Jews in Morocco past and present
Jews in Morocco past and present
The Jewish community in Morocco is not as large as decades ago, but it can be described as important and influential, united among themselves and committed to the preservation of their traditions. On this page, we tell you about its history and its current situation, information of interest to all tourists who come to Morocco. And in particular, for Jewish travelers who visit the country to learn about its origins, especially the Sephardim (Jews originally from the Iberian Peninsula), a people that still maintains great historical and emotional ties with Moroccan Jews.
Jews and Sephardim in Morocco: A bit of history
André Azoulay, one of the most important Moroccan Sephardim for being King Mohamed VI’s economic adviser, assures that the history of the Jews in Morocco is long, “many centuries”. And he is not without reason, since it is estimated that it is a history of almost 2,000 years. The Jewish presence in the country is believed to date back to shortly after the destruction of Solomon’s second temple in AD 70 under Emperor Titus. After that traumatic episode, there was a large diaspora that could have caused the arrival of the first Hebrews to the western confines of the known world, such as the Iberian Peninsula and the lands of North Africa: the Mauritania Tingitana province.
In the following centuries, the growth of the Jews in Mauritania Tingitana was very great, but their situation was not exactly idyllic. In fact, during the reign of Emperor Justinian (6th century), already converted into the Byzantine Empire or Eastern Roman Empire, the persecution of the Jews was promulgated, along with other groups such as the Donatists or the Arians. However, during the 7th century, many Jews continued to settle in the Maghreb, precisely because of the persecution that was also carried out on the other side of the Strait of Gibraltar by the Visigoths, after King Recaredo’s conversion to Catholicism.
After the Muslim conquest of North Africa, already in the 8th century, the Jewish population acquired a somewhat protected status: that of dhimmi, which meant relative tranquility, exempt from conversion, but with the obligation to pay taxes to the authorities. . And in fact, it is a term that is still used today to designate believers of Abrahamic or monotheistic religions, who deserve the respect of Islam, according to some interpretations of the Koran.
However, the situation worsened with the rise to power of the Almohads, a 12th-century Berber dynasty that enacted a much stricter adherence to the Muslim religion. There was strong persecution and repression of Jews, forcing them to convert to Islam by force, which caused emigration or hiding.
On the other hand, the relationship with the following Merinid dynasty was more relaxed, from the 13th century, with its capital in Fes, where a mellah (Jewish quarter) was created and its population held important positions in the kingdom and in society, such as collectors. tax, merchants, artisans, and other trades. However, that did not prevent bloody episodes from taking place, such as the assault on this neighborhood in 1465, with a large number of deaths.
Precisely Fes and other cities in the current territory of Morocco (Alcazarquivir, Marrakech, Tangier, Larache, Tetouan) received in 1492 one of the great waves of Jews in its history: the one that occurred after the Edict of Granada promulgated by the Catholic Monarchs, which forced Spanish Jews to flee or convert. The cities of North Africa thus became the new home for thousands of Sephardim, although the beginnings were far from easy, with reluctance even from the local Jews, which led many to return to the Iberian Peninsula and convert to Christianity. But those who stayed, which were the vast majority, put down deep roots, as can be seen today, since these cities are still the places of residence of many Jews in Morocco today.
On the other hand, the situation of the Jewish community at the end of the 18th century was more vulnerable: Sultan Yazid launched harsh reprisals against the Jews of the country, especially in the north, for having supported his brother in the disputes over the succession to the throne. They were also the target of the wrath of their Moroccan neighbors during the war with Spain, taking the opportunity to loot numerous houses in a community already hit by the crisis that had left the war with France two decades earlier.
However, Moses Montefiore’s trip to Morocco in 1863 marked a before and after in the relationship between Muslims and Jews in Morocco. Under the influence of this British Jewish banker and activist, Sultan Mohamed IV decreed the release of numerous political prisoners in the country and the granting of equal rights to Jewish citizens.
From then on, the social importance and political influence of the Jews in Morocco grew, rising to positions of trust of the monarchs. An example of this is the act of rebellion by Sultan Mohamed V against the anti-Semitic laws issued by the Vichy government in France, when this territory was a French protectorate. By some estimates, at the end of WWII, there were more than 250,000 Jews in Morocco.
1948 and 1949 were troubled years for them. In 1948, after the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli war or the Israeli War of Independence, many Moroccan Jews suffered attacks and reprisals. And in 1949, encouraged by the Zionist movement, tens of thousands of Jews began a great emigration to the newly created State of Israel.
This demographic bleeding did not change in the following decade, not even after the independence of Morocco in 1956 and the good treatment given by King Mohamed V to the local Jewish community. It is estimated that in the mid-1960s, the Jewish population dropped to around 60,000. This trend slowed down in the following decades but has not stopped, and it seems that the number of Jews in Morocco today is between 2,000 and 5,000 people. Of course, very attached to their homeland.
