Algeria’s Jewish Past-Present

[Interior of Ghardaia Synagogue, image from Sarah Abrevaya Stein]

Given other dramatic events this summer, readers might be forgiven for failing to notice a curious announcement the Algerian Minister of Religious Affairs, Mohamed Aissa, issued on 3 July. The statement advertised that the ministry was to reopen twenty-five of the synagogues that still remain in the country. This announcement is of far more than local concern, teaching us a great deal about the complex way in which the Middle Eastern Jewish past is put to use in the interest of contemporary politics. Aissa’s proposal was meant to highlight Algeria’s inclusivity, and, thereby, to distinguish its path from that of nearby Tunisia and Egypt. Part of what made this gesture so interesting was its remarkably short shelf life. Just days after Aissa’s initial announcement, the minister all but disassociated himself from his project. With Israel preparing to initiate dozens of air strikes on ostensible Hamas targets in Gaza, Algeria’s Jewish past had lost much of its symbolic luster. If, in early July, Jewish Algerian history could signal a progressive future for the country, in only a few short weeks, that same past had become synonymous with a cruel Israeli present. This metamorphosis is laced with historical irony, contemporary political nuance, and a measure of cynicism

Ghardaia’s Synagogue

In the Algerian Sahara, some 600 kilometers south of Algiers, stands an abandoned synagogue in the town of Ghardaia, in the heart of the Mzab Valley. Named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982, the Mzab consists of seven fortified oasis cities, including Ghardaia, built by Berberophone Ibadites (Kharijite Muslims of the Ibadite rite) in the tenth century. These hilltop fortified towns, or ksours, were constructed according to strict architectural principles to ensure the protection of their inhabitants; each was organized around concentric circles of streets that emanated outward from a mosque to ramparts surrounding the city, while beyond each of the towns’ boundaries was a summer citadel, a palm grove, a cemetery, and an additional mosque. Still today the cities of the Mzab Valley remain recognizable for their sinuous white, pink, and red architecture—including distinctive pyramidal mosques constructed of gypsum, sand, and clay.

With the help of UNESCO money and the largesse generated (for some, anyway) by oil and gas pipelines that flow through the Mzab, linking the fields of Hassi Massaoud and Hassi R’mel to sites of export in the north, the Mzab has benefitted from a degree of historical preservation unusual within Algeria. Tours of the ancient ksours require a guide employed by the Algerian Ministry of Culture’s Office for the Protection and Promotion of the Mzab Valley (OPVM), which has also had a hand in the construction of two new suburbs on the outskirts of Ghardaia, built in the spirit of the region’s historic architecture.

OPVM guides openly acknowledge the historical religious diversity of the majority-Ibadite valley. They emphasize (indeed, rather too copiously) that egalitarianism, tolerance, and diversity are leitmotifs of Ibadite society, allowing various peoples to live side by side, distinctly but amicably. They also recognize the fact that an ancient Jewish community once lived in Ghardaia, although the circumstances surrounding their departure are left cloudy. Some still call the jewelry bourse “the Jewish market,” for jewelry making and selling were trades overwhelming practiced by the several thousand Jews who lived in the region.

Notwithstanding this recognition of a historical Jewish community, the synagogue of Ghardaia is in shambles. During my first visit in 2009, the synagogue’s only inhabitants were an orphaned, mentally-imbalanced youth and a collection of feral cats. My guide had to unwind wire in order to open the building’s shuttered door. Inside, piles of garbage, newspapers, and decomposing food littered the main sanctuary and stairs to the women’s gallery. Beneath the detritus, one could see the remnants of an ornate tile floor and the faded, once-brilliant hues of blue, yellow, and ochre that adorned the walls. The wall that held the community’s distinctive Torah scrolls still bore, in duplicate, the Hebrew phrase “Magen David” (Shield of David, an excerpt from one of the blessings that follows the weekly reading of the haftorah portion). Overhead, the building’s distinctive pyramidal minaret (which mimicked that of the town’s central mosque) still stood, though it, like the rest of the building, was desperately in need of repair. Gone were the oil lamps, the elevated wooden bema, the wooden arks that once held Torah scrolls. When I returned in 2012, the door bore two padlocks, and entry was barred. A peek through a hole suggested the interior remained as it was. I have been told there is talk of a restoration project, but it appears as yet notional.

