Robert Fisk on Algeria’s Jewish tragedy

Robert Fisk seems to have a ghoulish penchant for poking around cemeteries in Arab countries. In this Independent piece, he explores a Jewish cemetery in Algiers. The Algerian-Jewish tragedy is that Algerian Jews, French citizens since 1860, fought and died for la patrie even as la patrie repaid them with ungrateful and virulent pied noir and Vichy antisemitism. Not a mention, of course, of the pre-colonial dhimmi status imposed on the Jews by Islam, nor of Arab-instigated pogroms, such as the Constantine riot of 1934. Fisk is surprised that Jews are still around in Algeria, but in 2007 there were estimated to be fewer than 20.

The cemetery was still there. “You have to climb through this wall,” the security man said. And there it was, the tiny synagogue dedicated by “the Israelite community of Algiers to their children who died on the field of honour”.

And there were the memorials, still surviving, in Hebrew and French, of Jews from Algeria who gave their lives for France in the Great War. “David Jules Soussan of the 3rd mixed Regiment of Zouaves, died at Etingen, 1918”, and “Amar Maurice Moïse, Soldier of the 2nd Engineering Regiment, died at Nieuport, 16 August 1915 Croix de Guerre”. Presumably facing Hitler’s last assault in the next war, William Levy “died for France, June 16, 1940, at Arpajon (Seine-et-Oise) at the age of 30”, killed before he knew how murderously his country would treat his people.

There had been anti-Semitism enough in the 1890s – not from the Muslims of Algeria but from the “civilised” French colonisers who in 1870 were outraged when the French Jewish justice minister Isaac Crémieux gave full French citizenship to Algeria’s 40,000 Jews. Muslims were not awarded this privilege, but it was the French right, not the majority Muslim population, who expressed their scorn for the Jews. In a remarkable book, the Algerian journalist Aïssa Chenouf has published the fruits of his extraordinary research into his country’s former Jewish population, and unearthed some terrible stories of France’s viciousness towards it.

In March 1897, for example, the French colonial daily Le Petit Africain urged voters to cast their ballots against anyone who supported the Jewish community in Algeria. The paper carried a “liste anti-juive” of safe French candidates, including right-wing doctors, businessmen and retired army officers, under the headline: “All Frenchmen against the Common Enemy. The Jew: This is the Enemy.” Pro-Jewish voters were referred to as “sheep” acting under orders.

Incredibly, within 17 years, the Jews of Algeria were sending their sons to fight for France. Aïssa quotes a letter from the rabbi of Constantine to his son, who was about to leave for the Salonika front. “I advise you to be a good soldier, brave, obedient to your officers and warm to your friends,” he wrote. “You are no more a child, you are a man and so you have the honour of going to war to defend our beloved country, France. The honour of all your family is now in your hands. You must come home to us, after victory, decorated with the military medal and the Croix de Guerre.” Like poor Amar Moïse, I suppose.

At least 2,000 Algerian Jews died in the Great War. They were ill rewarded. Under the 1940 Vichy government, the Crémieux decree was abrogated, returning Algerian Jews to their status of “indigènes”. General Maurice Weygand signed this order. Old Algerian French soldiers, calling themselves the “French Veterans’ Legion”, 150,000 strong, defined their enemies as “democracy, Gaullist traitors and Jewish lepers”. When Algerians were permitted to steal Jewish property, the Muslims – almost to a man – refused. Ferhat Abbas, one of the greatest Algerian Muslim patriots, regarded the anti-Jewish laws as “hateful”.

