The vast majority of Algerian Jews left with the French in 1962 in the wake of the Algerian War, but Benaya BenHamou’s family stayed on in Oran. They remained another five years until conditions were so unsafe that even their Muslim friends were advising them to leave. Benaya told his story to Point of No Return.
“It always stuns people when I tell them that not all Algerian Jews left when Algeria became independent.
My family sided with the Algerians in the late 1950s, when the FLN asked all Jews to choose (between the Algerians and the French). There were only about 1,000 Jews in Oran. My father was well-loved in the city. We thought that nothing would happen to us. But in 1965 Islamists spread rumours about Jewish spies working for the Mossad. At that time we realized that we had better leave the country. But it all happened so fast. I was 15, and all I wanted to do was see my other cousins and friends in France.
“At school I used to be bullied because of my Jewish origins. People would ask me explanations for the suffering of the Palestinians. Everybody in the neighbourhood knew we were Jewish. The synagogues and graveyards had been vandalized. In 1967, when war broke out in Israel, my father’s Algerian friends advised him to leave the country before it was too late. That is how, in a rush, I left my beloved city of Oran. I never saw it again.
“I do not know any Jews still living in Algeria. Most emigrated to France. Some went to Morocco.”
About the Decret Cremieux:
Following the French conquest of Algeria, the Decret Cremieux offered French citizenship to Algerians – Muslimsas well as Jews. The Muslims declined. Initially fewer than 5% of Jews accepted to become French citizens. Then it was imposed on them. Benaya believes that French citizenship not only weakened the Jews’ ties to their religion, but caused tension with Muslim Algerians. (On the positive side, however, it enabled the Jews to escape the humiliations of dhimmitude, which historically placed the Jews last in the social pecking order.)
Scroll down to a post by Hubert Hannoun, setting the context for the Decret Cremieux on Zlabia, the Algerian Jews’ website.
“When the French passed the Décret Crémieux in 1870 most Jews accepted French citizenship but some were reluctant. The Décret Crémieux sparked debate and soul-searching, especially among important families in Oran, Tlemcen and Constantine. Algerian Jews asked themselves whether the Jews would be better off under French law or whether tradition and religion would suffer under France’s lay legislation.
“When the French saw that very few Jews were interested they went even further. They didn’t allow Algerian Jews to decide for themselves. Anyone who was born Jewish automatically became French. The other Algerians did not benefit from that law – if they wanted to become French they could, but they did not want to. (And neither did the Jews at the beginning). So the history of Algerian Jews is very complex: they became French, and they threw in their lot with the French against the Arabs. Than in 1940 they lost their citizenship. So they had to face French antisemitism on one side, and the Arabs’ anger (because they felt betrayed) on the other. We were trapped!
“It was a kind of a trap, for two reasons.
“First, most French in Algeria were antisemites. There even was an ‘anti-Jewish’ party. In the 1940s the French betrayed the Jews by stripping them of their citizenship under Vichy law. The Jews were caught between two stools: most Arabs had not forgiven them for accepting French citizenship; the French spread antisemitism throughout Algeria.
“Secondly, the religious argument turned out to be true: As Algerian Jews arrived in France they became less religious, and lost their traditions from fear of being considered ‘Arab’.
“I consider that if the French had not introduced the Décret Crémieux in the first place this would have never happened. Giving citizenship to the Jews and not to the Muslims aroused jealousy and tension between the two communities. The French translated antisemitic texts into Arabic during the 1940s. That is why Algerian Jews had to deny their origins.
“It is possible to hear a Moroccan Jew say he is proud to be Moroccan, or a Tunisian Jew say he is proud to be Tunisian. But an Algerian Jew can only be proud to be French, and nothing else.”