It has generally been assumed, both by the great majority of Algerian Jews themselves and their co-religionists in other countries, that there can be no safe future for the Jews in the new Algerian Republic. With this view, the distinguished French journalist Jean Daniel (himself a Jew born and raised in Algeria) has long disagreed. Since M. Daniel’s position of “prudent optimism” on the question of Arab-Jewish coexistence in the Maghreb has rarely been argued publicly in America, we invited him to present his case to the readers of COMMENTARY. M. Daniel’s reports on the Algerian struggle in L’Express over the past seven years have won him wide acclaim in France for their reliability and the depth of feeling expressed.
In view of the extreme importance of the question of the Jewish future in Algeria, we plan to publish another article next month which takes a radically different approach to the issues involved.
The last official census of Algerian Jews indicated that “145,000 French Algerians of Jewish faith and indigenous Algerian descent” had been settled on Algerian soil. Today it is estimated that of this number only about 40,000 still remain. Cities like Constantine, Setif, Tlemcen, and Oran have, in effect, seen their Jewish communities suddenly disappear. For the most part, these Algerian Jews (almost 90 per cent of them) are presently living in metropolitan France.
More than half of those who have left are probably waiting for the moment when they can return to their native soil: these were people who had fled precipitously, abandoning their apartments and their stores—everything, in short, that they were unable to carry along easily. For most of the others, departure had been in view for quite some time, and the transitions were not so hard. They already had a foothold in metropolitan France—especially in the vicinity of Paris and the Côte d’Azur—and only returned to Algeria in order to salvage their property little by little.
Finally, there is the distressing spectacle of the diaspora of the poorer Jews, those who had mixed with the so-called petits blancs (“white trash”)—that French proletariat of Maltese, Spanish, and Sicilian origin. These Jews, many of them going out of Algeria for the first time, had to leave their family graves, their childhood memories, and their jobs as well. They are the real exiles: to them, all that is not Algeria must be foreign. Whatever their past sufferings on the soil of Algeria, it was still the only place where they could feel at home.
Indeed, for the past several weeks these poorer Jews have eagerly been seeking reassurances about a possible future in Algeria. They are asking what will become of the independent Algerian state; to what degree the Algerian Republic with its Arab-Moslem majority will be able to accord a place to non-Moslems; and finally—more precisely—whether, given the permanent conflict between Israel and the Arab states, coexistence between Jews and Arabs in the Maghreb will be possible.
To a certain number of Jews from Israel and the Middle East, and even to a large number of American Jews, these questions seem unrealistic. Indeed, as far as such Jews are concerned, the questions should not even be asked: Jewish-Arab coexistence is impossible. Despite the many substantial arguments that are given to support this negative thesis, it must nevertheless be said that the Maghreb Jews, even when forced into exile, even when bitterly regretting France’s departure, and even after having suffered considerably, do not see the problem in the same way as their co-religionists from other countries. The explanation lies in certain historical facts which have exerted a considerable influence on Jewish life in the Maghreb (that is, in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya).
It is important to remember that there have always been Jews in Algeria. Some historians still wonder whether the people of the Bible and the land of Canaan were not perhaps originally from North Africa. What is known for certain is that two centuries prior to the Christian era, in the vast mountainous regions of Algeria, there was a completely Judaized Berber population; although changed, it still survives today. The last victory of a Jewish army, before the founding of the State of Israel, was won by Berber Jews against Greek forces attempting to occupy Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. And at the time of the earliest Arab conquests, the most violent Berber resistance came from the tribes of a Jewish princess from Aurès, El Kahena (the Priestess), a figure still praised by Algerian revolutionaries.
Until the Arab conquests of the 7th and 12th centuries, then, we can say a Jewish-Berber population, sometimes animist, sometimes Christianized as in the case of St. Augustine, constituted the Algerian people. An Israeli sociologist from Algeria, André Chouraki, has demonstrated the close relationship of the Hebraic, Aramean, and Punic languages; and a mixture of the three, enriched by Arabic, is still spoken by the Berbers of Kabylia, the M’zab, Aurès, and the Sahara.
