Stages from the History of the Moroccan Jewish Community: Part II


Morocco, the westernmost country in North Africa, has a rich and treasured Jewish history dating back to antiquity, including legends that say Jews settled in the country before the destruction of the First Temple. Following the establishment of Israel in 1948, many Jews were forced to leave Morocco. Today, the Jewish population of Morocco stands at approximately 2,100 people. In this series of articles, we will be introducing the reader to stages from the history of this community spanning over the centuries.

13th-17th Century

From 1375, the Muslim world of the West clearly entered into its period of decline. The Jews of Morocco were all the more affected by this development because, unlike in Algeria, there was no revival due to the arrival of important Jewish personalities fleeing from the Spanish persecutions of 1391. The Jews who came to Morocco during this period were mainly of average erudition; moreover, just like their native brothers, they encountered the fanaticism which had been introduced among the Muslim masses by the mystics who had then founded the Marabout movement. This movement eroded the authority of the last Merinid sovereigns, and a serious deterioration in the condition of the Jews ensued. In 1438 the Jews of Fez were enclosed within a special quarter, the first Moroccan mellah.

The political and economic situation in Morocco during the 15th century was bad. The sultan ʿAbd al-Ḥaqq turned to the Jews in order to straighten out his finances. He chose the Jew Aaron ben Battas as his prime minister, but a short while later the Merinid dynasty was ended (1465) with the assassination of its last representative and his Jewish minister. A large number of Jews lost their lives in this revolution, and many others were forcibly converted. They were authorized, however, to return to Judaism when Muhammad al-Shaykh al-Waṭṭāsī came to power in 1471. According to local traditions, groups of Jews had in the meantime taken refuge in Spain. Among these were the family of the scholar and poet Saadiah Ibn Danan, who settled in Granada, as well as Ḥayyim Gagin, who became the leader of the native Jews upon his return to Morocco in 1492. The Jewish chroniclers are unanimous in their description of the welcome accorded by the sultan Muhammad al-Shaykh al-Waṭṭāsī to the Spanish and Portuguese refugees (megorashim) in 1492 and 1496. Bands of plunderers, however, attacked the numerous Jews on the roads to Fez, the town to which they had been attracted. Once they arrived there, they found a lack of accommodation and camped in the surrounding fields. About 20,000 of them died as a result of disasters, famine and diseases. Many of them returned to Spain. Under the influence of powerful religious personalities, a majority, both distinguished families and common people, permanently settled in the country. Among this new population there were such eminent men as Jacob Qénizal, Abraham Saba, Abraham of Torrutiel, Joshua Corcos, Naḥman Sunbal, and others. There was, however, also a trend for emigration to ItalyTurkey, and Palestine. Among those who left Morocco at that time were Abraham Zacuto, Jacob (I) Berab, David ibn Abi Zimra, and Judah Ḥayyat.

The newcomers were generally ill received by their native coreligionists (toshavim). In spite of the fact that the megorashim rapidly assumed the leadership in southern communities; such a possibility was for a long time withheld from them in the north. The toshavim feared their commercial rivalry and their technical superiority. Controversies broke out between the two elements. The former went so far as to question the faith of the megorashim. The latter, however, succeeded in strengthening their position and in due course dominated all the communities where they were represented. Fez became their spiritual center. Their rabbis issued a large number of takkanot, which were known by the name of “takkanot of the exiles of Castile.” These dealt essentially with the laws of marriage, divorce and inheritance and were based on Spanish tradition. For 450 years they separated themselves in this manner from the toshavim. The descendants of the megorashim jealously adhered to their ways and customs. They worshiped in their own synagogues and sometimes had their own lots in the cemeteries. In such northern communities as Tetuán and Tangier , the native Jews were completely assimilated among the descendants of the megorashim. Oblivious to their own origin, they disdainfully referred to their brothers of the interior as Forasteros (“aliens,” i.e., to the Castilian community). Until recently, most of these communities spoke Ḥakétia, a mixture of Spanish, Hebrew and an Arabic dialect. The ancient Castilian language, which differs from the Ladino spoken in the Orient, was, until the 19th century, in current usage among a large number of families of Spanish origin in both the north and south of the country.

