Legacy of Jews in the MENA - World Jewish Congress
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The Jewish Legacy of Algeria

The Jewish community of Algeria is one of the oldest in the world. Some trace Jewish presence in Algeria back to antiquity. In the early Islamic period, Jews settled in western Algeria and fostered intellectual and commercial ties with Jews from the Middle East. The social and cultural contours of the modern Jewish Algerian community began to take shape after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, as Jews from across the Iberian Peninsula migrated to and settled in Oran, Tlemcen, Algiers, Constantine, and other major Algerian cities, where they established new communal institutions and created rabbinical scholarship. In 1715, for example, Constantine-born rabbi Masʿud Zerbib al-Ḥasid, whose remains were brought to Jerusalem in 1970, published the influential rabbinical book Zeraʿ Emet. In addition, Jews living on the Algerian coast — many of whom were Sephardi immigrants from Italy arriving in North Africa in the 17th century — helped to create and played crucial roles in the economic success of Sephardic commercial networks in the Mediterranean, connecting Algerian port cities to other major Mediterranean maritime urban centers such as Gibraltar, Tetouan, Marseille, and Livorno. Certain Algerian Jewish merchants accumulated incredible wealth and political influence. The Busnach family, for example, acquired a great fortune through shipping and commerce. Its members built strong relationships with commercial and political elites from across North Africa, the northern Mediterranean, and France, and assumed crucial intermediary roles that facilitated ties between European and Ottoman rulers.  

Jewish scholars of Algeria sitting around a table. (c) Wikimedia Commons
Jewish scholars of Algeria sitting around a table. (c) Wikimedia Commons

The Jewish community in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries 

The fate of the Jews of Algeria changed dramatically after 1830 when France began to occupy the Algerian territory from the Ottoman Empire. In 1848, it annexed the Algerian territory and turned it into the crown jewel of its colonial empire. French colonial rule in Algeria (1830–1962) transformed Jewish culture, society, and politics. The French government, as part of its efforts to make Algeria French, encouraged the migration to the colony of hundreds of thousands of Christian European settlers while at the same time denying Algeria’s majority Muslim population (numbering about four million in 1900) French citizenship and civil rights. The Jews were perceived and treated as an intermediate group between European settlers and Algerian Muslims. On the one hand, French settlers and colonial officials cast them as primitive and corrupt “natives.” On the other, the same French elites assumed that, unlike Muslims, Jews could eventually become as “civilized” as the Jews of metropolitan France, and therefore worked to integrate them into French settler society. As a result, the French Decree of October 24, 1870 (commonly known as the Crémieux Decree) collectively enfranchised the vast majority of Algerian Jewry (34,574 in 1872) as French. Only the Jews in the remote Saharan region of the M’zab remained disenfranchised and were denied French citizenship until the very last years of French colonial rule (Stein, 2014). The dual French vision and treatment of Algerian Jews as both insiders and outsiders defined the experience of Algerian Jewry in the modern era. As French citizens, the Jews received education, economic opportunities, and access to welfare and political rights that allowed them to embrace modern French culture and experience upward class mobility. Yet as people cast as “natives” and “Orientals,” they also suffered from racism and antisemitism and remained socially and residentially segregated.  

Painting of the Sanya Synagogue de Constantine of Algiers by Hervé Lewandowski, 1841. (c) Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme
Painting of the Sanya Synagogue de Constantine of Algiers by Hervé Lewandowski, 1841. (c) Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme

The Jewish community in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries 

The enfranchisement of the Jews of Algeria changed the social, political, cultural, and linguistic characteristics of the community. Its leaders in the Ottoman period (known as muqaddams) lost their state-sanctioned positions. Rabbinical leaders and educators lost much of their social authority and cultural prestige as well as their ability to control and regulate Jewish schooling and synagogues. In addition, Jews were legally forced to send their children to secular French schools and serve in the French army, which further undermined the financial condition and social status of precolonial Jewish communal institutions and customs (Schreier, 2010). These social developments together with the legal equality that Jews enjoyed as citizens transformed Jewish lives. A rapidly growing number of Jews obtained French high school diplomas or university degrees, entered French middle-class economic sectors, learned French and thus abandoned Judeo-Arabic, and gave their children French names. Many of the Jews who experienced great economic success also used their newly earned capital to leave ethnically segregated urban Jewish quarters and resettle in non-Jewish and European middle-class suburbs. Certain Jews also used the opportunities made available to them to leave Algeria for the metropole, where they could earn more prestigious academic degrees and experience success in the liberal professions or French artistic milieus.  

