The Jews of Algeria during World War II
During the 1930s there were indications of a cause for concern for Algerian Jews. In both France and Algeria, right-wing French political parties and organizations initiated a renewed anti-Semitic assault on French Jews and their standing in French society. Algerian Jews had been French citizens since 1870, but the French settlers had never come to terms with this collective citizenship. The French press and public opinion in the major cities were overtly anti-Semitic and reminiscent of the brutal anti-Semitic struggles that had taken place during the final third of the 19th century. Throughout Algeria the International League Against Anti-Semitism established new branches in which Jews were very active. At the same time, Algerian Jewry maintained its engagement with the French social and cultural systems in Algeria, as reflected by Jews’ relocation of their places of residence, economic integration, contributions to local literature, and the like. Algerian Jews were aware of Hitler’s rise to power and the persecution of German Jews. In addition, the French-language Jewish press, which flourished during this time, reported on the boycott of German products.
At the outbreak of World War II, Algerian Jews, being French citizens, were drafted as part of the general draft. Algerian Jews had served in the French military since the 1870 Décret Crémieux (“Crémieux Decree”). Jews served at all the fronts, and more than 1,000 Jews were killed in battle. The war was too brief, however. The defeat of France in June 1940 and establishment of the Vichy regime led to edicts that had a devastating effect on Algerian Jews in comparison to the effects on Moroccan and Tunisian Jews. The first edict rescinded the DécretCrémieux, thereby returning the Jews to the legal status they had held prior to the French occupation of Algeria in 1830. Following this, edicts were issued regarding the status of Jews, with the principal aim of excluding Jews from all contact with French society.
For example, colonial administration personnel, physicians, bankers, pharmacists, journalists, teachers, hospital nurses, and others were forced to abandon employment positions through which they had contributed significantly to the flourishing of French culture. Another edict limited the number of Jews in the French educational system through the method known as “Numerus Clausus.” In accordance with French law, Jews had been obligated to participate in the French educational system, which reinforced their integration into French society. The number of Jews was now limited to 7% of all students in the French educational system. Exclusion of the Jews from the educational system and of teachers from the instructional circles was hard on Jews because they did not have an alternative educational network. The Jewish community then took the initiative and established an alternative educational system for Jewish youth, where the Jewish teachers who had been expelled from the French educational system served as instructors. Yet another edict dealt with the Jewish census and registration of Jewish property, with the intention of nationalizing it. The process of nationalization was in its initial stages. In addition, Jews were arrested and sent to labor camps that the Vichy regime had established in the south of the country and along the border with Morocco. These Jews were sent to the camps because of political activism or behavior that met with French disapproval, but there was no overall program against all Algerian Jews.
As part of Operation Torch, American troops landed in the ports of Oran and Algiers. They encountered some resistance in Oran but not in Algiers, where a Jewish underground operated. The initial organizers of what would later be termed the “Jewish underground” were Jewish soldiers who had been expelled from the German army. Gradually, French military officers from the Free French Forces also joined the underground, and the American ambassador in Algeria coordinated the timing of the American arrival to coincide with the underground’s preparations and assistance in occupying the city. Indeed, the Jewish underground controlled the city of Algiers for an entire 24-hour period because of a misunderstanding with the American troops.
Although Operation Torch did bring about the end of the Vichy regime, the return of Jews to their workplaces and the reinstatement of their citizenship took several additional months. It was necessary to enlist the efforts of United States Jewry in order to restore the condition of the Jews to what it had been prior to World War II.