Lyn Julius is a journalist and co-founder of Harif, an association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. This article appeared in the Times of Israel on December 19, 2012.
A forest of velvet bags hangs from the ceiling as you entered the special exhibition on the Jews of Algeria at the Musee d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaisme in Paris. The bags are shaped like New York Police Department badges, each richly embroidered or embossed with a boy’s name in gold or silver thread. It was customary for the boy’s family to present him with a bag when he reached bar mitzvah age: it contained a talith (prayer shawl) or tefillin (phylacteries).
These bags are almost the only vestiges remaining of Jewish life in Algeria. The synagogues have mostly been turned into mosques – like the Great Synagogues of Algiers or Oran. The main synagogue of Constantine has been reduced to a parking lot. Algeria has hardly any Jews left, and no communal life to speak of. In July 2011, when its last client Esther Azoulay died, the Joint, the US-based agency which helps Jews in distress, would up its operations in the country.
2012 marked the 50th anniversary of the exodus of the Jews of Algeria. The exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Paris attracted wide interest into this neglected aspect of French, Jewish and Algerian history.
The issue has been neglected by France because the 130,000 Jews were subsumed into the great mass of pieds noirs – the 800, 000 French settlers who fled Algeria. It’s been neglected because the loss of Algeria, the jewel in the crown of France’s colonial empire, was a humiliation which French society was glad not to be reminded of. It’s been neglected by the Jews because they too saw themselves as Frenchmen. It’s been neglected by Israel because, unusual among the 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries, 90 percent of Algerian Jews went to France and not Israel. It’s been neglected by independent Algeria because it has chosen to erase all traces of Jewish presence, culture or history.
Meanwhile dubious parallels are drawn in academia and the media between France’s colonial war in Algeria, and Israel’s war with the Arabs. Propagandists claim that Algeria’s Jews cast their lot with France in a supposed betrayal of Algeria’s Arabs. The ‘colonised’ Arabs of Palestine will triumph just as surely as they did in Algeria, they confidently predict.
But far from being colonial, Jewish roots go back 2,700 years when Jewish traders arrived in North Africa with the Phoenicians, 1,000 years before Islam; and the first Jewish slaves and expellees from Judea settled among the Berbers soon after the destruction of the 2nd Temple. Some Berber tribes were said to have converted to Judaism. The most famous Jewish Berber of all, the warrior Queen Kahina, fought the Arab Muslim invaders in the 7th century – in vain.
The toshavim, the settled indigenous Jews who managed to survive islamisation, were joined in the 15th century by the megorashim, Jews escaping the Spanish Inquisition. Under Ottoman rule, most Jews lived in abject misery as dhimmis – inferior subjects under Islam. One 19th century traveller, Signor Pananti, wrote: “there is no species of outrage or vexation to which they are not exposed…the indolent Moor, with a pipe in his mouth and his legs crossed, calls any Jew who is passing, and makes him perform the offices of a servant…. Even fountains were happier, at least they were allowed to murmur.”
No wonder then, when Algeria became part of metropolitan France in 1830, the oppressed Jews greeted the French as saviors and liberators. Forty years later the Decret Cremieux, named after a famous Jewish politician and philanthropist, imposed French nationality on the entire Jewish community. The myth has since developed that only the Jews were offered French nationality. The Muslims were offered it too, but overwhelmingly rejected it, as it would mean compromising their personal status, which was governed by Muslim law.
In Muslim eyes, the fact that the dhimmi Jews could have greater rights than they did caused great resentment. But the Jews were also resented by the pieds noirs. How dare these natives be given the privilege of French nationality and suppose themselves equal to true Frenchmen?
The Jews found themselves between a rock and a hard place. Muslim antisemitism reached its peak with the eruption of the Constantine pogrom of 1934, in which 25 Jews were killed. French antisemitism reached its zenith with the WW2 abrogation of the Decret Cremieux. Under Vichy rule, Jews not only were stripped of their French nationality, but were sacked from public service jobs and subject to quotas and restrictions.
The Decret Cremieux was reinstated in 1943. In some Jews, the trauma of having their French citizens’ rights taken away created an absolute dread of being identified with Arabs: they were Frenchmen of the Jewish faith – francais israelites.
But as the Arabs embarked on an ever more brutal campaign of decolonisation in the 1950s, while the pieds noirs engaged in equally brutal counter-terror, the Jewish community was careful to maintain an official position of neutrality – although in retrospect, the killing of rabbis and bombings of synagogues looked deliberate enough. Some Jews supported the FLN independence fighters. A minority of anti-French Jewish communists earned the title ‘pieds rouges‘.
