Digging through the writings of various historians of 20th Century Algeria, one almost always unearths some dirt. I admire the spirit of the Algerian revolution against the French to a great degree, but I wish we were told the whole story in our educational programmes. The story I was given is that of heroic fighting, ample dedication, determination and brotherhood. Much of this true, but a large piece of the picture was not painted, and many details were swept under a neatly woven carpet of historical perfection*.
In particular, the events that happened directly at the ending of the revolution during the course of the year 1962 remain a mystery, with conflicting accounts from various historians inside and outside the country. So much happened too quickly to untangle: French Army factions breaking away, FLN internal strife, false fighters, Harkis, Pieds Noirs run anti-independence resistance movements, opportunists trying to get the best booties and the list goes on. It all ended in a blood bath where so many were killed in sometimes shameful ways, unfolding one of the dark chapters of the revolution.
Mobs would go through urban areas and extra judiciously kill anyone who was suspected of being complicit with the French side against the FLN. Sometimes false fighters would aid in these operations to get some credit and snap a couple of photos to gain Mujahid status. The benefits of the status were substantial in the newly created socialist state: a life long renumeration, free transportation, medical care, priority when importing goods (e.g a car or a fridge…). Some of these people would go on and hold high offices in the state, only for their back-story to be revealed decades later, much to the confusion and astonishment of the Algerian people. Accusations and false reports still spread to this day. It is all still a mess to be sorted.
Many suspected Algerian Muslims, Jews and Christians were targeted during the mob killings. Some Jews and Christians continued to live in the infant state even though the majority left. I do not believe that the FLN and the revolution had an inherently racist or xenophobic agenda. While digging through history books, specifically Mohamed Harbi’s “La Guerre d’Algérie”, published in 2004, I came through a letter from the FLN written to the Jewish community in 1962. The FLN tried to engage the Jewish community and appealed to them to side with the Algerian revolution. The FLN was sympathetic to the plight that the Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis and Vichy’s government. It aknowledges the help of many Jews that were in the cause of the revolution.
Harbi was a high officer within the FLN, served in the first government after the independence and later fled after Boumediène’s coup of 1965. The letter led me to find another written in 1956, two years after the start of the revolutions. Excerpts of the letters appear below.
From the translation of the first letter (1956) (all emphasis is mine):
The National Liberation Front, which has led the anti-colonialist revolution for the past two years, feels that the moment has arrived when every Algerian of Israelite origin, in light of his own experience, must without any ambiguity choose sides in this great historic battle. The FLN, authentic and exclusive representative of the Algerian people, considers it its obligation to directly address the Israelite community and to ask it to solemnly affirm its membership in the Algerian nation. This choice clearly affirmed, it will dissipate all misunderstandings and extirpate the seeds of hatred maintained by French colonialism. It will also contribute to recreating Algerian fraternity, broken by the arrival of French colonialism.[…]
Without going too far back in history, it seems useful to us to recall the time when the Jews, held in less consideration than animals, didn’t even have the right to inter their dead, the latter being secretly buried during the night wherever this could be done, due to the absolute prohibition against the Jews having any cemeteries. At precisely this period Algeria was the refuge and land of freedom for the Israelites who fled the inhuman persecutions of the Inquisition. Precisely during this period the Israelite community was proud to offer its Algerian fatherland not only poets, but consuls and ministers.
It is because the FLN considers the Algerian Israelites the sons of our Fatherland that it hopes that the leaders of the Jewish community will have the wisdom to contribute to the building of a free and truly fraternal Algeria…
And from the second letter (1962):
The Algerian problem is at a decisive stage. We want to address this appeal to you, in the face of the hysterical and racist clamor of the fascists who claim to speak in your name, declaring that you are French and that you are all participants in the criminal acts of the backwards colonialists. You know full well that this is both a gratuitous declaration and a policy of mystification that should fool know [sic] one, and even less so you, who are Algerians.[…]
…Recently, in Oran, demonstrations provoked by young hotheads in the Israelite neighborhood took place, followed by fires set in stores belonging to Muslims. These acts are the clearest illustration of how some of you attempt to thoughtlessly align yourselves with the racial policies of the ultras. Will you today make yourselves the accomplices of the backwards colonialists by rising up against your Algerian brothers of Muslim origin?…[…]
Israelite compatriots, many Israelites are active in our ranks. Some among them were interned, others are still in prison for their acts in service to the Algerian cause. Algeria’s independence is near; independent Algeria will need you and tomorrow you will need it, for it is your country. Your Muslim brothers honestly and loyally offer you their hand for solidarity coming from your direction. It is your duty to answer.
These letters are not new, I am not trying to break new ground or rewrite history. They were just found by a curious mind digging back through the history of his country. These letters do not excuse the treatment that Jews or anyone endured after the revolution, what they show is that the Jews were not targeted because of their religion, they just shared the fate that anyone that was suspected of complicity and treason with the French did.
[* For the record, I don’t believe Algerians are unique in this. Some French still believe that colonialism is great, the British believe they delivered prosperity everywhere throughout their empire, and some Americans think they ought to deliver democracy or freedom or something wherever there is oil. Nationalism is sweet like that.]