At the beginning of the 16th century, Portugal occupied some of the Moroccan coast on the shores of the Atlantic. Communities of megorashim had settled in such ports as Azemmour and Safi. From the beginning, cordial relations were established between them and the Portuguese, who employed their members as official interpreters and negotiators. The political role of these men was of prime importance to the kings of Portugal. Indeed, the latter granted the Jews of their Moroccan bases rights which may be considered as extraordinary for that period; they loaded such families as Benzamero, Adibe and Dardeiro with favors. On the other hand, these Jews, as loyal subjects, did not hesitate in sacrificing their property or even their lives when this was required by Portuguese interests. The coreligionists who lived under the sharifs of Marrakesh or the Wattasids of Fez were the principal factors in arranging the peace, always unstable, between the Portuguese and the Muslims. Jacob Rosales and Jacob Roti, talented ministers of the Wattasids, endeavored to create a lasting reconciliation between the Christians and the Muslims. Counselors of Muslim princes such as Menahem Sananes or Abraham Cordovi pursued similar objectives. These exiles from Spain and Portugal often traveled to the Portuguese kings as Moroccan ambassadors. During their stay in the Iberian Peninsula, they also induced the Marranos to establish themselves in Morocco. During the 16th century, Morocco became a haven for Marranos who arrived from the Iberian Peninsula, the Madeira Islands, the Azores, the Canary Islands and even the Americas. In Tetuán, Fez, Meknès and Marrakesh, there were centers for reconversion to Judaism. Some Jews succeeded in transferring their fortunes there, while others, such as skillful craftsmen and especially the gunsmiths, found immediate employment. It was early Marranos who introduced a new process for the extracting of sugar from sugarcane. Due to their methods, Morocco became the leading producer of the world’s best sugar during the 16th–17th centuries.

Jewish Professions & Culture

Until recent times, the Jews of Morocco engaged in a variety of professions. In some regions there were farmers and cattle breeders among them; in general, however, they were mostly craftsmen, small tradesmen, peddlers, and at times moneylenders. Some industries, such as that of beeswax, and the trading of rubber and ostrich feathers were exclusively concentrated in the hands of the Jews. For religious reasons, the Muslims ceded to them the craftsmanship and trade of precious metals as well as the making of wine and its sale. Until 1912, the overwhelming majority of the maritime trade was controlled by a closed society of Jewish merchants. Wealthy and influential from father to son, some of them were court bankers or high officials. They held the title of “merchants of the sultan,” obtained for themselves or their protégés monopolies over a large number of products or foodstuffs, and held a monopoly over certain ports or took them in lease; the European countries entrusted them with their interests and they represented them before the sultan, officially or semi-officially. But the majority of the Jewish population, however, suffered in helpless poverty. The droughts which preceded famine and the exorbitant and arbitrary taxes which were temporarily levied on the communities from the 16th to the middle of the 18th century were the cause of their poverty. Nevertheless, the misfortunes which struck one community did not affect the others. It was thus, for example, a common occurrence that while Jews died of hunger in Fez or were persecuted in Meknès, prosperity reigned in the mellah of Marrakesh and Jews ruled the town of Debdou.

When there was a weakening of the central authority of the sultan, Morocco was divided up into subordinated territory (Bled al-Makhzen) and unsubordinated territory (Bled al-Sibā), the latter of which was always that of the Berbers under whom the Jews generally suffered less in their capacity of tolerated “protected subjects” (dhimmi). Many of them were the serfs of the Muslim lord; however, until the 19th century there were also many Jews in the High Atlas Mountains, the Sūs (Sous), and the Rif, essentially Berber regions, who carried weapons, rode horses, and did not pay the jizya. Like the Berbers, the Jewish masses of Morocco were marked by their religiosity. But a sincere, profound, and intellectual piety also prevailed within Moroccan Judaism; its development was inspired by the writings of Maimonides. Over the last centuries this Judaism produced genuine scholars and a large number of authors, such as members of the families of Ibn Danān, Ibn Ḥayyim, Abensur, Almosnino, Assaban, Ben-Attar, Berdugo, de Avila, de Loya ( Delouga), Elbaz, Uzziel, Serfaty, Serero, Toledano, and others. On given dates, thousands of Jews left on regular pilgrimages (Ziyāra) through the country to the tombs of saints whose origin was at times unknown and who were venerated by both Jews and Muslims.

In many educated circles, there was an inclination toward mysticism: its members devoted themselves almost exclusively to the study of Kabbalah. The Zohar, much esteemed in Morocco, was often the principal work in their curriculum. In several communities, particularly in Salé, Safi, and Marrakesh, teachers and disciples were grouped in closed circles from which emerged such personalities as: Joseph Gikatilla, author of Ginnat Egoz; Abraham ha-Levi Berukhim, author of Tikkun Shabbat; Joseph ibn Teboul, author of Perush al Idra Rabba; Abraham b. Mūsā; Ḥayyim b. Moses Attar, author of Or ha-Ḥayyim; Raphael Moses Elbaz, author of Kisse Melakhim; Joseph Corcos, author of Yosef Ḥen; Solomon Amar; and Abraham Azulai. Initiates of the Kabbalah have remained numerous in Morocco until the present day. Many others followed Shabbetai Ẓevi . During the middle of the 17th century, the movement of this pseudo-Messiah achieved considerable success in Morocco. In the West, an important role in checking it was played by the Moroccan rabbis Jacob Sasportas , Daniel Toledano and Aaron ha-Siboni .