Algeria’s Jewish community abandoned the synagogue of Ghardaia, like most of the synagogues of Algeria, in the wake of the Algerian war of independence (1954-1962), which forcibly ended more than a century of French colonial rule. By that time, the vast majority of Algeria’s Jews, some 130,000 individuals, had fled Algeria, with the majority settling in France. Their departure was due to the violence of the war, a rise in anti-Jewish outbreaks, and a deep-seated fear that Algerian Jews would suffer retribution at the hands of an independent state. This fear was not entirely mistaken given that the vast majority of Algerian Jewry (in counterpoint to the majority of Algeria’s Muslim population) had been unilaterally appointed French citizens by the 1870 Cremieux decree. At the very least, the community would only ever find an ambiguous place within the nationalist and pan-Arabist vision of the post-independence regime. The Jews of Ghardaia, as throughout the so-called Southern Territories and like Algerian Muslims, were categorized as indigenes and had their political rights radically curtailed. The French National Assembly transformed the Jews of the Algerian Sahara into French citizens prone to common law, allowing for their emigration to France.) By the summer of 1962 Jews had all but left Algeria, with nearly a million pieds-noirs (settler-colonialists of European descent) and hundred thousand harkis (Muslim Algerians who had fought on the side of the French during the Algerian war of independence). Their synagogues (along with their cemeteries, communal institutions, homes, and businesses) remained behind. These buildings were still owned by Algeria’s Federation of Jewish Communities, yet various fates awaited them. Some were repurposed with the authorization of the Federation, transformed into mosques, gymnasia, bookstores, and political centers. Others were nationalized, and still others simply fell into disrepair.

Ambiguous Patrimonies

Minister Aissa initially described his proposal, which also recommended the reopening of a number of churches in Algeria, as “a message to the Jews and the rest of the communities that Algeria is not against them. Algeria is diverse in terms of culture and language and accepts others.” Though Aissa did not say as much, the proposal was surely also intended to send a strong signal that despite the social strength of Islamism in the country, Algeria would not follow Tunisia and Egypt in their shaky path forward from the popular uprisings that began in 2010. It is also possible that Aissa’s timing may be explained by the burst of confidence Algerians felt after their unexpectedly strong showing in the 2014 World Cup, or by the media attention and goodwill won by this plucky FIFA underdog. The lauding of Algeria’s Jewish past, it would seem, had become a means of emphasizing certain salutary dimensions of the Algerian present.

Muslim Algerians have contradictory feelings about the abandoned Jewish sites of their country, ranging from prideful stewardship to blatant hostility. In various Algerian cities, one can find second-generation Muslim keepers of Jewish cemeteries who guard the sites with care. And yet after Minister Aissa’s formulated his proposal in early July, it sparked the opposition of Sahwa Salafists in Algeria. That organization’s leader, Abdelfattah Hamadache Zeraoui, declared that Aissa’s suggestion was a provocation, particularly given its articulation during Ramadan. In Algiers, a small number of Salaifst supporters took their objections to the streets, where they protested the “Judaization of Algeria.”

