A History of Judaism in Morocco

Jews in Morocco have one of the most ancient and vibrant stories in all of Africa. Their story is partly one of persecution and conflict, but also of peace and cooperation. Berbers, Arabs, and Jews were the three people that built Morocco into what it is today. The intermingling of their various ways of life, traditions and religions has created a cultural heritage that is both fascinating and unique. Jews have always been a small minority in Morocco, but their impact on the country’s history has been huge.

Jews arrived in North Africa long before the Romans or Arabs. Hebrew inscriptions have been found on tombstones in the Moroccan town of Fez that are over 2,000 years old. Some of the earliest Jews came with the Phoenecians to Carthage, and then moved westward to Morocco. Many more arrived in 586 B. C. when Nebuchadnezzer destroyed the First Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. During the Great Diaspora, a time when Israelites were scattered across the globe, thousands of Jews came to Spain, and then Morocco.

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In this early society, the Jews slowly forged lasting cultural and economic relations with the native Berber population. As they traded with inland Berbers, Jews brought an already ancient and awe-inspiring religion to those people. Gradually, many Berber tribes adopted Judaism and found ways to integrate into it their own beliefs. A Judeo-Berber language was developed along with a unique mix of rituals in which a superstitious fear of demons was combined with the devoted worship of Yahweh. In the seventh century, Muslim Arabs invaded North Africa.

When they came to Morocco they were quite surprised to find strong Jewish-Berber tribes. One of these tribes was led by the legendary Queen Cahina who, at great odds, was able to ward off the encroaching Arabs for years. Finally defeated, she indignantly burned farms and crops so that they couldn’t be captured and pillaged by the Arabs. Many Berber communities were able to keep their Jewish faith by retreating to small mountain and desert villages. Subsequent Muslim rulers wavered between tolerance and intolerance of the Jewish population.

When Idris II gained power in 800 AD, he severed control of Morocco from Muslim Baghdad and opened the city of Fez to Jewish immigration. This sparked a long era of Jewish renessaince in which Fez became an important center of cultural and intellectual advancement. Many Hebrew scholars and Rabbis lived and wrote during this time, most notably Alfasi Yitzchak and Moses Maimonides. Maimonides is considered by many to be one of the greatest philosophers of all time, gentile or Jewish. By the eleventh century, perhaps in reaction to the economic success of some Jews, Arab persecution began.

It was during this time that the Chief Judge of Baghdad, Abu Al-Hassan Al Mawardi, wrote down twelve laws called the Charter of Omar that dictated Jewish life as second-class citizens, or dhimmis. Under Islamic rule, Jews couldn’t read the Koran, speak against the Prophet, touch Muslim women or try to convert any Muslim against his faith. Some of the laws were very ridiculous. On the pain of death Jews could not drink wine in public or own a horse. Starting in 1146, the Almohad dynasty required Jews to identify themselves by wearing yellow sashes.

By 1438, the Almohads had confined Jews in Fez and other cities to crowded ghettos called mellahs. Mellahs were usually small, enclosed areas of the cities with narrow corridors. If it wasn’t crowded enough already, a great influx of Sephardic Jews from Spain during the fifteenth century made things worse. On March 31, 1492, Queen Isabella of Spain issued the Edict of Expulsion. The edict gave the 165,000 Spanish Jews four months to either convert to Christianity or leave the country. Thousands of them crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and came to Morocco.

At first the influx of strange and misplaced people who didn’t speak the native language led to even more widespread poverty among the Jewish community. Then something fortunate (for the Jews, at least) happened – the start of informal colonialism. In the early 1600s Portugal took over parts of the Atlantic coast for the purpose of trade with, and the exploitation of, the African mainland. Because of their European roots, Sephardic Jews were in great demand as diplomats and go-betweens with the European infiltrators.

This allowed some Jews to rise up from poverty and become successful merchants and traders. “Jews played a key role in the caravan trade with Sub-Saharan Africa, financing the exchanges of European cloth and Moroccan cereals for gold, ostrich feathers, gum arabic, and ivory. ” (Gold, p. 9) They also played an important trade role inside Morocco, linking the Arabs in the cities to the Berber tribes in the mountains. Since there were Jewish communities in both urban and mountainous areas, they were able to travel between them more easily than either the Berbers or Arabs would have been able to.

As a minority that had always suffered to some extent from Arab persecution, Jews found that their lives were actually improved by foreign colonialism. With the establishment of Morocco as a “protectorate” of France in 1912, Jews were no longer second-class citizens to the Arabs – everyone except the French were second-class citizens. Some of those living in the cities were able to receive a french-style education, which led to a growth in the professional middle class. However, there was an incredibly wide gap between these new Jews and those who were still living in mountain tribes as they had for thousands of years.

