Caught between two stools: the Jews of N Africa during WWII

Excellent review  in Sifriatenou by Jean-Luc Landier of Michel Abitbol’s book, published in 1983, ‘Les Juifs d’Afrique du Nord sous Vichy’. This is a less-than-perfect automated translation  of the French, but it gives a superb overview of the plight of the Jews during WW2 (with thanks: Nelly)

The Jewish community of Algeria adopted early and very quickly the language and the culture of the French colonizer: it was, from the middle of the XIXth century, subject to French civil law, thus abandoning its personal status. His children attended the French school. The authority of the Central Consistory of France was extended to Algeria where rabbis trained at the Jewish Seminary in Paris were dispatched.

But the radical turning point in the evolution of Algerian Judaism was, of course, the adoption of the Crémieux decree (October 24, 1870), which conferred French citizenship en bloc on all the Jews of Algeria, definitively separating their fate from that of Muslims.
The Jewish community in Algeria, which experienced rapid social advancement, especially in the big cities, came up against, shortly after the implementation of the emancipatory decree, the radical hostility of the population of European origin. The participation of Jews in the elections, in accordance with their new rights as citizens, stoked the fierce and enduring hatred of the European community as a whole; it saw in the Jewish vote a step towards granting the same rights to Muslims, a process that could lead to the loss of its privileges.
The anti-Semitic agitation was let loose at the end of the 19th century, fuelled by the Dreyfus affair in France: Max Régis , whose anti-Semitic hatred was his sole program, was elected mayor of Algiers; as was elected  Constantine Morinaud, an anti-Semitic leftist; and Drumont , the author of the anti-Semitic manifesto La France juive , deputy for Algiers

Sheikhs Ben Badis and El Oqbi condemned the violence against Jews in Constantine, Algeria, in 1934

The Jews of Algeria were victims of multiple exclusions (from public markets, professional associations…). Anti-Jewish hatred found its outlet during the 1898 riot that broke out in Algiers.
This anti-Semitism of the Europeans experienced a relative pause during the First World War, in which the Jews of Algeria participated courageously (2,000 killed), but manifested itself again with virulence with the crisis of the 1930s.
At the same time, the latent tensions were exacerbated. between Jews and Muslims, linked to the condition of dhimmi which the Jews, in constant social progression, had escaped since the arrival of the French, and especially since the Crémieux decree.
During the Constantine pogrom of August 1934 , twenty-eight Jews were murdered by the Arab populace, without the French army intervening to protect them. The pogrom attested to the strong resentment of the Muslim masses towards the Jews, still perceived as dhimmis and jealous because of their position as commercial intermediaries with the Muslim peasants.

The anti-Semitic agitation was condemned by the Muslim elite, in particular by Sheikh Ben Badis  and by Tayeb El Oqbi . It was, on the other hand, encouraged by the European press, whose anti-Semitism was based on the desire to preserve the colonial hierarchies. The authorities, informed by police reports influenced by anti-Semitism, did nothing to dispel this noxious atmosphere, exacerbated by Nazi influence.

Sheikh Ibn Badis and El Oqbi, Algerian politicians, notably Abbé Lambert and Émile Morinaud, succeeded with some success in stoking anti-Semitism among the Muslim masses, by referring in particular to the Palestinian question. As for the officials of the Federation of Muslim Elected Officials, Ferhat Abbas and Mohammed Bendjelloul, who remained followers of a reform policy within the French system, they kept their distance from anti-Semitic propaganda, while regretting the indifference of the Jews of Algeria vis-à-vis the fate of the Muslim population.

French anti-Semitism in Morocco and Tunisia, product of colonial dependence

In Morocco , it was the conjunction of French far-right anti-Semitic propaganda , active in the press, and Muslim resentment following the tensions in Palestine, which created an anti-Semitic climate; violent incidents occurred in Casablanca, Rabat and Tangier. Moroccan nationalist leaders, in particular Al Wazzani and Bannuna, were indeed under the influence of Chakib Arslan, a Lebanese journalist who took refuge in Geneva and an ideologue of Pan-Arabism, close to the mufti of Jerusalem, who sought to undermine French authority in Morocco.
In Tunisia , the Italian fascist propaganda also sought to damage the image of France. Italian propaganda took an anti-Semitic course after the 1938 race laws were passed in Italy. On the other hand, Bourguiba’s nationalist movement of Neo Destour remained impervious to anti-Jewish propaganda.

