people. In the 16th century there were large Jewish communities in places such as Oran
. Jews were also present in the cities of the interior such as Tlemcen
and as far spread as Touggourt
in the south, 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, richer Jews from Livorno
in Italy started settling in Algeria. Commercial trading and exchanges between Europe
and the Ottoman Empire reinforced the Jewish community. Later again in the 19th century, many Sephardic Jews from Tetouan
settled in Algeria, creating new communities, particularly in Oran.
In 1830, the Algerian Jewish population was between 15,000 and 17,000, mostly congregated in the coastal area. 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
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.
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.
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".
Such oversight was an example of the French Jews' attempt to "civilize" Jewish Algerians, as they believed their European traditions were superior to Sephardic
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 a 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.
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
The French government granted the Jews, who by then numbered some 33,000,
French citizenship in 1870 under the décret Crémieux,
while maintaining an inferior status for Muslims who, though technically French nationals, were required to apply for French citizenship and undergo a naturalization process.
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.
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."
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.
After the 1882 conquest of the Mzab, the French government in Algeria categorized the Southern Algerian Jews, like the Muslims, as “indigènes”, and thus they were subject to restricted and decreased rights compared to their Northern Jewish counterparts, who were still French citizens under the Crémieux Decree of 1870. In 1881, there were only about 30,000 Mozabite
Jews in Southern Algeria. They established, in Southern Algeria, “local civil status” laws, with rabbis overseeing legal issues. The French government recognized Jewish laws pertaining to domestic issues, such as marriage and inheritance. While these laws allowed for Jews to be structured under Rabbinic law, it prevented Southern Jews from accessing “elite” opportunities, as their indigenous status established them as lesser citizens.
French anti-Semitism set down strong roots among the expatriate French community in Algeria, where every municipal council was controlled by anti-Semites, and newspapers were rife with xenophobic attacks on the local Jewish communities.
In Algiers when Émile Zola
was brought to trial for his defense in an 1898 open letter, J'Accuse…!
, of Alfred Dreyfus
, over 158 Jewish owned shops were looted and burned and two Jews were killed, while the army stood by and refused to intervene.
Under French rule, some Muslim anti-Jewish riots still occurred, as in 1897 in Oran
Holocaust in Algeria, under the Vichy regime
One of the first moves of the pro-German Vichy
regime was to revoke the effects of the Crémieux Decree
, on October 7, 1940, thereby abolishing French citizenship for Algerian Jews, affecting some 110,000 Algerians.
Under Vichy rule
in Algeria, even Karaites
and Jews who had converted to another religion were subject to anti-semitic laws, known collectively as Statut des Juifs
The Vichy regime's
laws ensured that Jews were forbidden from holding public office or other governmental positions, as well as from holding jobs in industries such as insurance and real estate.
In addition, the Vichy regime
set strict limitations on Jewish people working as doctors or lawyers.
The Vichy regime
also limited the number of Jewish children in Algeria's public school system, and eventually terminated all Jewish enrollment in public schools.
In response, Jewish professors who had been forced from their jobs set up a Jewish university in 1941, only for its forced dissolution to occur at the end of that same year.
The Jewish communities of Algeria also set up a system of Jewish primary schools for children, and by 1942 some 20,000 Jewish children were enrolled in 70 elementary and 5 secondary schools all over Algeria.
The Vichy government
eventually created legislation allowing the government to control school curriculum, and schedules, which helped dampen efforts to educate young Jews in Algeria.
Under Admiral Darlan
and General Giraud
, two French officials who administered the French military in North Africa, the antisemitic legislation was applied more severely in Algeria than France itself, under the pretext that it enabled greater equality between Muslims and Jews and considered racial laws a condition sine qua non of the armistice
. Under the Vichy regime
in Algeria, an office called the "Special Department for the Control of the Jewish Problem" handled the execution of laws applying to Algeria's Jewish population.
This was unique in French North Africa, and as such the laws covering the status of Jews were governed much more harshly in Algeria than in Morocco or Tunisia.
A bureau for "Economic Aryanization" was also installed in order to eradicate the Jewish community's significance in the economy, mostly by taking control of Jewish businesses.
On March 31, 1942, the Vichy government issued a decree demanding the creation of a local Jewish government called the Union Générale des Israélites d’Algérie (UGIA).
The UGIA was intended to be a body of Jews that would execute the Vichy
regulations within Jewish communities, and was seen by much of the Jewish population as collaboration with the government.