The way these people lived had changed little since the middle ages. The mellahs in the city were still crowded and miserable. Often a single tattered Torah was the only source of education for an entire community. However, despite the misery of the Ghetto, there were some benefits. The mellah held Jews together in a tight-knit community where they were able to preserve their unique identity. The lack of material riches was made up for by vibrant holidays, beautiful craftsmanship and strong family ties.

Because of their segregation and confinement, “the Jews educated their own, leading to a high literacy rate, much higher than the Muslim community”. (Sand, p. 2) Perhaps the most important thing that held them together were their rituals. Moroccan Jewish rituals are a strange mixture of ancient Hebrew, Berber and Arab traditions. It is very mystical and superstitious. For instance, both Muslims and Jews believe in the constant threat of the evil eye, or jinn. To counteract the evil force, Jewish craftsmen create a flat silver pendant in the shape of a hand, called a khamsa. Wearing this will supposedly keep the demons at bay.

Another Arab custom that was absorbed and altered by Jews was the rite of tahid that occurs after the baby has been circumsized. In this strange custom, the father takes an old sword and makes wide slashes on the walls of the room in which the baby sleeps. This will exorcise any evil spirits that may have occupied the baby and protect against any new ones. Then the sword is placed under the mattress of the mother. A more practical tradition is the qasida, or oral poem. Adapted from an ancient Berber technique of preserving stories from generation to generation, the qasida was used by the Jews to relay information.

The poems are long pieces with a complicated rhyme structure, recited primarily by women. In the 1900s, the qasida was used to tell people about the rise of Hitler and the creation of a place called Israel where Jews could go to escape persecution. Interestingly, combined with the unique spiritual and mystical traditions of Moroccan Jews is a very rigid devotion to the Talmud (commentaries on the Torah). The Talmud was brought to North Africa by great scholars such as Rabbi Akiva and Maimonides. Western Jews (Ashkenazi) are often surprised when so-called “primitive” Sephardic Jews know more about the Talmud than they do!

In the early 1940s, the mountain tribes that had been self-sufficient for so long began to crumble as the younger generation migrated to the urban centers looking for a more modern life. The huge flow into the cities caused almost unbearable crowding in the mellahs. To get a feeling of how crowded it was, the statistics for inhabitants per 1,000 square meters in the city of Marrakesh in 1949 are as such: 35 in the European quarter, 450 in the Muslim, 1,300 in the Jewish. That’s an average of 1. 3 people per square meter! Overcrowding, poor hygiene, and immense poverty was a bad combination for people in the Ghettos.

In 1952, 50% of all Jewish children in Casablanca died before they reached adolescence. In 1952 there were close to 250,000 Jews living in Morocco, the largest Jewish population in North Africa. This was about to change. The young people who had migrated to the city in search of a better life were sadly disillusioned. When the Jewish State of Israel was established and the Right of Return was enacted it was like a beacon of hope in the darkness. In May 1948, armies from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq united to launch an all out war against the new state of Israel.

For many Moroccan Arabs the war provided a cause for renewed Arab pride and nationalism. This quickly turned to bitter hatred and anti-semitism when the Arab countries were soundly defeated by the Israeli army. Some Arab nationalists began a boycott of Jewish Merchants and anti-semetic rhetoric spread throughout the country. Then an amazing thing happened. Sultan Mohammed V made a speech in which he warned all Muslims not to hurt Moroccan Jews. He pointed out that the Jews had always showed devotion to the throne and that they were first and foremost Morrocan citizens before they were Jewish.

The speech was read in synagogues and mosques across the country and marked a profound change in public attitudes towards the Jewish population. It was not enough, however, to stop Jews from moving to Israel, the homeland. Since 1948, over 295,000 have emigrated to Israel. Today, the Jewish community in Morocco is only a small fraction of what it once was, numbering around 8,000. Of the Arab countries, Morocco has the closest relationship in Israel. Since independence, three Jews have been elected to parliament, including a Rabbi.

This is a remarkable fact considering that 99% of the population is Muslim. King Hassan II, who died in 1999, was a strong supporter of peace and reconciliation between Israel in Palestine. He extended an open invitation to Jews of Moroccan descent who live in Israel (of which there are over 600,000) to return to Morocco. Few have returned, but tens of thousands make a pilgrimage each year. In 1993, after signing the self-determination agreement with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin made a formal visit to King Hassan II.

More than anything this was symbolic of the goodwill between the two nations. Despite the persecution of the past, modern Jews have been very much accepted into Moroccan society. According to Rick Gold, a Jewish-Moroccan US Foreign Service Officer, “a visit to Jewish morocco is a lesson in the potential for Jewish-Muslim coexistence”. Perhaps by looking at Morocco, modern Jews can learn how to overcome an unnecessarily bloody past and move towards a bright and peaceful future.