In large part it was the power of Islam that guaranteed the success of the Arab conquest of so individualistic a people: the Arabs, as warrior missionaries, did not hesitate to settle down, marry the Berbers, and completely mix with the conquered population. Great numbers of Berber Jews converted to Islam, and there are still distortions of such names as Cohen and Levy in many Maghreb Moslem families.
Since then, relations between Moslems and Jews in North Africa have been those of individuals of completely different religion who are nevertheless conscious of belonging to the same people. True, there were persecutions of “infidels”; there were, for the Jewish communities above all, special regulations and unfortunate discriminatory measures; but there never was, in the European sense of the word, racial discrimination among a people with the same language, customs, and tradition. For example, the number of holy men (“Marabout” or “rabbis”) common to both Jews and Moslems in Algeria is considerable.
There can, of course, be no question of re-creating the past, or of considering that the condition of the Maghreb Jews of several centuries ago was an enviable one. But it is well to recall the interesting fact that North Africa was the refuge for the great Jewish philosopher, Maimonides. We should also remember that Algerian Jews have, at least twice, stood by the side of the Moslems in foreign wars—on October 23, 1541, against Charles V, and on July 8, 1775, against Count O’Reuilly. Indeed, these two victories over invaders are still observed by certain Jewish and Algerian communities on the Purim Kettanim holidays, the 4th day of the month of Hesvan and the 2nd day of the month of Tammuz. Jews celebrated the Moslem state’s victory in Algiers as if it were the victory of Esther over Ahasuerus—so fearful had they been at the prospect of seeing the fanatics of the Spanish Inquisition introduce their dreaded practices into the Maghreb. It was not uncommon to see Moslem women seated in the women’s section of a synagogue, joining in a service of prayer for some holy man. And today in Tlemcen, Moslems and Jews still foregather one day of the year to say prayers in honor of a Moslem marabout who had been the protector of Jews expelled from Spain during the Inquisition.
Thus, for better of worse, there has been Jewish-Arab coexistence in the Islam Maghreb, and hard as it may be to believe now, European Jews preferred this situation to living under the rule of Catholic governments. That is, until the French Revolution. The year 1789 was of course one of the most important dates in Jewish emancipation (along with the reign of the Ahmed Bey in Tunisia—the “liberal Bey” as he was called, who in the 1850’s prepared the way for the writing of complete equality into the Tunisian constitution for all inhabitants, regardless of race or religion).
The french revolution changed everything. The Maghreb Jews, who (despite vexing discriminations) had considered their condition on the whole more desirable than that of their Russian or European co-religionists, now saw the face of freedom—of complete liberation. From this time on, the large body of Jews fairly worshipped France, and received the members of the French expeditionary force in 1830 as their liberators. The French in turn deemed it politic to lean on the somewhat oppressed minority groups, which in Algeria were mainly the Jews and the Mozabites—the latter being Chiites, disciples of a Moslem heresy which is today the religion of Iran.
The famous Crémieux Decree of 1870 in one stroke made all Algerians of Jewish faith full-fledged French citizens: and the Algerian Jewish community gladly accepted. At the same time, the Decree was the cause of the first serious rupture between Algerian Jews and Arabs, leading to the era of pogroms and incidents.
If it is important to recall the past, certainly it is not to prove that the Jews preferred Moslem to French guaranties—on the contrary, as we have seen. But a knowledge of the history of the community does reveal to what an extent these Algerian Jews remained profoundly Algerian, steeped in the Jewish-Berber culture. In the light of this, we can understand why North African Jews created such serious problems in Jerusalem a few years ago—why they have felt so unhappy in Israel. And we can also understand why the issue of a return to Algeria should now involve a large number of exiled Jews—and that this issue deserves close consideration.
