The Moroccan Jews: Contradictions Galore

Part 4 of the Oriental Jewish Communities

by Norman Berdichevsky (April 2012)

In 1948, more than 260,000 Jews lived in Morocco, making it the Arab state with the largest Jewish population in the Near and Middle East. It has contributed the largest number of olim (Jewish immigrants to post-1948 Israel) from a Muslim majority country and from many aspects also presented the greatest challenge to the veteran and predominantly Ashkenazi society of the State of Israel (see New English Review “Edot HaMizrah” Israel’s Oriental Jewish Communities

It also represented one of the oldest and most traditional Mizrahi Diasporas and one that was extremely diverse in its composition from sophisticated, literate, multilingual, educated professionals in Casablanca, Tetuan, Tangier and Rabat to skilled artisans and merchants in Fez and Safi to farmers and peddlers in the Atlas mountains. It is believed that a Jewish population existed in Morocco prior to the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D; It may well be that a significant proportion of the earliest Jews in Morocco were Berbers who converted to Judaism, some of whom later entered Spain prior to or even following the Muslim conquest of the Iberian peninsula in 711-715 AD.

From 1912 to 1956, France and Spain ruled over their “protectorates” in Morocco and although initially welcomed by the Jews who were treated by the European powers as valuable subjects rather than as the proscribed dhimmis (protected class of inhabitants paying a special tax under Islam known as the jizya and occasionally subjected to humiliating ordinances). The differential French and Spanish rule extended its influence in the areas of language, foods, family names and education.

By and large, the older generation of Moroccan Jews living today in Israel do not have bitter memories or hostile sentiments regarding the land of their birth and quite a few have returned to visit the graves of their ancestors.

In 1940, the Nazi-controlled Vichy government issued antisemitic decrees that prohibited Jews from fulfilling any public functions. Sultan Mohammed V refused to apply these racist laws and, as a sign of defiance, insisted on inviting all the rabbis of Morocco to his 1941 coronation anniversary celebrations. For this reason, many Moroccan Jews generally held the King and his royal house during much of the 20th century in high regard although in reality the king was a mere figurehead and had to follow subsequent anti-Jewish directives from the pro-German Vichy government. The participation of Moroccan troops fighting on the Arab side in both the Six Day War of 1867 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973 against Israel was also keenly felt as a stab in the back.

New Moroccan Constitution Proclaims Commitment to Pluralism

Many observers have commented on the positive and unique character of the new constitution in Morocco adopted in a referendum on July 1, 2011 by a 98.5% vote that proclaims Morocco…

A sovereign Moslem State, committed to the ideals of openness, moderation, tolerance and dialogue to foster mutual understanding among all civilizations ; and…A Nation whose unity is based on the fully endorsed diversity of its constituents : Arabic, Amazigh, Hassani, Sub-Saharan, African, Andalusian, Jewish (hébräique) and Mediterranean components”

No other Arab or Muslim majority state includes such language. The question asked is how much of this is pure window dressing and how much reality. The commitment to honor the language of the Berber minority (at least 40%) of the total population does not yet include demands to teach it as a language of instruction in the elementary grades of the public schools. Less than 4,000 Jews remain in Morocco, a mere 1.5% of the total in 1948 and although a few influential ‘court Jews’ such as advisor to the king, André Azoulai, still occupy real power, the majority of Moroccan Jews, like those in Iraq, (The Iraqi Jews – The Oldest Diaspora, Now Safe in Israel

Moroccan Jews in Israel

On the other hand, Moroccan Jews in Israel have felt a considerable sense of grievance over what they regard as discrimination and prejudice responsible for them occupying the lowest rank on the Israeli totem pole of Mizrahi immigrants, and being resettled primarily in small peripheral towns in Galilee or the Negev or in agricultural villages. The Israeli classic comic film Salah Shabati portrays what many Israeli viewers imagined was either a “typical” Moroccan or Iraqi family of new immigrants in the 1950s that is exploited and held in low esteem by many of their Ashkenazi neighbors although it ends with a Romeo and Juliet marriage that paves the way for full integration in an idealized future Israeli society.

Many Moroccan Jews in Israel continue to feel that they are stereotyped by the Ashkenazim and that even some other Mizrahim share these prejudices. David Levy, Moroccan born Israeli foreign minister was eventually replaced in the Oslo conference because, although fluent in French, the “establishment” felt that he could not adequately present Israel’s case in English for the media. His correct pronunciation of the guttural letters in Hebrew (‘ayin and ?et) were frequently parodied by humorists in Israel who regard this way of speaking as typical of the “uneducated.”

