Commentary Magazine

Algerian Jews, and Other Matters

Two Cities

Algeria, now that it is about to become independent, has much in common with Central and Eastern Europe in the years before and after the 1914 war—the dissolution of empire, conflict between a dominant minority and a subordinate majority, and the Jews boxed in a corner. Most Algerian Jews, not to speak of their Secret Army Organization activists, would have preferred Algeria to remain French, just as most of the Jews in the Hapsburg lands probably would have wanted the empire intact. A minority of Algerian Jews were for an Algerian Algeria because they thought it just and progressive or because they were Algerian nationalists, as a minority of Jews in Prague or Lemberg (Lwow) favored Czech or Polish independence for similar reasons.

The case of the Jews of Prague is best known, on account of the interest in Kafka. They were part of the Jewry of the German Kulturkreis, whose fathers or grandfathers had spoken Yiddish. But one thing that made Prague so Kafkaesque for the Jews was that there German was the language and culture of a hated minority. The peasants in the country and the workers and servants in the city spoke Czech and, led by a nationalist elite, dreamt of the overthrow of German lordship. For the Czechs the Jews were hateful Germans, all the more to be despised because they were not really German. (The real Germans were not very fond of the Jews either.) When Czechoslovakia was established, the Jews were uneasy, briefly, until they came under the shelter of Masaryk’s liberalism.

In Western Galicia the assimilating Jews were attracted to German rather than to Polish and in eastern Galicia to Polish rather than to the Ukrainian of the peasantry. In Riga the Jews who had given up Yiddish and did not care for Hebrew were partisans of the Russian language and culture against Latvian, even after the creation of a Latvian state. In Slovakia the emancipated Jews preferred Hungarian to Slovak.

Of two contending Gentile cultures, therefore, Jews were attracted to the more advanced one. The attraction was understandable and natural, but it made trouble. The success of Zionism in Prague and of Hebrew or Yiddish school systems farther east was partly—not primarily—due to a growing Jewish belief that when Gentile nationalities were in conflict it was more dignified for Jews to assert a kind of autonomous neutrality than to side with either. It was more, prudent, too, because partisanship would mean the heightened enmity of one nationality and the ingratitude of the other, while neutrality, though it would not make friendships, might keep enmities tolerable.

In Algeria the Crémieux decree gave French citizenship to the Jews more than ninety years ago. Their equivalent of Yiddish was a Judeo-Arabic tongue, written, like all Jewish languages, in the Hebrew alphabet. It was abandoned, like Yiddish in Prague, because it seemed to the Algerian Jews that only by French citizenship, language, and culture could they lift themselves from superstition, ignorance, disease, and poverty to enter the world of modernity and achievement. Giving up rabbinical law—including the right to polygamy, only Ashkenazim being affected by Rabbenu Gershom’s ban a thousand years ago—was no hardship. The Algerian Jews became zealous Frenchmen of the spirit-of-’89 and the liberty-equality-fraternity school.

Unfortunately, not all Frenchmen were of that school. In Algeria most of the colons and many of the lower-class Europeans were reactionary and anti-Semitic. During the turmoil over Dreyfus there was violence against the Jews and aggressive anti-Semites kept winning at the polls. A half century later the Vichy regime—which has been called the anti-Dreyfusards’ revenge—revoked the Algerian Jews’ French citizenship, to the delight of the Pétainist mass of Europeans. Of the Moslems, not all were so delighted as Vichy had hoped. Many rejoiced, but the more thoughtful did not want citizenship withdrawn from the Jews. They only wanted it extended to themselves.

For decades the Algerian Europeans vetoed all proposals to make it easier for a Moslem to become a Frenchman, until they woke up to find that the Moslems were no longer interested. As soon as it was French nationality and nationalism against Moslem-Algerian nationality and nationalism, the position of the Jews of Algeria ceased to be merely potentially like that of the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe forty or fifty years earlier. Only the Algerian Jews had even more reason to worry about the Moslem Arab majority than the Jews of Prague about the Czechs.

The agreement between the Algerian revolutionary leadership and Paris has guarantees for French citizens, including the Jews. (For a long time the provisional government had insisted that the Jews, being as native as the Moslems, should not be deprived of their Algerian status merely because imperialists in the 19th century had thought it useful to make them legally French. The Jews were touched, but chose to go on being legally French all the same.) Guarantees notwithstanding, and even if, impossibly, the hatreds and guilts of the recent and distant past are forgotten, few non-Moslems imagine that they will be able to stay after there has been time to develop a native intelligentsia, to use Khrushchev’s phrase about some Soviet republics.