The life and work of the Jewish poet Sadia Lévy (1875-1951) is a case in point. Lévy was born in the region of Oran to a French-acculturated Jewish family. In Algeria he attended primary and high school and then moved to Paris to continue his studies. In Paris he became involved in influential literary and intellectual circles, and met the famous French-Algerian writer Robert Randau. The two Algerian-born writers pursued several literary projects together, creating the Orientalist novel Rabbin (1896) and the experimental novel XI journées en force (1902).  

Yet despite the rapid growth of the Jewish-French middle-class, the majority of the Jewish population in Algeria remained poor and still very much detached from French society and culture. Social discrimination and anti-Jewish municipal policies limited lower-class Jews’ access to welfare and education and curtailed their opportunities to integrate into settler workplaces and middle-class social circles. The Jews’ uneven access to French opportunities was particularly visible in the city of Constantine. There most Jews remained extremely poor, continued to use Judeo-Arabic as their daily language, were excluded from the modern liberal economy, and were confined to the overcrowded and indigent “Jewish quarter” adjacent to the city’s “Arab quarter” (Cole, 2020).   

Anti-Jewish social and administrative discrimination led to violence on several occasions. In 1897 and 1898, the so-called “Anti-Jewish Crisis” dramatically disturbed Jewish lives. During the episode, anti-Jewish leaders organized violent anti-Jewish riots and harmful boycotts of Jewish businesses. Meanwhile, anti-Jewish municipal leaders purged the Jews from the civil service and the liberal professions and eliminated budgets reserved for schools, healthcare, and other welfare services in the ethnically segregated urban areas in which Jews lived. Anti-Jewish leaders used classic antisemitic tropes as well as Orientalist metaphors to denounce so-called Jewish “corruption.” They then demanded that the French government restore the superior legal and social status of Christian settlers in the colony by disenfranchising the Jews and equating their legal status to that of the Muslim “natives.” The Anti-Jewish Crisis coincided with and was influenced by the Dreyfuss Affair in France. This fact ultimately precipitated the end of the crisis. French senior officials in Paris identified the Algerian anti-Jewish movement as anti-democratic and subversive, and used state power to forcefully dismantle it and secure Algerian Jews’ legal status as French citizens (Roberts, 2015). After several decades of relative peace, antisemitism surged again in Algeria in the 1930s and further intensified after the eruption of World War II. In October 1940, France’s fascist Vichy regime fulfilled the long-standing desire of antisemitic settlers to repeal the Crémieux Decree and strip the Jews of their French privileges and rights. In 1943, after the liberation of Algeria by British and American forces, the Decree and the status of Algerian Jews as French citizens were restored.  

French colonial politics were also detrimental to Jewish-Muslim relations in Algeria. The social and legal hierarchy between the enfranchised Jews and the disenfranchised Muslims created inter-communal resentment and social distancing, although well into the 20th century most Jews still lived in proximity to Muslims and shared with them the same language and many social and cultural norms. Jewish–Muslim social resentment was at times translated into brutal violence. In the summer of 1934, anti-Jewish riots erupted in Constantine, resulting in the deaths of three Muslims and 25 Jews, including several women and children (Cole, 2020). The Constantine-born French-Jewish historian Benjamin Stora described in his autobiography Les clés retrouvées (2016) the growing distance between Jews and Muslims under French colonial rule. Stora affirmed that the boundaries “between the Jewish and Muslim communities were porous” but “it was communal separation which prevailed and which then, we know, created a problem in this country. The Jews lived among themselves, with their customs and beliefs, as did the Muslims and Europeans” (Stora, 2016).  

Postcard featuring a picture of an Algerian Jewish family  (c) Wikimedia Commons
Postcard featuring a picture of an Algerian Jewish family (c) Wikimedia Commons

Dissolution of the Community 

Decolonization and the end of French colonial rule led to the breakdown of the Algerian Jewish community and the disappearance of the Jews from Algerian territory. In November 1954, the anti-colonial and Muslim-led Algerian national movement Front de libération nationale (FLN) launched a rebellion against France in the hopes of bringing colonialism to an end and establishing an independent Algerian nation-state. The rebellion quickly deteriorated into great violence and led to the breakout of the Algerian War (1954–1962), resulting in the deaths of more than a million victims, the vast majority of whom were Muslims. The war rendered the dual identity of the Jews as both Algerian and French untenable. On the one hand, French settlers and officials strongly affirmed that Algerian Jews were fully French, thereby attempting to restore the legitimacy of the French presence in North Africa. On the other, leaders of the FLN questioned whether the Jews belonged to the “French nation” or the “Algerian nation” and treated them sometimes as “colonizers” and sometimes as their compatriots and allies in the fight for decolonization.  