In response, many young Jews joined the Algerian resistance movement, which itself had been founded by Jews in 1940. On November 8, 1942, the Algerian resistance to the Vichy government took part in the takeover of Algiers in preparation for the Allied liberation of North Africa, known as "Operation Torch
Of the 377 resistance members who took Algiers, 315 were Jewish.
In November 1942, British and American soldiers landed and took control of Algiers and the rest of Algeria. However, Jews were not returned all of their former civil rights and liberties, nor their French citizenships until 1943. This can partially be explained by the fact that Giraud
himself, along with the Governor-General Marcel Peyrouton
, in promulgating the cancellation of Vichy
statutes on March 14, 1943, after the allies landed in North Africa, retained exceptionally the decree abolishing citizenship rights for Algerian Jews, claiming that they did not wish to incite violence between the Jewish and Muslim communities in Algiers.
It was not until the arrival of Charles De Gaulle
in October 1943 that Jewish Algerians finally regained their French citizenship with the reinstatement of the Crémieux Decree
In addition to the discriminatory and antisemitic laws faced by Jews all over Algeria, some 2,000 Jews were placed in concentration camps at Bedeau and Djelfa.
The camp at Bedeau, near Sidi-bel-Abbes
, became a place for the concentration of Jewish Algerian soldiers, who were forced to perform hard labor.
These prisoners formed the "Jewish Work Group," and worked on a Vichy plan for a trans-Saharan railroad; many died from hunger, exhaustion, disease, or beatings.
During the Algerian War
, most Algerian Jews took sides with France, out of loyalty to the Republic which had emancipated them, against the indigenous Independence movement, though they rejected that part of the official policy which proposed independence for Algeria. Some Jews did join the FLN
fighting for independence, but a larger group made common cause with the OAS, secret paramilitary group
The FLN published declarations guaranteeing a place in Algeria for Jews as an integral constituent of the Algerian people,
hoping to attract their support. Algerian Muslims had assisted Jews during their trials under the Vichy régime
in WW2, when their citizenship rights under the Crémieux Degree had been revoked.
Memories of the 1934 pogrom
, and incidents of violent Muslim assault on Jews in Constantine
, together with arson attacks on the Batna and Orleanville synagogues, played a role in decisions to turn down the offer.
In 1961, with the French National Assembly Law 61-805,
Jews, who had been excluded from the Cremieux Decree, were also given French citizenship.
Following a 1961 referendum
, the 1962 Évian Accords
secured Algerian independence. Some Algerian Jews had joined the Organisation armée secrète
, which aimed to disrupt the process of independence with bombings and assassination attempts, targets including Charles de Gaulle
and Jean-Paul Sartre
Although final appeals were made in Algeria for the Jews to remain, around 130,000 Algerian Jews chose to leave the country, and went to France. Since 1948, around 25,000 Algerian Jews have moved to Israel.
After Algeria gained its independence in 1962, it passed the Nationality Code
in 1963, depriving non-Muslims of citizenship. This law extended citizenship only to those individuals whose fathers and paternal grandfathers were Muslim.
95% of the country's 140,000-strong indigenous Jewish population went into exile after the passage of the law. Approximately 130,000 Jews left Algeria.
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, also emigrated to Israel
at that time.
By 1969, fewer than 1,000 Jews were still living in Algeria.
By 1975 the government had seized all but one of the country's synagogues and converted them to mosques or libraries.
Since 2005, the Algerian government has attempted to reduce discrimination against the Jewish population, by establishing a Jewish association, and passing a law that recognized freedom of religion. They also allowed a relaunching of Jewish pilgrimage, to the most holy Jewish sites in North Africa. In 2014, the Minister of Religious Affairs Mohammed Eissa announced that the Algerian government would foster the reopening of Jewish synagogues. However, this never came to fruition, with Eissa stating that it was no longer the interest of Algerian Jews.
There are an estimated 50 Jews remaining in Algeria, mostly in Algiers.
Jewish women in Algeria, 1851
According to the Jewish Encyclopedia
A contemporary  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.
