Projecting Algerian Judaism, Formulating a Political Identity: Zionism in Algeria during the War of Independence (1954-62)

Keren Rouche. Journal of North African Studies. Volume 12, Issue 2. June 2007.


The traditional historiography about Algerian Jewish history usually contends that, given the low immigration of Algerian Jews to Israel, the role of Zionism and Zionist activities in Algeria was negligible. By narrowly focusing on Algerian Jews’ immigration and attachment to France, this body of literature has obscured the complex relationship among Algerian Jews, Zionism, Israel, and the French colonial state during the particularly tumultuous period of the Algerian war of independence (1954-62). This essay shows that, contrary to the general wisdom of traditional narratives, there was a significant Zionist influence in Algeria. It further aspires to open up new horizons in Algerian Jewish history and in approaches to comprehending the construction of Algerian Jews’ political subjectivities.

In this essay, I challenge the traditional historiography about Algerian Jewish history which usually contends that, given the low immigration of Algerian Jews to Israel, the role of Zionism and Zionist activities in Algeria was negligible. Indeed, by narrowly focusing on Algerian Jews’ immigration and attachment to France, the traditional historiography has obscured the intricate and complex relationship among Algerian Jews, Zionism, Israel, and the French colonial state during a particularly tumultuous period of history.

While analysing the content of Information Juive (Jewish News; hereafter IJ), an Algerian Jewish periodical, I aspire to open up new horizons in Algerian Jewish history and in approaches to comprehending the construction of Algerian Jews’ political subjectivities. In clearly stating its allegiance to the Zionist project throughout its pages, IJ proves that, contrary to the general wisdom of traditional narratives (Musicant, p. 120), there was a significant Zionist influence in Algeria.

IJ was published in Algiers every month since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 throughout the Algerian war of independence and is still published today. Founded by Jacques Lazarus, one of the major figures of the Algerian Jewish leadership, this newspaper—which, to my present knowledge, was the only one of its kind—was the forum of expression of important elements of the Frenchified Algerian Jewish elite such as Haim Cherqui, Aizer Cherqui, André Narboni and Benjamin Heler. A close reading of IJ’s pages during these war years reveals that these representatives were highly concerned with the repercussions of the regional situation and the Arab-Israeli conflict on Algerian and North African Jews. It also shows that they encouraged Jewish and Zionist activities through Hebrew lessons, youth camps, cultural events, the opening of Jewish study centres, charity campaigns for the poor in Algeria and Israel and the organisation of discovery trips to Israel.

As I argue, IJ’s authors believed in the transforming power of Zionism as a way of reviving Algerian Judaism, said to be the victim of its own assimilation to French culture and of embourgeoisification. And it is precisely in IJ that the elite openly articulated their perception of Algerian Jews’ relationship with the French colonial state and with the newly born state of Israel.

The International Context and its Impact on IJ’s Political Discourse

This essay addresses Israeli and Zionist activities in the era of decolonisation as they played out locally in Algeria and regionally in North Africa, and highlights its effects on the Frenchified Algerian Jewish leadership’s political stance. As recent studies have shown, Israeli activities in Algeria were part of Israel’s increased interest in North Africa and North African Jews in the aftermath of World War II. First, as David Cohen (p. 469) explains, ‘the Holocaust and its terrible consequences induced Zionist officials to take an interest in North African Jewry, with its half-million Jews’. Zionist officials of the Jewish Agency for Palestine and the Mossad le-Aliya Bet (Organisation for Illegal Immigration) began to develop their network in Algeria, ‘where Zionist activity was not forbidden, as it was in Morocco and Tunisia’. Joel Beinin also stresses the importance of quantitative considerations for Israel (p. 23) while he posits that encouraging ‘the immigration of the Mizrahim (Middle Eastern Jews) was vital for the demographic and economic stabilization of the Jewish state’.

Second, Michael Laskier (p. 19, 21) shows that ‘contrary to the prevailing thought’, the Maghreb was not of ‘secondary importance to Israel’s foreign and regional policies’, and that ‘the Israeli government followed with considerable interest the currents of dissatisfaction prevalent among Maghrebi nationalists’, themselves objects of extensive reports by the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Research Department. According to Laskier, Israel’s chief interests in the Maghreb before 1956 centred on two points: preventing North African nationalists’ future involvement with Egypt and the Middle East, and monitoring and protecting the status of the large Jewish communities in the region.