Moroccan Jews today
The Jewish community in Morocco currently maintains a high status and prestige, as well as a very good relationship with King Mohamed VI and the Public Administration. Precisely because of this proximity to the government apparatus, the majority of Jews reside in Casablanca, the economic capital of the country and very close to the political capital, Rabat.
Of course, the Jewish community celebrates its traditions and holidays with complete freedom and respect. One of the most symbolic is the Mimuna, which is even part of Israel’s Passover (Pesach), but which originates from the Maghreb: at the end of the period of abstinence from certain foods, Muslim Moroccans gave Jews gifts in their homes with other products such as bread, butter, honey, dates, and nuts. It is still celebrated today, often promoted and organized by institutions such as the Museum of Judaism in Casablanca.
Within the community of Jews in Morocco, there is a variety of origins, something that is manifested, for example, in the language of communication used. Many are those who use Judeo-Arabic, which is the variety also used in other Arabic-speaking countries, with the originality that here they use the Hebrew alphabet (alphabet). On the other hand, in the north of the country, where many Jews are of Sephardic origin, they still use Haketía today, which is precisely a dialect of Judeo-Spanish or Ladino, and which bears a surprising resemblance to current Castilian. However, above all of them, French has always enjoyed prestige and acceptance as a language of use.
In Casablanca there are social and health services dedicated to the Jewish population, kosher butcher shops, cemeteries, and more than twenty open synagogues, although in the rest this number is not as high, which is a reflection of the declining pace of the local Jewish community . . In fact, there is some concern about the future because the most likely young people go abroad to study and many do not return, which means that the trickle of emigration does not stop among the Jews in Morocco.
On the other hand, what is on the rise in tourism related to Moroccan Hebrew culture? to a large extent, because the interest of many Jews from other countries has grown, and in particular Sephardim, who want to know the links between their local culture and that of Morocco. But there has also been a great drive for the conservation and dissemination of heritage by Moroccan institutions. The aforementioned Museum of Judaism in Casablanca as well as other similar projects in Fes, El Jadida, or Marrakech, or the restoration of the Nahon-Massat Moshe synagogue in Tangier, dating from the 18th century, serve as an example.
The mellahs or Jewish quarters of Morocco
Within the set of tourist attractions related to the Jews of Morocco, the mellahs undoubtedly stand out. This term can be translated as the Jewish quarter, that is to say, what in Spain is understood as a Jewish quarter, with which they bear many similarities, and what in Italy is usually called a ghetto, although the latter has acquired a pejorative tinge. And curiously, the term mellah also ended up having it among the Arabs: although the word derives from the place where the first of all was built (Al-mellah, in Fes, which meant ‘the salt flat’), later the concept derived towards salty or cursed land’.
In any case, the history of these mellahs has gone through different stages. As we said, the first arose in Fes, in the 15th century, and for a long time, it was the only one. In the middle of the 16th century, another was created in Marrakech, and at the end of the 17th, another in Meknes, by order of the famous Sultan Mulay Ismail. Others arose at the beginning of the 19th century, such as Rabat, Mogador, Salé, and Tetuán, although the latter, curiously, was called the Jewish quarter.
They all had a number of common features. For example, they were walled in and their entrance and exit gates were flanked by the king’s men. After a certain hour, normally 9:00 p.m., no one could cross them. In addition, they used to be very close to the royal residence, as they held important positions in court and received official protection for this. In this way, the Jews of Morocco could maintain a separate life from the Muslims, since in these neighborhoods they had their own markets and services.
However, from the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the tendency was to move to the village Nouvelles, neighborhoods designed in the European style, with wider avenues and more open spaces, leaving the oldest people in the mellahs. Currently, these Jewish neighborhoods are already populated by local people and only a few details remain from their Jewish past and the memories that tourism keeps alive.
Muslims and Jews in Morocco a ray of hope
It escapes no one that, in general, the relationship between the two communities is tense, mainly due to the conflict in the Holy Land between Israelis and Palestinians. But, beyond these differences, the relationship between Muslims and Jews in Morocco can be taken as a ray of hope for mutual understanding and respect. That is what is happening in this country, where the Moroccan Jews have proudly felt their belonging to this land for almost 2,000 years, while the vast majority of Muslims, headed by the king, maintain a relationship of trust with their Jewish compatriots.
For this reason, at this point we can take up other words by André Azoulay, speaking of the relationship between the two peoples in this territory. He pronounced them in 1991 and they are a good summary of everything exposed:
“We are aware that there have been tense moments in the history of Muslims and Jews in Morocco. There are black pages. But the past of Moroccan Jews has nothing to do with that of Western Jews in similar periods. In Morocco, we have not seen deportations, Nazism, concentration camps, or Inquisition, at all. Furthermore, Jews and Muslims have lived together, respecting each other. And if you need any other help with your trip oe anything do not hesitate to contact bestmoroccotravel.com