Scenes of utter devastation greeted Algerian Jews on 12 December 1960, after a crowd had forced its way into the Great Synagogue of Algiers, reports Morial, the Association of Jews from Algeria (with thanks: Leon).
The Ark was no more. Torah scrolls and books had been torn to shreds, soiled and scattered on the floor. Memorial plaques, erected in the names of Jews who had died for France in the two World Wars, had been ripped from the walls. The synagogue had been stripped of its marble, chandeliers and anything of value. The grafitti reads: “Long live Abbas!”. Ferhat Abbas was one of the leaders of the Algerian campaign for independence against the French and became the country’s first Prime Minister in 1962.
The Thursday of that week was declared a day of mourning. The Torah scrolls were buried in the Jewish cemetery alongside the community’s deceased rabbis and judges.
The Great synagogue had been built in grand Moorish style in 1865. It had a unique, monumental organ, although this was not played on Shabbat. Its treasures included manuscripts by famous Spanish rabbis, brought to Algeria with exiles from Spain after the Inquisition.
The ransacking of the synagogue was a seminal moment for the Jews of Algeria. It convinced them that they had no future in the country once it became independent.
The building was turned into a mosque in 1962 and a minaret added. Ironically, it was given the name, Jamaat le Ihood – ‘mosque of the Jews.’
The great synagogue in the city of Oran was also converted into a mosque. Many of Algeria’s churches were also turned into mosques. The great cathedral of Algiers, once a Muslim house of prayer when the French invaded in 1830, reverted to being a mosque.
He was born in Tlemcen, Algeria, the son of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish Communist father. A film-maker, Jean-Pierre Lledo was a rabid anti-Zionist until he made a visit to Israel, in 2008. The result was a journey to discover his Jewish identity. Now living in Israel, Jean-Pierre Lledo has just released a film, Israel:The forbidden journey, an 11-hour documentary in four parts, each named after a Jewish festival, which recently had its premiere in Tel Aviv. Adi Schwartz interviewed him for Israel Hayom:
In retrospect, Jean-Pierre Lledo’s complex identity has played a role in his life since time immemorial. “When we were kids,” he says, “the Arab kids kept talking about ‘Arab Algeria’ and ‘Muslim Algeria,’ and I always said to them, ‘Non-Muslim Algeria, she’s Algerian.’ I wanted to belong. “To that country. If Algeria is only Arab, then I do not belong to it.” The position of his communist father and friends was that there was no difference between Muslims and Jews, white or black, European or African – all Algerians. “I grew up in this atmosphere. I felt more Algerian than the Algerians themselves.”
During his exile in Paris, Lledo slowly began to deal with issues he could not deal with as long as he lived in Algeria. The first of these was the forced departure of Algerian Jews and European settlers immediately after independence. The official position in Algeria was that this was a natural move, and that the Europeans were foreign settlers, who had simply returned to their countries of origin.
Lledo knew it was not exactly like that, since one of the leavers was his Uncle Nissim (who moved to Israel -ed) , and Jews in Algeria would not have been foreign settlers but residents for two thousand years, long before the Muslim occupation. “I did not think then like everyone else,” he says, “but I could not go against it as long as I was in Algeria. It could not be done there. It was not possible to go against that narrative. It was taboo.”
But Israel still remains an unknown land, even hated. “For me, this was not only a political problem of Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians,” he describes, “but also a problem of identity. I knew that my mother was Jewish and that my father was not Jewish, but I never examined in depth what it means to be Jewish. Aware that if I was interested in Israel while perceiving myself as an Algerian, it would cause a rift with Algeria, with my friends, with everyone. As long as someone is in Algeria, it is impossible otherwise, just to be against Israel. “It is not at all possible to raise the question of the treatment of Israel. It is impossible at all to imagine a discussion about it, because it is clear to you that this will have serious consequences.”
To the question of why Israel arouses such strong feelings in Algeria and in the Arab world in general, Lledo answers on two levels. “France brought colonialism to Algeria,” he says, “and the Algerians hate France, but that does not stop them from visiting it all the time. In the case of Israel, there is the political issue, of 1948, which the Arabs have not actually accepted to this day. The establishment of the State of Israel.
