The forgotten Jewish-Arab battle of Constantine, 1956

Following yesterday’s postrevealing Mossad involvement in Algeria, this is a detailed account by Jessica Hammerman of a little-known episode in the Algerian war for independence from France in May 1956: a two-day battle between Jews and Muslims in the city of Constantine. Encouraged by undercover Mossad agents, armed Jews ‘defended themselves’ against terrorism in the absence of the French police. But much to the agents’ embarrassment, self-defence seemed to degenerate into a lethal anti-Muslim riot. (By kind permission of the author).

In August 1934, a Jewish man insulted several
Muslims, propelling many Muslims to attack the Jewish community.Terribleriots,and gruesome murders ensued; twenty-eight Constantine civilians were
killed—twenty-five Jews and three Muslims. The existence of such tension
stemmed from manipulations by the
colons. Among Jews in Algeria and
France, “the 1934 riots became a subject of instant retelling and commemoration.” The dark moment of 1934 was etched into collective Algerian-Jewish
history. 

The aftermath of the 1934 Constantine pogrom

In May 1956, there were twice as many fatalities—all of them Muslim.
By their own admission, perpetrators were Jewish. Yet the event is nowhere to be found in the
Information juive, Algeria’s Jewish newspaper; it’s only briefly
mentioned in Jewish narratives of the French-Algerian War. Nonetheless, both
Muslim and Jewish witnesses were haunted by the May 1956 battles, the first
instance of urban warfare in the war for liberation.

Small rivalries had erupted occasionally between Jews and Muslims since the
1934 events. Many Constantine Jews accepted fact that the Jewish quarter
needed its own armed defense team. They reasoned that the French police
were unreliable. The disdain of their European neighbors meant that Jewish
neighborhoods were not only segregated from European ones, they were less
secure. The French authorities did not offer sufficient protection for the Jewish
Quarter, provoking conflict between Jews and Muslims, as in 1934. In the following decades, this skepticism toward French authorities led Constantine
Jews to take matters into their own hands, purchasing their own handguns.
At least 900 Constantine Jews had gun permits in 1956—a significant percentage when considering that not all gun-owners held a permit. It was easy for
French citizens to obtain weapons, though Muslims were not permitted to buy
them, a law that had been fiercely contested since the nineteenth century. This
fact alone created an atmosphere that was more dangerous for Muslims than it
was for either Jews or Europeans. 

Even the respected lawyer André Chouraqui betrayed his enthusiasm for
armed self-defense among Algerian Jews. “Security for our communities above
all else,” he intimated in a 1955 letter, “let’s give self-defense to all possible vic-
tims.” He related a telling anecdote from his youth: “I remember the joy of Yom
Kippur in September 1934 [a month after the riots], when all of the men met at
the synagogue carrying revolvers under their prayer shawls.”

When Israeli officials heard about regular bombings of Jewish cafés in 1956,
they ordered a group of undercover agents to go to Constantine to organize
self-defense. These Israeli agents, called Misgeret (‘framework’ in Hebrew), for-
malized Jewish self-defense and recruited younger fighters. Its leaders wanted
to prove that Jews would not be defeated easily. One community leader told a
high-ranking French officer, “I want to make sure that you know that if we die,
we do so standing up.”

Israeli agents were already in action in Tunisia and Morocco, helping Jewish
refugees from those areas to evacuate toward Israel. In Constantine, where
they entered undercover as Hebrew teachers, their goal was simply to protect
local Jews where the French army and police did not (or would not). About
100 members trained with the Israeli envoys. Two of them—Avraham Barzilai
and Shlomo Havilio—had served in Egypt, where they had similar secretive
cells, which “destabilized Nasser’s government by arming Jewish Egyptians.”
A third Israeli operative, code-named “Ibrahim,” directed the troops on the
ground in Constantine. His report on May 12 and 13 is the most detailed source
of the infamous battle.

Early in 1956, random attacks in the Jewish quarter were increasingly common. In March, a grenade exploded under a table in a Jewish café, disfiguring the
legs of ten Jewish people. Early in April, terrorists again placed a bomb under
a table at the Bar Nessim, another Jewish bar. Victims sufffering lacerations,
unconsciousness, and broken bones caused widespread panic (although only
eight men were injured seriously). A large crowd of Jewish civilians pursued
the two perpetrators, cornering them in a nearby Muslim café, and “lynched”
a few men. Increasingly, civilians carried personal weapons with them. As
one journalist explained in late April, “People avoid certain
indigène neighborhoods unless they are personally armed.” 

