French and North African Jews

Sunday, March 6, 2022, 3:00 p.m.

Dr. Deborah Achtenberg

North African Jewish Musicians

You probably have heard of the famous French chanteuse, Edith Piaf.  But what about Line Monty, called “the North African Edith Piaf”?


Line Monty, Algerian-French singer (1926 Algiers – 2003 Paris)


Many of the important popular musicians in North Africa in the 30’s and 40’s were Jewish.


Jewish Artists from the Maghreb. 1875 – 1980


Chris Silver’s Gharamaphone on SoundCloud

Chris Silver’s Twitter feed


Jews in North Africa

Prior to European colonization, Jews and Muslims in North Africa often got along fairly well.  They contributed to each other’s culture and religion.  Jews were not equal but had a status called dhimmi which involved extra taxation and protection.

Colonization in North African countries set Jews and Muslims against each other.  For example, when Jews (and not Muslims) in Algeria gained French citizenship in 1870 under the Crémieux Decree, resentment resulted.  They were often seen as collaborators with the European colonialists.  They were seen as having abandoned Muslim culture and language.  They were, in fact, Frenchified, so to speak, with help from a French Jewish Enlightenment institution, the Alliance Israélite Universelle. In addition, new scholarship shows that significant violence between Jews and Muslims in Algeria stemmed from imported French fascism.  One of the most important episodes of anti-Jewish violence in Algeria, the Constantine riots of 1934, was organized by an Algerian Muslim who had been influenced by an antisemitic French nationalist group.

How did Jews get to North Africa?  Some came in the first few centuries of the Common Era.  Others came when Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492.

Why did Jews leave North Africa?  A combination of tensions surrounding nationalism–both the around newly formed decolonized nations and the new nation of Israel–caused many to leave in mid-century.  Many were expelled.  Some chose to leave because they saw their situation would be unstable.  Others wanted to move to Israel.


Jews of North African background were among the most important thinkers of the 20th century.  Often, though, they were thought of simply as French thinkers.  Jacques Derrida, for example, one of the most important postmodern thinkers, is often thought of as a French philosopher and Hélène Cixous is often referred to as one of the French feminists.  Both of them are Jews from Algeria who moved to France.

Another important Jewish North African intellectual is Albert Memmi of Tunisia.  Along with Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth and Aimé Cesaire’s Colonialism, Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized is a classic on the topic and shows the negative effects of colonialism both on the colonized and on the colonizer.  Memmi went on to write many other books including novels about the experience of a young Jew in Tunisia and many essays including some in support of Israel.

French Jews

France has the world’s third largest Jewish population but we in the U.S. tend not to think about them very much.  When we do think of them, we think of the violence they have suffered in recent years.  But France has an old, vibrant and diverse Jewish population.  Here are some Jewish institutions: Museum of the Art and History of Judaism, ConsistoireElie Wiesel Academic Institute.


France has some of the most beautiful synagogues in Europe:  Synagogue des Tournelles,  Synagogue Rue Pavée.

The Jewish population in France is 65 to 70% North African due to the Shoah and to immigration from North Africa, particularly Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.  Here’s a North African synagogue in the 19th.  Of course, not all French Jews of North African background go to orthodox North African synagogues!

Here is a liberal synagogue on Passover.  Here’s a different liberal synagogue.  Here’s a franco-american synagogue.

Liberal Judaism

Most synagogues in France are orthodox.  Liberal Judaism is growing.  Recently, a liberal seminary that can ordain rabbis was created.  Also, some of the different liberal rabbis joined forces.

Happy as a Jew in France

France was the first country in Europe to grant citizenship to Jews (1791).  Many became very successful in social and political life.  The old saying was “Happy as a Jew in France.”  Jews benefited from the French idea of the “droits de l’homme” (rights of man) and of “liberty, equality, fraternity” (which is even engraved on the exterior of some consistorial synagogues in France).

At the same time, there is a strong right-wing in France that traditionally is antisemitic (think of the Dreyfus case or of the Vichy French ).  Both tendencies are present in France.  See here for more information.

Recent Anti Jewish Violence

There has been repeated violence against Jews for the last 20 or 25 years.  Most of it has been committed by Muslims (primarily second generation Muslims living in the poor neighborhoods in the suburbs).  Most Muslims in France, of course, are not part of the violence (which is generally caused by young men radicalized by Islamists)–and most Muslims in France do not like the Islamists.  Algerians in France, for example, know the terrible damage inflicted on Algeria by Islamists in the 90s.  Here’s a neighborhood where there has been violence.  Here’s another.

The idea that there is a specifically Muslim type of antisemitism–the “new antisemitism”–needs to be complicated:  Algerian Jewish immigrants had advantages Algerian Muslim immigrants did not have and that set the groups at odds.  Some antisemitism is a carry-over from French antisemitism in North Africa (discussed above).  So, it’s not really ‘new’. Some antisemitism results from anti-Israel attitudes.  None of this is to deny the antisemitic or horrific nature of recent antisemitic acts. Antisemitism is particularly problematic for Orthodox Jews because their clothing makes them more visible.

Unfortunately, the traditional Franco-French antisemitism has been in evidence recently as well.  There have been issues for students at universities, for example.  As a result of antisemitism, many Jews do not send their children to public schools and, in addition, a sizeable number of Jews have moved, either out of France or within France (from one neighborhood to another).

Women in French Judaism

Until recently, there were three women rabbis in France.  Now there are five–all liberal–and soon there will be an orthodox woman rabbi there.  The great medieval Talmudist, Rashi, was from Troyes, France, and there is a new organization for women in Judaism called Daughters of Rashi.