Commentary Magazine


France's Algerian Jews

It has been estimated that after the Liberation there were between 150,000 and 165,000 persons of Jewish origin living in France; at present, there are between 450,000 and half a million Jews. Thus the Jewish population has tripled in the course of the last 16 or 17 years, increasing through immigration in about the same proportion and at the same rate as the population of Israel. This new immigration came in successive waves: from the DP camps located all over Europe right after the end of the war; from Poland and Rumania before the iron curtain was lowered for good; from Hungary after the 1956 uprising; from Egypt in the wake of the Suez crisis. Throughout this entire period there has also been a steady immigration from North Africa, especially from the impoverished mellahs of Tunisia and Morocco—not, as might be expected from the coincidence in date, for political reasons but for purely economic ones.

The most recent and biggest influx thus far, however, has been the politically stimulated mass exodus of Jews from Algeria since the Évian Agreements of March 1962—an exodus which has resulted in the transplanting of no less than 110,000 (out of a total of 150—160,000) Algerian Jews into France. Unlike the earlier waves of postwar immigrants, who were “rehabilitated” quite rapidly (largely with the assistance of Jewish agencies) and who have left scarcely a mark on the spiritual content of French Judaism, the Algerians have, through the power of sheer numbers, virtually transformed the character of the French-Jewish community, giving it a predominantly Sephardic cast.

Among other changes, there has been a modification of the geographical distribution of Jews in France, so that whereas until quite recently most French Jews lived north of the Loire (mainly concentrated in and near Paris, with fairly important centers in the East), the Algerian Jews, whenever possible, have chosen the Midi, which seems less alien to them. Marseilles, where a few years ago there were only about 1500 Jews, now has a Jewish population of 50,000. Apart from this, a large proportion of the rank-and-file workers in Jewish organizations and institutions are now Algerian; in Strasbourg, for instance, Algerians constitute a full 50 per cent of the employees of the various Jewish community agencies. (There are also three Algerian rabbis.) And French cities like Valence, Vienne, and Montélimar, which never had Jewish communities, or at least none since the nourishing period of medieval French Judaism, now house substantial numbers of North African Jews.

Sociologically, the Algerian Jews who have come to France since Évian are difficult to pinpoint, if only because they represent every stratum of Algerian-Jewish society. There are professors and rabbis and social workers, doctors, nurses, laboratory technicians, and medical assistants; but there are also secretaries and salesladies, usherettes and waitresses, textile workers, accountants, small businessmen, and minor civil servants—not to mention professional soldiers of every rank, and manual laborers. A whole population has, in short, been uprooted and thrown into confusion.

This unprecedented mass immigration—administratively classified not as refugees or displaced persons, but rather as “repatriated” Frenchmen—raises obvious social and economic “problems.” Yet the technical problems of relocation and rehabilitation are, if anything, the easiest to solve, given the present economic prosperity of France and the conscientious attitude of the official Jewish agencies. The less tangible aspects of the Algerian-Jewish problem are, however, a good deal more burdensome, for they involve nothing less than the question of the ultimate survival of these newcomers as Jews.

The life they were forced to flee was, at least in the matter of Jewish identity, non-problematic. The Jews of Algeria were—for better or worse—a community, and a Jewish community at that, if for no other reason than that a hostile environment defined them as such. Having moved to France, they are naturally attempting to reconstitute this existence within the framework of the French-Jewish community, but the attempt is bound to fail; partly, of course, because of the fundamental difference between European and non-European Judaism, but mainly because of the particular nature of French Jewry. Frustrated, puzzled, and somewhat disillusioned in their encounter thus far with their fellow Jews north of the Mediterranean, the Algerians are in danger of losing their precarious Jewish identity altogether.

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In what was lately “Algérie française,” the Jewish communities lived quite to themselves, to some degree perhaps still bound to the complex of Judeo-Arabic culture and traditions, but largely emancipated from these ties. French citizens by virtue of the 1871 Crémieux Decree of collective naturalization, the Algerian Jews always held a somewhat glorified image of France. They knew very little of their “nation” except in its ideal dimensions: its much-celebrated spirit of tolerance, its respect for personal liberty, its generosity—those classical French virtues which, albeit absent now and again from the conduct of national affairs, have been inculcated as articles of faith in French schools for generations. Broadly speaking, France represented for Algerian Jews (and even for the Jews of Tunisia and Morocco insofar as they came under French influence) something similar to what 19th-century Germany stood for in the minds of many emancipated Russian Jews: a Europe of high culture and civilization, an El Dorado of public libraries and universities, in striking contrast to the culturally arid regions of Cossack barbarism. In fact, in the countries of French colonization in North Africa, the equivalent of the Cossack horde was the primitive bellah, the sporadically violent and unpredictable mosque crowd.

