Behind the Headlines the Jews of Algeria

French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing’s visit to Algiers last week, where he spent several days discussing French-Algerian relations and the Middle East with President Houari Boumediene and other government leaders has spotlighted a small Jewish community less than an hour’s flight from metropolitan France, that of Algeria where 140,000 Jews lived some 10 years ago. Today, that once prosperous and rich community has dwindled to a couple of thousand old, sick and forgotten individuals. Even their exact number is not known.

The president of the Federation of Algerian Jewish Communities, Roger Said, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that some 3000 Jews continue to live in Algeria. According to him, there are 2000 Jews in Algiers, several hundred in Oran and small communities in Sidi Bel Abes. Mostaganem, Tlemcen, Bougie and Colon Bechar. The French Consistory believes that there are only some 1500 Jews left in the country and the Joint Distribution Committee puts their number at some 1000.

In spite of their proximity to France, with which they have old and traditional ties, little is known about the community’s activities. The French Consistory says that several synagogues operate in Algiers but a French university lecturer, Henri Chemouilli, who last week returned from a two-week study mission, told the JTA that only one synagogue is still open. Chemouilli said that last Saturday the entire congregation consisted of 11 men, including the local rabbi, and two women.

MOST SYNAGOGUES EXPROPRIATED

Most of the former synagogues have been taken over by the local authorities and have been converted into mosques or into libraries. Said stated that in most cases the expropriation was carried out with the agreement of the local community which could not oppose such a step because of an obvious lack of worshippers.

The French Embassy in Algiers and the various French consulates generally represent the local Jewish interests and intervene in cases of the expropriation of communal property, a Consistory spokesman here said. He quoted as an example the French Consulate’s intervention during the expropriation of the Jewish cemetery in Oran.

A number of Algeria’s Jews are French citizens and as such could leave for France. Others have opted, however, for Algerian nationality at the time of the country’s independence. Others still are either stateless or Moroccan citizens. Practically all the local Jews are being financially helped by either the JDC or the French consulates. The Algerian authorities pay the equivalent of 100 Francs (about $25) per month to those over 65 years old.

‘WE ARE A DYING COMMUNITY’

Said, an Algiers lawyer, told the JTA that the community’s relations with the authorities and the local population are “excellent.” Chemouilli said that he was “struck by the generally friendly attitude of the man in the street.”

The community president is considered by the authorities as the official Jewish representative and is normally invited to all official receptions. The local authorities, Said said, also attend the rare Jewish functions. The community’s problems are mainly due to its size and to the age of its members. “Whether we like it or not,” an Algerian Jew said, “we are a dying community. Soon, there will be no Jews left in Algeria.”

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