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By: Bernard Fryshman

1962was a watershed year in the history of Algeria.

French forces massacred Algerians seeking independence from French rule. The massacre led to the end of the French occupation of Algeria, followed by an exodus of Europeans, including Jews, to France. The Europeans left behind their houses of worship and their cemeteries, with the understanding that France would retain responsibility for the European cemeteries.

The fate of Algerian Jewish cemeteries was not unexpected: destruction of tombs, and new land development where Jewishgraves once stood. In 1968 there was an exchange of letters between France and Algeria regarding the “grouping of French civil burials located in some cemeteries in Algeria.” This was the first formal mention of the possibility that Jewish as well as gentile graves might be exhumed and consolidated.

By 2003 the condition of French cemeteries in Algeria was so poor, that when the President of France visited Algeria on an official visit, the state of the cemeteries was the main focus of his visit. An action and cooperation plan for the cemeteries was outlined, with a focus on rehabilitation, maintenance, and consolidation.

Proposed Displacement of Jewish Graves

In this period (the early 2000’s) the Jewish Consistoire, which represents French Jewry nationally, was consulted and refused to authorize the displacement of Jewish graves. The reason given according to Consistoire president Joel Megui was that “no one could guarantee the religious supervision of the exhumation given the risks involved in such operations.”

Not mentioned was the fact that removing graves is a desecration of the dead, which is a serious violation of halacha.

A visit to several cemeteries confirmed that while vegetation, earthquakes, and time had taken their toll, no Jewish tombs
were desecrated.

Committee on Jewish Cemeteries in Algeria

In 2009 the Consistoire created a Committee on Jewish Cemeteries in Algeria, with the goal of coordinating groups working on behalf of Algerian Jewish cemeteries, to provide support, and to work to renovate, protect, and maintain the cemeteries. Extensive contacts took place with French government officials on behalf of preservation of Jewish graves in Algeria.

This effort evidently came about as a reaction to the Algerian government’s decree on September9, 2009, which authorized the renovation and consolidation of graves in Christian cemeteries.

The Consistoire sent a mission to the Algiers area in 2012. In 2014 a mission to Algeria produced an inventory of Jewish cemeteries, and a list of those needing attention.

According to Patrick Maisonnave, the French Ambassador to Israel, writing on July 21, 2016, there was more:

On demand of the French Consistoire central, in 2014, this plan was extended to several Jewish cemeteries in Algeria. Exhumation of the remains will be decided – or not, if families oppose his decision – in strict compliance with the rules
of Judaism.

Damage Control Agreement

The course of events from the point of view of the Consistoire
is best gleaned from a 2016 message fromConsistoire President Joel Mergui:

Based on this inventory and the actual situation of Jewish cemeteries in Algeria, we decided to join the government’s efforts towards Christian cemeteries. Our wish, dictated by religious obligations, is to limit to the extent possible the transfer of tombs: transfers will only be scheduled if the grave is running the risk of being destroyed (damage due to the weather, rain, earthquakes, mudslides, etc.). Additionally, Chief Rabbi Michel Guggenheim requested that halacha be strictly observed during exhumations. Meaning: conducting manual, as opposed to mechanical, diggings, requesting the active presence of a fellow believer, guaranteeing that all remains are transferred in a shroud, later laid in an individual coffin, andthat individual re-burials are done directly into the ground, using an identification plate and a slab-tomb for all re-burials. Remains must also be transferred to the nearest consolidation Jewish cemetery.

The French government through the Ministry of Foreign affairs was very receptive to this issue and accepted all of our demands.

All that remained to be done was then to modify the September 9, 2009 decree, which limited regroupings to Christian cemeteries. Our diplomats were able to have the Algerian government sign an additional decree on March 16, 2016, for an extension to all European cemeteries.

The decree dated May 26, 2016 thus legally authorizes the transfer of seriously damaged Jewish graves to the nearest Jewish cemetery. No Jewish tomb will be displayed without the agreement and religious supervision of the Consistory.

Disturbing Statistics

According to Mergui, there are 81 Jewish cemeteries in Algeria, housing 57,898 graves. This is a pitifully small number, given the age and size of the historic community of the Algerian Jews.

Even more surprising is the fact that 31 Jewish cemeteries are scheduled to be transferred to consolidation cemeteries. These
31 cemeteries have 1,136 graves to be “regrouped.”

Does this mean that these cemeteries housed less than 40 graves each? Or is this the number of graves which still have tombstones or grave markers? The likelihood is that the 31 cemeteries had well over 20,000 graves. The “freed up spaces” will be used for Algerian community oriented projects, such as schools and hospitals.

Even assuming the 1,136 graves can be transferred without desecrating thedead, what will happen to the tens of thousands of others?

Communal Intervention

In the summer of 2016, extensive efforts were made to undo this agreement, both by groups in America and Israel. Reportedly, the intervention of a group of European rabbonimcaused a change in the position of the Consistoire, but only temporarily.

The situation is a complicated one. For one, burials in France itself are not permanent, so the community at large (other than the Torah Community) is not particularly concerned. The Consistoire feels obligated to accede to the French government’s wishes, since the government is extending itself on behalf of protection of the bodies buried in Jewish graves, the rights of Shabbos observers, and so on.

The argument is made that if Jewsdon’t exhume the bodies, the Algerians will do it themselves – although there is no evidence that vandalism or desecration has ever occurred.

Another item: the Consistoire is receiving 1.5M Euros to pay for the project, and some argue that this money should be used to purchase these cemeteries. Others note that these cemeteries already belong to the Jewish Community, so “purchasing” would only encourage further, more extensive threats.

Finally, there is the danger of precedent. A nation which exhumes cemeteries places itself beyond the pale. But a situation in which the Jewish community agrees to such desecration puts a stamp of approval on the outrage, and encourages emulation elsewhere.

Strategies for Community Action

Perhaps the most effective strategy for rescuing these cemeteries would be for Jews of Algerian descent to raise their voices on behalf of their forebearers. This means contacting the United States Department of State (preferably through a Congressional Representative), meeting with French Consular and Embassy representatives in America, and reaching out to the members of the Conference of European Rabbis. This might be particularly effective since the Consistoire respects the decisions of this body.

Perhaps as effective as individual voices of Jews of Algerian origin, would be the united voices of Jewish organizations, particularly Sephardic. It goes without saying that rabbonim can play a powerful leadership role in this matter, and to a lesser, but still highly effective extent, the media.

Among the people who have been involved in this and other issues related to the protection of Jewish cemeteries are Rabbi Lazer Stern of Asrah Kadisha (akmelech@gmail.com), Rabbi Pinchos Hecht of the Mirrer Yeshiva (phecht@thejnet.com), and Rabbi David Niederman of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg (dniederman@unitedjewish.org). Rabbi Niederman was particularly helpful in saving the Jewish cemetery in Gallipoli, Turkey. So too was the well-known community leader, Rabbi Richard Altabe. The author of this piece, Dr. Bernard Fryshman, can be reached at bfryshma@nyit.eduor by phone at 718 253 4857.