Moreover, intense Israeli and Zionist activities were facilitated by the French-Israeli political alliance, a relationship that provided favourable conditions for the dissemination of Zionist ideology in Algeria. Contrary to the situation in independent Morocco and Tunisia, Zionist organisations such as the Jewish Agency and the World Jewish Congress (WJC) were able to function openly in Algeria, as were some key Israeli state institutions, including the Mossad (Israel’s main intelligence agency). As it is apparent throughout IJ’s pages, IJ fetishised the ties between the French and the Israeli governments using a cultural-type rhetoric, positing the fusion of the French and Israeli value systems, said to be grounded in shared universal ethics (i.e. the belief in democracy, faith, progress and individual freedom). While this political alliance had deep implications at the highest levels of government, IJ was very self-conscious that such a relationship constituted an essential precondition for its freedom of expression as a North African Zionist newspaper in Algeria during the Algerian war of independence.

IJ, the CJAES and the Frenchified Algerian Jewish Elite

IJ was, as is indicated by its subtitle, the ‘organe mensuel du Comité Juif Algérien d’Etudes Sociales‘ (the monthly bulletin of the Algerian Jewish Committee of Social Studies, CJAES). Founded in Algiers in 1915, and supported by intellectuals, notables, traders, and merchants of the Algerian Jewish middle class, the CJAES first mission was ‘to provide statistics about Algerian Jewish soldiers who had participated in World War I on French soil, how many had been killed and wounded, and how many had been decorated for bravery, in order to prove the patriotism of Algerian Jews toward France’ (Cohen, p. 464). Its second mission was to investigate the social origins of anti-Semitism and monitor anti-Jewish incidents in Algeria. While the Vichy regime imposed its anti-Semitic laws on Algeria in 1940, the CJAES was dissolved and shut down. It further resumed its activities at the first signs of the Algerian uprising in 1954 (Chemouilli, p. 36). With the war raging in Algeria, the CJAES became the main representative organisation for the larger Algerian Jewish community. It made it clear throughout the war that the Jews were free to choose their political affiliation on an individual basis and that it by no means represented the political aspirations of the Jewish community as a whole. However, the CJAES repeatedly declared that its task was to be ‘the spokesman of the organised Algerian Jewish community’ and that its role was ‘to inform the community and defend its moral rights’ (Lazarus, p. 52).

Despite the ambiguity of its claims to be the voice of Algerian Judaism and the difficulty of evaluating the extent to which Algerian Jews perceived the CJAES as the representative of the larger community, it is clear the CJAES assumed political responsibilities by seeking to defend Algerian Judaism. The political nature of its messages during the eight years of the Algerian war for independence and its relationship with other actors involved in the conflict such as the FLN and the French government corroborate that argument.

In its capacity as the monthly bulletin of the CJAES, IJ’s ambition was ‘to become an instrument of culture destined to defend ideas’ and to freely and objectively defend Judaism in its grandeur and dignity (IJ, August-September). In reality, though, as the voice of the Frenchified Algerian Jewish elite, IJ not only performed political functions but, as I argue in this essay, its messages were part of a greater political project for North African Judaism. Hence, a close examination of what captured the attention of the newspaper and provoked its reactions—as well as what was omitted from its pages—provides a vivid portrait of the Algerian Jewish leadership during this tumultuous period; we come to see how the leadership perceived and fulfilled its responsibility to protect the larger community through constant redefining and reasserting of its political interests and positions in a time of political turmoil.

The Elite’s Project: Generate and Regenerate

My contention is that Israel found willing participants and a captive audience in Algeria among the Frenchified leaders of Algerian Judaism regarding Israel’s projects to deploy infrastructure, propaganda and other means to reproduce the Israeli state ideology. However, political Zionism in Algeria, let alone the spiritual dimension embodied by the love of Zion, predated the national existence of the Israeli state, beginning with the 1920 foundation of the first Algerian Zionist organisation l’Union Sioniste Algérienne (Algerian Zionist Union) in Algiers.

