Monday, March 09, 2015

Can Algeria break its 'Jew taboo'?

 An Algerian-Jewish family

 How ready is Algeria to tolerate Jews? This article by Farah Souames from Open Democracy has been circulating and raises some good points. However, it also labours under a number of misconceptions. My comments are interspersed in bold:

In Algeria, like other countries of North Africa and the Middle East, there are red lines when discussing politics and religion. Some Algerian writers have bravely debated Jewish minority rights, but raising too many questions about Algeria’s Jewish minority is still taboo. This is because most people confuse Israel, Judaism and Zionism.

They certainly do. But even if they did not the Algerian state still discriminates against non-Muslims: the constitution grants Algerian nationality only to those with a Muslim father.

Algeria’s Minister of Religious Affairs, Mohamed Aissa, recently spoke of plans to reopen 25 synagogues closed down in the late 1990s, during Algeria's civil war. The news provoked some Algerian Muslims to protest. The minister, however, says Algerian Jews have a right to exist. Although welcome, the statement is ironic, because few in Algeria would openly acknowledge Jewish identity. Indeed, many observers claim that the Algerian Jewish community no longer exists.  


Radical Islamists have reportedly led opposition to the minister’s plan, but their anger does not stem from Islam itself. Muslims in the Maghreb have a history of coexistence with other religions, as is true in other Middle Eastern countries. Instead, their intolerance is driven by recent history and politics.

For recent history and politics read "the Arab- Israeli conflict".

Muslims and Jews coexisted for centuries in Algeria until European clerics introduced“anti-Semitism.” French colonists offered Jews special treatment, allowing them to capitalize on new economic opportunities. In 1870, the famous Crémieux Decree granted French citizenship to Algerian Jews, elevating their status from “colonial subjects” to “French citizens.”Some Muslims felt betrayed, leading to the first significant rupture between the two communities. Later, Algerian Muslims accused Jews of failing to support the country’s war of liberation.

A revisionist account harking back to the 'myth of peaceful coexistence'. Firstly, French citizenship was imposed on the Jews of Algeria by France. Secondly, Muslims were also offered citizenship in 1865, but refused it.  To say that becoming French led Jews to capitalise on economic opportunities smacks of antisemitism. It is not true that Algerian Jews did not support the country's war of liberation. The Jews maintained neutrality for as long as they could - until anti-Jewish attacks by the FLN tipped them over to the French side.

 In Algeria, religious intolerance against Jews emerged from these processes of colonization and de-colonization, and from a war of independence that generated popular resentment of perceived injustice.  

Not true. Intolerance has a long pedigree in Algeria: French citizenship did allow Jews to escape their inferior 'dhimmi' status, earning them Muslim resentment.

 Today, Jews are like ghosts in Algeria; we hear about them living among us, but we never see them. Some say Jews still live in Algeria under strict surveillance, but most Algerians are confused: is there still a Jewish-Algerian community? 
And if so, is it safe to speak about it? Many suspect that the community exists, but fear that this is a matter of state security about which they should not comment. 

 In other words, those who speak of Jews could be accused of spying or abetting spies, a poor foundation for intercommunal relations.

 Jews are not the only victims of Algerian intolerance; there is also discrimination against Christians. An Algerian Muslim who converts to Christianity is despised because s/he has given up her faith to embrace the ex-enemy’s religion. As a result, even people who are not religiously devout are likely to threaten a convert with rape or death.

 At last, the author finally grapples with the real problem - religious bigotry towards non-Muslims.

 In neighboring Tunisia and Morocco, the last few thousand remaining Jews can practice their faith and send their children to Jewish schools. Most Tunisians and Moroccans – ordinary citizens as well as scholars and academics – speak openly of Jewish contributions to their countries. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Algeria, where people vandalized both Christian and Jewish religious symbols, including cemeteries and places of worship, after independence, and during the 1990s’ civil war. The Arab-Israeli conflict has of course deepened the gap between Algeria’s Jews and Muslims, and has undermined hopes of re-establishing a Jewish presence in the country. Unfortunately, many residents of Arab countries confound anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.

The author bravely confronts Algerian antisemitism, but then spoils the message by her spurious distinction between 'good' (anti-Zionist) and 'bad' Jews.

Read article in full

How Algeria lost its Jews 

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