Press reports about the mass exodus of Jews from North Africa and the Middle East are rare: perhaps the media just haven’t considered it newsworthy. But in 1962, TIME did devote column inches to the subject. Most Jews did go to Israel, although a fair proportion did end up in France. Now French Jews of North African origin are making aliya in their thousands.
The independence of Morocco, Tunisia and now Algeria—joyful news to Moslems—has for Jews signaled another vast and melancholy exodus like so many other uprootings since Moses. A decade ago, 250,000 Jews lived in Morocco. 150,000 in Algeria and 100,000 in Tunisia; now about half of them have left. Last week alone, 5,000 North African Jews arrived by ship and plane in Marseille. By 1975, Jewish leaders estimate, their communities in North Africa will be reduced to less than 15% of their former size.
Jews were living and working in North Africa before the Romans came. Some of them are Berber tribesmen whose ancestors were converted from paganism before the 7th century A.D. Others are Sephardim—Descendants of Spanish Jews who were forced into exile across the Mediterranean by Visigothic persecution in the 6th century or the Inquisition of the 15th. A third strain consists of European Jews who settled in North African cities after World War II. All three have found that exile is the inevitable aftermath of independence.
In Tunisia, President Habib Bourguiba promised that Jews would be allowed to practice their religion in peace: “While I am alive, not a hair on Jewish heads will be touched.” But Tunisian Jews are trapped in the cold war between Israel and the Arab states. Bourguiba’s government has disbanded even Jewish religious organizations on the ground that they promote Zionism, and Jews fear that other Arab countries could force Tunisia to impose restrictions upon them.
In Morocco, the government placed restrictions on Jewish emigration until last October, and fortnight ago closed down the office of the agency in Casablanca that chartered ships and planes for Jews eager to leave the country. Although Jews who leave for Israel are officially forbidden to return to their homes, there is little overt anti-Semitism in Morocco. But emigration goes on, and businessmen in Casablanca complain that they cannot find Jewish labor. “Morocco is down the drain for us,” says one Jewish cafe owner.
In Algeria, Jews fear the onset of independence this week even more than their Christian pied-noir neighbors. Many were active supporters of the underground Secret Army; in Constantine, for example, the first anti-Moslem commando force was composed largely of Jews—and the F.L.N. has not forgotten it.
In many Algerian towns, Moslems have stopped patronizing Jewish-owned movie houses. In the streets of Djelfa, Moslem children chant: “Ben-Gurion to the gallows, Ben Bella to the palace.” In the last 18 months, entire communities of Arabized Jews from the Sahara, whose speech and dress are indistinguishable from their Moslem neighbors, have left the country.
Some North African Jews have, of course, gone to Israel, but more than two-thirds have settled in France, if for no better reason than that they speak French. Thanks to the exodus, France now has the fourth largest Jewish community in the world.* Jewish, Christian and nonreligious charitable organizations have collaborated to help the newcomers, but their life is often unbearably hard.