In the West, when a Jew happens to become aware of his isolation and alienation from his surroundings, the ensuing struggle—even if it takes only the form of a soliloquy—is joined against this very West, which becomes the terrain, the battleground. (I have lived, for instance, in Paris since the end of my childhood; yet though it is my city, I know that in the 13th century the Talmud was publicly burned here, and I cannot entirely forget it. I know exactly the place where the stake was set up, and I pass by it now and then. Should the occasion arise, my anger would be addressed to this very Paris, today’s metropolis, which, despite all its metamorphoses, still harbors within itself, both actually and potentially, the medieval city of the auto-da-fé.) For the Algerian Jew, however, the situation is different. His historical memories of suffering and humiliation relate primarily to the old Moslem Algeria, the very Algeria that France effaced: the Kingdom of Tlemcen, the rule of the Deys, the tyranny of the Ottoman officials—in short, all the institutions of Oriental oppression from which the French delivered them. France (and the West), therefore, do not represent a potentially hostile non-Jewish world, but rather a friendly beckoning force. (The Chief Rabbi of Lyon who expressed to a devout member of his congregation-—a “repatriated” Algerian Jew—his astonishment at the latter’s impending marriage to a non-Jewish girl, received the reply: “But my fiancee isn’t a goy, she’s French.”)

This is not to deny, of course, that the Frenchmen of Algeria, the “pieds-noirs,” and even the mass of European workers in the big Algerian cities—artisans, shopkeepers, officeworkers, and minor officials—were largely anti-Semitic. When the Vichy regime—which held Algeria in tow until the American landings—revoked the Crémieux Decree and reassigned to the Algerian Jews their pre-1871 status as “indigenous Israelites,” it was the Europeans and not the Moslems who applauded. (During this same period, it was the European students at the University of Algiers who voted a motion demanding reinstatement and a stricter application of the anti-Jewish numerus clausus.) Yet the Jews never regarded these hostilities as emanating from France. Given the fact that the majority of the “pieds-noirs” were of Spanish, Italian, or Maltese origin, their anti-Semitism could conveniently be attributed to their “foreign” character, to their “barbarism” as Andalusians or Sicilians.

Except for the southernmost enclaves on the borders of the Sahara, where the Judeo-Arab idiom still prevailed, the Jewish communities of Algeria had by 1960 become completely French-speaking, completely French in sentiment, orientation, and culture. Moreover, in the process of abandoning their membership in the Arab world and Gallicizing themselves over the course of the past seventy years, the Algerian Jews in effect gave up much of their specifically Jewish personality: the style of their daily life had been too intricately involved in the Moorish structure for the dismantling to occur without a marked loss. Of the old pietistic Cabbalism only a few vague traces remained on the eve of the exodus.

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But if the “Gallicization” of the Algerian Jews strongly diluted their Judaism, it did not at the same time result in a positive integration into the French community. For despite over 125 years of présence française and a million French citizens (as opposed to 8 million Moslems), no such community ever really existed in Algeria. France manifested her presence only in the form of garrisons, forts, schools, residential districts, gas pumps, police stations, model farms, and, on the level of social life, a few stale salons in Algiers where the Anglophilia popular in Proust’s Paris was fanatically cultivated. The more important reason for the failure of the Algerian Jews to assimilate, however, is inherent in the very nature of an Islamic country. When an individual is assigned a status in these societies the only factors that count are his religion and his family ties. Formal nationality, language, cultural identification, even behavior and habits are all set aside. Thus, an Algerian Arab has never regarded a fellow countryman who happens to be a Jew as a Frenchman, but only as a Jew. The Christian European living in Algeria, for that matter, also saw the Algerian Jew as a Jew and not as a Frenchman. In fact, the term “Frenchman” in Algeria was never used specifically to designate a person of French birth or ancestry, but was rather applied to anyone who was neither Arab nor Jew.

This situation, and all that it implied, was not without a positive effect, for it obliged the Algerian Jews from the outset to assume and even to assert their Jewish identity without hesitation or ambiguity. Hence in the perpetual ethnic contest waged by the Arabs, Kabyles, Mozabites, Corsicans, Andalusians, Sicilians, and Maltese, the Jews of Algeria were far from laggards. Their synagogue was at the very center of the town, and the ordinary Jew, postman or gas-meter reader, making his rounds felt as much protected by its benign shadow as his remote colleague in Provence or Burgundy did by the steeple of the country church. Few Algerian Jews, to be sure, were very adept in Jewish practices, but virtually none on the other hand was absolutely ignorant—as are so many of their coreligionists north of the Mediterranean—in matters pertaining to their religion and their people.