What exactly, is the Algerian Jews’ most pressing problem? Under the terms of the Evian agreement, they are considered to be both French and Algerian, for a period of three years: during that time (which began July 1) Algerian Jews, if they choose not to have confidence in the future of the new Algerian state, may go where they please, to France or to Israel, selling or taking their possessions with them. If they decide to settle in France, they benefit from the Refugee Aid Act which provides indemnity, housing, and employment. For the time being, consequently, there is no reason for panic, simply because no one has the authority to prevent the Jews, any more than Catholics, Protestants, or Moslems in Algeria, from moving wherever they wish. The problem arises only when the Jews want to become Algerian citizens—but then there is no problem: for only those who trust in the future of the independent Algerian Republic will want to become part of it. Indeed, the Evian agreement, by joining the destinies of the Algerian and European communities, has placed everyone under the French army’s protection for the next three years and accorded to both parties thereafter an interest in the possibilities of cooperation. Suppose French nationals—Jews or non-Jews—should become victims of discriminatory measures in the Algerian Republic: under the agreement, France could withhold its very substantial aid, or it could apply sanctions to Moslems living on French territory.
It will be argued that the Jews are nevertheless threatened to a greater extent than the Europeans; that there exists today a willful confusion in Arab countries between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism; and that Algeria is already a part of the Arab League and Casablanca group—both of which have affirmed their solidarity with the Arab refugees from Palestine and their hostility toward Israel. All that is true. And it is in part for this reason that a large proportion of Jews have vigorously supported the cause of a French Algeria. There were some among the parachutists who brought about the coup d’etat of May 13, 1958; others joined the OAS (Secret Army Organization), which must be judged guilty of the worst massacres of innocent civilians in Algeria’s history.
It is difficult to determine whether the Jews who participated in the OAS massacres were acting as Jews. No Jewish flag was flown, and no specifically Jewish organization was involved. But when an Arab from Oran sees a group of young Jews approaching, he does not stop to ask himself about their motives—he only registers the fact that they are Jews. But of course, as we know, Arabs are far from being the only ones to react this way; it is simply that they have recently been the most noticed—not altogether justly, perhaps. For how could we expect the Arahs to be free of the anti-Semitism latent throughout the world? The Jews, quite naturally, are on the side of those who offer them the most security. As they once stood with the Moslems against the Spaniards, they now find themselves with the French against the Arabs.
But in any event, the official position of all the responsible members of the independent Algerian Republic is laïque—for equality and against all discrimination. This was emphatically made clear in the official comments that followed on the remarks attributed to Mr. Ben Bella by Cairo journalists who had reported him as saying that he intended to raise a 100,000-man army against Israel. The immediate reaction in Algerian circles was such that Ben Bella denied the statement. He accused Arab newspapermen from the Middle East of lying and, speaking to me personally, stressed his gratitude to the Jews who had helped him both in France and abroad.
For those who are at all familiar with Jewish-Arab relations, the importance of Ben Bella’s denial would appear to have greater weight than his alleged assertions. He stood to lose popularity in the Middle East by making such a denial. That he made it, nevertheless, points to the fact that in Algeria his following is not anti-Semitic, and also that he prefers his Algerian to his Arab future. Algerian Jews have since received all sorts of other assurances. I am often asked what these assurances are worth, and I am reminded that despite its having been condemned by the leaders of the Russian revolution, anti-Semitism still exists in East European countries. That people do not always pursue their chosen ideal to the letter is certainly true; and I realize that the Algerian revolution’s exclusion of anti-Semitism does not necessarily mean that the masses will refrain from being anti-Semitic. Very well, if this is indeed so, how then shall we proceed to think about the problem? Whom shall we trust? Whom believe? France, England, the United States? Don’t similar contradictions exist in those countries too?
Of course, the problem of Israel is not a factor in France or England or the United States. But Algeria, in this, as in other matters, demonstrates a basic difference. The new Republic’s young officials and intellectuals, the cadres of administrative personnel, are modeling their revolution on the kinds of movements that took place in Yugoslavia, Cuba, even Israel: Oriental Pan-Arabism they see as anachronistic. One must not forget, for example, that a pure Algerian, a direct descendant of the famous Emir Abdel Khader who fought against the French in 1840, has just written a long book on the Judeo-Arab conflict, in which he compares the purity of the Algerian revolution to Israel’s war of liberation. This book, which has caused considerable stir since it is the first time an Arab has shown so keen and brotherly a comprehension of Israel, was distributed in the prisons to young FLN members. Imagine the enormous scandal such a book would have created in the Middle East. In Algeria, although it no doubt has evoked some bitter discussion, anyone who wishes may read it.