Nazi Germany, moreover, led a sustained propaganda campaign to undermine French positions in North Africa. This action was constant in Morocco, among nationalist circles, through the intermediary of German merchants who were in fact agents of the secret services. Radio Berlin’s Arabic and Kabyle broadcasts attacked France, and identified the Jews as the agents of its power. In these broadcasts, the Third Reich presented itself as an ally of the Arab peoples, especially in Palestine.
In the three Maghreb countries , the reaction of the Jews was comparable : boycott of German and then Italian products; solidarity with persecuted European Jews; defense of the authority of emancipatory France; support for democratic and anti-racist organizations such as LICA or the League of Human Rights.

The self-defense reactions of certain groups of young people, such as Bétar, however, led community leaders to be cautious.
In September 1939 , as soon as France declared war on Germany, many young Moroccan and Tunisian Jews wanted to serve in the French army, which often turned them away. The Jews of Algeria, for their part, were mobilized like all French citizens.

French anti-Semitism (July 1940-November 1942) 

The coming to power of Pétain and the implementation of the National Revolution were greeted with enthusiasm by the Europeans of North Africa.
The enthusiasm for the Marshal was even more unanimous than in metropolitan France, with a large establishment of the Legion of Combatants, the quasi-single party created by Pétain. The press was unleashed against the Jews, in Algeria in particular, where the abolition of the Crémieux decree – a traditional claim of anti-Semites in Algeria – was demanded from the outset by a very large part of European opinion. After the destruction of the French fleet by the British at Mers El Kébir, a climate of suspicion weighed on the Jews of Algeria, suspected of pro-English sympathies.

The statut des juifs was adopted by Pétain’s government on October 4, 1940, without the slightest German request. This strictly French initiative entered into force in Algeria and was also implemented in the protectorates of Tunisia and Morocco after ratification by the sovereigns, the Bey of Tunis and Sultan Mohammed V of Morocco.

On October 7, Vichy put an end to the Crémieux decree , reducing the French Jewish citizens of Algeria to the rank of subjects, seventy years after their full integration into the nation. Jewish officials were dismissed, liberal professions subject to a strict numerus clausus, both in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Rare exceptions were granted to decorated, wounded or maimed veterans.

The application of these measures was very rigorous in Algeria but more flexible in Morocco, under the terms of a dahir from the sultan, and even more liberal in Tunisia.

In Algeria, the rector of the University of Algiers, Hardy, implemented, with the agreement of the governors Abrial and then Weygand, a school and university numerus clausus , going much further than the anti-Semitic measures taken in metropolitan France. Jewish children were thus expelled from primary schools (attendance capped at 14 and then at 7/100) and high schools, and students subject to a rigorous numerus clausus, to the satisfaction of student associations in Algiers.

The second statut des juifs, produced by Vallat, commissioner for Jewish questions, on June 2, 1941, contained new restrictions, and provided for the census of Jews in North Africa, in order to implement “economic Aryanization”, that is, that is, the spoliation of the Jews.
The decree of November 21, 1941, applied in Algeria, aimed to eliminate all “Jewish influence” in the national economy. Provisional administrators were appointed by the governor general for businesses owned by Jews. The mission of the directors, paid by the company, was to prepare for its liquidation, as in metropolitan France.

While many Europeans sought to profit from it, Muslims as a whole refrained from acquiring Jewish businesses. All these measures were taken in a stifling climate, the North African press lashing out against the Jews, and the police indulging in constant harassment and finicky controls, the Jews being suspected of black marketeering.

Identical measures were considered for Tunisia , but their implementation was spread over time by the resident general, Admiral Esteva , whose procrastination, inspired by his Christian faith, irritated Vallat. The beys of Tunis, successively Ahmad Bey and Moncef Bey, expressed their sympathy to their Jewish subjects, but their powers were very limited.

In Tunisia, France was above all anxious to confront the demands of fascist Italy, which opposed the application of discriminatory measures to Jews of Italian nationality.

In Morocco , economic aryanization was left to the initiative of professional groups and unions. The exclusion of Jews was effective in the film industry and also implemented by certain groups of importers. The Jews of Fez were driven out of the European city, and forced to return to the mellah . A persistent public rumor attributed to the sovereign, Sultan Mohammed V was that  he gave a flexible interpretation of the anti-Jewish measures rigorously implemented by Noguès, representative of Vichy.

His Majesty Sultan Mohammed V (1909-1961) 

The interpretation of rigorous historians (M. Abitbol, ​​G. Bensoussan ) leads to a more nuanced conclusion: the Sultan had no autonomy of decision-making and had the obligation to ratify the choices of the resident-general of France; On the other hand, in private, the Sultan repeatedly told Jewish visitors to the palace that they were his subjects like the Muslims, and that no one could touch either their property or their persons.  The Sultan was, in fact, a humiliated sovereign , locked in the heavy constraints of the colonial protectorate, and any gesture on his part, however symbolic, was an affirmation of autonomy.