If, then, the situation of the Jews in Algeria was not without tension, it at least had the virtue of being unequivocal. All boundaries were clearly marked and all the players knew from the start the roles assigned to them. Thus the tacit social ostracism directed against the Algerian Jewish community by the “true” Europeans, while never for an instant suspended, was nonetheless mitigated by an unfailing and unquestioned official courtesy. Though members of “pied noir” families never set foot in even the most socially prominent Jewish homes, there was no official Jewish function—lecture, dedication ceremony, or important funeral—that was not attended by at least one representative of the Catholic clergy, of the prefecture, of the Army even, as well as by a mufti or Moslem aedile. The Jewish community was recognized de facto and de jure, and as a duly authorized body it was entitled to, and received, all the outward signs of official respect.

It was on the whole a happy and rather peaceful life, full of petit-bourgeois propriety and lower-class zest. As seems to be the case almost everywhere, the Jews of Algeria were more than proportionately represented in the professions, and their children were almost all receiving secondary and higher education. Virtually everyone was more or less of a Zionist—and every Jewish lady with a modicum of social status belonged to W.I.Z.O. One gave one’s heart and one’s cash to Israel, but aliyah from Algeria was until the last numerically quite insignificant. Like any provincial life, it left unsatisfied both exigent minds and extreme temperaments, but these could always find their way to Paris—as did, for instance, the painter Jean Atlan; the brilliant young theologian and exegete of the Talmud and the Cabbalah, Léon Askenasi; the boxer Robert Cohen.

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So stable was their existence that even with the crisis imminent the Jews of Algeria had scarcely begun to realize their danger. For a long time their land had been the scene of brief and temporary flareups, and few doubted that this violence, too, would peter out. Moreover, the emergency economic measures taken by the French government to avoid political bankruptcy—mass investment of capital in the industrial complex known as the Constantine Plan—were reaping a temporary harvest of prosperity which did not go unenjoyed. True, people were killing each other in the djebells, trains were being blown up here and there, but the Jews in their own cafés went right on sipping their aperitifs of “Phenix” anisette (because it was allegedly kosher—though a liqueur is not, in fact, subject to dietary laws; the “real” Europeans always ordered “Gras” anisette, purely Aryan, while the Arabs, scorning all alcohol, drank only mint tea and ultimately won their case).

With Evian, however, the danger became plain to all, and the tents of Jacob collapsed completely in Algérie française. Only about 40,000 Jews are left in the Republic of Algeria—the rest have fled, a few to Israel, the great majority to France. Among the frightened and angry fugitives there were some who remembered to take away with them the Scrolls of the Law as an offering to the synagogues awaiting them at the end of their flight. The congregation at Strasbourg, for example, now boasts a particularly precious specimen, decorated with splendid chased-silver mountings.

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In a state of mind, then, colored by fury as much as by shock and fear, the Algerian Jews have arrived in France. They are all fugitives, of course, but fugitives who have slammed the doors behind them. Almost all feel that they are victims of a tremendous injustice, and this contributes to the psychological burdens besetting them. They feel that they have been deprived, that everything belonging to them has been given to the Arab—their streets and houses and household pets, their neighborhood pools, the cafes which were their second homes. To attempt, by way of re-education, to call their attention to the fundamental injustices of colonialist regimes, to argue that relationships in any society based on racism are of necessity foredoomed, is useless. In this regard their mentality is not too different from that of the “pieds-noirs.” But unlike the latter, entrenched by their resentment in an absurd irredentism, the Algerian Jew—newly relocated by the tutelary administration in too small an apartment in a barracks-building on the outskirts of Paris—will not become the White Russian of the Algerian revolution. The nostalgia is there, but he lacks, fortunately, the fanaticism. A man must, after all, live, particularly when there is a family to support and one which in most cases is made up not only of a wife and children, but also of parents and often assorted unmarried brothers and sisters.

As a first step in rebuilding their lives, the Algerians rent office sites and set up kosher slaughter-houses, for which purpose they have no difficulty in obtaining the aid of French Jewish organizations and agencies. Things can always be managed so long as it is merely a question of money (fund-raising drives for the Algerian Jews have been surprisingly, most successful in Alsace, which is perhaps the region most remote by tradition and temperament from Sephardic, Mediterranean Judaism). But it is when the Algerians make demands that cannot be met by mere philanthropy that the real problems emerge. Thus, the first major disillusionment the Algerians encountered was their discovery of the pitifully inadequate provisions for Jewish education in France. In all of France, there exist only three Jewish lycées and one Jewish primary school (three of which institutions are located in Paris), and there are simply not enough teachers who have mastered both French and Jewish culture to open new Jewish schools where they are needed. This cruel inadequacy has produced the first of many shocks of disappointment among the Algerian Jews, for their rather naïve faith in la grandeur française also included French Judaism. (The Chief Rabbi of France was in their eyes something like the General de Gaulle of the synagogue.)