Who knows? The Algerian Jews might have done better as Jews in a candidly triple society than as legally French in a make-believe dual society. In Belfast a Jewish boy was caught one Orange Day between a gang of Protestants and a gang of Catholics, each demanding to know which he was. He had never been so glad to be able to say he was a Jew, but then they asked whether he was a Protestant Jew or a Catholic Jew. That question would probably not be asked where the Jews were one element of three.




When American Jews have opposed religion in the public schools, it has often been on the stated ground that the religion is unacceptably sectarian. Not only do the Gideon Bibles sometimes distributed in schools have all of the New Testament and very little of the Jewish Bible, but also the text is the King James version, i.e., Protestant. Catholics use the Douay or other, more recent Catholic translations, like that of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. Jews use the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation of the Hebrew Bible. (A new one is being prepared.) The courts have ruled that the King James version is sectarian and that public schools may not distribute Gideon Bibles.

On the same ground Jews object to the Lord’s Prayer in school. There is hardly anything in the Lord’s Prayer that is not also in the Jewish liturgy, especially the Kaddish, or more generally in Jewish literature. But since the prayer taken as a whole is intimately Christian, from the Jewish point of view it is sectarian.

A few years ago the New York State Board of Regents recommended that if the school authorities wished to join an “act of reverence to God” to the daily Pledge of Allegiance, the children might say this brief, unsectarian prayer: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country.” A Long Island school system used the prayer, some parents objected in the state courts and lost, and now it is before the United States Supreme Court, with a number of Jewish organizations arguing that prayer of any kind is unconstitutional.

So far there is nothing new. What is rather new is an additional Jewish argument, that religiously an unsectarian is as offensive as a sectarian prayer, because it represents a “common denominator” religion that is not the actual religion of any child. That is to say, the Lord’s Prayer is wrong for the schools because it is Christian, and the Regents’ prayer because it is neither Christian nor Jewish (nor Moslem, nor Buddhist). Released time—an arrangement for sending public school children, upon their parents’ request, to their various afternoon religious schools—is bad because it is divisive, in that it makes the children too explicitly aware of their religious differences (otherwise, presumably, they would not be aware of them); while the Regents’ act of reverence is bad because it is not divisive enough. Some Jewish state-church lawyers are going to be quite unhappy when sectarian differences between Bible translations fade—perhaps sooner than we expect.

In opposing both what is sectarian and what is unsectarian, divisive religion and common-denominator religion, Jews run the risk of sounding like the lord mayor who promised, upon taking office, that he would be neither partial, on the one hand, nor impartial, on the other. When you say things like that, it is hard to convince people that you are serious, or at any rate that you are saying what you really mean. The Jews argue that they are all for religion and religious education, but at home, in the synagogues, and in the religious school, not in the public school. Why that must mean opposition to a brief unsectarian prayer is hard to see. Religious people, especially if there is no sectarian issue, should surely agree that children, parents, teachers, and country need repeated prayers for God’s blessings. Whatever we say, what we do proves that our heart is in a strict interpretation of the First Amendment’s no-establishment clause.

It would not be surprising if the Supreme Court ruled for the appellants against New York State, because they probably have the better case in law. But it is only a legalistic bourgeoisie that confuses the legal country with the real country. (Though the distinction was made most often by French reactionaries, revolutionaries everywhere make it too, and liberals would do well to bear it in mind.) No amount of Supreme Court decisions upholding the separation of church and state and the exclusion of even unsectarian religious gestures from the public schools will make the United States any the less a de facto Christian country in its culture. In New York a real effort was made to meet Jewish objections to sectarianism in the schools. Having turned down the offer, we are less likely to find all religion kept out than Christianity reintroduced—through the back door, if necessary. Failing that, Main Street and Town Hall will take over, with fewer safeguards and more sectarianism.



Cloistered Virtue

The recent debate in the Knesset over relaxing security restrictions on the Israeli Arabs did not evoke much feeling among the Jews of the United States. Israeli parties and distinguished personalities, like Martin Buber, were for the removal of all restrictions, while Ben Gurion wanted to retain as many as possible. In the United States most Jews were prepared to go along with whatever the Israeli government decided. In the end, a partial liberalization was enacted.