On the other hand, one of the most erudite, literate and brilliant scholars who also was born in Morocco (in the formerly international city of Tangier), Shlomo Ben-Ami, educated at Tel Aviv University and St Anthony’s College, Oxford, fluent in Hebrew, English and Arabic (just like Abba Eban) but with Spanish and French to boot, was never mentioned as also having grown up in Morocco by the popular media in Israel or the United States (as if Tangier didn’t count or was part of Europe). Ask American Jews who Abba Eban was and they will swell with pride, mention Shlomo Ben-Ami and they will shrug their shoulders.

Jewish-Carthaginian Contacts in North Africa

At its height in the 7th century BC (a thousand, three hundred years before the advent of Islam and the expansion of the Arabs out of the Arabian peninsula and their conquests in North Africa including Morocco), a vast overseas Semitic civilization was established by the Phoenician states of Tyre and Sidon in alliance with ancient Israel. All the petty states mentioned in the Bible shared a common Semitic language and related alphabets that were later borrowed by the Greeks and Romans. At this time, the Arab people, their language and pre-Islamic and non-literate culture were confined to the Arabian peninsula, a cultural backwater remote from both ancient Israel and Morocco.

Phoenicians colonized much of North Africa including Carthage and parts of present day Northern Morocco and Southeastern Spain. Their major new settlement in Carthage eventually became the greatest power in the Western Mediterranean and challenged Rome for supremacy. The language spoken in Carthage became known as Punic, a derivative of the earlier Canaanite-Hebrew speech. Eventually Rome faced Carthage in the “Punic Wars” and until victory was assured, its greatest orator Cato found it necessary to end every speech in the Senate with the call “Carthago dilenda est” (Carthage must be destroyed). This goal was finally achieved with the total destruction of Carthage in the Third Punic War in 146 BC.

Had Hannibal succeeded in crossing the Alps to attack Rome, all of the Mediterranean would have inherited a Semitic tradition having nothing to do with the Arabs and the desert. Greece or Rome might have ended up speaking dialects of Phoenician-Hebrew-Berber rather than Latin! Of course, subsequent historiography with its Hellenic, Roman and Arab biases, as well as traditional Jewish and Christian theology sought to minimize the achievements of this earlier civilization now recognized in the Moroccan constitution. Opponents of this synthesis mock these ideas as fanciful flights from reality and a “pagan” affront to the heritage and sensitivities of Judaism and Christianity.

For the Arabs and Islam, they are an even greater abomination. No matter how long the Arabization of the Near and Middle East has had to eradicate the authentic original cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Lebanon-Phoenicia, Israel, Malta and the Berber speaking peoples of Morocco, it is evident that roots of these cultures, languages and nations endure.

In addition to their “strange” religion, the Jews and their Hebrew language recalled the ancient Punic-speaking Carthaginian foe of Rome. It is no wonder that the Romans, who willingly acknowledged their cultural debt to Greece, were loath to grant any credit to the vanquished Jews, Phoenicians and Carthaginians.

The expansion of the Phoenicians westward across the Mediterranean involved the collaboration of the Hebrews and eventually, Jewish proselytizing followed to the new North African colonies established by the Phoenicians. The Encyclopedia Judaica (vol. 5, p.215. Jerusalem, 1971) suggests that the acceptance of Judaism was a means of preserving the original Semitic-Phoenician identity of the settlers in Carthage and North Africa after the Roman conquest. In this way, they hoped to avoid assimilation to the Roman culture they so hated.

Morocco under Islam

Islam spread to Morocco in 680 by an Arab invasion launched by the Umayyad dynasty in Damascus. By 788, the Idrisids, a local tribal dynasty ruled the country. This and later dynasties were primarily an alliance of Berber tribes who had adopted Islam. The first Idrissi emir enlisted Jewish allied tribes to persuade their brethren in Morocco to profess loyalty to him rather than the caliph of Bagdad. The present ‘sharifian’ Alaouite royal house dates from 1659 and claims a direct descent from the prophet Muhammad, a tactic designed to reinforce its aura of legitimacy.


