Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The three exiles of Algerian Jewry

The younger generation - Jewish and Muslim - are utterly ignorant of the history of Jewish communities in Arab lands. That is why the Algerian-Jewish historian Benjamin Stora decided to write Les trois exils. Juifs d'Algerie (Editions Stock). Stora gave an interview in the October 2006 issue of Information juive.

According to Stora, the Jews of Algeria went through three different exiles.

The first was an exile from tradition when the Jews acquired French citizenship under the Decret Cremieux of 1870. In just two generations, the Jews threw their love and loyalty in with France. The rabbis of the time warned against the dangers of assimilation. Jews were active on the Left and in human rights organisations.

The second exile was the traumatic loss of their French nationality in 1940 under the Vichy laws: Jews reverted to being native Algerians. This exile scarred Jews such as the philosopher Derrida for life and ruined the life of Stora's own grandfather.

The third exile was the departure from their homeland in 1962. This was not an internal exile but a physical displacement. The uprooted Jews did not want to single themselves out, but merged with the 'pieds noirs'.

The Algerian Jews were unique : they fought for the ideals of the French revolution. In the 1930s their views were not dissimilar from those of Ferhat Abbas. The writer Albert Camus shared with them what was essentially a minority view in the colonial society of the time.

In 1983 Stora was moved by his visit to the Jewish cemetery in Constantine. Suddenly he was aware of the many Jewish families who lived and died there, and their deep roots in Algeria.

The Jews were profoundly aware of a fierce European colonial antisemitism: a few supported the FLN and the OAS, but the vast majority were wary of extremism as a result. At the time of the Dreyfus affair in 1898 the masthead of the newspaper Le Petit Oranais proclaimed that "synagogues and Jewish schools should burn in hell, Jewish homes destroyed, Jewish capital seized and they must be chased into the countryside like rabid dogs."

This has led American historians Michael R Marrus and Robert O Paxton to conclude that Algerian antisemitism shaped Vichy policies, and not the other way around.

Nowadays Algerian history books have airbrushed out the history of the Jews, Stora claims. In Morocco, by contrast, historians like Kenbib have attempted to acknowledge the Jewish presence in the country.

Book review in Guysen News (French)

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