The Jews could sit on the fence no longer when two events forced them decisively into the French camp: the first was the burning of the Great synagogue in Algiers in December 1960. Arabs went on the rampage ripping memorial plaques from the walls, and torching books and Torah scrolls. The second was the murder in June 1961, while he was out shopping in the market, of the famous Jewish musician, Sheikh Raymond Leyris, a symbol of a shared Arab-Jewish culture and father-in-law of the singer Enrico Macias.
Like the pieds noirs, the Jews were faced with a stark choice: suitcase or coffin. They scrambled to reach seaports and airports. By the time Algeria had declared independence on 3 July 1962, all but a few thousand Jews had left for France.
The watchword was now ‘Muslim Algeria’ not ‘Algeria for the Algerians.’ No ‘foreigner,’ even those who had fought for the FLN, was awarded Algerian nationality, unless they had a Muslim father. There was no place for Jews in the new Algeria, as there is almost no place for Jews anywhere in the Arab world.
CALGARY, Alberta, Canada — The story of the modern exodus of “Beta Israel” the Jews of Ethiopia during Operations Moses and Solomon, which together airlifted some 22,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel, is well known. Less well known is the dramatic exodus of over 48,000 Jews from Yemen and about 120,000 Jews from Iraq. Almost unknown is the role played by Alaska Airlines. It is time to again recognize Alaska Airlines for their important role in saving the Jews of Yemen and Iraq.
No one knows for certain when the first Jews came to Yemen. Local legend has them being sent as traders by King Solomon. In any event, Jews have lived in Yemen for many centuries, well before the advent of Islam. In that backward and poverty-stricken country, the Jews were the poorest and lowest of citizens living in contempt and on sufferance as dhimmis. However, in their synagogues and schools, they taught their male children to learn and write Hebrew. They never forgot their faith, protected the traditions, observed the Sabbath and passed the Torah and Talmud to each succeeding generation.
Following World War I, when Yemen became independent, life in that Muslim country for the Jews became intolerable. Anti-Semitic laws were revived; Jews were not permitted to walk on pavements; in court a Jew’s evidence was not accepted against a Muslim’s; Jewish orphans had to be converted to Islam. Some Jews were able to escape to Palestine but most were trapped.
In 1947, following the United Nations vote to partition Palestine, the situation of the Jews in Yemen turned from despair to physical danger. Arab rioters in the adjacent port of Aden, then a British Crown colony and now part of Yemen, killed 82 Jews and torched the Jewish quarter. The establishment of the State of Israel on May 15, 1948 and Israel’s War of Independence increasingly endangered the Yemeni Jews as it did in all Arab countries. It was not, however, until May 1949, that they were able to flee, when the Imam of Yemen unexpectedly agreed to permit all Jews to leave his country. They longed to return to Zion if only they had the means. At that time, slightly over 49,000 Jews lived in Yemen.
As the War of Independence ended in early 1949, Israel was devastated and virtually bankrupt. Notwithstanding, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, defying logic and the advise of his economic advisors, ordered the immediate and rapid “Ingathering of the Exiles”. Where would Israel get the money? “Go to the Jews in the Diaspora and ask them for the money”, Ben-Gurion answered the skeptics.
For the Jews of Yemen, Egypt had closed the Suez Canal to them and therefore they would have to be transported by air to Israel. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the international Jewish humanitarian aid organization, agreed to fund the Yemenite exodus and organize the airlift, but they needed aircraft.
Alaska Airlines was founded in 1932, when Mac McGee purchased a used three passenger Stinson and started an air charter business in Alaska. With the arrival of James Wooten as president in 1947, the airline began to purchase surplus planes from the U.S. Government and within a year became the world’s largest charter airline.
The JDC approached Wooten and asked if Alaska Airlines would agree to accept the Yemen airlift. Wooten wanted Alaska Air to take on the mission of mercy but Ray Marshall, Chairman of the Board, was cool. Marshall felt the deal was a waste of the Airline’s time and money. It would take at least $50,000 to set up the charter, cash that the Airline did not have. Marshall insisted that Wooten front the funds himself. Wooten raised the $50,000 by borrowing it from a travel agency associated with the JDC. The contract was signed and Operation On Wings of Eagles, more popularly known by its nickname, Operation Magic Carpet commenced.
As Yemen would not permit the Jewish refugees to be flown out of their country, Britain had agreed to the establishment of a transit camp in the adjoining Crown Colony of Aden from which the airlift could commence. Alaska Airlines set up its base in Asmara, Eritrea with their ground crew, pilots and aircraft, – DC-4s and C-46s. The arrangement was to fly the aircraft from their base in Asmara to Aden each morning, pick up their passengers in Aden and refuel. Thence fly up the Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba to the airport in Tel Aviv, unload the refugees, fly to the safety of Cyprus for the night and return to their base in Asmara at dawn, before starting all over again. The round trip would take about 20 hours.