Christianity had been introduced by missionaries and a number of Moroccan martyrs testified to their faith during pagan times before the arrival of Islam. Since the emperor Diocletian in 296, the province of what is today Morocco (called Mauretania Tingitana) became part of the Diocese of Hispaniae. Later, under Islam, Christians were driven from the country.

During the period of the French “protectorate,” a number of large Catholic churches was constructed (including a beautiful cathedral in Casablanca), for the Christian population numbering several hundred thousand in 1950, mostly of European origin. Today’s Christian community of approximately 5,000 members, both Catholic and Protestant have the right to practice their faith openly although the government and Islamic clerics voice concern from time to time that there is an active missionary underground and that it is succeeding in making converts to Christianity in rural areas.

The Expulsion of the Jews from Spain and the Importance of Fez

Time and time again, The Jews of Morocco experienced contradictory behavior from their Muslim rulers and the great majority of their neighbors ranging from respect and gratitude to open contempt and utter disdain.

In 1146, southern Spain was inundated by a fanatical ultra-puritanical Muslim sect from Morocco that destroyed many of the beautiful palaces and artifacts constructed under the benevolent rule of the early caliphs (three of whom were named Abd ar-Rahman, successively numbered I, II and III) when the Muslims were still a small minority in Spain. Like their Berber predecessors, the Almoravids, the Almohads demanded the forced conversion of all Christians and Jews. Most Jews fled northward toward the Christian ruled kingdoms under enlightened rulers, especially Alfonso X (“the wise) centered in Toledo. A new “golden age” for Jews began there and lasted until the vicious pogroms of 1391.

To escape the Almohads, Maimonides fled from his native Cordoba in 1348 to Fez in Morocco. He may also have pretended to convert to Islam for a while. With the passage of time, the rulers of Fez who enjoyed a profitable trade across the Sahara and with Spain and the Eastern Mediterranean moderated their views and tolerated the entry of Jews. The famous Jewish quarter (mellah) of Fez became one of the most renowned centers of Jewish craftsmen and merchants in the Near East until it was partly burned down in 1912 when Muslim demonstrators rioted against the French occupiers.

Meeting Place of Indigenous Jews and the Sephardim

In Morocco, a historic meeting or confrontation took place between the indigenous Jewish population speaking Arabic and long settled in the country with the new wave of “Sephardim.” At first, the two groups maintained a separate existence with separate synagogues, cemeteries and religious schools but gradually intermarried and merged. The same process occurred at the eastern end of the Mediterranean between Greek speaking Jews in the Ottoman Empire and the new Sephardi refugees.

The influx of Sephardi refugees into Morocco aroused uneasiness both among the Muslims afraid of inflated prices and among the Jews already settled there. The Sephardi refugees surpassed the older Jewish Moroccans in education, commerce, and intellectual achievement and made many contributions to the stability of Alaouite monarchy.

The 15th century Spanish dialect spoken by the new arrivals was almost entirely a spoken vernacular rather than a literary language. It is today an almost extinct Romance dialect, (sometimes referred to as Haketia or western Ladino), that was spoken and spread throughout the Northern Morocco particularly in the towns of Tetuan, Tangiers and the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla (see Spain’s Overseas Plazas in Africa, the Gibraltar Question and the Western Sahara; A Complicated Chess Game New English Review; June 2010) in which it achieved official status before being absorbed by modern Spanish.

The history of the Jews of Morocco is more than ample testimony to the fact that the Jews were subject to recurrent humiliating ordinances that were periodically enforced to hold them in a state of degradation. The very term for the Jewish ghettos, the mellah is derived from the Arabic word for salt – required in order to preserve the severed heads of prisoners, convicts and the fallen enemies of the Sultan’s armies in battle. This task was assigned only to Jews. The rationale behind this was the same in Shi’ite Yemen where Jews were forced to clean public latrines – a demonstration of their inferiority (see New English Review The Yemenites

A French traveler, I. Chenier gave this account in 1787 of the dual life of many Moroccan Jews, eminently useful to the court and foreign trade but scorned, disdained and frequently humiliated by the Muslim masses.

The lowest among the Moors imagines he has a right to ill-treat a Jew, nor dares the latter defend himself, because the Koran and the judge are always in favor of the Mohammedan. Notwithstanding this state of oppression, the Jews have many advantages over the Moors: they better understand the spirit of trade; they act as agents and brokers, and they profit by their own cunning and by the ignorance of the Moors. In their commercial bargains many of them buy up the commodities of the country to sell again. Some have European correspondents; others are mechanics, such as goldsmiths, tailors, gunsmiths, millers, and masons. More industrious and artful, and better informed than the Moors, the Jews are employed by the emperor in receiving the customs, in coining money, and in all affairs and intercourse which the monarch has with the European merchants, as well as in all his negotiations with the various European governments.  

