The presence of Jews in Algeria spans from the pre-Roman period to the early 1960s, when Algeria became independent.
Before the Roman Empire took over these remote coasts of northern Africa, descendants of Jews who had fled Palestine after the destruction of the first and second temples of Jerusalem had settled among the Berber tribes of central Maghreb, some of whom had converted to Judaism over several centuries. Jews spoke the Berber language, especially in the eastern part of Algeria, in Kabyle lands, and even prayed in Berber.
Early descriptions of the Rustamid capital Tahert note that Jews were to be found there, as in any other major Muslim city, and some centuries later the Geniza Letters (found in Cairo) mention many Algerian Jewish families.
During the Arab conquest of Africa in the seventh century, Berbers and Jews fought together, an episode recounted at length by the Muslim medieval historian Ibn-Khaldun. According to this author, a Jewish Berber "queen," named Kahina ("the Priestess"), at the end of the seventh century led the autochthonous armies that resisted the Arab conquest of the Maghreb.
Most Berbers were converted to Islam a few decades later, and the Jews of Algeria started their cultural and linguistic assimilation into the Arab world. They rapidly began developing familiarity with Arabic literature, grammar, and science; in some areas, Jewish communities spoke Judeo-Arabic as their daily language.
The country's Jewish community substantially increased following the Reconquista, when the Spanish Inquisition expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492. Together with the Moriscos, they thronged to the ports of North Africa, forming large communities in places such as Oran and Algiers. Some Jews in Oran preserved their Ladino language - a uniquely conservative dialect of Spanish - until the 19th century.
The new Jewish immigrants brought their theological knowledge, their sages, and a more Europeanized Jewish tradition. They were rapidly integrated into the local Jewish leadership.
Later on, more European Jews immigrated to Algeria in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, coming from Italy. The languages spoken by the Jews in Algeria at that time were Berber, Arabic, Spanish, Ladino, Italian, and Hebrew.
Most of these communities were subject to the status of dhimmi imposed by the Turks in the sixteenth century on all non-Muslim groups living under Muslim rule. Jews could not mount horses, carry arms, or be in a posture physically superior to Muslims.
This inferior status did not prevent Jewish merchants from doing very well financially in late Ottoman Algiers; the French attack on Algeria was initially "provoked" by the Dey's demands that the French government pay its large outstanding wheat debts to two Jewish merchants, Bacri and Busnach.
After the conquest in 1830, the French government rapidly restructured the Ottoman millet system. At the time, the French government distinguished French citizens (who had national voting rights, were subject to French laws, and for the males, had to go to military service) from Jewish and Muslim "indigenous" people, who each kept their own laws and courts.
By 1841, the Jewish courts (beth din) had been abolished, and all cases involving Jews were instead heard by French courts. In 1845, the communal structure was thoroughly reorganized, and French Jews were appointed as chief rabbis for each region, with the duty "to inculcate unconditional obedience to the laws, loyalty to France, and the obligation to defend it."
In 1865, liberal conditions were laid down so that Jewish and Muslim "indigenous" people could become French citizens if they requested it. This facility was, however, not much used - since it meant renouncing certain traditional mores and thus was perceived as a kind of apostasy.
In 1870, the French government granted the Jews French citizenship, under the décrets Crémieux of 1870. (For this reason, they are sometimes lumped together with the pieds-noirs.) This decision was due largely to pressures from prominent members of the French Jewish community, which considered the North African Jews to be "backward" and wanted to forcefully bring them into modernity. Within a generation, most Algerian Jews had come to speak French rather than Arabic or Ladino, and embraced many aspects of French culture.
When Algeria attained independence in 1962, legislation granted Algerian citizenship only to those residents whose father or paternal grandfather were Muslims. Moreover, the Supreme Court of Justice of Algeria declared that the Jews were no longer under the protection of the law. The great majority of Algeria's 140,000 Jews left the country for France together with the pied-noirs.
The Jews of Algeria had lived side by side with Muslims for centuries, but the struggle for Algerian independence presented them with stark choices, as Martin Evans explains.
On Wednesday June 22nd, 1961 the 48-year-old Jewish musician Raymond Leiris was shopping with his daughter in the crowded market of his home town, Constantine, in eastern Algeria. Suddenly, without warning, a young Muslim gunman surged forward to shoot him in the back of the neck. The defenceless Leiris was killed instantly, another victim of a round of shootings in Constantine that day, which left one Algerian woman dead and two other people seriously wounded.
It was a shocking incident even if, after nearly seven years of war between the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) and France, the colonial power, there was no shortage of horrific events to record. By no stretch of the imagination was Leiris a military target. Popularly known as Cheikh Raymond, he was one of the great figures of the Andalusian musical tradition, a gifted oud player, blessed with an astonishing voice. Studying under the greats of Algerian music – Cheikh Chakleb and Cheikh Bestandji – his Cheikh Raymond Orchestra encapsulated the style known as malouf. He was a living symbol of a shared Jewish-Muslim culture. We still do not know why he was murdered. Neither the FLN, nor the Secret Army Organisation (OAS), the hard-line pro-French Algeria terrorist group formed in January 1961, ever claimed responsibility for his murder.
The killing threw into sharp relief the dilemmas of Algeria’s Jewish community in 1961. Numbering 130,000, as opposed to nine million Arab-Berber Algerians and just under one million European settlers, this minority was faced with three choices: accept independence, which seemed inevitable as the French government and the FLN had entered into negotiations; fight a last-ditch stand to defend colonial Algeria; or leave. With names like Derrida, Nouischi and Stora, Jews had lived in North Africa for over 2,000 years. Some had arrived with the Phoenicians between 1100 and 146BCE. Others had sought refuge after their expulsion, along with the Muslim population following the fall of Granada, the last bastion of Islamic Spain, in the Reconquista completed in 1492. As such the Jewish population had a complex mosaic of Judeo-Berber, Judeo-Arab, Portuguese and Spanish roots, in which each locality had its own customs. Under Islamic law Jews were accorded a protected status as the ‘people of the book’. In return they could practice Judaism through payment of a tax.
There were Jews in Algeria from the pre-Roman period to the early 1960’s. Algeria was settled by the Berber tribes of central Maghreb. Some converted to Judaism over several centuries. The Jews spoke the Berber language, especially in the eastern part of Algeria in Kabyle lands, and prayed in Berber. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they spoke Berber, Arabic, Spanish, Ladino, Italian, and Hebrew with some communities speaking Judeo-Arabic as their daily language. In Oran they preserved the Spanish dialect of Ladino until the 19th century.
Most communities were subject to dhimmi imposed by the Turks in the sixteenth century on all non-Muslim groups living under Muslim rule. For example non-Muslims could not mount horses, carry arms, or be in a physically superior posture.
The French restructured the state after its conquest in 1830 .
In 1870 the Jews were granted French citizenship.
When Algeria attained independence in 1962, Algerian citizenship was only given to residents whose father or paternal grandfather were Muslims. With no legal protection most of Algeria's 130/140,000 Jews left for France.