A few weeks later, after the murder
of a policeman, French police (with help from throngs of local Europeans and
Jews) went through the city’s central street, rounding up all Muslim men—a
total of about 40,000. Constantine had fallen into a terrible pattern: “Terrorism, counter-terrorism, repression, suspicion, fear.”Europeans (and many Jews,
too) supported a strong military response to these attacks on civilians. On
May 8, 1956, a crowd in Algiers shouted at Governor-General Robert LaCoste,
“No More Reforms! Repression!” After a military parade, the mob chanted,
“Long live the army! The Army to power!” Jews felt neglected by the army,
but all French citizens (Europeans and Jews) felt that the government ignored
their situation. Ibrahim reported that in the spring, after several café bombings, “the rage of the Jewish people peaked.”

 Saturday

Israeli undercover agents reported that they had a premonition that there
would be an attack on the Jews on Saturday, May 12. It was the last day of
Ramadan (Eïd), and Shabbat. As Constantine Jews—Ibrahim and his wife
among them—were leaving synagogue for a drink, they heard a huge blast.
Misgeret squads were active and armed; they rushed toward the damage. It was

a grenade, which had exploded in the Café Mazia, this time injuring thirteen
people.

News reports of the attacks were muddled. It is nearly impossible to conclude who was responsible for the grenade. Officials claimed that a “terrorist
rebel gang” fighting for Algeria had infiltrated Constantine; women handed 
the grenades to male insurgents who would bomb targets around the city.

 The
London
Times reported that the attack came from uniformed rebels, implying
that they were an organized force from elsewhere. Another source said that the
rebels hid uniforms underneath their clothing.
Le Monde reported that
the grenade attack was coordinated with a second raid on the city. Adding
to the confusion over who attacked the Jewish café, the FLN’s new publication
El Moudjahid recounted that the original grenade-thrower
was “dressed as a European” and, after throwing the bomb into the café, he
fled toward the Jewish quarter. The implication was that the attacker was a
French civilian (either Jewish or posing as such), and he planted the bomb to
provide an excuse to attack local Muslims. It is also important to note that Jews
and Europeans were presented as incompatible—that a Jew could disguise
himself as a European and deny something ‘true’ about himself. On the other
hand, Ibrahim noted that the perpetrators were “Arabs”—a term that French
and Algerian newspapers were uncomfortable using. The Misgeret was
importing the term from Israel, just as other Algerian-Muslim activists were
cozying up to Nasser’s idea of Arab nationalism and Jewish-Israel conspiracies. 

“I ordered [our men] to hurt the Arabs and to rescue and evacuate those
[Jews] who were wounded,” Ibrahim reported. A Misgeret squad arrived
immediately, chased down the perpetrators, trapped them, and killed them
in a barbershop. At the order of a Misgeret commander based in Paris, the squad invaded neighboring Muslim cafés, opened fire, and murdered as many
as thirty Muslims that day. “Our men penetrated the neighboring Arab cafés
and caused them serious losses,” reported Barzilai in 2005. They “shattered” a
Moorish café “with sub-machine gunfire.” Another source states that after the
four perpetrators were killed, gruesome combat took over the main streets of
the city. Sources are vague about whether the victims were Jewish or Muslim.

Ibrahim was sure to document that it took twenty minutes for French officers
to arrive at the scene of the bombing, justifying the necessity of a separate
Jewish unit. He explained that the police were proud of (what they saw as) a
random group of Jews for taking such swift action. One officer asked, “So, was
Ben Gurion with you today?” Of course, French officers had no idea that the
Misgeret had organized the action. 

After the initial rebels were defeated, Ibrahim wrote, “I kept getting news
that a Jewish [armed] mob was planning on breaking into the Arab quarter.
I didn’t want things to escalate.” He frowned on the civilians’ “chaotic” system of self-defense. While one Misgeret unit sought after the Jewish mob,
another monitored the perimeter of the Jewish quarter. Other squads searched
for Muslim rebels inside. 

Ibrahim saw the Misgeret’s role as a pacifying one—primarily guarding Jews
from “Arabs” (because the French soldiers did not do enough), while protecting Muslims from wayward Jewish mobs. He feared that impulsive violence
could escalate into a civil war, especially considering the widespread use of
personal weapons. Ibrahim described “middle-aged” and “elderly” Jews who
were shooting anyone who looked “Arab.” 

