Algeria Travel Offers Insights into Jewish Heritage
Jews are reported to have been in Algeria since the Roman times. In 14th century many Jews came to Algeria to avoid persecution in Spain. Among them were a number of outstanding scholars, including Rav Yitzchak ben Sheshet Perfet (the Ribash) and Rav Shimon ben Zemah Duran (the Rashbatz). Jewish Merchants did very well financially during the Ottoman regime. In those days they were free to practice their religion and many synagogues were set up in Algeria.
In 1830, during the French occupation of Algeria, the Jews had their own laws and courts. These were later abolished and the French rabbis headed the different regions in Algiers. Algerian Jews were granted French citizenship in1870. This decision was due to pressure from prominent members of the French Jewish community. They considered the North African Jews to be "backward" and wanted to modernize them. The Algerian Jews gradually adopted French culture, including the language.
The situation in Algeria changed for the Jews when the Second World War started. From 1940, under Vichy rule, Algerian Jews were victimized socially and economically. The Algerian Muslims, instigated by the Nazi persecution of Jews, killed around 25 Jews in Algeria. The Jews joined the underground resistance movement and perhaps that saved many lives. In 1948 there were 140,000 Jews in Algeria. Since then many migrated to Israel.
After Algeria gained independence in1962, the new government granted citizenship only to those whose paternal lineage was Muslim. Many of the Algerian Jews took advantage of the French citizenship and left Algiers for France. The Jewish population of Algeria dwindled to 10,000 people. Jews practiced their religion freely and though the rest of the synagogues were converted into mosques, there was one left. The Jewish community leaders were included in ceremonial state functions.
Unfortunately the persecution of the Jews did not stop. The declaration in 1994 by the Armed Islamic group to eliminate all Jews led to further emigration of the Jews to Israel. Today there are only about a hundred Jews left in Algiers. There is no resident rabbi and the synagogue has been abandoned.