Toward the end of the war and the establishment of independent Algeria in 1962 the debate was all but resolved. Most FLN leaders no longer affirmed that the Jews were “Algerians” and cast Muslim identity and origin as central pillars of Algerian national identity. Meanwhile, French authorities on both sides of the Mediterranean treated Algerian Jews as part of the Frenchmen of Algeria: the people commonly known as pieds noirs. These dynamics culminated in the summer of 1962. Shortly after the declaration of Algerian independence, virtually all pieds noirs left Algeria and “repatriated” to France. Algerian Jews also left Algeria en masse. A small minority among them, particularly poor and partially French-acculturated Jews from the M’zab region, chose to migrate to Israel. Yet the vast majority of the Jews resettled in France, thus affirming their place in French culture, society, and politics and revealing their detachment from Algerian national identity. By the 1980s, only a few hundred Jews still lived in the Algerian nation-state and the centuries-long history of Jewish presence in Algeria came to an end.  

: Vintage postcard illustrated with painting of the Luce Ben Aben School of Arab Embroidery in Algiers, Algeria (1899). (c) Ariella Aïsha Azoulay
: Vintage postcard illustrated with painting of the Luce Ben Aben School of Arab Embroidery in Algiers, Algeria (1899). (c) Ariella Aïsha Azoulay

The Algerian Jewish Diaspora 

In contrast to the North African Jewish Diasporas of Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, the Jewish Algerian diaspora is predominantly found in France and not in Israel, a testament to the unique history of Algerian Jewry and its members’ deep attachment to French society and culture. After 1962, just like non-Jewish pied noirs, the Jews who came to France from Algeria rapidly integrated into metropolitan French society, where they experienced great social and cultural success. Numerous French Jews of Algerian origin or background became prominent figures in French intellectual, political, or cultural milieus. What is more, many of these figures relied on or evoked the painful trauma of the Jewish (and non-Jewish) departure from Algeria in developing their prolific body of work. The renowned Jewish and Algerian-born philosopher Jacques Derrida, for example—one of the founding fathers of the philosophical school of deconstruction—has openly acknowledged the influence of his Algerian origins on the development of his intellectual thought. The famous musician Enrico Macias made the aching memory of his childhood in, and unexpected departure from, Constantine a central theme of his most celebrated songs, including "J’ai quitté mon pays (I left my country)” and “La France de mon enfance (France of my childhood)”. Benjamin Stora, the most well-known and influential historian of the Algerian War in France, has helped to make the history of the Jewish “exile” from North African society and culture into a pillar of French-Algerian history writ large.   

Jews In Algeria
José Aboulker (1920–2009)

Aboulker was a leader of the French resistance in Algeria during World War II. He was born into a prominent Jewish family in Algiers and was studying medicine when the war began. He was among the 110,000 Algerian Jews to lose their citizenship due to the Pétanist regime collaborating with Nazi Germany. Aboulker began to organize his fellow students to become members of the resistance to fight the Nazis. Aboulker and the predominantly Jewish “shock” troops played a crucial role in the success of Operation Torch, the Allied landing in Algiers on November 8, 1942. After the war, Aboulker joined the French Communist Party, vocally supporting Algerian independence, and in 1946 he resumed his medical studies and later became a professor of neurosurgery.

Reinette Sultana Daoud (1918 – 1998)

Reinette Sultana Daoud (1918 – 1998), affectionately known as Reinette l'Oranaise, was one of the most loved Algerian musicians of her time. Born in Tiaret, Algeria, she is known for her musical brilliance despite losing her sight at age two. Guided by Saoud El Médioni, she mastered instruments like the ʿoud and derbouka, showcasing virtuosity through her vocal prowess, intricate poems, and diverse musical styles. The 1940s marked her ascent via Radio Algiers' all-female orchestra and partnership with Mustapha Skandrani. Her iconic composition "Qum Tarā" blended classical melodies with emotive delivery. Within the context of the Algerian independence movement, Reinette emigrated to Paris with her husband, like the majority of Algerian Jewry during decolonization.

  • Cole, J. (2019). Lethal Provocation: The Constantine Murders and the Politics of French Algeria. Cornell University Press.
  • Stora, Benjamin (2016). Les clés retrouvées Une enfance juive à Constantine. Flammarion.
  • Abrevaya Stein, S. (2019). Saharan Jews and the fate of French Algeria. University of Chicago Press.
  • Schreier, J. (2010). Arabs of the Jewish faith: the civilizing mission in colonial Algeria. Rutgers University Press.
  • Roberts, S. B. (2017). Citizenship and Antisemitism in French Colonial Algeria, 1870–1962. Cambridge University Press.