More on the non-French Jews of southern Algeria

A Jewish wedding in the 1950s at Ghardaia in the south of Algeria (Photo: Maurice Attias)

Point of No Return is showcasing this comment by reader Sammish as a separate post. It originated on this thread lamenting the suppression of facts in the academic studies of Arab-Jewish relations. Sammish casts a valuable spotlight on the status of the Jews – who did not have French citizenship under the Cremieux decree – in the M’zab Berber region of southern Algeria:

“It should be no surprise that these new academics suppress the case evidence of Arab hatred and discrimination against the Jewish community in the M’zab region when the latter did not even have the chance to reap the benefits of the fleeting French citizenship of the Cremieux decree. This can be partially explained by geographic and economic factors. I am speaking here of why the Jews of the M’zab region were denied French citizenship.

“The French colonial agenda was to protect the Algerian regions that were vital to the economic interests of the Metropole (France proper). These included all of the French-Algerian urban cities with their industrial bases, businesses and trade sectors as well the social infrastructure and institutions, and finally, the important wealthy agricultural regions. The Sahara where the M’zab region is located was hardly given an economic value until the oil fields were found in the deep southern part of this extended desert region in the 1940s. The M’zab region was not a priority at first. It had no economic value, and was not settled by the colonial French pieds noirs.

“The culture of the M’zab, although Muslim, is nonetheless Berber in its foundation and some of their dynasties were even more virulently against anything Non-Muslim. The M’zab culture has its primordial seeds in the war of succession after the Prophet Muhammed died. Their sect in Iraq called the Mutazalit faction, was bitterly fought by the last 4th Caliph Ali (Muhammed’s cousin). He killed many in battle because they were deemed heretical by the standards of the day.

“Some took refuge in the oases of the Sahara. The dominant one was the M’zab region of Algeria. Over time, they became insular and fundamentalist, even detesting mainstream Muslims. They became even more fanatical than average. One can think of them as pre-dawn Islamic Wahabists. In fact the major M’zab town of Guardaia was known even in the 1950s and 1960s to ban any non-M’zabi Muslim from spending the night in the city. The city doors were closed after sunset and reopened each day at dawn. This can only suggest how far they have become as segregationists and discriminators.

“Some people sometimes think that Berbers are less fundamentalist than Arabs, but this is not true. The example of the M’zab is a case in point. Of course I am not generalizing here in the modern social context. I can also remind you of the devastating consequences of the 12th Century Moroccan Berber fanatical Muslim Almohad dynasty. They reduced to rubble the Iberian peninsula when it was at its apex of social development and integration. Under them, the illustrious thinker Maimonides and his family and countless others suffered the tribulations of humiliation, forced conversions, debasement and finally exile.

“One can only deduce that the Jewish community in the M’zab region lived precariously, although they were allowed to live there because they were better artisans, blacksmiths, jewellers, and traders. In sum, they were the backbone of the economy. This is the same narrative played over and over in which one encounters the anti-Semitic elites and rulers asking (maybe begging) the Jews to settle within their realm for the sole reason that they generate wealth through economic activities. The M’zab is no exception. Even with French colonization, the M’zab region still retained its relative autonomy, thus making the Cremieux Decree less attainable, and therefore less useful, for the Jewish subjects of the M’zab region.”

The last Jews of the Algerian Sahara

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