According to a tradition, a Jewish scholar of Wadi Draa forecast to the Saʿdian sharifs that they would accede to the throne of Morocco. Encouraged by this prediction, they set out to conquer the country and took Marrakesh in 1525 and Fez in 1549. In fact, the Jewish counselors of the sharifs were not strangers to their progress. Their coreligionists – administrators, merchants and bankers – supplied their financial requirements; other Jews, former Marranos who maintained close relations with Europe, supplied them with weapons in their capacity as armorers. When the Portuguese army was defeated by ʿAbd al-Malik at the Battle of al-Qaṣr al-Kabīr (or Battle of the Three Kings, 1578), the Jews commemorated the event by a joyful Purim (Purim de los Cristianos). On the other hand, the tens of thousands of Christian prisoners taken in this battle were fortunate enough to be ransomed by the descendants of the megorashim, who treated them with indulgence. The liberation of these prisoners against ransom by their families and the conquest of Sudan in 1591 brought a considerable quantity of gold to Morocco. Many Jewish families, especially those in the retinue of Ahmad al-Mansūr, were among the beneficiaries of this exceptional prosperity. Of an enterprising nature, the Jews of Morocco traveled as far as India in the conduct of their trade; they also had gained a hold in the financial world, particularly in Tuscany, in one direction, and in northwestern Europe, in the other. This activity was in concert with the politics of the young Netherlands, which sought to strangle the economic power of Spain. In 1608 Samuel Pallache arrived in the Netherlands and in 1610 he signed the first pact of alliance between Morocco and a Christian country. The Pallache family played an active role in the political and economic interests of Morocco in Europe over a long period. The sultan Zidah (1603–1628) and his successors (1628–1659) took many other Jews into their service. As in former times, every Muslim leader had his Jewish counselor. The latter were the natural protectors of the Jewish masses. As a result, these masses generally lived in superior conditions to those of the Muslim population, which resigned itself to its fate.

“Frankish” Jewish families from Leghorn and Holland settled in Morocco. Some were attracted by the pirate traffic which operated from Salé and Tetuán. In Tangier, which was under British domination, a small community of “Frankish” Jews existed from 1661; relations with the Muslims, however, were maintained through the mediation of the Jews of Tetuán: until the evacuation of the town in 1684, the Parienté and the Falcon families played an important political role in the relations between the English and the Muslims. Moroccan Jews had also inaugurated a migratory movement a long while before.

There was a fair amount of emigration in the direction of the Holy Land, Turkey, Egypt, Italy (especially Leghorn and Venice), Amsterdam, Hamburg, England, and the countries of the two Americas. Occasionally, in their old age and once they had made their fortune, emigrants returned to their communities of origin. In Tetuán and later in Mogador, this was a frequent occurrence.

The Jews played a particularly important role in the rise to power of the Alawid(Alouite) dynasty of Hasanid descent, which still governed Morocco in the beginning of the third millennium. This role has been distorted by a legend which relates that at the time an extremely rich Jew, Aaron Ben-Meshal, governed the region of Taza and, as a tribute, demanded a young Muslim girl from Fez every year. By deceit, Mulay al-Rashid (1660–72) succeeded in assassinating this Jew and seizing his riches; the ṭolba (“students”) assisted him in this exploit. He was thus able to become the first sultan of the ʿAlawid dynasty. To this day, this legendary event is celebrated with much pomp by the ṭolba of Fez. In reality, Mulay al-Rashid, who lacked financial means, was backed by the Jews of the Taza, which was then an important commercial center and the first place which he had dominated; he employed a faithful and wise Jewish counselor and banker, Aaron Carsinet. In order to gain control of Fez, where he was enthroned, he entered the city through the mellah, where in secret he spent the night in the house of a notable named Judah Monsano. Mulay al-Rashid subsequently adopted a favorable attitude toward the Jews. His reign was a most prosperous one.

The Jews also successfully contributed to the rise to power of the brother of Mulay al-Rashid, Mulay Ismail (1672–1727), one of the most outstanding Moroccan monarchs. Mulay Ismail was khalifa (“viceroy”) in Meknès when, through one of his Jewish friends, Joseph Maymeran, he learned of the death of his brother in Marrakesh. The speed with which he received this precious information and the large sum of money which Maymeran loaned him enabled Mulay Ismail to have himself proclaimed sultan immediately. It is also related that not wanting to be indebted to Joseph Maymeran, Mulay Ismail had him assassinated. In fact, he appointed him steward of the palace, a function of considerable importance which was later held by his son Abraham Maymeran, who had become the principal favorite of the sultan. The Toledanos, Ben-Attars, and Maymerans all enjoyed the favors of Mulay Ismail, who during various periods appointed one or the other as shaykh al-Yahūd with authority over all the Jews of the kingdom. Moses Ben Attar signed a treaty with England in his name; Joseph and Ḥayyim Toledano were his ambassadors to the Netherlands and London. Moreover, Jews who were close to Mulay Ismail wielded their influence over him. Thus, in spite of his cupidity, violence and cruelty, the Jews fared better under him than the Muslim masses. The greatest part of his long reign was marked by peace and security, and the Jewish communities were able to develop in every respect. However, during the last years of his reign, which were overshadowed by plagues and conflicts between his rival sons, the situation of the Jews began to deteriorate.

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