This reaction was predictable. What could not have been anticipated was the timing of Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge that began just days after Aissa’s announcement. The Israeli operation, including the subsequent ground operation, has elicited deep rancor in Algeria, as across the Middle East. In an interview published less than two weeks after Aissa’s initial announcement (on the eve of the Israeli ground operation in Gaza), the minister back-peddled, explaining that his proposal did not yet have a time-line and hinged on two factors: the initiative of the “Jewish community,” and the larger Algerian public’s acceptance of the proposal. “With the bombing of Gaza,” the minister explained, “Algerians feel frustration. Because at a time at which Algeria is predisposed to support a community other than the Muslim one, they find an entity that calls itself the Jewish state trying to bomb and kill children, women, and the elderly, who are not protected by the international community.” Shifting the balance, he insisted, would require the Jewish community to denounce Israeli colonialism and the carnage in Gaza.

It is unclear to whom or what body Aissa is referring when he speaks of the “Jewish community.” Though no Jewish community remains in Algeria today, it is said that perhaps as many as one thousand Jews, the majority of whom live in France, have retained their Algerian citizenship and return to their native country with some regularity, or live, even, between these countries. Other Jews of Algerian origin visit on French passports, below the radar. But Algeria is not like neighboring Morocco or Tunisia. Jews from these countries return to their native land openly, as tourists, religious pilgrims, to visit friends or carry on business. The Moroccan government, for its part, has been nothing short of extravagant in publicizing an idealized Moroccan-Jewish past. Algeria is in quite a different category. The country has no diplomatic relations with Israel, an underdeveloped tourist infrastructure, and fresh memories of—as well as the devastating economic fall-out from—the civil war of the 1990s. Many Algerian Jewish families do not wish to visit their ancestral home, harboring only angry memories. Others recognize they may not be welcome, including, most famously, the Algerian-born Jewish singer Enrico Macias, whose repeated attempts to visit Algeria have been thwarted by popular protests.

There is no evidence that Ghardaia’s synagogue would be among those targeted for re-opening, if Aïssa’s initial proposal were realized, despite the existence of some local support. And indeed, the Mzab Valley is now rent with violence, as Chaamba Arab followers of the Maliki madhab (rite) compete with the indigenous community of Berberophone (Amazigh) Ibadites for influence and control over certain symbolic sites. These include the Mozabite cemetery of Ghardaiia and the tomb of Amir Moussa (a sixteenth century Mozabite leader considered the founder of Ghardaïa), which was destroyed by Chaamba youths in January of this year.

To expand our list of the would-be achievements of Aissa’s 3 July proposal, then, is a redirection of attention from sectarian conflicts of the present to Algeria’s multi-cultural past. If, in early July, it seemed possible for Algeria to imagine a new future by leverage its multi-cultural past—with the added benefit of demarcating itself from its neighbors—this symbolic possibility proved a misfire in light of events to come. Initially, the prospect of refurbishing synagogues in the absence of Jews seemed a most advantageous ambition. Two weeks later, in the face of a groundswell of local opposition to Israel’s actions in Gaza, Algeria’s synagogues stood for something very different indeed. Now Algeria’s Jewish past was conflated with the Israeli present, voiding Aissa’s earlier intentions.

In my own history of Algeria’s Saharan Jewish community, I find this dynamic replayed, in various keys, since the very onset of French colonial rule. The Jews of the Algerian Sahara had their own rich and ancient history. But they also meant something different to many parties, be they: the Ibadites, Arabophone Muslim, or Chaamba neighbors they lived alongside; the colonial authorities who oversaw them; Jews elsewhere in Algeria, North Africa, and France; the global Jewish philanthropies who aided them; the social scientists who studied them; and the Israeli and French states, who in the course of the Algerian war competed for allegiance of these would-be citizens. As the Algerian war unfolded, Israel encouraged Algerian Jews in the belief that their true home was Israel. In this use of history Israel largely failed, as the vast majority of Jews left Algeria for France, a choice some in Israel received as betrayal. This history renders it all the more ironic that the Algerian Jewish diaspora is held accountable for Israel’s excesses. And yet the leitmotif endures: in Algeria, as elsewhere, the North African Jewish past is buffeted by the opposing tides of local, national, and global politics, all of which push and pull this history to their own symbolic ends.


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