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Judt’s Algeria story suggests that years of civil war may lie before us

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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Yesterday I quoted Richard Falk’s piece saying that Israel’s crisis in legitimacy recalls the Soviet Union’s crisis in the ’80s and the French colonial experience in Algeria in the ’50s; both regimes held out, he said, and then fell mysteriously, abruptly, unexpectedly. What is the Algeria story? Well in Postwar, Tony Judt’s history of Europe since ’45, he tells the story in a few sharp and insightful pages (283-289). Buy the book and read the whole section– meantime, I’m going to sample some of the story below.

History doesn’t repeat itself: that is one of the core beliefs of this site. But it’s not as if patterns in history don’t reassert themselves, and so I read Judt’s colonial narrative as a parable about how "unthinkable" change comes to pass when history knocks on the door. The obvious parallels are these: the colonial power this time is the U.S./Israel lobby, that’s the power that has to break, just as De Gaulle ultimately compelled the French to yield to history. And the French settlers this time are the Israelis, who have the support of the U.S. and fear abandonment. Or maybe just the Israeli settlers?

Notice, too, that conciliators and moderates come in and out of the picture. But that the moderates in the end don’t control the flow of history towards self-determination. And while I’ve left this part out mostly, the unending Algerian crisis brought down a few French governments– just as you might say that Middle East policy helped bring Obama to power over McCain (and Clinton to power over Bush I).

My discomfort with the Algeria parallel is that no one wants to see Israel and Palestine become democratic with a lot of violence. This is why American Jews are so conservative; they know the country they’re supporting is in the wrong, but they fear for Jewish life, and rationalize any oppression on that basis. And it really is hard to imagine any way that rightwing Israel does take its foot off the neck of the Palestinian population without bloodshed. I suppose the feel-good answer is that history doesn’t repeat itself, so we can learn from history and do it differently this time.


The idea that Algeria might one day become independent (and thus Arab-ruled, given the overwhelming numerical predominance of Arabs and Berbers in its population) was unthinkable to its European minority.

Accordingly, French politicians had long avoided thinking about it. No French government except Leon Blum’s short-lived Popular Front of 1936 paid serious attention to the grievous mis-rule practice by colonial administrators in French North Africa. Moderate Algerian nationalists like Ferhat Abbas [!] were well known to French politicians and intellectuals before and after World War Two, but no-one really expected Paris to concede their modest goals of self-government or ‘home rule’ any time soon. Nevertheless, the Arab leadership was initially optimistic that the defeat of Hitler would usher in long-awaited reforms…

The government of liberated France showed little concern for Arab sentiment, and when this indifference resulted in an uprising in the Kabylia region east of Algiers in Mary 1945, the insurgents were uncompromisingly crushed…

The Algerian FLN—Front de Liberation Nationale—was led by a younger generation of Arab nationalists who scorned the moderate, Francophile strategies of their elders. Their objective was not ‘home rule’ or reform but independence, a goal that successive French governments could not contemplate. The result was eight murderous years of civil war. Belatedly, the French authorities proposed reforms….

The French army duly undertook a bitter war of attrition against the guerrillas of the FLN. Both sides regularly resorted to intimidation, torture, murder, and outright terrorism ….

By September 1957 [French colonel Jacques] Massau was victorious, having broken a general strike and crushed the insurgents in the Battle of Algiers. The Arab population paid a terrible price, but the reputation of France was irrevocably sullied. And the European settlers remained as suspicious as ever of Paris’s long-term intentions.

In February 1958 the newly installed government of Felix Gaillard was embarrassed by the French air force’s bombing of Sakhiet… The resulting international outcry, and offers of Anglo-American ‘good offices’ to help solve the Algerian imbroglio, led to growing fears among the Europeans of Algeria that Paris was planning to abandon them…

[De Gaulle’s] first task, as he understood it, was to restore the authority of government in France. His second and related objective was to resolve the Algerian conflict that had so dramatically undermined it… 

Infuriated by what they regarded as evidence of a coming sell-out, officers and settlers in Algeria began planning a full-scale revolt. …The chief victim of the coup was the morale and the international image (what remained of it) of the French Army.

An overwhelming majority of Frenchmen and women, many of them with sons serving in Algeria, drew the conclusion that Algerian independence was not just inevitable but desirable—and for the sake of France, the sooner the better…

[After two years of negotiations, in 1962], the French people voted overwhelmingly to free themselves of the Algerian shackle Two days later Algeria became an independent state.

The section concludes with the ongoing damage: hundreds killed by terrorism, millions of Algerians forced into French exile against their will. And Algeria’s Jews also left the country, some for Israel. I’d just note that many people have been surprised by the pace of change in U.S. attitudes on Israel/Palestine, especially with David Petraeus’s recent epiphany about the American interest in the Middle East. Notice that the French people ultimately turned against Algerian colonialism "for the sake of France."

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