Before the Roman Empire took over these remote coasts of northern Africa, descendants of Jews who had fled Palestine after the destruction of the first and second temples of Jerusalem had settled among the Berber tribes of central Maghreb, some of whom had converted to Judaism over several centuries. Jews spoke the Berber language, especially in the eastern part of Algeria, in Kabyle lands, and even prayed in Berber.
Early descriptions of the Rustamid capital Tahert note that Jews were to be found there, as in any other major Muslim city, and some centuries later the Geniza Letters (found in Cairo) mention many Algerian Jewish families.
During the Arab conquest of Africa in the seventh century, Berbers and Jews fought together, an episode recounted at length by the Muslim medieval historian Ibn-Khaldun. According to this author, a Jewish Berber "queen," named Kahina ("the Priestess"), at the end of the seventh century led the autochthonous armies that resisted the Arab conquest of the Maghreb.
Most Berbers were converted to Islam a few decades later, and the Jews of Algeria started their cultural and linguistic assimilation into the Arab world. They rapidly began developing familiarity with Arabic literature, grammar, and science; in some areas, Jewish communities spoke Judeo-Arabic as their daily language.
The country's Jewish community substantially increased following the Reconquista, when the Spanish Inquisition expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492. Together with the Moriscos, they thronged to the ports of North Africa, forming large communities in places such as Oran and Algiers. Some Jews in Oran preserved their Ladino language - a uniquely conservative dialect of Spanish - until the 19th century.
The new Jewish immigrants brought their theological knowledge, their sages, and a more Europeanized Jewish tradition. They were rapidly integrated into the local Jewish leadership.
Later on, more European Jews immigrated to Algeria in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, coming from Italy. The languages spoken by the Jews in Algeria at that time were Berber, Arabic, Spanish, Ladino, Italian, and Hebrew.
Most of these communities were subject to the status of dhimmi imposed by the Turks in the sixteenth century on all non-Muslim groups living under Muslim rule. Jews could not mount horses, carry arms, or be in a posture physically superior to Muslims.
This inferior status did not prevent Jewish merchants from doing very well financially in late Ottoman Algiers; the French attack on Algeria was initially "provoked" by the Dey's demands that the French government pay its large outstanding wheat debts to two Jewish merchants, Bacri and Busnach.
After the conquest in 1830, the French government rapidly restructured the Ottoman millet system. At the time, the French government distinguished French citizens (who had national voting rights, were subject to French laws, and, for the males, had to go to military service) from Jewish and Muslim "indigenous" people, who each kept their own laws and courts.
By 1841, the Jewish courts (beth din) had been abolished, and all cases involving Jews were instead heard by French courts. In 1845, the communal structure was thoroughly reorganized, and French Jews were appointed as chief rabbis for each region, with the duty "to inculcate unconditional obedience to the laws, loyalty to France, and the obligation to defend it."
In 1865, liberal conditions were laid down so that Jewish and Muslim "indigenous" people could become French citizens if they requested it. This facility was, however, not much used - since it meant renouncing certain traditional mores and thus was perceived as a kind of apostasy.
In 1870, the French government granted the Jews French citizenship, under the décrets Crémieux of 1870. (For this reason, they are sometimes lumped together with the pieds-noirs.) This decision was due largely to pressures from prominent members of the French Jewish community, which considered the North African Jews to be "backward" and wanted to forcefully bring them into modernity. Within a generation, most Algerian Jews had come to speak French rather than Arabic or Ladino, and embraced many aspects of French culture.
When Algeria attained independence in 1962, legislation granted Algerian citizenship only to those residents whose father or paternal grandfather were Muslims. Moreover, the Supreme Court of Justice of Algeria declared that the Jews were no longer under the protection of the law. The great majority of Algeria's 140,000 Jews left the country for France together with the pied-noirs.