Algerian Jews During the French-Algerian War


A Review of The Heart of the Diaspora: Algerian Jews During the War for Independence, 1954–1962, by Jessica Hammerman.

The past decade and a half has witnessed an outpouring of scholarship on the history of French Algeria, and particularly the period of the French-Algerian War (1954–1962). Until recently, this new historiography of the war has devoted little attention to the fascinating, complex, and highly revealing place of Algeria’s Jewish population, which numbered some 140,000 on the eve of independence (compared to over 1 million European settlers and about 8 million indigenous Muslims). Although this has begun to change, Jessica Hammerman’s dissertation is the first monograph devoted entirely to the history of Algeria’s Jews during the war. Hammerman centers her analysis on the Committee for Jewish Algerian Social Studies (CJAES)—the representative political body for the Algerian Jewish community in this period, whose leader Jacques Lazarus left behind an extraordinarily rich and detailed archive. However, this is far from a narrow institutional history, as she places the CJAES in specific local, national, and international contexts. The dissertation contains numerous important research discoveries, makes novel arguments, and promises to enrich substantially our understanding of the period.

Not only did the French-Algerian War lead to the migration of nearly all of Algeria’s Jews to France; as Hammerman argues powerfully, the conflict utterly transformed the politics and identity of much of the Algerian Jewish population. Hammerman seeks to build upon briefer examinations of Algeria’s Jews during the war by Richard Ayoun, Todd Shepard, Benjamin Stora, Sarah Sussman, and several other scholars in Jewish and French history. At the same time, she argues that Algerian Jews need to be inserted much more centrally into broader histories of the period than they have been to date.

Unlike previous authors on the topic, Hammerman contends that Algerian Jews could only understand the war through the lens of the events of the Second World War and the Holocaust, which had entailed the shocking and traumatic loss of French citizenship for Algeria’s Jewish population. Thus, during the war’s first years, the greatest concern of Jews was not with the nationalist insurgents but with ongoing waves of anti-Semitism from Algeria’s colonial settlers and the brutal methods employed by the French government against the Muslim nationalist rebels. Not only did both of these remind Jews of the horrors of Nazism and the wartime authoritarian Vichy regime; the first also seemed a continuation of the long-standing pattern by which anti-Semitism had played a central role in Algerian colonial politics since the late nineteenth century. By the war’s last stages of 1960–1962, however, Algerian Jews would “become” part of the Pieds-Noirs, the name given to the European colonists from Algeria who settled in France after 1962, and would migrate en masse to the French mainland. Charting a series of shifts across the war years, Hammerman makes a bold case for dramatic changes in the course of a relatively short time.

In her first chapter, Hammerman gives a historical overview from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. She traces in particular the persistent anti-Semitism that Algerian Jews faced from the European settlers. At the same time, many Algerian Jews idealized republican France and sought to show their patriotic devotion to it in the First World War. Hammerman articulates this vision as one that saw “two opposing faces of France—sacrifice and exclusion,” a perception that she sees as recurrent throughout the history of the community into the years of the French-Algerian War. The chapter also gives substantial attention to Jews’ experience of first gaining citizenship with the 1870 Crémieux Decree and then losing it from 1940 to 1943 with the revocation of that decree by the Vichy government. The latter occurrence, she contends, was a seismic shock for the generation that lived through it; she gives poignant examples that capture the moment vividly. As Hammerman moves into the postwar period, she discusses what she depicts as mutual “fantasies of redemption” on the part of French and Algerian Jewry, respectively. Whereas the latter continued to view the former as a benevolent force for civilization and democracy, France’s beleaguered Jewish community saw its Algerian coreligionists as a more traditional, cohesive, and pious source of potential renewal and strength for Jews of the metropole.

Chapter two, which covers the war’s first two years, is among the dissertation’s most original. Here Hammerman insists that Algerian Jews understood the early period of the war less as a period of nationalist revolt that might target Jews and much more as a time of fascist resurgence. The memory of the Second World War was paramount, and Algerian Jewish leaders repeatedly expressed their suspicions that the extreme Right was fomenting Muslim violence against Jews or preparing to use the uprising as an excuse to clamp down with racial violence against all Algerian native inhabitants. The rise of the Poujadist Far Right movement in the metropole only reinforced Algerian Jews’ fears of a Far Right upsurge. Hammerman chronicles a number of attacks that appeared to target Jews whose authors were unknown. In the context of such fear and uncertainty, the Algerian Jewish leadership struggled to form a position on the war and said little about the community’s political orientation.

Chapter three focuses on a period of major transition, 1956–1958, during which the primary group of Algerian nationalists, the National Liberation Front (FLN), began to undertake efforts to recruit Jewish support. At the same time, particularly in the context of the 1956 Suez War and its aftermath, Israeli forces became involved covertly in Algeria in a way that provoked increased hostility toward Jews among many nationalists. Moreover, whereas the 1956 platform of Soummam—in which the FLN issued its formal call to the Jews of Algeria for support—fashioned an uprising that was more secular and democratic than Islamic or theocratic, the movement was beset by internal struggles. By 1958, the most important secularist leader, Abane Ramdane, would be assassinated, and a group of leaders stationed outside of Algeria, more focused on the military than on state building and tending toward pan-Arabist or Islamist outlooks, began to gain the upper hand. Hammerman sees the decision of the CJAES in 1956 to respond to the Soummam overture to the Jews with its own declaration of insistent neutrality as marking a crucial moment of rupture. This statement, she contends, signaled that Algeria’s Jews believed their greatest loyalty was to France and that they were unwilling to renounce their French allegiance in large numbers in favor of the independence struggle. Meanwhile, particularly in light of the Suez War, the Middle East conflict sharpened growing Jewish-Muslim divisions around opposed transnational loyalties. Moreover, Israeli agents entered the war both as Jewish defense squads and as representatives of the Jewish Agency seeking to enlist Algerian Jews to make Aliyah. Therefore, the lines between the French-Algerian and the Israeli-Arab conflicts became intersecting in a way that further strained Jewish-Muslim relations in Algeria by the late 1950s.