How are we to understand this indifference in a community more vehemently devoted to civil liberties and civil rights than any other in the American population? There are two possible explanations. The first is that for American Jews, Israel is a kind of surrogate old country, and Americans with an old country often tend to be more royalist than the king. When Mussolini’s Italy conquered Ethiopia in the 1930’s, probably a higher proportion of Italians in America supported him than in Italy, and the Irish Republican Army probably had greater proportionate support among the consciously Irish of the Irish Americans than in Ireland. Ben Gurion is less controversial here than in Israel.

The second explanation is that while American Jews are often unrealistic about Israel, in one sense we are more realistic and less ideological about Israel than about America. It has often been observed that we are distinctively ideological in our politics—given to regarding compromise as betrayal and to seeing the final conflict of Good and Evil in the daily push and pull of interests. History has made Western Jewry as a whole dependent on the continued victory of the French Revolution and what it stands for. Our peace of mind needs a liberalism that is explicit about itself.

Being a minority, Jews cannot avoid we-they thinking. We, as a group, have never had political power. We have watched, sometimes with approval but more often with anxiety, how they exercise power. Having no experience of power, we have not been able to acquire anything but an intellectual understanding, if that, of its moral ambiguities. The powerlessness that has kept us relatively free from sin has encouraged in us a self-righteous moralism. Our unexpressed feeling has been that if only we were in power, we would show them how to govern morally and by principle.

Israel is a tiny country, but in that country Jews rule and must take the responsibility for their rule. If political power may be likened to sexual potency, then it may be said that in Israel the Jews, as a political community, have become potent again for the first time in many centuries. Any political virtue of theirs will no longer be the cloistered, unexercised, and unbreathed kind that Milton could not praise.

It is the vicarious experience of political power which Israel provides for American Jews that largely accounts for our failure to react as ideologically to the imperfect civil liberties of the Israeli Arabs as we would to similar imperfections in the United States—that, and the tendency of all groups to forgive or actually deny in themselves, or in those with whom they identify, what they would not forgive in others. For similar reasons, most American Jews are less critical than many Israelis of the state-religion link in Israel, while sounding the alarm over religion in the civic life of the United States.

It will do us good to realize that when we have power, actually or vicariously, we are as subject to its temptations as they: when we realize that the problems of responsibility are not simple, our critical voice may stop being so soprano.

In a recent Eranos Jahrbuch there is a great essay on Jewish Messianism by Gershom Scholem. At the end, after showing the majestic tension and pathos of the Messianic tradition, he contrasts it to the flawed reality of the State of Israel, the fruition of so much longing. But he is not ironical at the expense of the state. Quietly he says that reality, for all its lack of visionary grandeur, is more wholesome than feverish daydreaming.

It may be that Israel will help to reinstate reality not only for its own citizens but also for Jews in other lands. One test would be whether American Jews can come to understand how resistant the problem of relations among religion, culture, society, and state is to an unambiguous solution.




At Princeton (Habakkuk 1:5) a kosher house has been opened for students tired of “eating out of cans and having an occasional tuna fish sandwish outside,” and in Reading, Pennsylvania, a Catholic hospital has opened a kosher kitchen for Jewish patients, with a rabbi as supervisor. That seems to leave some major Jewish hospitals as the territory still to be redeemed for kashrut.

Most of those hospitals say they would be glad to introduce kashrut on the same optional basis. What they object to is the demand to be entirely kosher. Their boards argue that that would be technically inconvenient. More importantly, for them the demand implies an unacceptable proposition, that Orthodoxy is normative for all Jews and that deviation from it is both idiosyncratic and sinful. For the boards, Orthodoxy is one kind of Judaism among others.

The Orthodox do indeed believe that Orthodoxy is normative and everything else a sinful deviation, but they do not rest their case for total kashrut in hospitals on that alone. They say that a Jewish communal institution owes it to all Jews that they shall not be made to feel like tolerated outsiders, however courteously treated. What a Jew finds admirable in a Catholic hospital is not enough in a Jewish one. Total kashrut should offend no Jew, unless he is perverse, while partial or optional kashrut offends the Orthodox. What is offensive to none and necessary to many should be the public norm for all.

A judgment of Solomon is needed. The best practical solution may be that of a well-known Labor Zionist, in London years ago. Everyone knew he was anticlerical and free-thinking—what else could a good socialist be? Yet he was seen leaving a kosher restaurant. Challenged to explain, he said: “Don’t worry, I didn’t eat meat.”



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