In these early years, criminals were known as “rebels,” “assailants,” or “out-
laws” (
hors-la-loi). Muslims were known as “Muslims,” or inhabitants of the
Casbah. After all, a good percentage of Algerian Muslims were not Arab, but
Berber. Calling them Arabs, Ibrahim thus imposed categories from the Middle
East onto the Algerian context.

Well into the afternoon Saturday, Misgeret operatives and civilians rounded
up Muslims, and barricaded them into their own shops, smashing windows
and doors and emptying cash registers. The manic search continued through
the streets lined with Muslim-owned shops, pulling people from their stores
and shooting at them. Civilians shot randomly. According to Ibrahim, no
Jews were hurt until the French army jumped into action, and began to help
in the looting of Muslim businesses and destruction of homes. He calculated
that the Misgeret killed twenty Arabs and injured another ten.
Le Monde
contended that twenty-five Muslims had died, and fourteen “Europeans”
(Jews included) were injured.

Onlookers knew nothing of the Misgeret’s presence, though many intuited
that Jews were involved in the repression. Many French sources elided a specific mention of Jews by stating that the bombing’s location was the Jewish
quarter. 

Others denied any Jewish involvement. A New York Times article
claimed that “the Jews themselves took little part in the vigilante shooting
that cost thirty-five Arabs their lives.” The London
Times described a battle
between “the police” and terrorists, “with the civilian populations joining in;”
the location of the chaos happened to be in the Jewish quarter. An American-
Jewish worker reported that the French army actively recruited jobless Jewish
men, one strategy that provoked Jews to attack Arabs. 

Rationales for the grenade attack also change according to source. The
London
Times explained that the attackers went to Café Mazia because its
owner would not “subscribe funds toward the rebellion.” The
Paris-Presse
Intransigent
reported that the rebels had heard Jews were organizing in commando groups. Stanley Abromavitch, who was working on behalf of the
Joint Distribution Committee, contended that local “Arabs” were angry with
local Jews because they believed that Jews were working with French police.
Local Muslims demanded loyalty; bombing the café was a harsh warning.
Abromavitch revealed that the French authorities had turned Jews and
Muslims against one another.

We cannot know the exact rationale for this particular attack, but it is clear
that bombing cafés in Constantine’s Jewish Quarter had become a common
occurrence in the preceding months. What was new about Saturday’s events
was the organized retaliation, resulting in between twenty and forty dead.

By the end of the day, Ibrahim reported, Jewish morale was very high. He
was not shy about claiming a victory—he said that the Misgeret leaders were
surprised by their own success. The next day, his pride dissolved into utter
shame and embarrassment on behalf of local Jews. 

Sunday

Sunday’s story is more difficult to piece together. “It started with the elation
of the day before,” Ibrahim wrote, a sense of excitement that was nonetheless
accompanied by “edgy” nervousness. By the afternoon, “all was back to normal
and the city was crowded,” but “you could feel the tension.” Sometime late
that afternoon (accounts difffer: 4:30, 5:30, or 6:00 PM), an offfcer stopped a
man who was milling outside an ice cream shop in the Jewish quarter. Many
customers thought he was carrying a bomb (no source verified whether this
was true). A second officer killed the suspected assailant. The FLN newspaper claimed that the two shooters were not officers, but “French civilians”
who encouraged their friends to leave the ice cream store so that they could
begin another killing spree, as they had the day before. At the same moment,
a second group of “French civilians” approached from a neighboring restaurant, and shot twice: “
Le voilà! Le voilà!”The purpose of the shots, according to this
theory, was to “create a panicky climate.” 

When investigators arrived at the
ice cream shop—located in the center of the Jewish quarter—they found six
Muslim cadavers and eleven injured bystanders, two of whom were Jewish.
According to Ibrahim, most Jews assumed the town’s Muslims were taking
revenge for Saturday. The noise of gunshots set off a chaotic shooting spree
in which civilians shot at Muslims all over the city, with casualties between 16
and 100. The two Jews who were injured were struck by friendly fire. 

In retrospect, some reporters explained Sunday’s attack by describing a
“tense” and “nervous” atmosphere. A journalist in
Le Monde wondered why the
Europeans had been so quick to shoot; “Fear certainly played a part,” was their
clipped observation. Another observer attributed the battle to a generalizable

feeling: “At the slightest suspicious move, people draw arms and shoot. A man
pulling a handkerchief out of his pocket can be shot by a suspicious passerby
who is afraid that it may be a gun or bomb.” 

