Source: Michel Abitbol, Le Passé d’une Discorde. Juifs et Arabes depuis le VIème siècle. Perrin, Paris, 2003;
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitch Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org.
The Government of National Defense
The Israelites native to the departments of Algeria are declared French citizens; consequently, their real status and their personal status shall be, dating from the promulgation of the present decree, regulated by French law, with all rights acquired until this day inviolable.
All contrary legislative dispositions, senatus-consults, decrees, rulings, or ordinances are abolished.
At Tours, October 24, 1870
Signed: Ad. Crémieux, L. Gambetta, Al. Glais-Bisoin, L. Fourichin
With this brief, positive-seeming decree the future course of Algerian Jewry was sealed: a community that had existed for centuries as part of the Algerian fabric was irrevocably changed; for while the Jews of Algeria were made French citizens, the Muslim natives of Algeria remained subjects, and the gap between the two communities was never again to be bridged.
The French conquest of Algeria in 1830, while opposed by the Muslims, was in large part supported by the Jews. No longer dhimmis, a protected but restricted community, the French colonizers, following in the footsteps of the Revolution and Bonaparte in Egypt, brought with them emancipation for the Jews.
Adolphe Crémieux, the motive force behind the decree, was the former head of the Consistoire Central, the representative body of French Jewry, a position he had had to resign from when his wife and daughter converted to Catholicism. For Crémieux and his republican allies the decree was an acknowledgment of the fundamental difference between the native Jews and Arabs, the former being commonly viewed “as the only ones in Africa accessible to European civilization,” as a French Jewish writer put it. And indeed the Jews of Algeria fully embraced their French citizenship and its opportunities: within a few decades, while only a small minority of Muslim attended school, 100% of Jewish children did.
But this was not the only point of view. The European community in Algeria was far from welcoming of its new fellow-citizens, detesting and opposing the decree until finally sliding into the deepest pits of anti-Semitism. By the final decade of the 19th century anti-Semitism was perhaps the dominant political force in French Algeria, with the vicious anti-Semite Max Regis mayor of Algiers, and Edouard Drumont, the most influential anti-Semite of the era, Algiers’ deputy in the French parliament. So hysterical was the anti-Semitism of the era that ads in the movement’s newspapers (and there were over 30 in the 1890’s) spoke of “anti-Jewish absinthe” and “anti-Jewish” cigarette paper.” No decree could make the Jews of Algeria French in the eyes of a large portion of the population, and the abrogation of the Crémieux decree was a goal of the French-Algerian (and French) right for decades. Thanks to the protection of the French government the Jews of Algeria remained safe, which tied them even more tightly to support of the colonialist government, and separated them even more from the Muslim natives.
As Albert Memmi, the Tunisian Jewish writer put it, in the Maghreb “the Jew participated as much as a colonizer as the colonized,” and in this regard the Crémieux decree was also to have fatal consequences. Though Arabs remained aloof from the anti-Semitic campaigns of the 1890’s, as the nationalist movement grew there was no Jewish participation: they were, after all French. In this respect there was no difference between Algeria and the rest of the Arab world, since with a few rare exceptions, and unlike the Christians of the Arab world, no Jews participated in the Arab awakening. When Jews participated in opposition movements in the Near East it was as Communists, Socialists, or Zionists, and never as nationalists. Due to their privileged status and their distance from the surrounding struggles the Jews became figures of particular hatred to the Arabs, leading ultimately to bloody riots in Constantine in 1934.
The French defeat in World War II finally led to the decree’s abrogation in 1940, which was only reversed in 1943, though not without hesitation. Giraud, the French High Commissioner, was reluctant to put the act back in vigor, since in his eyes, it “established...a difference between Muslim and Israelite natives.” Denying Algerian Jews their citizenship was a way of “eliminating all racial discrimination.”
But by so deeply implicating the Jews of Algeria in the colonialist enterprise, the Crémieux decree in the long run was to be a major factor in the disappearance of an ancient community when Algeria obtained its independence in 1962, as most Jews were fervent partisans of Algérie Française. Virtually the entire community had departed for France within months of independence.
It is not the least of the ironies of the tale that Daniel Timsit, one of the few Jews to join the FLN (most Jews who fought for independence did so within the Algerian Communist Party), and who remained behind in independent Algeria, was initially denied Algerian citizenship because of his ethnicity. As the Algerian revolution degenerated he, along with the many leftists – Jews and non-Jews – who had gone there to build a socialist Algeria, fled for France.