As is made clear in IJ, this representative segment of the elite sought to generate widespread Zionist sentiment among Algerian Jews in Algeria during these war years through the promotion of various activities. In fact, I argue that these leaders were motivated to turn toward Zionism as a means to regenerate Algerian Judaism, which they perceived to be in a state of moral, cultural and religious disintegration. Despite the elite’s gratitude toward France for its 1870 Décret Crémieux (Crémieux Decree), by which the French state had made Algerian Jewish subjects French citizens, the elite nevertheless believed that the colonial endeavour in Algeria had contributed to the erosion of Algerian Jews’ idealised Jewish particularism. In this context, Frenchified Algerian Jewish leaders attempted to articulate a new brand of Jewishness, which relied less on the dominant French Jewish model—imposed through the French colonial endeavour—and more on the experience of the newly born state of Israel. Thus, disseminating the Zionist discourse became in part a performance: an attempted ritualisation of an ancestral and biblical tradition that was to be reactualised with the birth of Israel, and in so doing restore a particular sense of Jewishness to Algerian Jews. Such efforts to create new habitual realms were expected to not only rejuvenate Algerian Judaism but also to create a new Algerian Jewish individual who would be closer to the Israeli haloutz (pioneer) than to the intellectual French Jew of the galouth (diaspora), yet also religious.

Algerian Jews and the French Colonial Endeavour

In the early days of the colonial process in the 1830s, the French state with the support of liberal French Jews set out to regenerate Algerian Jews as part of its mission civilisatrice (civilising mission). On 24 October 1870, the new Third Republic made a major move toward accelerating the assimilation of Algerian Jews to French institutions. By issuing the Décret Crémieux, the government extended French citizenship to 33,000 native Algerian Jews, thereby stripping them of their personal status—encompassing matters related to marriage, divorce, repudiation, polygamy, birth and death—which was deemed incompatible with French civilisation and laws. Algerian Jewish personal status was the subject of much debate among French Jewish reformers since the conquest of Algeria. While they were attempting to convince the government of Algerian Jews’ suitability for French citizenship, French Jewish reformers engaged in a crusade to outlaw polygamy and divorce, both permitted under Algerian Jewish personal status laws, and considered outrageous. The Décret Crémieux thus crowned their efforts by providing for the integration of Algerian Jews into French institutions such as schools, the army and the colonial administration.

However, what the Décret Crémieux had not resolved was the question of Algerian Jews’ Frenchness in the eyes of anti-Semitic colons (settlers) who from the decree’s very first days questioned Algerian Jews’ belonging to the French nation, and engaged in anti-Semitic campaigns and violence against Jews. The abrogation of the Décret Crémieux by the Vichy government’s law of 7 October 1940 constituted the culmination of such tendencies. Despite the fact that on 21 October 1943 the Provisional Government of the French Republic in Algiers reestablished their former status—albeit, after much hesitation—by the time of the independence war, Algerian Jews had not forgotten their recent experience under the Vichy regime, during which they were stripped of their French citizenship and excluded from every institution affiliated with the French state.

Performing Frenchness: Securing Algerian Jews’ Place within the French Nation

While the Décret Crémieux had opened new legal, political, cultural and self-defining horizons for Algerian Jews, the French civilising rhetoric had become integral to the Frenchified Algerian Jewish elite’s vision of themselves as modern French citizens, responsible for monitoring the moral welfare of their community and its security. In this context, the discourse of Frenchness and its performance in public arenas provided Algerian Jewish leaders with the rationale around which they could frame Algerian Jews’ relationship with France and thus ensure their protection in French Algeria—which does not mean that their sense of Frenchness was not heartfelt. Accordingly, the Algerian Jewish leadership did not spare any efforts in performing their community’s Frenchness whenever its survival was perceived to be under threat and its French citizenship politically challenged (Cohen). The independence war years were no exception: ‘being more French than the French’ was part of this strategic search for recognition and survival. As the war went on, Algerian Jews’ French citizenship was questioned again: first, by the FLN in its summons to the community to confirm its ‘belonging to the Algerian nation’ and support the FLN’s struggle for national liberation (Stora, p. 300); and second, by de Gaulle, who in 1961 was still considering ‘the creation of an Algerian federal state in which the diverse ethnic minorities [Kabyle, Arab, Chaouia, Mozabite, Jewish, French] would be able to coexist’ (Cohen, p. 41). Aware of the danger French positions posed for the future of the Jews of Algeria, the CJAES published several declarations during the war. The one following its 21 February 1960 meeting unequivocally reaffirmed Algerian Jews’ French citizenship: the CJAES ‘recalls that the Jewish collectivité of Algeria is not a political entity, neither juridical, nor even geographical […] This collectivité is composed of French citizens, who, when time comes, will use, like the other French citizens, the rights pertaining to this quality. Nothing, and nobody, could question the evidence of such a de facto and de jure situation’ (IJ, February, p. 1). As a matter of fact, by the time the Evian Accords were signed establishing Algerian independence on 18 March 1962, Algerian Jews were officially recognised as part of the European population that was to be ‘repatriated’ along with all those who did not want to stay in Algeria (Ayoun; Shepard).