The Muslim-Algerian author and
activist Mouloud Feraoun described a devastating shift in the attitudes of the
police and soldiers by mid-May 1956. “I hear that people are shot almost anywhere, and that the only effficient form of justice is a quick justice,” he wrote in
his journal. “What is the life of a Muslim worth? For the time being, it is worth
the burst of a sub-machine gun.” The Jewish mob was following the pace
established by French soldiers that month. Muslim lives were simply not worth
as much as ‘French’ lives. 

There was no denying that Jews were the central perpetrators on Sunday.
But Misgeret leaders distanced themselves from Sunday’s events. Even
Ibrahim, an undercover agent known only by his
nom de guerre, believed there
had been a Jewish conspiracy. Ibrahim suggested that some of the city’s Jews
were attempting to seize control; he was mired in a power struggle. 

“Some
Jewish opportunists were trying to encourage fear,” he hypothesized, “inflaming anxiety in the name of self-promotion. They wanted to gain the main posts
in the Jewish leadership.”
The Jewish Chronicle acknowledged that Jews were
“quicker on the trigger” than Muslims.As opposed to Saturday, when squads
were reacting to the detonation of a grenade, Sunday was an embarrassment
for Ibrahim, and the Jewish population at large. He absolved himself of responsibility, however, blaming “the irrational reaction by a Jewish mob.”

Many onlookers were aware of the role of the Jewish community in Sunday’s
counterterrorist action. Even Constantine’s chief rabbi, Sidi Fredj Halimi, made
an appeal for the Jews to calm down. “It’s our religious duty to declare that we
disapprove of violence, from whatever quarter,” he declared. He knew that
many Jews were seeking revenge. Ibrahim thought that Sunday’s overreaction
could teach the Jewish community “that they needed to leave defense . . . in an
emergency to the professionals.” He vowed that more work remained, and
that Misgeret offfcers would be much more careful in the future. 

 Monday

In response to the weekend’s events, French authorities took action in three
ways: they issued a strict warning to Constantine’s Europeans; they prohibited
individuals from carrying weapons; and they cordoned off the Jewish quarter.
Furthermore, Constantine was placed under martial law, a decision that was
likely popular among many Europeans, given their demands for more repres-
sion and less reform earlier that month.

New York Times photo showing Arabs rounded up and forced against a wall by French soldiers after they had sealed off the Jewish Quarter in the wake of the Constantine battle in May 1956  

The French government was infuriated by the Jewish reaction, but authorities did not reprimand Jews separate from Christians. An army general warned
all of Constantine’s Europeans against “falling prey to counter-terrorism” and
“blind vengeance.” That day, authorities scoured the streets to confiscate individually owned weapons, a form of public punishment, which amounted to
a wristslap when compared with the roundup and relentless murders of the
city’s Muslims.

When the French military enclosed the Jewish Quarter, were they protect
ing or punishing the Jews? Guards forbade pedestrian and vehicular trafffc,

“except to its inhabitants.”

A New York Times article  headlined
French Cordon Jewish Quarter of Algerian City,” featured a photograph showing French offfcers lining up “rebels,” clearly Muslim. “The [military cordon was
created] to prevent any repetition of . . . Saturday and yesterday,” the reporter
indicated. “A number of European vigilantes had staged retaliatory attacks
following an abortive terrorist raid.”

Isolating the Jewish Quarter was not
rationalized. Is the reader to assume that the army positioned itself to guard
the Jewish neighborhood? Or were the offficers protecting Muslims from the
Jews? Ibrahim noted that security was increased both “within” and “around”
the Jewish Quarter. Were the Jews victims or suspects? 

 

Apparently, others had the same question. Later in the week, The New York
Times
hedged: “The object [of the cordon] is not to punish . . . inhabitants of
the [Jewish] quarter, but to protect them against terrorist infiltrations.” It is
worth noting that in 1934, the police did not seal off the Jewish quarter,
and twenty-eight people died. This was a subject of debate, and would have
clearly been on the minds of the authorities in 1956.

From ‘A Jewish-Muslim battle on the world stage: Constantine, Algeria 1956’ by Jessica Hammerman in The Jews of Modern France (ed Kaplan and Malinovich, Brill)

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