Are there any Jews left in Algeria?

Sixty years after Algeria’s independence and the departure of the 150,000 Jews who lived there, the question of a Jewish presence in Algeria continues to stir emotions. In the media, among politicians, on social networks, in cafés, the myth is circulating: there are still Jews in Algeria. But what is the reality? The author asks this question, but does the answer really exist?

 

The Saint-Eugène cemetery, Algiers.

 

It is a scene that has been lived a thousand times. Each time has its variants, its characters, but the plot is always the same. It’s a discussion that takes the form of a dance. I know the choreography by heart. The rhythm is in my blood, sometimes in spite of myself. First of all, I meet people, friends of friends, at work or even in a café. The other person assesses me and sends me signals. He or she wonders which Mediterranean port these black curls on my head come from. Sometimes it’s not the case, I take matters into my own hands. I can’t help it. I ask some falsely naive questions. Then quickly comes the magic word: Algeria, the one that brings back memories that are not mine, but which I know as if I had lived them. This other person comes from there, like me – at least, me as an extension of my family history. But he is not Jewish.

And when I tell him I am Jewish, this is his response (as you wish. All of them have been lived or reported by others who have had the same experience as me): “Jews in Algeria? There are still some left. There are many of them, just about everywhere. They hide themselves. They practice their religion in silence. Without showing themselves. Jews in Algeria? Of course, my grandmother knows some. Her neighbour in Constantine is Jewish! They get off Air Algerie planes, more numerous than the Algerians themselves. On Friday evenings, an imam lends them the mosque to celebrate Shabbat.”

Every time, this reaction surprises me. Even more so since I have, for years, had a kind of passion for Algeria and its Jews who remained after its independence. Algeria is central to my family, its discussions, its rites. There is something terribly Algerian about us. The Frenchisation that began after the Crémieux decree in 1870 did not francize the characters, nor the family dynamics. My paternal grandparents, both teachers, spoke French, but were fluent in Derdja, Algerian Arabic. They came from a small town in Constantine, which they left in 1956.

On my mother’s side, a family from Algiers, much more French, Algeria is a concrete, palpable land. The family core remained until the 1990s, which is no easy achievement. My mother passed her baccalaureate in Algiers in the 1970s before leaving for France to continue her studies. She returned every holiday to see her parents.

So Algeria is not a distant memory. It exists, just one or two hours away by plane. Going there is not taboo, I have been there several times.

In the 1990s, there were mostly a few seniors who refused to leave.

I have an immense affection for Algeria, even if it did not know how, or did not want, to keep its Jews. Before independence, there were 150,000 in Algeria. When my family left in the mid-1990s, the number of Jews in Algeria did not exceed fifty. The tiny community had just lost three of its respected members, killed in the fog of the Black Decade that blanketed the country.

The majority of the Jewish troops in Algeria in the 1990s were mostly elderly, who refused to leave and wanted to die in the land that was also theirs. Mainly concentrated in Algiers, some of them lived in the Centre d’Action Sociale Israélite (CASI), a former rabbinical school whose classrooms had become rooms for those who were sometimes referred to as “the destitutes.” In the end, it was a congregation of nuns who helped them to survive.

I often imagined these seniors. Like a temporal anomaly. Who decided, or had no choice but to live and die in Algiers. They remained, without family, in the heart of Bab el Oued, that poor and mythical district of the capital. The Jewish mass had suddenly disappeared in a couple of years. But they, by their mere presence, still bore witness to what had been Jewish Algeria. Just like the Star of David that stands proudly above the door of the CASI. The last time I went there, an ugly, black swastika was tagged next to it.

And that is the paradox of this country. The Jews are an essential part of its history. A thousand-year-old community. And yet, Algeria has not preserved the traces of their presence. It has even erased them. Like this street in Ténès, which for a long time bore the name of Pierre Ghenassia, a young Jew who died under French army bombs while fighting for an independent Algeria. In the 1990s, it became El Qods (Jerusalem) Street under pressure from Islamists. And the end of the civil war did not give it back its name.

In Algiers, even if there is not much that is Jewish left in the city, the attentive eye can find a few clues. And that is reassuring. And it makes us sad. There are, of course, the synagogues, many of which have been transformed into mosques. And then there are the cemeteries, which are poorly maintained. The last time I went there, the Saint-Eugène cemetery in Algiers was still beautiful. At least at the entrance. Because the more we venture in there, the more the state of the tombs deteriorates. They disappear under the weeds. In Algeria, people hide in empty Jewish cemeteries to go drinking. And in some tombs, beer bottles are still lying there.

Tomb of the “Jewish friend of the bey of Constantine” in the mausoleum Sidi Abderrahman et-Thaâlibi, in the Kasbah of Algiers.