“But it sits on a deeper religious issue, of Islam’s attitude toward Judaism. Classical Muslim texts recount how Muhammad’s forces defeated the Jews among the Khyber. It comes to this day, when Arabs demonstrate, even within Israel, they call ‘Khayber-Khaybar, Ya Yehud’, to commemorate that battle in which the Jews were defeated. The political problem is based on a deeper religious background. ”
Lledo’s decision to accept the invitation of the Jerusalem Cinematheque and visit Israel in 2008 completely freed all the demons. All his friends, intellectuals and writers, even those living in France, and throughout the Arab world, by no means begged him not to come to Israel. One of them called him on the eve of his flight several dozen times to try and persuade him to avoid the visit. When he realized that they had a strong opinion, he told him that their relationship was over. “My best friend,” says Lledo, “who was also an Algerian exile in Paris, began to approach me in the second person plural instead of in the second person singular, a clear sign of distance in French. He told me not to approach him any more.”
By the end of that year, when the fighting broke out in Gaza as part of Operation Cast Lead, Lledo had already begun to change his position in favor of Israel. “I saw what was really going on here,” he says. “When the war started, I saw terrible things being said in Algerian mosques against Jews. Everyone in Algeria was then against Israel and against the Jews. Since they still knew me, I wrote that we, as Algerian intellectuals, must not remain silent in the face of these expressions of anti-Semitism.
November 8 1942 is the anniversary of an extraordinary wartime event : overnight, a few hundred poorly-armed resistance fighters – most of them Jewish – managed to wrest control of strategic points in Algiers from Marshall Petain’s Vichy regime. The resistance paved the way for the Allied advance into Algiers. But the operation almost ended in failure, recounts Didier Nebot, honorary president of MORIAL, the association of Jews from Algeria. (With thanks: Leon)
Virtually ignored by French collective memory, Operation Torch was the decisive turning point of the Second World War. It facilitated the arrival of the Allies in Algiers on November 8, 1942. It was only possible through the daredevil acts of fewer than 400 young resistance fighters who, the previous night, took control of the city for 24 hours to allow more than 100,000 American soldiers to disembark without much affray. A few days earlier, on the night of October 23 to 24, the representatives of the Algerian resistance had met English and American emissaries, in the greatest secrecy, to plan the details of the landings on the African coast. The resistance fighters had to neutralize all the strategic points of Algiers for several hours and stop the Vichy leaders from preventing the Alies from landing with minimum losses.
On November 7, 1942 the BBC broadcast the following coded message: “Hello Robert… Franklin is coming”.This was the signal. At one in the morning the resistance attacked, although they had very few weapons. A thousand men were expected but only 377 turned up.
In a very short time they took control of all strategic points in Algiers, capturing the Petainist leaders General Juin and Admiral Darlan.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the Pétainists, the landing had begun on the beaches near Algiers. The weather was very bad, however – many landing craft capsized and a number of American soldiers perished. Traumatized by these losses, General Ryder set out for Algiers after much delay.
Poorly armed resistance fighters were wracked by anxiety. They had been asked to hold out for only two hours. Indeed, the surprise effect wore off – the Vichy troops reacted and set free General Juin and Admiral Darlan, who had been held prisoner at the Villa des Oliviers, on the heights of Algiers. One by one they won back each place from the insurgents, imagining that it was just a local conspiracy.
Who could have imagined for a single moment that America, still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor, could have counter-attacked so quickly?
The Pétainist attacks intensified. Vichy still did not understand that the Allies were at the gates of Algiers. The insurgents still had to hold on to allow the Allied troops to completely encircle the city. But they were lightly armed, they were going to be overwhelmed. The positions were becoming indefensible: there were wounded and dead, such as Lieutenant Jean Dreyfus and Captain Pillafort. The Algerian resistance was sinking. How much longer could it hold out? At the port, the fighting was fierce and the resistance had to withdraw, leaving several casualties.
But the miracle took place – and in the early evening the Allies entered Algiers and Vichy capitulated.
