Australia/Israel Review

Scribblings: Jewish “Jim Crow” in Algeria

Oct 30, 2012 | Tzvi Fleischer

Tzvi Fleischer

Jewish “Jim Crow” in Algeria

Regular readers of this column will know that I have frequently collected evidence here as to the historical state of Jewish communities in Arab lands in the years prior to Israel’s establishment. I do this because one very frequently hears claims about the historical situations of these communities which amount to, if not exactly myth, at least to gross over-simplification.

The claim one hears is that in the absence of both Zionism and the import of European-style antisemitism – that is, before the late 19th century – the Jews of the Middle East were relatively free from persecution or race hatred, and thus, overall, in a pretty acceptable situation. The kernel of truth to this claim is the reality that in the Middle Ages, the Jews of the Middle East probably were better off than those in Europe. We know this because Jews voted with their feet – they were much more likely to flee persecution in Europe to Middle Eastern lands than the reverse. And of course, there were times and places when Jewish communities flourished under the various Muslim empires of the region – the best known example being the so-called “Golden Age” of Jewish culture in Muslim Spain comprising roughly the years 912 through 1060 CE.

However, despite these positive examples, there is much evidence that, at best, Jewish communities walked a tightrope in the Middle East. They were always legally unequal and subject to laws designed to highlight their inferior status – and frequently subject to outright ill-treatment and persecution by the Muslim majority, legally sanctioned or tolerated by the government.
Here’s another independent, contemporary testimony which demonstrates this reality, this time in Algeria.

Le Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme (“The Museum of Art and History of Judaism) in Paris currently features an exhibition about the Jews of Algeria. According to the Israeli daily Haaretz (Oct. 12), the exhibit offers the testimony of an Italian visitor to the city of Algiers in 1811 – long before either Western antisemitism or Zionism had any impact on the Arab world. The visitor noted:

There is no species of outrage or vexation to which [the Jews] are not exposed … They cannot ride on horseback, but are obliged to go on mules and asses; the first being too noble an animal for them… Their clothing is obliged to be black; which colour is held in contempt by the Moors… The Moor […] calls any Jew who is passing, and makes him perform the offices of a servant. Others amuse themselves by smearing the hands, visage, hair, and clothes of the Jewish boys, with paint or mud.

In other words, not only were the Jews of Algeria legally unequal, they were treated much like American blacks in the Jim Crow-era south – forced to perform tasks upon request from a member of the majority, and subject to public humiliation by members of the majority as an amusement. Moreover, we know that this treatment often escalated into deadly violence – a pogrom in Algiers by the Janissaries in 1805 led to the murder of between 200 and 500 Jews.

It is not a situation anyone today should regard as acceptable – even if there are examples of worse mistreatment of minorities.

Israel’s Closing Social Gaps

Ron Gerlitz and Batya Kallus are part of Israel’s large NGO sector, heading different groups devoted to redressing inequality between Jewish and Arab Israelis – Sikkuy, an Arab-Jewish organisation and the Moriah Fund, respectively.

Like most in the NGO sector, they have an incentive to emphasise Israel’s shortcomings – this both assists their case for change, and is the key to keeping donations coming for their programs and efforts. Yet Gerlitz and Kallus have written to Israeli Arab newspapers to highlight that, empirically, major progress in achieving greater equality is occurring in Israeli society. They do this while making it very clear that they remain highly critical of rhetoric of the current government and some of the proposals that have been floated, as well as of the inequalities that continue to exist.

Gerlitz and Kallus note that Israeli Arab employment in government service has increased more than 50% since 2003, and in the official civil service by 78%. They also note that this outcome is the “result of focused policies to advance fair representation of Arabs in government service.”

They go on to state the “the Ministry of Welfare is systematically closing the gaps in the allocations of welfare budgets between Jewish and Arab communities, and is operating a variety of programs giving clear budgetary priority to funding of Arab municipalities.”

They also highlight progress for Israeli Arab communities in public transport, allocating state land, the opening of “22 employment guidance centers” and new efforts, supported by overseas philanthropy, to reduce drop out rates among Arab university students. They do not mention that the Israeli Government also instituted a NIS300 million (A$75 million) program last year with similar goals. According to the Jerusalem Post (Oct. 23), under the program “Institutions of higher learning will receive funding to set up workshops to improve Arab students’ Hebrew and provide other forms of academic support. Universities and colleges will also be required to come up with plans for recruiting more Arab students.”

While it would be wrong to ignore the social gaps and flaws that exist in Israeli society – as in any society, including Australia – it is equally wrong to ignore the real progress Israel is making in addressing them, as Gerlitz and Kallus note.



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