Transcending the Boundaries of Traditional Historiography: A Vision on Identity Politics

The post-war historical narrative refashioned the entire history of Algerian Jews around their attachment to France, while presuming that Algerian Jews embraced Frenchness immediately after the arrival of French troops in nominally Ottoman-ruled Algeria in the 1830s (Chouraqui). Moreover, this narrative used to praise the benefits of colonisation on Algerian Jews, particularly for having saved them from their state of Oriental ‘backwardness’ (Chouraqui) and regenerating them by educating them in the grammar of French civilisation (Chemouilli cited in Abitbol). Moreover, by insistently emphasising the French aspect of Algerian Jewish identity, the traditional post-war narrative propagated the notion that identification with France was incompatible with other forms of identification.

Such exclusivist narratives served to evidence Algerian Jews’ historical identification with France and to praise the supposedly longstanding success of the process of Algerian Jewish internalisation of French values and culture in Algeria and later in France. Seemingly, arguments contending that North African Jewish integration in France was ‘remarkable by any standards (…) because of the political, administrative, and cultural continuity between France and its former North African colonies’, (Chemouilli cited in Abitbol, p. 253) and that the French did not see any difference between themselves and these ‘normal’ (Abitbol, p. 216) immigrants represented similar attempts to legitimise the presence of Algerian Jews in France and, above all, to diminish the gaps between French metropolitans and Algerian Jewish immigrants. It is however true that such accounts were to a certain degree grounded in reality: Algerian Jews since the end of the war began calling themselves pieds noirs (literally, black feet), the name originally given to the French settlers in Algeria. Indeed, some Algerian Jews in the metropole even joined the clubs of the French of Algeria, where members gathered to recall their souvenirs of the lost paradise and cultivate their nostalgérie: the pieds noirs‘ feeling of bitterness and nostalgia in the aftermath of the independence war over the loss of French Algeria. One could ask whether it is because of their constant preoccupation with attaining recognition that Algerian Jews, despite having endured Vichy France’s infamous imposition of racial laws in the Algerian territory, continued performing their identification with France in the strongest ways.

Quid of Zionism?

My objective in this essay is to rehabilitate the history of Zionism in Algeria and argue the significance of the all-encompassing presence of a Zionist narrative throughout the pages of IJ. This historiographical endeavour is a clear response to the traditional historical narrative about Algerian Jews which not only downplayed the role of Zionism in Algeria but also cited IJ in such a selective fashion that its Zionist nature had been completely ignored.

IJ reveals that, despite its great emphasis on Algerian Jews’ Frenchness, there was already a serious debate in Algeria over the nature of their sentiments toward France and Israel. This in turn points to the fact that the Zionist sentiments that are manifested today among Jews and in particular North African Jews in France, of which a substantial number are originally from Algeria, are not a pure novelty. Among the factors that generated such visceral and inalienable sentiments—which are well characterised by a famous figure in French popular culture, the Jewish singer of Algerian origin, Enrico Macias—can we not consider the colony itself a laboratory for such developments and the ground for increased politicisation of Algerian Jews’ multiple possibilities of identification?

Moreover, IJ provides grounds for arguing that Algerian Jewish identities were formed and negotiated over time through a complex relationship with the French colonial state, while also being challenged by alternative modalitites of identification that were available to Jews in Algeria. What becomes obvious is that although IJ constantly reasserted Algerian Jews’ Frenchness, the periodical openly affirmed its allegiance to the Zionist project. Such an allegiance was not intended to compromise Algerian Jews’ legal status as French citizens, but rather preserve it while adding a new facet to their relationship with the French colonial state.

IJ thus reveals the complex contours of an Algerian Jewish brand of Zionism, which encompassed spiritual, religious, and political elements: (1) a Zionism that helped advance Israel’s attempts to instil a sense of national patriotism in Jews worldwide through the actions of two main organisations: the World Jewish Congress (WJC) and Israeli Jewish Agency, whose various sections in Algeria, such as its Department of Immigration, worked toward convincing Algerian Jews to make their ‘aliyah (immigration) to Israel; (2) a Zionism endorsing unconditional support of Israel in its conflict with Arab states; and (3) unconditional, however not overt, support of France vis-à-vis the Algerian national uprising.