(Chénier, “Recherches Historiques sur les Maures et Histoire de l'Empire de Maroc,” ii. 351, Paris, 1787)

The same Chenier chronicled the great conquests of Moulay Rashid who took Marrakech in 1670 and destroyed the synagogues of the city, expelled many Jews, imposed onerous taxes on them and publicly executed the prominent Jewish governor by burning to inspire terror and forced the Jews to supply wine to Christian slaves. Contrast this with the prominence of those Moroccan Jews employed at the court and as ambassadors to foreign courts.

In 1789, the accession to the throne of Yazid following the death of Mohammed III led to a terrible massacre of the Moroccan Jews. Ironically, this “revenge” against the Jews was motivated by the service of a Jew as the consul of Spain (almost three hundred years after the expulsion!). Many fled to Gibraltar, under English control, and some in Morocco converted or accepted Islam.

With the intervention of France and Spain in Moroccan affairs in the 19th century, the Jews were frequently the victims of Muslim violence. War with France in 1844 and Spain in 1859 resulted in the plundering of many Jewish homes and brought new misery and ill treatment. Moroccan Jews have had ample examples throughout history of the inability of Muslim rulers and religious authorities to keep their promises. The ‘tolerant’ sultan Sulaiman (1795–1822) decreed that the Jews of Fez might be allowed to wear shoes rescinding a previous order that they go about barefoot outside the mellah but so many Jews were killed in the streets as a “reprisal” by religious zealots of that city as a result that the Jews themselves asked the sultan to repeal it. According to a statistical report of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, for the years 1864–80 no less than 307 Jews were murdered in Morocco and that on every occasion, no one was charged or tried for these offenses.

Intervention of Montefiore

By 1864, Sir Moses Montefiore, a prominent Jewish philanthropist, financier, and banker knighted by Queen Victoria, supported by the British government, went to Morocco following appeals to him by Moroccan Jews and demanded the liberation of wrongly imprisoned Jews and in a letter to the sultan, petitioned “to give the most positive orders that Jews and Christians, dwelling in all parts of Your Majesty's dominions, shall be perfectly protected, and that no person shall molest them in any manner whatsoever in anything which concerns their safety and tranquility; and that they may be placed in the enjoyment of the same advantages as all other subjects of Your Majesty.”

Montefiore was successful in both attempts and the prisoners freed followed by an edict on February 15, 1864,  granting equal rights. This edict was confirmed by Mohammed IV’s son and successor, Moulay Hasan on his accession to the throne 1873 and again on September 18, 1880, after the Conference of Madrid, designed to regulate affairs in Morocco. It is hard to blame the Jews for “collusion” with the European powers when their experience under Moroccan rule was so atrocious and why many refused to believe in the promises of protection by Morocco’s king in 1948.

Riots and Emigration

In June 1948, in the midst of the first Arab-Israeli war, riots against Jews broke out in Oujda and Djerada killing 44 Jews. In 1948-9, almost 20,000 Jews left the country for Israel. Throughout the early 1950s, Zionist organization were active in encouraging  emigration, particularly in the poorer south of the country, while wealthier families preferred nearby France. When Morocco obtained full independence in 1956, Jews occupied several important political positions in the new government, including three Members of Parliament and one Minister (Posts and Telegraphs). The government prohibited Jewish emigration to Israel from 1956 to 1963 but it was obvious that their future in an independent Morocco tied to the Arab League was bleak. By 1967, only 60,000 Jews remained in Morocco

The Six Day War of June 1967 resulted in Arab-Jewish tensions worldwide including Morocco and by 1971, the Jewish population was only 35,000. Most of the emigrants by then preferred France, or the United States rather than Israel. Jews were targeted in the Casablanca attacks of May 2003 by extremists making hollow King Hassan II’s appeals for Moroccan Jews to consider “returning to their homeland.” Meanwhile, the State of Israel is home to nearly 1,000,000 Jews of Moroccan descent, around 15% of the nation's total population. They made the right choice.

Jews of Fez, circa 1900

Temple Beth –El in Casablanca

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Norman Berdichevsky contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all his contributions, on which comments are welcome.


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