Highest Jewish population: c. 140,000 in 1940s
The earliest recorded Jewish presence in Algeria dates back to the 1st century CE. This small community was significantly bolstered by Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition during the 14th century. The majority of these Sephardi communities settled in Oran, Béjaïa, and Algiers. Jews in Algeria retained their customs and languages well into the 19th century, with Ladino, Italian, Spanish, Judeo-Arabic and Berber all spoken within different Jewish communities in the country. Under the Ottoman Empire, the Jews of Algeria were subject to dhimmi status and laws.
Algeria became a French colony in 1830. In 1845, the Jewish community in Algeria was placed under the governance of the Consistoire. This meant the Algerian Jewish community was placed under direct French-Jewish jurisdiction, and Algerian Jews were encouraged to shed their Sephardi and local customs in order to comply with the French system.
A major event in the history of Algerian Jewry was the Crémieux Decree of 1870. This law declared all Jews in Algeria (with a few local exceptions) to be French citizens. This decree, consciously separating Jews from their Muslim neighbours, was designed to legally homogenise both the ‘ruling’ and ‘ruled’ groups in French colonial society. In reality, Jews were not afforded the same opportunities as other French citizens in Algeria, and the Decree laid the groundwork for intercommunal tensions, stoking antisemitism amongst the Muslim Arab population.
Antisemitism was rife amongst the French elite in Algeria, just as it was in France. In 1897 a riot in Oran was left unchecked by French authorities and in 1898, following the Dreyfus Affair, over 150 Jewish businesses were looted in Algiers. With the rise of far-right ideology throughout the 1930s, antisemitism in Algeria increased amongst both the Muslim and French populations. A series of riots and pogroms broke out. On one particularly violent occasion in 1934, a mob in Constantine killed twenty-five Jews, and looted and burned Jewish properties.
In 1940 the French Vichy government introduced a series of antisemitic, Nazi-inspired laws. In October 1940 Algerian Jews became subject to the same policies as French Jews. French citizenship was revoked from all Jews. Jews were then barred from public education and service, as well as from medicine, the law, journalism, banking, and many other professions including finance, antique-dealing, insurance, and real-estate. The Algerian authorities even went one step further than the Vichy-mandated laws, barring Jews from the hospitality industry. Finally, all Jewish businesses were assigned ‘trustees’, whose sole job it was to confiscate property and liquidate Jewish businesses. These laws were rigorously applied and had a great impact on the mostly assimilated Algerian Jewish community, many of whom attended Algerian or religious schools. Over 2,000 Algerian Jews were transported to North African concentration camps. In 1942 the Allies invaded Algeria and the Vichy laws were repealed. In 1943 the Crémieux Decree was reinstated and Jews were once again considered French citizens.
In 1954 the Algerian War of Independence began. Algerian nationalists, the Front de Libération Nationale (known as the FLN), waged a guerilla war against French forces in the country. A French militia, whose aim was to maintain French control over Algeria, the Organisation Armée Secrète (known as the OAS), also joined the fighting. Bombs in restaurants, cafes and community centres were common. Throughout the war, a number of significant antisemitic events occurred. In 1956 a coordinated series of seventy antisemitic attacks took place. In 1960 the Algiers Great Synagogue was looted. In 1961 the Jewish cemetery of Oran was vandalised, and throughout the war several Jewish people were murdered in antisemitic attacks.
Algeria gained independence in 1962 and the new Government decreed that citizenship would only be granted to those residents with paternal Muslim heritage. This meant that Algerian Jews were no longer citizens or protected by the law. Along with the Pieds-Noirs (the colonial French community of Algeria), almost all of the 140,000 strong Jewish population of Algeria fled the country. The majority of the community went to France, although it is estimated around 10,000 chose to go to Israel instead. It is thought that no more than 1,000 Jews opted to remain in Algeria. In 1965 all synagogues were seized and converted to mosques. In 1991 the Algerian Civil War broke out. By this time, it is thought that no more than fifty Jews remained in the country. In 2005 the Algerian government passed a law guaranteeing freedom of religion, opening the way for Jewish tourists to visit historical and religious sites.