Without the courage and the will of a handful of young people ready to give their lives for freedom, the American landing, in view of the appalling weather conditions, with many boats having capsized, would probably not have succeeded. It should be noted that of these 377 resistance fighters, 312 were French of the Jewish faith.
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.
What are we to make of Eric Zemmour, the Algerian-Jewish pundit who has burst the French political scene wide open? He has been called a Jewish antisemite. Because he considers himself first and foremost a French patriot, his Jewish identity has to take a back seat. Profile in the Tablet by Mitchell Abidor and Miguel Lago:
Eric Zemmour’s Jewishness is a weapon he uses in disconcerting ways. Though he doesn’t hide his ancestry, it is not something that he foregrounds. He has defined his vision of Jewishness as that expressed in 1789 in the Comte de Clermont-Tonerre’s speech on religious minorities (“Nothing for the Jews as a nation, everything for the Jews as individuals”) and by Napoleon: “Henceforth you should consider Paris to be your Jerusalem.” And yet Zemmour’s Jewishness is always at his disposal, granting him license to make statements it would not be possible for a non-Jew to make
Zemmour made the claim that the Vichy government (1940-1944) actually protected French Jews. That this was simply false was amply demonstrated by historians; that it did nothing to change his mind was made abundantly clear when he repeated the claim as recently as September 2020. Nor did it end with Vichy. Zemmour has also lamented the focus on the Holocaust in French schools, claiming that it was not a “central” event of the war. That such a comment would be forbidden to a non-Jew is proved by the fate of Jean-Marie Le Pen who, in 1987, dismissed the Holocaust as a “point de detail” of the war. Le Pen (and, by extension, his party) was condemned as an antisemite, a label he has never been able to shake, and which played no small part in his replacement as party leader by his daughter Marine, culminating in the later rebranding of the Front National as the Rassemblement National.
But Zemmour goes further than Le Pen père. He is opposed to any memorialization of the murder of the Jews during the Second World War, and of laws protecting the memory of the Holocaust. He rejects the legitimacy of the apologies offered for France’s role in the massacre of its Jews, claiming this was part of an enterprise to make the French feel guilty for crimes perpetrated by Germans alone. In his latest book, which sold 200,000 before it was even published, Zemmour cited the work of “anthropologists” when he labeled the four Jews killed by a terrorist at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012 as “above all foreigners,” because their bones were eventually buried not in French soil but in Israel. (According to Zemmour’s anthropologists, it is the final resting place of one’s remains that determines nationality.) Not even Captain Dreyfus escapes Zemmour’s scorn, as he insists that the French general staff had good reason to suspect him of espionage since he was “German.” Alfred Dreyfus was, in reality, Alsatian, and his family chose France after Germany conquered Alsace in the Franco-Prussian War. It is not surprising that the monarchist and antisemitic organization L’Action Française, which led the charge against Dreyfus in the 1890s, posts videos of Zemmour on its YouTube channel.
It is easy to condemn Zemmour’s statements as those of an antisemite, and there are some Jews, like political kingmaker Jacques Attali, who are comfortable defining him as a “Jewish antisemite.” But Zemmour’s inflammatory remarks are not the product of Jew-hatred; they are just one expression of what truly lays at the heart of his ideology, which also includes hatred of Muslims and immigrants. For Zemmour there is only one France and one French history, one of eternal grandeur and glory. He thus despises any form of ethnic particularism and any claims to victimhood at the hands of the French nation. He hates particularism because it denies the oneness of France; he detests claims to victimhood because they put into question the unerring nature of France, of the mythic France he wants to restore—one that is white, Christian, and free of dissent from the dominant discourse.
Because France’s actions are unimpeachable, demands for justice for Jews are an implicit criticism of all Zemmour considers essential. His Jewishness serves here as a vehicle for expressing a vision of France that was weakened by demographic and geopolitical changes and died at the hands of critical scholars, a vision that once led colonial Africans, like every schoolchild in France or living under French rule, to speak of “our ancestors the Gauls.” France did not mistreat its Jews because, in Zemmour’s eyes, it could not mistreat its Jews—France being the essential, almost angelic nation of history. To say otherwise is treasonous.
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