"Do you want to see the Israelite graves?" the security guard asked me.
It was pouring down, a cold storm of rain off the sea, and above the Algerian French cemetery of St Eugène, I read again those familiar words: "Me today, you tomorrow." Almost two decades since I last entered these gates, I felt sure the remains of the Jews of Algeria would not have survived. During the 1990s war, this had become a no-go area for the Algerian authorities, let alone the French embassy's hired guards. The great French cemeteries of Tlemcen and other cities were razed by the Islamists, the tombs of the old Algerian Jews and the French Jews and the pieds noirs and the colonisers of 130 years levelled into the earth.
The GIA gunmen had made bombs beneath the eucalyptus trees of St Eugène, they said, amid the tombs. A few cops had blasted open the vaults of 19th-century French merchants to look for explosives. They found only bones. The cemetery was still there. "You have to climb through this wall," the security man said. And there it was, the tiny synagogue dedicated by "the Israelite community of Algiers to their children who died on the field of honour".
And there were the memorials, still surviving, in Hebrew and French, of Jews from Algeria who gave their lives for France in the Great War. "David Jules Soussan of the 3rd mixed Regiment of Zouaves, died at Etingen, 1918", and "Amar Maurice Moïse, Soldier of the 2nd Engineering Regiment, died at Nieuport, 16 August 1915 Croix de Guerre". Presumably facing Hitler's last assault in the next war, William Levy "died for France, June 16, 1940, at Arpajon (Seine-et-Oise) at the age of 30", killed before he knew how murderously his country would treat his people.
There had been anti-Semitism enough in the 1890s – not from the Muslims of Algeria but from the "civilised" French colonisers who in 1870 were outraged when the French Jewish justice minister Isaac Crémieux gave full French citizenship to Algeria's 40,000 Jews. Muslims were not awarded this privilege, but it was the French right, not the majority Muslim population, who expressed their scorn for the Jews. In a remarkable book, the Algerian journalist Aïssa Chenouf has published the fruits of his extraordinary research into his country's former Jewish population, and unearthed some terrible stories of France's viciousness towards it.
In March 1897, for example, the French colonial daily Le Petit Africain urged voters to cast their ballots against anyone who supported the Jewish community in Algeria. The paper carried a "liste anti-juive" of safe French candidates, including right-wing doctors, businessmen and retired army officers, under the headline: "All Frenchmen against the Common Enemy. The Jew: This is the Enemy." Pro-Jewish voters were referred to as "sheep" acting under orders.
Incredibly, within 17 years, the Jews of Algeria were sending their sons to fight for France. Aïssa quotes a letter from the rabbi of Constantine to his son, who was about to leave for the Salonika front. "I advise you to be a good soldier, brave, obedient to your officers and warm to your friends," he wrote. "You are no more a child, you are a man and so you have the honour of going to war to defend our beloved country, France. The honour of all your family is now in your hands. You must come home to us, after victory, decorated with the military medal and the Croix de Guerre." Like poor Amar Moïse, I suppose.
At least 2,000 Algerian Jews died in the Great War. They were ill rewarded. Under the 1940 Vichy government, the Crémieux decree was abrogated, returning Algerian Jews to their status of "indigènes". General Maurice Weygand signed this order. Old Algerian French soldiers, calling themselves the "French Veterans' Legion", 150,000 strong, defined their enemies as "democracy, Gaullist traitors and Jewish lepers". When Algerians were permitted to steal Jewish property, the Muslims – almost to a man – refused. Ferhat Abbas, one of the greatest Algerian Muslim patriots, regarded the anti-Jewish laws as "hateful".
In his own new history of Jews in Muslim lands, Martin Gilbert pays tribute to the Algerian Muslims who risked their lives for Jews during the Vichy period, although his book contains a number of flaws. But Jewish history in Arab lands contains many ironies. There was indeed anti-Semitic violence in Algerian history, especially in the 12th century. The final tragedy was Algeria's war of independence. The Jews tried to avoid participation, although their French schooling and history made many of them allies of the pieds noirs colonisers, even sympathetic to the anti-Gaullist OAS armed opposition. By the end of June 1962, 142,000 Jews had left Algeria, leaving only 25,000 – 6,000 of them in Algiers. Gilbert writes that 125,000 went to France, only 25,681 to Israel (where their future lives – this, a largely unknown history – proved a stunning success story). On independence in 1962, the ruling National Liberation Front asked their Jewish citizens to remain. Gilbert says that a nationality law later cast doubt on this request. "An ancient Jewish community was at an end," Gilbert wrote.
Not quite. Jews still live in Algiers. I met one of them a few weeks ago. And they still visit the cemetery of Saint Eugène. When I was climbing through that wall in the rain, I almost fell over the graves of the Baichi family. In accordance with Jewish tradition, there were stones, newly laid, on the tomb of an old lady. "Yes, a member of the Baichis came here four days ago," the security man said. "He came to pray at his mother's grave." Then he brushed his hands against each other in a gesture of finality that I understood but did not like. "It is over," he said. "But they are still here."