In his own new history of Jews in Muslim lands, Martin Gilbert pays tribute to the Algerian Muslims who risked their lives for Jews during the Vichy period, although his book contains a number of flaws. But Jewish history in Arab lands contains many ironies. There was indeed anti-Semitic violence in Algerian history, especially in the 12th century. The final tragedy was Algeria’s war of independence. The Jews tried to avoid participation, although their French schooling and history made many of them allies of the pieds noirs colonisers, even sympathetic to the anti-Gaullist OAS armed opposition. By the end of June 1962, 142,000 Jews had left Algeria, leaving only 25,000 – 6,000 of them in Algiers. Gilbert writes that 125,000 went to France, only 25,681 to Israel (where their future lives – this, a largely unknown history – proved a stunning success story). On independence in 1962, the ruling National Liberation Front asked their Jewish citizens to remain. Gilbert says that a nationality law later cast doubt on this request. “An ancient Jewish community was at an end,” Gilbert wrote.

Not quite. Jews still live in Algiers. I met one of them a few weeks ago. And they still visit the cemetery of Saint Eugène. When I was climbing through that wall in the rain, I almost fell over the graves of the Baichi family. In accordance with Jewish tradition, there were stones, newly laid, on the tomb of an old lady. “Yes, a member of the Baichis came here four days ago,” the security man said. “He came to pray at his mother’s grave.” Then he brushed his hands against each other in a gesture of finality that I understood but did not like. “It is over,” he said. “But they are still here.”

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  • Yes, I mentioned Constantine in 1934 and other points you raised Sylvia. It would help if you and others also wrote to the Independent and mentioned the Macias and citizenship incidents.
    Independent Editor

  • Did you mention the anti-Jewish riots of Constantine (1934, or the anti-Jewish riots on the eve of the independence (1961) during which Enrico Macias' father-in-law, the musician Raymond Leyris (Sheikh Raymond) was assassinated?
    Did you mention the native Algerian Jewish terrorist who, after his release from French jail, was denied Algerian citizenship because he was Jewish?

  • Very good points Eliahu.
    I must say this article is particularly rich in terms of disinformation and there is still plenty more to say.

  • I wish more people interested in the subject of psychological warfare and propaganda could read Sylvia's perceptive "explication de texte" of Fisk and her impressive exposition of recent Jewish history in Algeria. The reader can reach the conclusion that Fisk's piece here, like most of his written effusions, is a carefully composed work of agitprop designed to trap the unwary in a soft cocoon of comforting falsehoods. As I said, Fisk is an artist at his craft of mind-bending. He appeals to the emotions, to sense of being bien-pensant [thinking the right thoughts — politically correct in today's lingo].

    I would like to add something about the Cremieux Decree to Sylvia's exposition. First note that Fisk makes sure to let us know that Cremieux was a Jew, even using his first name Isaac, although Cremieux is usually called by his other, more French, given name, Adolphe. Fisk subtly insinuates that a Jew was running French policy concerning Algeria and that this Jew Cremieux wanted to keep the Arab/Muslims in an inferior status while favoring the Jews [always treated benevolently by the Arab-Muslims, in Fisk's version].

    In fact, the Cremieux Decree, to my knowledge, admitted to French citizenship all natives who agreed to give up the jurisdiction of their religious courts over themselves. The Jews agreed to give up the jurisdiction of the rabbinical court [at least for most aspects], whereas the Muslims on the whole continued to adhere to the jurisdiction of the Shari`ah courts. So Fisk is either ignorant or lying in his treatment of the Cremieux Decree.

  • Of course the French in Algeria were vicious antisemites. In fact, one of the first antisemitic pamphlets of the modern age "La France juive" (Jewish France) was the work of a French politician from Algeria, Edouard Drumont. And it's true France has yet to come to terms with her crimes during WWII, towards French Jews of course but also against Maghreban Jews.