Nonetheless, as Hammerman’s fourth chapter carefully reconstructs, more than a few Algerian Jews chose to participate in the nationalist struggle. Here Hammerman has made some remarkable discoveries. To date, most scholars have made little of Jewish support for the FLN, painting it as the rarest of choices or saying a few words about one or two Jewish militants. Hammerman, however, has combed the archives of the FLN captured by the French military, and the results are impressive. Most of the Jews in Algeria who joined the FLN were former communists who had become converted to the nationalist struggle. Many, unlike their Jewish comrades in the French mainland, renounced their French citizenship to show the extent of their commitment to the nascent Algerian nation. The author personalizes these issues and gives them greater specificity by undertaking three very interesting case studies. Here we are reminded once more of the shadow of World War II, as the left-wing politics of all three militants was significantly shaped by the experience of losing their French status during that period.

In chapter five, Hammerman turns her attention to the way that the FLN’s relationship to Jews shifted markedly between 1957 and 1960. During this time, Jews became increasingly convinced that the FLN was not random in its attacks on Jews but was targeting Jewish people and Jewish institutions specifically. As leader of the CJAES, Jacques Lazarus was inundated by news of attacks against Jews; Jews in many cities also complained that they suffered increasingly from formal and informal economic boycotts. Here Hammerman shares further fascinating discoveries, showing how in 1958 the FLN undertook a major effort to woo Jewish support and reverse the increasing sense of insecurity among Jews. Nonetheless, attacks like the deadly bombing of the Jewish haunt the Casino de Corniche in Algiers in 1957 and the sacking of the Grand Synagogue of Algiers in December 1960 created an irreversible sense of vulnerability. The author highlights how Algerian Jewish leaders insisted more and more on their Frenchness to make sure that they would be welcome in France in the event of independence. Revealingly, they even stopped celebrating the Crémieux Decree of 1870 as a great milestone and instead emphasized that for generations Algerian Jews had been citizens not by virtue of the decree but by birth.

The ultimate passage of the vast majority of Algerian Jews into the category of Pieds-Noirs is the story of the dissertation’s final chapter and conclusion. Hammerman emphasizes the way that May 1958, when Charles De Gaulle was called back to politics and optimism briefly reigned across a large cross-section of Algerian society, became a touchstone for many settlers and Jews. To many, the long-dreamed-of (particularly by many Jews) multicultural French Algeria seemed to be in the offing. As De Gaulle moved away from his support for maintaining French control of Algeria—beginning in earnest with his reference to Algerian self-determination in September 1959—the broken promise and unfulfilled possibility of 1958 became a major trope of memory unifying colonial settlers and many Algerian Jews. Indeed, Hammerman contends that a shared sense of fear, desperation, and in some cases betrayal was what attracted many Jews to the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS) and other forces bent on keeping Algeria French at all cost. The fascist tendencies of certain elements of the OAS and many members’ history of support for Vichy or collaboration during World War II were for the moment overlooked. Hammerman carefully examines a set of competing claims about Jews or Israel having had various roles vis-à-vis the OAS; she finds that many claims appear exaggerated but that clearly there were Jewish individuals and groups that participated in the organization, and at the very least some Israeli leaders seemed to support the aspirations of the OAS.

By the war’s conclusion in 1962, Jews had become akin to other “Europeans” in Algeria, argues Hammerman. They saw no future there absent France and migrated en masse. In a way that drew them closer to the Pieds-Noirs, they faced many of the same challenges of departure and migration to a new land (tellingly dubbing it, nonetheless, a “repatriation” or “return”). A community that had once been quite diverse in its reactions to the war for independence and that had shared culture with its Muslim neighbors for centuries now felt forced to choose—and France was the decisive answer.

This dissertation promises to become an important book. The story of Jews and colonialism is one that is receiving growing attention from scholars, particularly of the Francophone world. Never to my knowledge, however, has a monograph focused exclusively on the process of decolonization for a Jewish community, certainly not at this level of detail or from so many angles. Through her impressive research and vivid writing style, Hammerman brings to life in rich and fascinating ways a period of uncertainty, seemingly impossible choices, and ultimately tremendous loss for Algeria’s Jews. The French-Algerian conflict may have been a “war without a name,” but this study shows that for the Jews of Algeria, it eventually elicited an illuminating range of vocal responses.

Ethan Katz
History Department
University of Cincinnati

Primary Sources
Archives of the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU), Jacques Lazarus Collection
Service Historique de l’Armée de Terre (SHAT), captured FLN internal documents
Information juive (newspaper)
L’Arche (newspaper)
American Jewish Archives, Archives of the World Jewish Congress

Dissertation Information
City University of New York (CUNY Grad Center), 2013, 281pp. Primary Advisor: Dagmar Herzog.

Image: Décret Crémieux N° 136 Photocopie du Bulletin des Lois de la République Française. From Wikipedia.

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