Nevertheless, it appears throughout the pages of IJ that Algerian Jewish Zionists’ main preoccupations lay in regenerating Algerian Judaism and in defending what they perceived to be the interests of the Algerian Jewish community, which sometimes—although only in rare instances—clashed with the French and the Israeli official positions. IJ made it clear that this self-defining quest was structured and articulated within the nexus of the French-Israeli alliance, itself based on these countries’ common interests to fight Nasser’s commitment to Arab and African unity after 1955. In this context, one could be a good Algerian Zionist while also being a good French citizen.

Having established the importance of the Zionist influence and activities in Algeria, I demonstrate, by comparing the ninth and tenth joint celebrations of the anniversary of the state of Israel and of the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt, how the Zionist discourse in Algeria manifested itself publicly, and how Zionist activities were encouraged by the Frenchified Algerian Jewish elite.

The Zionist Sentiment in Algeria and its Public Demonstration

The joint celebrations of the ninth and tenth anniversary of the state of Israel and of the revolt of the Ghetto of Warsaw merit special attention as a refractive lens through which to view what was at stake in the Frenchified Algerian Jewish elite’s religious and political project. Moreover, through the performance of Jewish themes, songs, and history, these ceremonies reveal what processes and disciplines textured their staging and content, as well as the means deployed by the elite to promote its project.

Every year in May, in every city with a substantial Jewish community (Algiers, Oran, Constantine, Miliana, Ain-Temouchent), Algerian Jews were commemorating both the anniversaries of the revolt of the Warsaw Ghetto and the creation of the state of Israel. The representatives of non-Zionist and Zionist organisations attended the ceremony, during which Jewish and mainly Zionist youth movements—les Eclaireurs Israélites (the Israelite Scouts), Dror (Independence), Gordonia-Habonim (Gordonia-The Builders), Bne-Akiba (Sons of Akiba) and Hachomer-Hatzaïr (The Young Guard)were participating and performing folk dances and songs.

The May 1957 ceremony opened with eloquent addresses, such as the one delivered by Ellen Djian, the president of the Algerian branch of the Women’s International Zionist Organisation (WIZO): ‘It seems that a mysterious but often verified law wants that every great event, in particular every birth, and even more rebirth, is preceded by an immense sacrifice, by a sort of expiatory bloodbath (…) that then reveals troubling purifying and regenerating virtues. In this light, the terrible massacre of the Jews of Warsaw (…) can appear as the painful premise of the birth of the new Israel. If we had the time to go back to the history of the Jewish people, we would see it all made of these alternatives of servitude and liberation, of despair and self-confident joy’ (IJ, May-June, p. 3).

Djian was thus positing that the Nazi genocide was an auspicious prelude to the reunification of Jerusalem and that the massacre of the Jews of Warsaw was in fact a cathartic sacrifice that made the birth of the new Israel possible. As for Haïm Cherqui, Secretary general of the Comission Culturelle Juive d’Algérie (Jewish Cultural Commission of Algeria, CCJA), his address did not differ substantially from Djian’s. According to Cherqui (IJ, May-June, p. 3), while ‘they kept their faith in their God and in the values of their people and their culture, the Warsaw fighters had the conviction of the accomplishment of the divine promise, the conviction that, whatever happens, they would, the Jewish people would be freed from barbarism and that to the obscurity of the ghettos, and of Hitlerism, would succeed the realization of the State of Israel’.

As Djian and Cherqui extrapolate on the Ghetto insurgents’ sacrificial intentions—rather than seeing those as a struggle for a dignified death with no other alternative than being sent to concentration camps—their declarations are consistent with the national Zionist narrative about Jewish history in linking and subordinating the history of the massacre of the Ghetto of Warsaw to the achievement of statehood in Jewish history. Yet, they also reflect two crucial elements in the Algerian Jewish elite’s strategy for mainstreaming Zionism among Algerian Jews: (1) the recourse to the national Zionist narrative about Jewish history, a narrative that created a causal and dialogic continuity between past Jewish sufferings and the establishment of the Jewish national state, thus remaking Jewish history into a linear and all-encompassing narrative; and (2) the recuperation of European Jewish history in an attempt to make it integral to Algerian Jews’ vision of themselves.

Moreover, in her address, Djian, a fervent Zionist (IJ, May-June, p. 3), was to promote ‘aliyah (immigration) to Israel, while praising the ideal of the Israeli melting pot: a move that was not devoid of political significance. As it was well known among North African Jews, their integration in Israel was very precarious and they were victims of selective and discriminatory immigration policies. However, Israel was presented as the most powerful step toward creating a ‘harmonious human community’. Djian concluded by warning the audience not to be surprised to hear during the same ceremony the El Maleh Rahamim (a prayer recited in memory of a dead person, or a group of persons) and the vibrant songs of the youth dancing the hora (a typical Israeli folk dance). As it was said, the ‘El Maleh Rahamim and the hora are both the expressions of the same very ancient and very new soul, both aspects of a common destiny, the destiny of a people that knew how to keep the faith in an eternal and unique truth’.

