Acknowledged expert in the history of the Jews of Algeria, Didier Nébot is also the founder and honorary president of an association, MORIAL (Memory and Traditions of the Jews of Algeria), today chaired by Serge Dahan.
Interview by Johana M.
Crif : Can you first shed some light on the historical context and the life of the Jews in Algeria before this decree, bearing in mind that the Jews had the peculiar status of Dhimmi.
Didier Nébot : Before the arrival of the French in 1830, the life of the Jews was particularly difficult in Algeria. They were Dhimmi, subject to strict rules governing their lives. These rules were known as Omar's Charter and not obeying some of them was punishable by death:
Prohibition to taunt the Koran, to have sexual relations with a Muslim woman, to turn a Muslim away from his faith, to carry weapons.
Obligation to wear a distinctive garment, obligation to build places of worship or dwellings that do not exceed in height those of Muslim neighbors.
Prohibition to bury the dead with audible laments and prayers, prohibition to own or ride noble mounts such as horses.
For centuries there were none but complaints and suffering, as evidenced in Sketches of Algiers written by William Shaler, a neutral man, who was none other than the Consul General of the United States of America in Algiers in 1830, just before the French conquest:
« […] the Jews are in Algiers a most oppressed people; they are not permitted to resist any personal violence of whatever nature, from a Mussulman; […] they cannot wear arms of any sort, not even a cane; they are permitted only on Saturdays and Wednesdays to pass out of the gates of the city without permission; and on any unexpected call for hard labour, the Jews are turned out to execute it.
In the summer of 1815, this country was visited by incredible swarms of locusts, which destroyed every green thing before them; when several hundred Jews were ordered out to protect the Bashaw's gardens, where they were obliged to watch and toil day and night, as long as these insects continued to in fest the country.
On several occasions of sedition amongst the Janissaries, the Jews have been indiscriminately plundered, and they live in the perpetual fear of a renewal of such scenes.
They are pelted in the streets even by children, and in short, the whole course of their existence here is a state of the most abject oppression and contumely. […] It appears to me that the Jews at this day in Algiers, constitute one of the least fortunate remnants of Israel existing. »
One can understand that the arrival of France was liberation for the Jews!
Crif : This decree also established an unprecedented discrimination between Jews, elevated to the rank of French citizens, and Muslims. What were the consequences of this decree on relations between the two communities ?
Didier Nébot : Muslims never accepted to see that the former Dhimmi of the Ottoman Empire had obtained, in the space of a few decades, more rights than they did.
The resentment was so deep that there was even a great revolt in 1871 in Kabylia, against the French and against the Jews. 31 settlers were massacred, only a few months after the promulgation of the Crémieux Decree and the incorporation of Algeria into France as three departments (Algiers, Oran, and Constantine).
At the time of this massacre, the leader of the insurgents proclaimed this famous sentence: « I am willing to put myself under a sword, should he cut off my head, but beneath a Jew, never! Never! »
Crif : This year, we are commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Crémieux Decree. How did this event prove to be a major turning point for the future of Jews in Algeria?
The Jews, very quickly, became familiar with French customs and habits. They soon felt themselves to be French.
This is what I explain in my book ʽ10 Commandmentsʹ I just published : « Who could have imagined that the Jews of Algeria, those former DHIMMI of the Ottoman Empire, despised and humiliated, would have integrated so easily into Western civilization, throwing into the shadows the troubled centuries of the medieval Maghreb? They enjoyed, with a kind of delight, this exceptional sweetness of life under the blue sky of French Algeria. »
Thus, a few decades later, many Jews in French Algeria entered the First World War alongside France, showing their attachment to the country.
And almost a century later, the Jews, who had been French for more than 90 years, left Algeria, which had become independent.
To stay or to leave? This question arose for some Jews of Algeria: they had lived there for many generations! But the situation in Algeria, the attacks, so numerous, against the Jewish community, removed the last doubts of those who hesitated. They left, evicted from their home because they were French and because they were Jews.
Translated by Pierre Élie Mamou.