M'ZAB , region containing six towns, one of the major groups of oases of the Sahara in central *Algeria. It was founded in the 11th century by M'zabite *Berbers belonging to the Ibadiyya sect who formerly dominated *Tripoli (part of modern *Libya today). Although the French had occupied Algeria in 1830 and removed it from Ottoman domination, the M'zab was annexed to France only in 1882 and reverted to Algerian indigenous rule in summer 1962 upon its national independence. Ghardaia is the main town and capital of the M'zab, while el-Ateuf is the oldest settlement in the region. Beni Isguene is the most sacred Berber Islamic town. It prohibits all non-M'zabites from various sections of this town and all foreigners from spending the night within its walls. Melika is populated by black Africans and contains spacious cemeteries, while Guerrera and Berriane have been part of the M'zab since the 17th century. The total population of the M'zab in the early 21st century exceeded 70,000.
M'zab Jewry are apparently the descendants of Jews from Tahert, an ancient metropolis destroyed in 902 c.e., but also from Sedrata and Ouargla in the important region of Ifriqiyya – which in ancient and medieval times contained the territories of present-day Libya and *Tunisia. Ouargla was a center of *Karaite Jews. Until 1300 the Jewish community of the M'zab was reinforced demographically by Jews from the island of *Djerba (southern Tunisia) and Jebel Nafusa (the region of Tripolitania in modern Libya). Overwhelmingly residing in Ghardaia, the Jews were mainly employed as goldsmiths as well as being suppliers of ostrich feathers whose exports to Europe were monopolized by their coreligionists in parts of the Mediterranean.
The Jews of Ghardaia dwelled in their own special quarter, were forced to wear black clothes, and were not allowed to engage in farming or to purchase rural land. Unlike the Jews of the major urban centers of the regions of *Algiers, *Oran, and *Constantine, M'zab Jewry were not beneficiaries of the October 1870 Crémieux Decree which granted French citizenship to Algeria's Jews. This is attributed to the fact that the French could only grant this privilege to Jews in their sphere of influence. The M'zab was not under French control until over a decade later. It was only in the early 1960s that the Crémieux Decree was extended to include M'zabite Jews. By then, however, it was too late, for in 1962 the French granted Algerian Muslims independence. On the eve of Algerian independence, after numerous M'zabites Jews (out of 6,000) relocated to France (many resettled in Strasbourg), as many as 3,000 still remained behind.
In June 1962, as the Jewish Agency Israeli immigration emissaries were about to leave Algerian soil, a cable arrived at the Immigration Office in Algiers from Jerusalem. It instructed them to remain there for the time being because, based on reliable information, Algerian Muslim rebels in the south intended to harm the 3,000 remaining Jews of the Saharan community of Ghardaia. On June 12, 1962, the Jewish Agency requested Ben-Zion Cohen, one of the emissaries in Algiers, to fly to Ghardaia and warn that community about the potential dangers. The State of Israel also contacted the French authorities in the south to inform them of Cohen's arrival. Upon his arrival Cohen met with Jacob Blocca, Ghardaia's community president. Blocca then convened an emergency meeting of the community council members in which Cohen prodded them to permit the Jewish Agency to evacuate the Jews before it was too late. The community leadership gave its approval.
Already in mid-June Cohen began to register the families at the local talmud torah building. Of the 3,000 Jews in Ghardaia, 2,700 agreed to leave immediately. Meanwhile, the Jewish Agency in Europe received from Cohen precise data on the size of the immigration and the number of planes needed for the operation. The Grande Arenas transit camp in Marseilles was prepared to accommodate the transients. However, the Algerian rebels found out about the operation and were determined to prevent the departures. Not wanting to risk lives, Cohen telephoned the French governor, who himself was about to leave Algeria. The latter sent a military vehicle with several armed paratroopers to guard Cohen and accompany him to the local military base for his own protection. Toward the end of June the French planes chartered by the Jewish Agency reached Ghardaia's military airport. The immigrants could now take the 12-kilometer ride to the airport on buses, guarded by military jeeps and a helicopter. Algeria was a sovereign nation when the evacuation process ended successfully in July 1962.
A. Chouraqui, Between East and West: A History of the Jews of North Africa (1968); H.Z. Hirschberg, A History of the Jews in North Africa2 (English trans., 1974); M.M. Laskier, North African Jewry in the 20th Century (1994); N.A. Stillman, The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times (1991).
[Michael M. Laskier (2nd ed.)]