The irony is that the Algerian refugees feel more Jewish today in France than they ever felt before, not only because the tribulations of exile (which neither they nor their ancestors had ever experienced before) inordinately “Judaize” those who suffer them, but, more importantly, because in their present insecurity the Jewish tradition provides perhaps the only source of stability and continuity within reach. Hence the importance they attach to such matters as kosher food, and the intransigence of their demands in this regard upon the French-Jewish communities—demands which more than a few of their would-be benefactors in the French-Jewish communities have found astonishing and unjustified in view of the fact that in general behavior the Algerian Jews, with rare exceptions, do not give the impression of great piety. Almost all, for example, will accept work on Saturdays, and indeed (as public school teachers and civil servants) many had long since abandoned the observance of the Sabbath even in Algeria. Yet this apparent concession to secularism by no means puts the Algerian Jew on the same level of indifference in religious matters as the larger part of European Jewry, for the spirit in which he approaches these matters is entirely different. Those very exigencies of history which have to some extent diluted his Judaism have also made him loath to part with it; and moreover, acting upon a certain fatalism inherent in the Oriental temperament has rendered him adept at compromise. The same Jews who find nothing amiss in working on the Sabbath will abstain from smoking on that day, for “we have to work, but we don’t have to smoke.”

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Thus, taking the French Jew rooted in France, and then the displaced Algerian Jew arriving in France and presumably in search of those same roots, it is a mistake to assume that any kind of real parity exists that might facilitate their encounter. Indeed, this mistaken assumption has done much to compound the bewilderment of the Algerian arrivals, imbued as they were with the conviction that just as the Jews of France were more “French” than they, so must they also be more Jewish. In fact, the opposite is true. The 110,000 new arrivals are Jews by conviction and religious practice, if not by culture; Judaism, however tenuous and however arbitrarily interpreted, is part of their conscious personality and permeates their family life. In France, on the other hand (the North Africans excepted), there are certainly no more than 25,000 Jews who live in their Judaism, beyond a morbid obsession with the episodic revival of anti-Semitism. There has, to be sure, been an increase in Jewish identification among a certain sector of the youth, particularly at the universities, and the enthusiasm that attended the birth of the State of Israel continues in the form of support of its policies and concern with its fate. Yet Judaism as an active state of consciousness is virtually over and done with for the vast majority. Assimilation on a mass scale proceeds quite automatically, without prejudice or principle. The assimilated Jew is not a conscious advocate of assimilation (which would at least indicate some involvement with the question), nor for that matter does he appear hostile to Jewish tradition or culture. He does not act, he is acted upon; he does not assimilate, he is assimilated.

Nor has it ever been different in modern French history. Except for Alsace, where the Jewish community is deeply rooted, its history continuous from the Middle Ages, Judaism has not been a living reality in modern France. Where anti-Semitism is absent, its absence is based on a deliberate refusal to acknowledge that there are such people as Jews—on, that is, a sort of benign negation of the existence of Judaism altogether. The middle class does not use the term “Jew,” for example, but refers to “Israelites” and even to “the Israelite milieu.” In the market place “Jew” is an epithet applied variously to cunning, greed, or to stinginess. If the phrase “Jewish worker” is used in talking to a French factory worker, he will burst out laughing at the idea that such a thing exists—even when there is one under his very nose, dressed in overalls, his hands covered with grease, and asserting flatly that he is a Jew.

Hence the repatriated Algerian Jew is up against the further dilemma that sociologically he fits into none of the orderly categories of French society—being in fact no less exotic to French Jews than to French gentiles. Just as his French identity once kept him from the Arab world, it threatens now to keep him from the Jewish one;—without thereby making him more comprehensible to metropolitan Frenchmen.

Let us, as an illustration, take the quite typical case of the “repatriated” policeman, who has cursed, wept, and prayed, who has counted at one point on Salan, and said harsh things about de Gaulle. To the administration, nevertheless, he is merely a gendarme transferred from one town to another. Having no apparent need of help and caring not at all about the usual measures of social or economic “rehabilitation”—for policeman he was and policeman he remains—his case has nothing to do with the Fonds Social Juif Unifié (the French-Jewish central fund-raising agency). In Algeria, this policeman was accustomed to attend—in uniform, of course, for he is forbidden to wear civilian clothes—the Sabbath morning service. He was a member in good standing of the congregation and all the faithful knew him by name. But even had he been unknown, no one would have been surprised to see him walking in the procession, pressing a Sefer Torah against his service jacket. No one would have found it strange that a Jew should be a policeman or a policeman a Jew, for there were many more like him.

