Jews urge France to halt planned exhumation in Algeria

Cnaan Liphshiz

(JTA) — More than 1,000 people have signed a petition against the French government’s plan to move dozens of graves in Algeria, including Jewish ones, to save on maintenance expenses.

The petition, launched earlier this month by Orthodox Jews from France living in Jerusalem, follows a decision made in May and announced last month by the French government to move, together with Algerian authorities, graves from 31 cemeteries, including several Jewish ones.

The cemeteries in question are known in Algeria as “European cemeteries” because they belonged to France when Algeria was still part of the French Republic, before it became independent in 1962. All the graves that are earmarked to be moved are of French citizens whose families mostly left Algeria before 1962. With upkeep expenses mounting amid frequent vandalism and garbage dumping at European cemeteries, the French and Algerian governments decided to move European cemeteries into an ossuary, after a six-month delay designed to allow family members to organize the transportation to France the remains of ancestors from the graves moved.

Halacha, Jewish Orthodox law, allows disturbing graves almost exclusively in situations where doing so can save lives or prevent disrespect of the dead and desecration. But in the case at hand, “the main reason is to limit the expenses,” the organizers of the petition wrote.

They also said the plan will result in the desecration of more than 1,000 Jewish graves that do not have headstones. Many headstones were removed over the decades from European cemeteries.

“When the few corpses with a headstone are going to be removed from a cemetery, many more corpses are going to be left in the ground and when the local workers will dig to build the new building planned by the Algerians, they are going to be desecrated. This is unacceptable,” the petition writers said.

“Jews were present in Algeria long before it was conquered by Arabs and so the Jewish patrimony left behind in 1962 does deserve a minimum of respect,” wrote Arrik Delouya, a co-signatory of the petition who was born in Morocco and now lives in Paris.

Algeria used to have more than 100,000 Jews, but the vast majority of them left after the state of Israel was established in 1948 and during Algeria’s bloody war of independence against France.