In the late 7th century, the forces of the Umayyad caliphate were on the march westward from Egypt, eager to expand their empire. They soon found themselves fighting a confederation of Berber tribes led by a woman named Dihya al-Kahina, who to this day remains the stuff of legend. Arab accounts portray her as a sorceress, while some Algerian Jewish folklore has her as an anti-Semitic ogre. But the great 14th-century Arab historian ibn Khaldun notes that her tribe were converts to Judaism, and this is likely the origin of the claim that she was a Jew, made popular by the early 20th-century journalist Nahum Slouschz in his travelogue of North African Jewry. Ushi Derman recounts Slouschz’s version of her story:
Dihya offered peace, but the Muslim commander would not accept unless she acknowledged the authority of the caliph and adopted Islam, an ultimatum she rejected scornfully. According to Slouschz, she was a descendant of a priestly family deported from Judea by Pharaoh Necho in the days of King Josiah. She did not intend to enter the family history as a leader who caused yet another deportation of the dynasty, and certainly did not intend to convert to Islam. “I shall die in the religion I was born to,” she answered the commander’s demands, and went on forging her steel sword.
Berber tribes from all over the Maghreb arrived to join Kahina in her campaign, which they gloriously won after exhausting battles. Defeated and ashamed, the Arab general had to escape with what was left of his troops to Tripoli, where he had to face the caliph and tell him of his defeat. Kahina then chased his troops all the way to Carthage, and then became the city’s ruler [as well]. . . .
It took [the Arab armies] five years to recover from the losses caused in the battle with Dihya. [But they then returned with] a much larger force and managed to conquer Carthage and to defeat the Berbers. . . . After her defeat, Kahina took her own life by falling into a deep well. The Muslims pulled out her body, severed her head, and sent it to the caliph. The well is still called the Kahina Well.
Despite Slouschz’s claims, most modern scholars doubt that Kahina was in fact Jewish.