Now, in the French town not far east of Paris where this gendarme makes his rounds, it happens that there is a Jewish community and a Jewish synagogue. The first time our gendarme appears at the services, he rouses a minor panic among the worshippers. A gendarme comes only “in the name of the law.” What then are the charges? After some explanation, the other Jews understand: “I’m an Algerian Jew; in Algeria there were a lot of Jewish gendarmes; I want to come to services every Saturday and to be registered as a member of the community.” After a few smiles, matters are arranged. But the others, his colleagues in the police, have never come across this constabulary Judaism, and for them it is a joking matter: “So, mon brigadier, you’re a Jew and you go to synagogue! Why don’t you take us once in a while?” For them a Jew is a financier, and they suspect their pied-noir “copain” of being the victim of delusions. The policeman then recounts his experiences at home to his family. His wife reminds him that it is “different here” and urges him to forget about the synagogue, or run the risk of appearing ridiculous. The children say nothing, but think their own thoughts.

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Among the Algerian Jews reestablished in France, there are thousands of civil servants now weathering such changes in social climate and temperature. For the rank-and-file North African Jew, Judaism is first of all a kind of lares—his domestic safeguard and protection—and then the definition of the group to which he belongs. If this ordinary man with neither the talent for, nor any pretension to, profound religious experience is to continue in the path of his ancestral tradition, that path must be ratified by external authority, consecrated as worthy and honorable by the government, the clergy, the military, the press. In Algeria, despite the ambience of anti-Semitism among the Europeans and the anti-Jewish prejudices among the majority of Moslems, this was indeed the case. The Algerian synagogue was too much a part of the landscape as a consecrated place for anyone to dare speak ill of it. The Jewish religion was, in fact, one of the four official religions of Algeria, more significant—and hence given more encouragement—than, for example, Protestantism, which represented only a tiny minority of the population and was largely supported by foreign missions. In France, however, the ordinary Algerian Jew has not yet been able to find the forms of that ongoing Jewish life that he so badly needs. Despite the official watchword, “integration,” little effort has been expended toward bringing him into an organic relation with the synagogue and whatever exists of other French-Jewish religious institutions. (The upper ranks of Algerian Jewry, long since more “metro-politanized” than the multitudes, are better off in this respect, if in an uninspired way: they have joined the ranks of consistorial Judaism, moderately conservative, tepid, and reassuring.) Nor is there, unfortunately, on the part of the Algerian Jews any real impulse to seek out the other immigrant sectors of North African Jewry—notably the Tunisians and Moroccans—who are not French nationals and who sometimes do not even speak French. Despite the similarity of ritual and custom, the difference between the two Maghreb groups is a great one, and the arrogant phrase “We Algerians” plays an important role. This segregation is to be mourned, for the two groups could perhaps have been of mutual assistance.

Only in the purely intellectual milieu (not to be confused with that of the “liberal professions”), where the area of specific interest and the value of intellectual categories are more important factors than “ethnic” or sub-ethnic perceptions, has there been any degree of real integration or symbiosis. The same is true to a lesser extent in Orthodox circles (which occasionally overlap with the intellectual ones). Here it is indisputable that the Algerian Jewish exodus will ultimately exert a postive influence, a gain in spiritual vitality, a current of revivalism.

But what about the others—the great host of refugees still in mourning for the Jewish quarter of Constantine, for the famous Bab-el-Oued of Algiers, for the Judeo-Spanish Sabbath paseo in the avenues of Oran, and for all those little towns associated with sunshine and simple happiness, Blida and Batna, Biskra and Cherchell, Ai’n-Temouchent, Tiaret, and Mi-liana? Paradoxically, it may yet turn out that they have come, at least in the matter of Jewishness, less as suppliants than as possible providers. Though it seems on the face of it that the 390,000-odd members of the French-Jewish community have before them the task of “integrating” the 150,000 Algerian Jews, one wonders whether, in fact, the Algerian Jews will not perhaps succeed in infusing some of their own vitality and particular color into the pallidness of French-Jewish life. The alternative is that the Algerian Jews—unable to rebuild in France their traditional sanctuary, lacking the specific structures and institutions of life in North Africa that held their identity together, and finding little response in the French-Jewish community—will succumb to that same aimless assimilation and dis-identification that afflicts their fellow Jews of the West.

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