The concluding speech was left to André Narboni, president of the Algerian Zionist Federation (FSA), who insisted on the duty of Jews in Algeria and throughout the world to support Israel. For the occasion, he also paid a tribute to France, to whom Israel was said to owe a great debt.

Every year, the ceremony was to follow a certain scheme that on one hand was meant to provide a comprehensive recapitulation of Jewish history, and on the other hand revealed the performance of Algerian Jews’ various models of identification. For instance, in May 1957, besides the Zionist leaders’ addresses, two female students, one dressed in blue and one in white—the colours of the Israeli flag—were invited to read the last call of the ghetto fighters as well as extracts of the Israeli proclamation of independence. The stage was then left to a rabbi who sang the El Maleh Rahamim in memory of the heroes of the Ghetto of Warsaw, which was followed by a minute of silence. The youth movements were then invited to enact different scenes of life in the ghetto and episodes from the insurrection. Finally, the songs performed by Bne-Akiba, a Zionist youth movement, were said to represent ‘Israel’s new face’. And the ceremony was to close with all the youth movements singing Hatikvah (the Israeli national anthem) together with the audience.

Every year, the ceremony followed the same mise-en-scène with only minor variations. Likewise, the grandiose celebration for the May 1958 tenth anniversary of the Israeli independence in Algiers did not at first sight differ much from the previous year. However, that year the stage was decorated with both the French and the Israeli flags of huge dimensions, covering the stage curtains from top to bottom, and between the two flags an immense panel representing the Jewish seven-branch chandelier with the word ‘Israel’ in capital Hebrew characters.

That year, the presence of the French flag in the ceremony constituted a noticeable difference. It was made to express Algerian Zionists’ tribute to France: for instance, after singing Hatikva, the audience intoned La Marseillaise (the French national anthem). Moreover, as the chief organiser explained in his address (IJ, May, p. 5), this ceremony was held under the symbol of the French-Israeli friendship because ‘There exists a community of spirit between both nations; the same ideal animates them: desire for peace, love of freedom, respect for human dignity’.

These ceremonies provided Algerian Zionists the occasion to celebrate their multifaceted political and religious identities as well as their re-creation in the face of conjectural political variables. From 1958 onwards, every May joint celebration was to include in its programme La Marseillaise, as an expression of Algerian Zionists’ reassertion of their Frenchness. Furthermore, the Algerian Jewish elite’s performance and fetishisation of the French-Israeli friendship reveals that the affirmation of Algerian Jews’ loyalty to France and Israel was not at all contradictory. Rather, supporting Israel for an Algerian Jew, thus endorsing official French political lines, also measured the genuineness of his or her loyalty as a French citizen.

By comparing the 1957 and 1958 celebrations, this essay points to the extreme versatility of the Algerian Jewish elite’s politics of identification and their sensitivity to the very fluctuations of the Israeli and the French states’ policies.

La Marseillaise in the Light of Israel’s Discriminatory Immigration Policies

One may ask why the organisers of the ceremonies suddenly decided to introduce La Marseillaise into the 1958 celebration and emphasise Algerian Jews’ loyalty to France. It is certainly not insignificant that early 1958 coincided with the Jewish Agency’s intention to restrain immigration to Israel due to its lack of sufficient financial means. IJ announced (March-April, p. 1) that ‘following its financial difficulties, the Jewish Agency plans to reduce from 40,000 to 24,000 the number of immigrants who will be welcome in Israel over the course of the next twelve months’. However, despite these restrictions, the chief of the Immigration Department of the Jewish Agency, M. S. Shragai, stressed (IJ, March-April, p. 1) that ‘all the Jews of Eastern Europe who desire to settle in Israel will be admitted without delay’. IJ further reported that ‘expressing the general atmosphere of anxiety, M. Yitzhak Raphaël (Hapoël Hamizrahi [the Oriental Worker]) went as far as proposing the reestablishment of the maabarot (transit camps) instead of restraining immigration’.