The other moderating factor in Morocco was paradoxically – and it is little known – the Spanish influence. Francoist Spain, present in northern Morocco and an ally of Germany, put pressure on the resident general to moderate his anti-Semitic exclusion projects.
In accordance with the measures implemented by Vichy in mainland France in October 1940, the French authorities in North Africa proceeded to the administrative internment of foreigners and therefore foreign Jews who had taken refuge there or who were there following the French campaign of May-June 1940. This is how thousands of Jews who volunteered in the Foreign Legion were interned in camps on the Saharan borders after their demobilization, and assigned in particular to the construction of the trans-Saharan railway, an old French colonial project which was presented as one of the great designs of the Vichy regime. In the desert camps, Jewish internees were forced to do forced labor ten to twelve hours a day, in extremely harsh conditions, in heat and privation, under the supervision of non-commissioned officers of the anti-Semitic Legion of German origin. Torture was inflicted in these camps for the slightest violation of the regulations, such as the tombeau punishment: the victim was placed in a pit less than two meters for several days; he was forbidden to move while being beaten by Arab or Senegalese guards. Several died as a result of this abuse.

As for the Algerian Jewish soldiers of the 1939 class, they were demobilized, but not released; following the abolition of the Crémieux decree, they were immediately incorporated into a group of Jewish  workers, in  Bedeau camp , near Sidi Bel Abbès, or in Telergma, in the Constantine region of Algeria, and forced to do pointless forced labor, in miserable living conditions closer to prison than to barracks, subjected to bullying and insults from juniorofficers or guards from SOL, the future Vichy Militia.

The Jews responded to Vichy’s anti-Semitic measures with disbelief and protest at first. How was it possible that the France of Human Rights, whose nationality they held (as far as the Jews of Algeria) were concerned), whose language they had adopted the language, the culture and the values ​​(in the case of the Jews of Tunisia and Morocco ), could thus cast them out , they who had shown her love and fidelity for decades?

The anti-Semitic measures could not possibly be a French initiative, they had necessarily been imposed by the German occupier. This is what the Chief Rabbi of Algeria Maurice Eisenbeth wrote to Xavier Vallat in 1941. He is remembered for his constant  and courageous commitment to easing the persecution of Algerian Judaism. The latter, with the support of Elie Gozlan, secretary general of the Consistory and founder of the Algerian Jewish Committee for Social Studies and with the assistance of Professor Robert Brunschvig, had to create from scratch and set up a network of private schools. in order to take in Jewish children expelled from schools.

By the start of the 1942 school year, a network of seventy primary schools and five secondary schools, serving 20,000 pupils, was in operation. The hundreds of teachers excluded from National Education provided high quality education strictly in accordance with official programs, and despite the incessant harassment of the Vichy administration.

However, Algerian Judaism did not distance itself from mainland  France, despite the strictly French persecutions inflicted on it. Like the metropolis, the general government of Algeria sought to set up a General Union of the Israelites of Algeria, counterpart of the UGIF in France. Here again, Rabbi Eisenbeth was approached by Governor Chatel to take the presidency. It could not easily constitute such an institution, doomed in metropolitan France. It was not until September 1942 that the UGIA could be formed. Fortunately, the Allied landing in November led to the abandonment of this project. 

In Morocco , mutual aid in favor of Jewish refugees fleeing Europe was particularly active. Before the invasion of the southern zone by Germany, until the summer of 1942, hundreds of refugees had indeed been able to embark in Marseilles towards Morocco, in the hope of reaching the United States or Latin America. Once in Morocco, the refugees found that their lot was hardly more enviable than in Vichy France. Those whose papers were in order – very few in number – were taken care of by the local assistance committees until their departure. The majority were interned in  camps. 

Jewish institutions in Morocco, financially supported by American organizations such as the Joint or the Hicem, showed solidarity. It was mainly the work of a Moroccan Jewish lawyer from Casablanca, Hélène Cazes Benattar , who knew how to take countless initiatives in favor of the refugees, braving the harassments of the French administration, providing the refugees with material and medical aid, food, accommodation pending their departure, and, for those interned in labor camps, constant assistance to free them.

In the war (November 1942-October 1943)

 Following the abolition of the Crémieux decree and the adoption of the statute of the Jews, many young Algerian Jews excluded from the Youth Workshops or the University engaged in  sports and fitness in order to combat anti-Semitism , in a sports hall in Algiers called Salle Géo-Gras. This place quickly became the center of one of the first movements of the French Resistance, founded by three young Jews, André Témime, Émile Atlan and Charles Bouchara.

Read article in full (French)

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