By: W. Marçais
A seaport of northern Africa; capital of the French colonial province of Algeria. The origin of its Jewish community, like that of all Algerian communities, is shrouded in obscurity. Doubtlessa Jewish population existed at Algiers when the massacres of 1391 drove a number of refugees from Spain and the Balearic Isles to Africa: but probably it was not large; and the general opinion is that the real foundation of the Jewish community at Algiers should be attributed to the Spanish rabbis that settled there in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The names of two of these of some distinction have been handed down; viz., Isaac ben Sheshet and Simon ben Ẓemaḥ Duran. The Duran family—originally from Provence, but settled for a long time in Majorca—occupied, almost without interruption, up to the eighteenth century, the foremost rank in Algiers, and provided the community with numerous rabbis of scholarly attainments and men of high character.
The Spanish persecution following upon the conquest of Granada (1492) resulted directly in an increase in the Jewish population of Algiers. The latter city—up to this time a mere provincial one, and a bone of contention between the kings of Tlemçen and Tunis—was advanced, on the advent of the Turks about this period, to the rank of capital. The new capital of the deys naturally attracted a large number of Spanish immigrants; and the conquerors—avaricious corsairs—seeing a source of profit in the Jews, regarded an increase in the number of the latter by no means unfavorably. In 1518 Khair al-Din permitted Jews to settle in Algiers, assigned them a quarter of the city, subjected them to a tax, and restricted them from opening more than a limited number of shops.Turkish Domination.
At the end of the sixteenth century there were in the Israelite population of the city three classes: Jews originally from Spain, those from the Balearic Isles, and native Jews. They were grouped in about one hundred and fifty families; they engaged in trades and manufactures; and at their head was a caciz. Though they suffered from maltreatment at the hands of the Moslem population, it seems certain that they considered their lot less miserable under the domination of the Turks than under that of the Catholic kings; for the defeat of Charles V. before Algiers in 1541 inspired real joy in the victims of Spanish fanaticism and their descendants. Prayers and poems of thanksgiving were composed on this occasion by the rabbis Moses 'Abd-al-Asbi and Abraham Ẓarfati; and long afterward these were recited in the synagogues on the anniversary of this memorable event. Two centuries later similar feelings of delight were manifested by the Jews of Algiers, when the expedition, led with a great flourish by O'Reilly against the corsairs' city, ended in lamentable defeat (1775).
By the end of the seventeenth century the number of Jews in Algiers had increased considerably: a traveler in 1634 estimated them at 10,000. At that date the differences in origin had become less marked; and although a distinction might be made between the "Cheklien" (Jewish immigrants from Spain) and the "Kapossiem" (old native Jews), they all had the same customs, led the same life, and spoke the same language—Arabic blended with Spanish and Hebrew. Their position was always rather precarious. Events but little serious in themselves were often attended by after-consequences which included the pillage of the Jewish shops, and sometimes even the massacre of the proprietors.The Leghorn Jews.
Entirely different was the condition of a new Jewish element, that of the Leghorn, or Frankish, Jews, commonly designated "Gorneyim," who, from the beginning of the eighteenth century, added their numbers to the Hebrew population of Algiers. The first of these to attain celebrity was Sulaiman Jakete, farmer of the taxes on wax under the deys Ali Sha'ush and Mohammed ibn Ḥasan, of whom he was the trusted adviser. In the course of the century the Gorneyim acquired an ever-increasing importance in the economic and political life of the regency. Tolerably Occidentalized, they fell generally, by the régime of the capitulations, under the authority of the European consuls, and were the usual intermediaries between the consuls and the Turkish authorities. On the other hand, their activity, their knowledge of affairs, and their great wealth assured them wide influence over the deys, of whom they were often the bankers, agents, and even the political advisers. At the close of the eighteenth century two Gorneyim especially, Joseph Bakri and Naphtali Busnash, had attained a predominant position. The dey Ḥasan granted them a monopoly of the grain trade; during the dearth of 1795 they supplied France with a considerable quantity of wheat on credit; and on their advice the dey authorized a loan to the French "Directory" of five million francs, the credit for which was eventually transferred to them. Thirty years later the settlement of this loan was attended with the most serious consequences. Ḥasan's successor, Mustapha, owed his elevation to the influence of Busnash, who was his banker, and in whose hands he was but a tool. In Mustapha's reign the secret hate cherished by the janizaries and the Moors against the all-powerful Gorneyim manifested itself in a terrible riot. Busnash was killed at the gate of the dey's palace by a janizary, who, firing a pistol at him, cried out ironically, "Hail, king of Algiers!" The populace attacked the Jewish shops; a massacre ensued, which the dey, out of fear, countenanced; while the French consul sheltered in his house two hundred Jews in danger of their lives.
In succeeding years the Gorneyim regained a part of their influence. Dey Ḥasan (1818-30) enforced the claim of the heirs of Bakri and Busnash in regard to the loan of 1795; and the difficulty arising on this occasion was the original cause of the definite rupture between the regency and France, of the expedition of 1830, and of the French conquest of Algeria. Despite the high position acquired by the Gorneyim under the regency in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the less important Jews of Algiers were very harshly treated by the Turkish authorities. They were subjected to continual vexations; and at the time of the march on Algiers the French generals found, without shelter outside the walls, more than three hundred Jewish families, whom the dey had mercilessly driven from the city in anticipation of a siege.Handicrafts.
Out of a total population of about 97,000, the Jewish residents of Algiers numbered in 1900 nearly 10,000, of whom 1,200 are of foreign birth. Large numbers of Jews are engaged in commerce and petty traffic; but since the charge has recently been made that they have unfairly monopolized all the trade in Algiers, it may be well to present some figures showing the proportion among them that follow handicrafts. There are 250 shoemakers; 155 tinners and blacksmiths; 200 tailors; 40 joiners and cabinet-makers; 70 house-painters; and 100 watchmakers and jewelers. Before the anti-Semitic troubles of 1897-99 the Algiers Bureau of Charity assisted about 600 families; and 1,200 have been aided since.
At the head of the community are a consistory and a grand rabbi, the latter being appointed by decreeof the president of the French Republic on the recommendation of the Central Consistory of Paris. There are, in addition, a considerable number of native rabbis and of minor officials, appointed by the consistory and paid by the community, and six honorary officials called gizbarim. Algiers has nineteen synagogues, of which six are official and thirteen private. The oldest of the former was founded in 1866; of the latter, nine existed before the conquest, the remainder being of comparatively recent establishment. Among the rabbis at Algiers before the conquest, besides Barfat and Duran already referred to, may be mentioned Judah Ayyas, Moses ben Isaac Meshiḥ, Ibn Ḥayyim, Joseph Azubib, and Nehoraï Azubib. Its native rabbis included Isaac ben Samuel, David Zaïs, Ẓemaḥ Duran, Judah Amar; and among its grand rabbis sent from France were Michel Weil, Lazare Cohen, Abraham Cahen, Isaac Bloch, Moïse Weil, and Abraham Bloch.
- For general information, see the bibliography under Algeria. Special works are: Notes sur les Israélites de l'Algérie, in Rev. Ét. Juives, x. 255;
- Cahen, Erreur Chronologique à Alger, in Archives Israélites, xxvi. 132.