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Eureka: Dispelling rumors on Judaism in Algeria
by Joseph Gatt
2018-09-14 07:40:18
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A few rumors and urban legends about the Jews in Algeria.

Rumor number 1: There are a lot of Jews in the city of Blida

Blida, fifty kilometers south of Algiers, is a hub city between the Mitija plains and the capital city Algiers. It is the city where most of the agricultural produce from the Mitija transits before being sold to Algiers, and where a lot of the industrial products made in Algiers transit before moving to the Mitija. This means Blida is the city where there are a lot of wholesales shops and hangars where products transit, and indeed a happy few make a lot of money from these transactions.

alg01But Blida never was anything of a Jewish city. Some claim the city was founded by Jews. False. It was founded by French colonial authorities specifically as a transit hub for agricultural and industrial products. There were Jews in the city, some were in the product transit business, but Jews were never the majority. There were a handful of Jewish wholesales store owners, a handful of lawyers, but, just as a reminder, a majority of Jews in Algerian colonial times were small craftsmen and factory workers. More on that below. Today, there are no Jews left in Blida. What led to some confusion is that Roger Said, who until his passing in 2009 was the “leader” of the non-existent Algerian Jewish community, and one of Algeria's last remaining Jews was a lawyer established in Blida. For many Algerians, one person often grows to become a lot of people. For the story he left Blida in 1993 and settled in France, only to come back briefly in 2005. He died in France. And there were no other Jews residing in Blida.

Rumor number 2: There are a lot of Jews in the city of Constantine

True, one third of the population of Constantine was Jewish in 1962. A handful perhaps four or five, were left in the 1980s. None are left today.

But, the very friendly people of Constantine love their city, and like to claim that it is a city of intellectuals. The revered Islamic scholar Ibn Badis was from Constantine, and there are indeed a few intellectuals and media personalities, both Jewish and Arab, who were born and raised in Constatine. So people in Constantine like to claim that the city is still bubbling with intellect, and that there are still thousands of Jewish and Arab intellectuals roaming the city. An urban legend, as they say.

Rumor number 3: Former minister of the economy (1989-1990) Ghazi Hidouci was Jewish and worked with Jewish economists

Ghazi Hidouci is not Jewish. The story behind this rumor is that when he was appointed minister of the economy in 1989, he complained to the press that other ministers were behaving like the “nouveau riche” and that ministers and their families were more of a party club than people who worked on sensitive national issues. We all know they had their drivers, wild parties and other luxuries. Ghazi Hidouci openly talked about that, and the media decided to shut him up by starting rumors that he was Jewish. That way he would not only stop appearing in the media, but he would also risk his life. Still today, whenever Hidouci can, he gives interviews, he likes to discuss the jet setting lifestyle of the Algerian elite.

Rumor number 4: Education minister (2014 to present) Nouria Benghebrit is Jewish.

Benghebrit is not Jewish. The rumor started because she has a Ph.D. and back in 2014 had only given interviews in French and had refused to take questions in Arabic. Turns out she's from a background of Muslim Algerians who lived in France (her grandfather was the rector of the Paris Mosque) and that she spoke French at home and was educated in French. She did learn Arabic and now gives interviews in Arabic, and has said that she is a Muslim. But like many who were raised in French environments, she is still not very comfortable discussing religion in public or in private. For the story her grandfather was rector of the Paris mosque when the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940, and her grandfather gave Sephardic Jews certificates that they were Muslim because many had Arabic sounding last names (and in some cases first names). Many Algerian netizens claimed that her grandfather betrayed the nation and the religion by doing such a thing.

Rumor number 5: There are lots of Jews in Oran, and Jews openly go out and about and are open about being Jewish.

There are no Jews in Oran, maybe a couple of foreign nationals doing business there and that's it. Oran is a city that has the reputation of a party city, a city where there are lots of pubs and bars and nightclubs and where people like to sing and dance. A city that has the reputation of being open to pre-marital sex, something not really allowed in the rest of the country. But Oran's Jews left, and just because it's a party city that is open and flexible when it comes to religion doesn't mean there are a lot of Jews there.

Rumor number 6: “My city has families of Jewish merchants.”

I hear this one a lot. Just like the Koreans used to claim that their products were Japanese in the 1970s, some Muslim families, mainly families of merchants, deliberately spread rumors that they are Jewish to prevent people from sending girls to marry with their boys or try to mix with their family.

Rumor number 7: Algerian Jews were very rich

A handful of Jews were rich. But Algerian Jews were mostly working class people. Many worked in the textile industry (where some of the struck it rich) but many were welders or drove taxis or buses or trains, worked in the railways, owned small shops, cafés or pubs, some were teachers, and many, many were unemployed.

Rumor number 8: my neighbor is Jewish, he just won't tell me. Jews keep their religion a secret.

Does your neighbor have a Mezuzah on his door that he kisses every time he enters his house? Do you hear loud singing every now and then? Do you hear kids playing games loudly? Did he ever ask you to switch on a light or to switch it off on a Friday night or a Saturday? Your neighbor is probably just one of those quiet Muslims, one of those Muslims who won't talk to their neighbors. Or maybe it's just your imagination.

Rumor number 9, final rumor: Algeria used to have a Jewish queen called Kahina

I've addressed this one before. The Kahina story used to be a bed-time story told by Algerian, Muslim and Jewish grandmothers. In the 1970s and 1980s historians tried to look at the bed-time story and make it historical fact, but the evidence for the existence of a queen Kahina is very, very slim. Some have tried hard to prove Kahina's existence, but without any document or archeological evidence.

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