The aircraft as configured could not carry enough passengers or sufficient fuel. So, the planes were modified by replacing the regular airline seats with rows of benches and fitting extra fuel tanks down the length of the fuselages between the benches. Aircraft intended to carry 50 passengers could now carry 120 and fuel would last a skinny extra one hour.
Meanwhile the transit camp in Aden, called “Camp Geula” (Redemption) was organized by the JDC and staffed by Israeli doctors and social workers under the directorship of Max Lapides, an American Jew. Also headquartered at the camp were emissaries responsible for paying various Yemeni tribal chiefs a “head tax” which would permit the Jewish refugees to pass through their territory
As news of the evacuation reached the Jews of Yemen, they left their few possessions behind (except their prayer books and Torahs) and like the biblical exodus began to walk out of slavery into freedom. They traveled in family groups, some hundreds of miles, through wind and sandstorm, vulnerable to robbers and a hostile local population, until half-starved and destitute they reached the border with Aden where Israeli aid workers met them and transported them to the transit camp. There, for the first time, they encountered electricity, medicines, running water, toilets and personal hygiene. During the entire operation, the Jews of Yemen arrived at Camp Geula in a steady stream, newer ones arriving as an earlier group was airlifted out.
Getting the Yemenite Jews to Aden was one problem, getting them on the aircraft was another. Nomads who had never seen an airplane before and never lived anywhere but in a tent, many of the immigrants were frightened and refused to board. Once reminded that their deliverance to Israel by air was prophesized in the Book of Isaiah, “They shall mount up with wings like eagles”, reinforced by the painting of an eagle with outstretched wings over the door of each aircraft, induced them to board the planes. Once inside many preferred sitting on the floor to unaccustomed soft seats. Keeping them from lighting fires to cook their food was a task. During the flight, about half would get sick vomiting over the extra inside fuel tanks. Notwithstanding, the Yemenites upon landing in Israel chanted blessings and burst into song.
To start up Operation Magic Carpet, Alaska Airlines sent Portland native Bob Maguire, a pilot with management experience, to the Middle East. Maguire was an Episcopalian, a native of Portland, Oregon, and a descendent of British and Irish lineage. Maguire flew between 270 and 300 hours a month. Had he been in the U.S., the limit under its aviation rules was 90 hours. Ben-Gurion called Maguire the “Irish Moses”. The work cost Maguire his career. He contracted a parasite that affected his heart and as a result lost his commercial pilot’s license in the early 1950’s. At least one pilot, Stanley Epstein, was Jewish.
The airlift that began in June 1948 was hard on the pilots who were flying 16-hour days and hard on the planes that flew well beyond their scheduled service intervals. Fuel was difficult to come by, the desert sand wreaked havoc on the engines and flying was seat-of-the-pants with navigation by dead reckoning and eyesight.
The work was dangerous. Many airplanes were shot at. One pilot, getting a little close to Arab territory while approaching Israel, watched tracer bullets arching up towards his airplane. Another plane had a tire blown out during a bombing raid in Tel Aviv. On one occasion, Maguire was forced to land his aircraft in Egypt when it ran out of gas. The Israelis had warned all pilots that if they had to land in Arab territory, the Jewish refugees and perhaps even the crew would likely be shot. The quick-witted Maguire told airport officials he needed ambulances to take his passengers to hospital. When they asked why, he replied that his passengers had smallpox. The frightened Egyptians wanted him out of there right away. Maguire received his fuel and flew on to Tel Aviv.
Part way through the operation, the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Board forced Alaska Airlines to shut down its international charter business and a company called Near East Air Transport, whose president was James Wooten and whose pilots, and aircraft were all Alaska Air’s, completed the Operation Magic Carpet airlift. Near East Air Transport was just Alaska Airlines operating under another name.
By the time Operation Magic Carpet ended in September 1950, 28 Alaska Airlines pilots had made some 380 flights and airlifted 48,818 refugees, almost Yemen’s entire Jewish population, to Israel. Miraculously not one death or injury occurred.
Operation Magic Carpet was kept secret for reasons of security and to prevent sabotage. It would be many months later before the public or the press would become aware of the remarkable operation.
Later, Israel would once again call upon Alaska Airlines to aid in the rescue of Jews, this time from Iraq. Maguire again led this operation, Ali Baba (also known as Operation Ezra and Nehemiah), which airlifted about 120,000 Jews from Iraq and Iran to Israel. El Al and Alaska Air, in a secret partnership, formed a new airline, again using the name Near East Air Transport for that purpose. Israeli ownership was hidden so that the airline appeared to be strictly an Alaska Airlines venture.