At that time, Israel’s discriminatory immigration policies toward North African immigrants were well known among North African Jews, and Shragai’s public statement only came to confirm earlier suspicions that the Jewish Agency had embraced an openly discriminatory immigration policy that favoured Eastern European Jews over Oriental Jews. However, IJ published this information without engaging in a polemical debate about what conclusions might be drawn from Shragai’s declaration. Criticising Israel and denouncing its segregation policy were still unthinkable; instead, IJ continued actively promoting ‘aliyah to Israel (IJ, August-September; Chahar).

When it was no longer possible to hide the unease of North African immigrants in Israel to protect the Israeli raison d’Etat, André Canoui, vice-president of the Algerian Zionist Federation (FSA), wrote an article (1958) in which he expressed his concern over the difficulties faced by North African immigrants in Israel. However, he avoided talking about the Israeli bureaucracy’s share of responsibility in the worsening situation. In line with his desire to contribute to the better integration of Algerian immigrants in Israel and to encourage ‘aliyah from North Africa, Canoui announced the FSA’s decision to support the newly established Union des olim algériens en Israël (Union of Algerian Immigrants in Israel, UOAI). Canoui criticised the FSA for its failure to facilitate the integration of new immigrants, and saluted the role of the UOAI as the FSA’s liaison organ in Israel and its responsibility for orienting the FSA in its lobbying of public authorities in Israel. The only critique Canoui voiced about Israeli institutions was that they only recognised the existence of the UOAI, but did not allocate them any subsidies. This treatment, according to him, was different from the one provided to other, mainly Ashkenazi immigrants’ unions.

Despite all these difficulties, it is clear that Algerian Zionists were determined to play an active role in ‘aliyah to Israel. To fulfil their dream, they engaged in the game of identity politics, thereby trying to gain the respect they deserved. As Canoui noted, ‘the Union will also make sure its members’ quality as citizens of French origin is recognized in Israel’. This will help them ‘obtain from the French Embassy various advantages as well as material and moral support that the Embassy offers so generously to the French of Israel’. Stressing the French citizenship of Algerian Jewish immigrants became a means to get the support they needed for their integration in the Israeli society. It appears that Algerian Zionists’ reassertion of their French identity was thus used to reinforce their claims in the context of their political struggle for recognition in Israel.

From Circumspect Statements to Open Protest

Open criticism of Israeli discriminatory policies toward North African immigrants was not expressed until the publication of Henri Chemouilli’s open letter in La Terre retrouvée, a French Jewish newspaper, on 1 April 1957. This letter, first published outside North Africa (certainly to avoid bad publicity for ‘aliyah to Israel), was reproduced in IJ two years later as an appendix to Chemouilli’s February article. As the spokesman for the newly arrived North African olim (immigrants) in Israel, Chemouilli took it upon himself to voice their complaints. He explained that the FSA used its modest means in an effort to provide support to olim in difficulty, but was clearly in a situation of extreme malaise: ‘these particular cases became numerous, too numerous (…) The serious question was asked: is there in Israel a discrimination vis-à-vis Jews of North African origin?’ Responding in the affirmative, Chemouilli presented his demands to the Israeli leaders and to the World Zionist Organisation (WZO) on three levels: (1) provide work to the immigrant according to his physical or familial condition; (2) stop discriminating between Eastern European and Middle Eastern Jews and provide equal housing opportunities to those North African immigrants who are still living in temporary housing (maabarot); and (3) take effective measures in favour of big families, whose children are systematically excluded from schools.

Through its tone and content, this article came as a backlash by representing a break with IJ’s former line of unconditional praise regarding Israeli deeds and timorous critique of Israeli immigration and absorption policies. Despite these reservations, Algerian Zionists did not give any sign of willingness to abandon the Zionist dream of ‘aliyah and kept encouraging Algerian Judaism to support Israel morally and financially. They rather tried to take the necessary measures toward ameliorating the integration of North African immigrants (IJ, April, p. 5).

Back in Algeria following a trip to Israel, André Narboni, juridical counsel of the CJAES, reported on his participation in the preparatory session of the WZO, and about his struggle for the adoption, within the commission in charge of immigration and integration, of a declaration guaranteeing equal treatment by the immigration and absorption regime in Israel. Narboni reported in IJ that he mobilised all his efforts to ensure that the UOAI engage in ‘non political action’ and mutual and ‘loyal collaboration with the Jewish Agency in the service of the Algerian immigration’ (IJ, July, p. 3).

Though it was a subject of concern since the beginning of 1958, Israel’s selective ‘alyiah and discriminatory treatment of North African Jews only became the subject of fiery debates in IJ toward the end of 1958. Even then, despite the Algerian Jewish elite’s expectations that efforts would be made to find appropriate solutions, immediate results proved disappointing and the same problems persisted. It is not until the 1959 events of Wadi Salib, when North African immigrants in Israel took to the street in protest against Israeli discriminatory policies, that IJ’s criticism toward Israel reached its climax.

