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The Time for Voluntary Exhumations is Over: Moving the Jewish Dead in 1970s Algeria

Sun, December 16, 4:15 to 5:45pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Amphitheater

Abstract

Most of Algeria’s Jewish population left the country during, or immediately after, the long and violent War of Algerian Independence (1954-1962). Scholarly attention to this massive departure and to the subsequent development of Jewish life in France has tended to overshadow the story of the few thousands of Jews who remained in Algeria during the decade following independence. Those who stayed became the de facto guardians of their cities’ and towns’ sites of Jewish religious and social life; negotiating with local authorities to maintain ownership of these spaces and the material objects they housed. Some sites, like the Great Synagogue of Oran, were transformed, while others were abandoned. One of the most difficult issues confronting Algerian Jews, however, was how to preserve the sanctity of those buried in cemeteries across the country.
This paper will examine the contentious debates surrounding Oran’s Jewish Cemetery during the 1970s after city authorities announced that a public works project would require the exhumation of at least 2000 Jewish graves. It will focus not on Jewish representatives’ negotiations with Oran’s municipal authorities, but on the struggles between those Jews still living in Oran and the Algerian Jews living in France who sought to speak on behalf of the Jewish dead. The paper explores the ways in which arguments over the timing of the exhumations; the religious technicalities of reinterring bodies; and concerns about gravestones and burial shrouds were really arguments about the possibility of future Jewish life in an independent Algeria. It argues that Oran’s Jewish cemetery became a site for projecting competing visions of Mediterranean Jewish futures, and suggests new ways of considering Jewish histories during the period of decolonization.

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