Synagogues in Algeria
Grande Synagogue, Algiers
Grande Synagogue, Algiers
Grande Synagogue, Algiers
Houma Keramane, Béjaïa
Sanya Synagogue, Algiers
Belcourt Synagogue, Algiers
Sétif synagogue interior
Rabbi Ephraim Ankawa Synagogue in Tlemcen
Notable Algerian Jews
- Haim Korsia, Chief Rabbi of France (Algerian parents)
- José Aboulker, member of the anti-Nazi resistance
- Alon Abutbul, an actor
- Franck Amsallem, jazz pianist and composer
- Françoise Atlan, French singer
- Yvan Attal, film director, actor (Algerian born parents)
- Jacques Attali, economist, writer
- Danny Ayalon, a politician
- Jean-Pierre Bacri, actor
- Baruj Benacerraf, immunologist, Nobel prize (1980) (Algerian Jew mother)
- Paul Benacerraf, philosopher (Algerian Jew mother)
- Maurice Benayoun, artist
- Jean Benguigui, actor
- Eric Benhamou, businessman, CEO of 3Com, venture capitalist, philanthropist
- Michel Benita, double bass player
- Daniel Bensaïd, philosopher and trotskyist (Jewish Algerian father)
- Richard Berry, actor
- Lili Boniche, musician
- Patrick Bruel, singer, actor
- Alain Chabat, actor
- André Chouraqui, writer
- Élie Chouraqui, French film director and scriptwriter
- Hélène Cixous, feminist writer
- Robert Cohen, boxer: World Bantamweight Champion
- Annie Cohen-Solal, academic and biographer of Jean-Paul Sartre
- Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, physicist, Nobel prize (1997)
- Jean-François Copé, (Algerian Jew mother), President of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) Group in the French National Assembly
- Abraham Daninos [fr], author, he wrote the first play in Arabic (in 1847).
- Gérard Darmon, actor
- Jacques Derrida, post-structuralist philosopher
- Pascal Elbé, actor
- Jean-Pierre Elkabbach, journalist
- David Foenkinos, French born author and screenwriter.
- Eva Green, actress
- Alphonse Halimi, boxer: World Bantamweight Champion
- Roger Hanin, film actor & director
- Marlène Jobert, an actress
- Judah Kalaẓ, cabalist and moralist
- Oded Kattash, Israeli basketball player who was a superstar in Israel and Greece, and currently the head coach of Israel National Basketball Team.
- Bernard-Henri Lévy, philosopher
- Claude Lelouch, film director (Algerian Jew father)
- Reinette L'Oranaise, singer
- Enrico Macias, singer
- Elissa Rhaïs, novelist
- Martial Solal, jazz pianist and composer
- Benjamin Stora, historian
- Avraham Tal, Israeli singer
- Patrick Timsit, humorist, actor
- Eric Zemmour, journalist
- Claude Zidi, film director
- Myriam Ben, activist and novelist 
The largest study to date on the Jews of North Africa has been led by Gerard Lucotte et al. in 2003. Sephardi population studied is as follows: 58 Jews from Algeria, 190 from Morocco, 64 from Tunisia, 49 from the island of Djerba, 9 and 11 from Libya and Egypt, respectively, which makes 381 people.
This study showed that the Jews of North Africa showed frequencies of their paternal haplotypes almost equal to those of the Lebanese and Palestinian non-Jews when compared to European non-Jews.
The Moroccan/Algerian, Djerban/Tunisian and Libyan subgroups of North African Jewry were found to demonstrate varying levels of Middle Eastern (40-42%), European (37-39%) and North African ancestry (20-21%),
with Moroccan and Algerian Jews tending to be genetically closer to each other than to Djerban Jews and Libyan Jews.
According to the study:
"distinctive North African Jewish population clusters with proximity to other Jewish populations and variable degrees of Middle Eastern, European, and North African admixture. Two major subgroups were identified by principal component, neighbor joining tree, and identity-by-descent analysis—Moroccan/Algerian and Djerban/Libyan—that varied in their degree of European admixture. These populations showed a high degree of endogamy and were part of a larger Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish group. By principal component analysis, these North African groups were orthogonal to contemporary populations from North and South Morocco, Western Sahara, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Thus, this study is compatible with the history of North African Jews—founding during Classical Antiquity with proselytism of local populations, followed by genetic isolation with the rise of Christianity and then Islam, and admixture following the emigration of Sephardic Jews during the Inquisition."
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- ^ a b Naomi Davidson, Only Muslim: Embodying Islam in Twentieth-Century France, Cornell University Press 2012 p.136:'It is because the FLN considers Algerian Jews as sons of our country that we hope the leaders of the Jewish community will have the wisdom to contribute to the construction of a free and truly fraternal Algeria. The FLN is convinced that leaders will understand that it is the duty and of course in the interest of the entire Jewish community not to remain "above the fray", to condemn without fail the dying French colonial regime, and to proclaim their choice of Algerian nationality.'
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Roberts, Sophie B. Sophie B. Roberts. Citizenship and Antisemitism in French Colonial Algeria, 1870-1962.]
(Cambridge Cambridge University Press, 2017) ISBN 978-1-107-18815-0
Last edited on 12 May 2021, at 10:58
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