Over the past years, many young Algerian revolutionaries have talked to me about their projects. Among other things, they reminded me that the Jews of French-dominated Algeria hardly lived in a paradise of liberty and fraternity. Who maltreated them? Certainly not the Arabs, but the French colons: though “French” is stretching it. It was the Spaniards, Italians, and Maltese—claiming France for their own—who turned European Algeria into a sounding board for the activities of all the anti-Semitic parties that had been discredited in metropolitan France since the Dreyfus affair and were seeking, together with Drumont and Max Regis, a new center of action. The Jews, under these conditions, were subjected to absolute persecution. At elections, a candidate would blazon across the entire balcony width of Algiers’ largest building that he was “the anti-Jewish candidate.” This assured him of a greater number of voters—there were no Arab voters. It was Europeans, too, who were quickly discovered to be the instigators of the disastrous Constantine pogroms in 1935, inciting Arabs against Jews.
It is well to remember that the Arabs were not the ones who in 1941 abolished the Crémieux Decree by which France had naturalized all Algerian Jews in 1870. Nor did Arabs put into effect the racial laws of Pétain and Vichy. Finally, it was not Arabs, but two young European students who, in 1940, put forth and won the demand that anti-Semitism be more virulent in Algeria than in Nazi-occupied France.
The young Algerian revolutionaries to whom I have talked in the past few years have also insisted that they are not concerned with the Middle East, whose problems, they say, are too remote: “The sole imperialism that oppresses us is the French colonial system. Line up with us against it, and we will know how to be grateful. Let there be some Jewish martyrs in our cause. Israel constantly votes against us at the UN—understandable, though it would be more intelligent for them to abstain. But beware lest Zionist activity draw the Algerian Arabs nearer to the Arabs of the Middle East. . . .”
Was all this a matter of tactics? Were the people who advanced such proposals sincere? I myself believe in the forcing quality of the chosen tactic. I believe the means determine the end, that Machiavellians are always caught in their own game, and, finally, that the tactic chosen reveals, precisely, a certain measure of sincerity. It is enough to know that some of the Algerian revolutionaries have accepted Israeli aid.
Israeli but not Zionist. It serves no purpose, indeed, to recognize the Algerian Republic in the spectacular way Israel just did. Of course Golda Meir quite rightly recalled that the Libyans have never been duly grateful to Israel for the latter’s decisive vote in the United Nations, making possible the proclamation of Libya’s independence. In the present situation of the Arabs, and while the world waits for the two parties in the Palestinian conflict to come to some sort of settlement, the unselfish approach will pay off best. The Algerians are going to need agronomists who aren’t propagandists, doctors who aren’t missionaries. The experiment deserves a try in discretion, silence, and efficiency. Publicity can only push the Algerian leaders into demonstrating that they are more Arab than the others. Publicity will only jeopardize whatever Jewish life there is in the Maghreb, and more especially in Algeria.
It is not a question of setting one argument against another, but of correcting one situation by another. Arab anti-Zionism is what it is; we can do nothing about it. But Algerian anti-Semitism is in the process of being corrected by Algerian leaders of good will. How can we refuse to help them in this effort?
In short, Jewish-Arab coexistence in Algeria is a gamble, but an ennobling one to take; and this coexistence partially depends upon the astuteness of Israeli diplomacy. The Algerian revolution is special: it encompasses a progressive ideology which in the main overleaps racial and religious sectarianism. To the extent that cooperation between France and Algeria becomes a moving force, the Algerian Jews are destined to be the natural liaison between the two countries. A Jewish-Arab conflict in Palestine, can, of course, reduce all these positive factors to complete insignificance. But if, in due time, Zionism learns to hold its fire, if trouble in the Middle East abates, and the Algerian leaders remain faithful to their principles, a prudent optimism is not unjustified.