Then the kasbah. In the small streets, where you are shown orientalist portraits of young women. “All of them Jewish,” says a dealer in his workshop. So you remember that they exist? And that they did exist? A little further on, the Mausoleum where the last bey of Constantine, Ahmed Bey, who led a fierce resistance against the French invaders, is buried. In the mausoleum, a tomb decorated with a Star of David. “This is the Jewish friend of the bey,” says the guide. He has no name. But he is there, he testifies that the Jews have not completely disappeared from Algerian history.

After independence, and even more so after the 1967 war, the Algerian Jews have never stopped counting themselves. Notably thanks to the number of Pesach baskets – including kosher wine, special azim bread and cold meats – sent throughout the country by the latest leaders of this community to allow the Jews to have the traditional meal. The last synagogue in Algiers, located in the popular Bab El Oued district, stopped functioning in 1988, after being ransacked for the second time in just over ten years. The last religious ceremonies took place in the basement of the CASI, where the synagogue benches had been moved.
There was no rabbi. The last one left in 1979.

When my grandparents left, there was no longer a structured community. Only a few individuals. Can we still talk about a Jewish presence then? I grew up with the idea that there was a gap in the history books, which did not mention a Jewish presence in Algeria after 1962. Nobody was really interested in them. Those who left, wanted nothing more to do with Algeria. Those who stayed, on the other hand, walked on eggshells. In an Algeria driven by the Palestinian cause, it was better not to make too much noise. Big anti-Semitic campaigns were sometimes launched in the media. Extracts from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were published in the media, such as in Algérie-Actualité in 1970 or in the Jeune Indépendant in 1991. So I also grew up with the idea that, after the last elders, there was nothing. No more community. The Algerian consistory closed its doors in 2010.

In search of the last Jews of Algeria.

And yet, I am disturbed and intrigued by the incessant music of the Algerians I meet, who repeat to me discussion after discussion that yes, the Jews are there. This refrain can be heard even in the Algerian government. As in 2014, when the Minister of Religious Affairs announced that he wanted to reopen the synagogues closed in the country. Closed, according to him, for “security reasons” during the Black Decade. The announcement was immediately followed by a demonstration of several dozen Salafists marching against the Judaization of the country. Yet the risk is not big. The last time I was in Algiers, there were only four walls and a piece of the partially collapsed roof of the last synagogue in use.

Jewish grave in the Saint-Eugène cemetery, where the graves are left abandoned. This is where some young people hide to drink beers.

Caught between two stories, I decided to go in search of these supposedly last Jews in Algeria. And I prefer to calm the excitement of the reader who has followed me so far, and hopes for a clear conclusion. There is none.

First of all, in the media, the Jews are intriguing, interesting and talked about. Already in December 1991, the newspaper El Watan published an article entitled “Jews of Algeria: An integrated community”. It praised the perfect integration of the Jews in Algeria. So much so that the journalist could not find any of them even “after having scoured the streets of Algiers in the hope of meeting one of them.” Nobody, except Roger Said, the president of the small Jewish community at the time. He refused to answer any questions. A few years earlier, a big anti-Jewish campaign had accompanied the start of the first intifada.

More recently, still in El Watan, an article published in 2012 and titled “I Naïm, 24 years old, future rabbi of Algeria “, completely romanticized but mixes some details with troubling accuracy. On the Jewish community website Zlabia.com, a web user wanted to put an end to the mystification by attempting to fact-check. There are a few of them, articles with little credibility that boast of allowing Jews, always anonymous, to break their silence.

The latest report is a “documentary” by the private channel Echourouk that features a supposedly hidden Jew, whose name is not known and whose face is not seen, exchanging a few words in Hebrew with a relative on the phone as an introduction. The film in Arabic, whose historical accuracy is not really the priority, traces a part of the Jewish history of the country. It also suggests that there are still many Jews in Algeria.

On the internet, a Facebook group exists. It relays stories about Jewish life in Algeria in Arabic, French and Hebrew. It is run by people who claim to be Jewish and Algerian, but refuse any contact. Out of fear, they say, though their publications refer to names and photos. It is impossible to know what is really going on.

Fanaticism has no religion, and crosses communities. Since there are also the Jews who invent stories for themselves. Like this text published on the website of the French-speaking community of Ashdod in Israel. It too tells of a Jewish minority secretly living in southern Algeria. There is even a photo, which dates from 2006. On it is a man presented as Roger Said, the last president of the Algerian consistory. This adds a little spice to the story, but the man shown is not Roger Said. And the photo gives the impression that it was taken in the 1950s.

Extract from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, published in the Jeune Indépendant in 1991.

The question lingers with me. And I often talk about it. Sometimes I have hope. Like a friend of mine, who knows people. She herself has an Algerian friend whose father is Jewish and who is still there. She sends him a message… But no, he refuses to talk. The subject is taboo. It’s still a dead end. It’s impossible to know what’s really going on.

While waiting for an answer, I keep looking. And I explore every avenue. I am still astonished to know that in Algeria, Jews are so numerous in people’s minds, but so difficult to find in reality.


Joseph Benamour

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Thanks to the Paris office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation for their cooperation in the design of the magazine’s website.