In this context, and as the Algerian war for independence was raging and its outcome uncertain, it appeared that Israel and Israeli citizenship did not necessarily provide the surest survival strategy for Algerian Jews, and that it would be wiser to keep paying special attention to the preservation of their French citizenship.


Through the close examination and comparison of the joint anniversary celebrations of the state of Israel and of the revolt of the Ghetto of Warsaw, this essay seeks to reveal the texture of the Frenchified Algerian Jewish elite’s identity politics and of its project for regenerating Algerian Judaism by ‘zionising’ Algerian Jews.

Ironically, during the independence war, the Algerian Jewish elite’s use of the Zionist narrative in IJ, their organisation of Zionist activities and endorsement of the French-Israeli alliance became part of an increased identification with France and what it meant to be French: to be free to state its allegiance to both the French and the Israeli states, which drastically contrasted with the situation of Zionists in independent Tunisia and Morocco, and in other Middle Eastern countries, where Zionist activities were outlawed. In this context, the Algerian Jewish leadership seemed to act within the framework of a twofold plan: aware of the discriminations against Algerian Jews in Israel, Algerian Jewish leaders did not spare any efforts to prove their role as active members of the Zionist movement and thereby assert their full participation in the making of Jewish national history; at the same time, as the war raged on and Algerian Jews experienced extreme tensions and violence, the Algerian Jewish leaders’ top priority was to ensure the community members’ rights as French citizens as the best guarantee for their survival.

By the time of the independence war, the experience of the Vichy regime still stained the Algerian Jewish leadership’s confidence in the French state. In this light, their increased identification with the state of Israel may have resulted from a desire to cultivate the possibility of a new home in case France would once again not honour its responsibilities vis-à-vis its Jewish citizens in the Algerian territory. Moreover, the elite nurtured the hope that Zionist activities and discourses would serve as a regenerative force for Algerian Judaism. The elite’s source of inspiration, Israel, was perceived as the guardian of an authentic Jewish tradition, and they envisioned that promoting this ancestral ‘Jewish’ Judaism would cure the ills brought on by the Christian ‘secular’ and typically French colonial project of regeneration: namely, mixed marriages, the decline of piety among Algerian Jews, plummeting rates of synagogue attendance, and lack of interest in Jewish culture and history.

In the context of the French-Israeli friendship, these joint celebrations and other Jewish activities also reveal that, contrary to the traditional historiography’s assumption, the identification with France was not exclusive of other possibilities of identification. In fact, by appropriating the Zionist narrative, the Frenchified Algerian Jewish elite not only aimed to acknowledge their gratitude to colonial France, by endorsing its support for the state of Israel; it also meant to infuse Algerian Judaism with a new dynamic, a dynamic that was expected to generate a Jewishness that would ideally reconcile tradition and modernity, and involve minimal levels of assimilation: a Jewishness that would ultimately turn away from the French Jewish secular model, and reconnect with the essence of a universal Judaism, embodied by the Israeli nation-state.

Finally, a close reading of IJ proves that the elite’s appropriation of the Zionist narrative was also part of their project to inspire Algerian Jews’ political choices and help them develop responses to contemporary challenges. Throughout the war, IJ tended to promote an ivory tower attitude by advising the community to: (1) retreat into Jewish spiritual and religious life while engaging in Jewish and Zionist activities, and (2) avoid as much as possible open references to the ‘events’ in Algeria (Touati). Thus, while IJ actively disseminated Zionist and Israeli discourses concerning the situation of Jews in the Middle East and North Africa, and praised the French-Israeli friendship, it cultivated the fantasy of Algerian Jews’ neutrality during the war. In reality, what this type of narrative defined as neutrality was tantamount to supporting the French-governed model of a theoretically egalitarian Algerian society (Stora, p. 303). However, such fantasy neither reflected the murderous reality of the Algerian war of independence, nor took into account the fact that Jews in Algeria expressed a wide range of political positions. This ultimately manifested itself in the traditional historiography’s silence regarding such complex realities as: Jews fighting with the FLN for a free and independent Algeria, and who refused to believe in the French civilising mission; pro-French Algeria Jews who, by the end of the war, joined the OAS (Organisation Armée Secrète, Secret Armed Organisation) in a desperate attempt to keep Algeria French; and, Zionism in Algeria.