Today, Alaska Airlines is an international carrier serving 60 cities and 3 countries. Passengers flying Alaska Airlines do not realize that they are flying with the airline that saved the Jews of Yemen and Iraq.
Mostly Jewish underground in Algeria facilitated one of the Allied forces’ first victories against the Nazis
On the eve of World War II, there were about 120,000 Jews in Algeria. After the French occupation of the country in 1830, Jews gradually adopted French culture and were eventually granted French citizenship. Algerian Jews were very proud of the French republic, “they wanted to be more French than the French.”
When France surrendered in 1940, the Germans divided France into two: northern and western “occupied France” under the control of the Nazis, and the south “Free France”, which was under a puppet government seated in the city of Vichy. Vichy leader Philippe Petain controlled the French colonies in North Africa, including Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, in whose capital two million Frenchmen lived.
Starting in 1940, Algerian Jews were persecuted socially and economically. The Vichy regime implemented the Nuremberg laws for the Jews in Algeria: their citizenship was annulled and they were expelled from schools and universities. An Algerian underground, comprised mainly of Jews, was formed. A Jewish member of the underground is said to have stated: “the new situation posed a dilemma for the Jews, but we decided to raise our heads and not to surrender.” Indeed, there was an overwhelming number of Jews – about 85 percent – in the Algerian underground.
What followed seems like a Hollywood fairy tale: around midnight early November1942, a few hundred young men spread across the city, aiming towards governmental buildings and the army barracks. They were untrained, and most of them never held a gun before. Some of their rifles didn’t even have bullets. Their target, no less, was to take over the city and neutralize the entire 20,000 man French army. It gives a new meaning to the word “chutzpah”.
The date is 8 November 1942 and the location is Algiers, where the American army is about to disembark in order to fight the German armies in North Africa. In the city itself, a coup d’état takes place by an underground, comprised almost entirely of Jews, to facilitate the American takeover of the city. In one of the more surreal chapters of World War II, a tiny and unorganized army of about 400 mainly Jewish volunteers managed to fool 20,000 French and Axis soldiers into surrender.
The plan was simple: allied forces would land on the coast of northwestern Africa, controlled by Vichy France, and the underground would take care of paralyzing the regime’s troops in order to hand over the city to the Allies. The Jewish underground presented fabricated orders to the local French and Axis soldiers from the Vichy General Staff in France, stating that soldiers in central institutions must be replaced by civil guards.
This allowed hundreds of underground members to take over the post office, the commissariat, the communications room and the commissioner’s house, as the bewildered Vichy soldiers simply made way for them. Their commanders, including no less than the Vichy leader Philippe Petain’s deputy, Admiral Darlan, were taken into captivity without a single shot being fired. The chain of stunning events included a Jewish man impersonating a French general and ordering through the radio the entire army to surrender. Eventually, as day broke out, the Americans arrived and took over the city.
[Am I exaggerating? Here is the description of events on that day from the Wikipedia: in the early hours of 8 November 1942, 400 mainly Jewish French Resistance fighters staged a coup in the city of Algiers. Starting at midnight, the force under the command of Henri d’Astier de la Vigerie and José Aboulker seized key targets, including the telephone exchange, radio station, governor’s house and the headquarters of 19th Corps. The confusion created by the so-called “putsch” of 8 November 1942 helped the Allies land almost without opposition and then encircle Algiers. Admiral Darlan surrendered Algiers that afternoon, and Allied troops entered the city at 8 pm.]
The story remained practically unknown since nobody was interested in including it in the historical narrative: the Americans had no desire to share their victory, and the Vichy French were reluctant to be embarrassed by this episode. Historians, on the other hand, devoted most of their time and energy to studying the Holocaust in Europe. The time has come to resuscitate this amazing story. I do so willingly.
U.S. National Archives and Records American troops land on an Algerian beach during Operation Torch. Thanks to the mainly Jewish Algerian underground, there were no American casualties, perhaps the only landing during World War 2 without casualties..
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikipedia
“American troops land on an Algerian beach during Operation Torch”
Historian Leon Poliakov stressed the importance of the Algiers underground to the success of the Allied landing. According to him, the landing would have ended in catastrophe if it were not for the mainly Jewish underground. While more than 500 American soldiers died in the landing at Casablanca that same month, none died landing at Algiers – thanks to the mainly Jewish underground movement.
In fact, it was a symbolic turn of events that it was a mostly Jewish underground located in an Arab country that facilitated one of the first Allied victories in World War II. Until then, Germany and its allies were winning all their battles, but after the Jewish capture of Algiers and the USA landing in North Africa, their fortune turned for the worse.