    But this is not what this article is really about. His selective exposé is designed to help you reach certain inescapable conclusions.
    The first is that Algerian Jews were not expelled. Algerian Jews "left" Algeria because despite the antisemitism they suffered, they were French patriots. Didn't they get French citizenship while "Muslims were not awarded this privilege"? Didn't 2000 Jews die for France? And when they left, didn't the great majority go to France?
    The second implication is that if they indeed were expelled as Gilbert says -although he of course doubts it – they had to leave because they were viewed as traitors. In line with the current popular Algerian narrative, Fisks points out that "the Jews tried to avoid participation, although their French schooling and history made many of them allies of the pieds noirs colonisers, even sympathetic to the anti-Gaullist OAS armed opposition."
    No mention at all of the many Jews who participated in the Algerian revolution on the side of the FLN, some who went as far as prepare explosives, underwent torture including water-boarding at the hands of the OAS, were condemned in France for treason, or simply disappeared while in prison.

    More importantly, the number of Jews who participated in French wars was insignificant compared to thst of their Muslim compatriots. Indeed, the "tirailleurs africains" and the "harkis" are well known phenomenons and the Zouaves Regiments were not exclusively for Jews and "Français de souche." The following figures for the Algerian Muslims could have helped Fisk frame his story in its correct perspective:

    173.000 Algerian Muslims fought in World War I, 23 0000 of them were killed. In addition, 76.000 workers participated in the war effort back in Algeria, as substitutes to the soldiers sent to the battle front. And it is well known that that anyone enlisting in the French military is automatically and ALWAYS nsturalized French citizen, a privilege that extends to the families. This means that the number of Algerian Muslims holding French nationality exceeded by far the entire Jewish population of Algeria. So much for the myth that only Jews held French citizenship.

    Instead of singling out "the Jews" Robert Fisk should have mentioned that they were part of a larger force from the French colonies, He could have mentioned, for example, that in the battle of Monte-Cassino during WWII (1944) only, 4000 out of the 6255 French soldiers killed were Muslims from the Maghreb, Algerians included.
    What’s more, most of the Algerian Revolution leadership fought for the French in both wars as French nationals. A case in point is Ahmed Ben Bella himself, who became one of the leaders of the Algerian war of independence and subsequently President of independent Algeria, and was among the wounded at Monte-Cassino (Italy).

    A third implication forcibly driven by Fisk is naturally how better off the Jews are under Muslim rule, how they refusaed to steal their property when ordered by the French to do so, how they were begged to remain in Algeria after the independence -except of course, in the 12th century – when the territory of present-day Algeria was ruled by the Moroccan Almohads.

  • Anon, it was not the policy of any of the major powers of WW2, the Allies, to "save the Jewish people." No power bombed the railroad tracks to the death camps or the gas chambers, although British, US, and Soviet planes could reach Poland from 1943.
    I do appreciate the brave British people who stood up to the Germans in the Battle of Britain. But the war might not have happened at all were it not for Neville Chamberlain's "appeasement policy" which helped Hitler get in position for his invasions of Poland and the USSR. I am aware the the Soviet Communists helped Hitler too through the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

    Back to the British reluctance to help save the Jews. An important of this policy was the 1939 White Paper policy that drastically curtailed Jewish immigration to the internationally designated Jewish National Home, Israel.

  • Does he mention the British helped to save the Jewish people in 39-45 by defeating Hitler and liberating the concentration camps?

  • Thank you, Bataween and Eliyahu for your postscript! I am following it up. Shalom!

  • Fisk's piece belongs to a genre, especially common among British press scribblers. Europeans were bad to Jews but Arabs were always good to them. One might ask, Why would they besmirch their own while embellishing the Arabs??

    But it seems that not all Europeans were bad. Because Fisk tells us a whole a series of French offenses against the Jews in Algeria, mostly true I'm sure. But Fisk won't tell about British offenses against Jews in Iraq, for instance, the failure of British troops to rescue Jews from the Farhud, apparently under orders from the Foreign Office. Then he omits of course the instigation by Colonel Waters-Taylor and his wife of a pogrom in Jersualem in April 1920 [reported by Richard Meinertzhagen].

    But Fisk is an artist at extracting a tear from his readers.
    It's his history that is unreliable.


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