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


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.

18th Century

The 30 years of anarchy and plunder which followed upon the death of Mulay Ismail exhausted and impoverished the Jewish communities of the interior; they consequently transformed their social framework. The Middle Atlas region was literally drained of its Jews. The departure of the village Jews toward the urban centers changed the aspect of the mellahs of Fez and Meknès. These quarters, which had until then been well maintained, were converted into slums, with the exception of a few middle-class streets. Most of the ancient families were ruined and lost all power, only to be replaced by a few parvenus. Some Ben-Kikis and Mamans were sent on diplomatic missions to Europe; their rivalry with the former Jewish bourgeoisie caused controversies within the community; some members of the Levy-Yuly family became “confidants” of the sultans. Slowly, the towns of the interior were abandoned by their leading Jewish elements in favor of the ports, to which the new arrivals were already linked by ancient ties with the Jewish financial circles living there. Rabat, Safi and especially Marrakesh replaced Fez and Meknès as rabbinical centers.

Mulay Muhammad b. Abdallah (1757–1790) had formally been viceroy of southern Morocco from 1745. He had established security and, with the assistance of Jewish and Christian financial circles, an era of prosperity unknown in the north of the country reigned there. As under the Saʿdians, Marrakesh once more became the capital and royal residence. Its Jewish community flourished but then entered a period of decline as a result of the avariciousness of the sultan in his old age. The community of Safi took over the leading place in the foreign trade of Morocco, while that of Agadir acquired the monopoly over the trading with the Sahara. These roles later became the privilege of the community of Mogador (Essaouira), which was founded in 1764. The operations of the big Jewish merchants in Morocco began to expand. Sugar production and trade and maritime commerce were almost entirely concentrated in the hands of Jews. Commercial operations reached the ports of the eastern coast of the United States at the end of the 18th century. From the reign of Sidi Muhammad Ben-Abdallah (1757–90) down to the end of the 19th century, it was usually Jews who acted as agents for the European Powers in Morocco.

The wide-ranging activities of the Jews of this circle promoted the development of such communities as Sala, Asfi, Tetuan and Tangier and influenced the growth of new ones. These latter communities also gained economic supremacy over such older ones in the interior of the country as Fez and Meknès and the communities of the Marrakesh and Tapilalti regions. These Jews exploited their political and economic position to improve their legal and social status and improve the lot of the communities where they operated. In fact, beginning with the end of the 18th century, a circle of Jews arose in Morocco with rights protected by agreements under the aegis of the European Powers. Called “protégés,” their number reached a few thousand. An example of the prosperity of the new type of community is Mogador in the last third of the 18th century. The beginnings of its accelerated development are linked to Sultan Sidi Muhammad Ben-Abdallah, who was interested in developing trade with Europe. He rebuilt the city and turned it into the chief port of Morocco. Ignoring the protests of the Muslim religious leaders, he levied taxes and customs duties on imports and exports and all the merchandise in the market place. He also brought to the city dozens of Jewish families, giving them special rights and exempting some of them from all the strictures (aside from the jizya tax) that applied to the Jews of Morocco. According to one source, there were around 6,000 Jews in Mogador in 1785. The city took on a Jewish character and the commercial center closed down on the Sabbath. The Jews of the city developed wide-ranging economic relations with Jewish communities outside Morocco, such as Amsterdam, London, Leghorn and Algiers. The renewed desire of Morocco in the days of Mulai Abd Rahman (1822–59) to develop trade with Europe – a change caused partly by French pressure to open the gates of Morocco to European commerce – gave new impetus to the ‘tjjar esltan (“King’s merchants”), who had gone into decline during the reign of Sultan Saliman (1792–1822).

Jewish merchants possessed various advantages: knowledge of Arabic and European languages, familiarity with local conditions, a good name and the confidence of the Sultan. The Sultan gave them greater freedom of movement in the country and custom discounts, and a number of them received the title of “King’s merchants.” Mogador served as a base for Jewish merchants operating in the south of Morocco and distributing European goods in Sous (the southern region of the country) and Sahara and exporting to Europe gold, ivory, ostrich feathers, almonds, olive oil, and goatskins. The familiarity of Jewish merchants with local business practices and their connections with the Sultan led European governments even to appoint local Jews as consuls (up to 1857). The condition of the Jews now improved throughout the country. Jews from abroad came to settle in Morocco. Among these were the Attals and Cardosos (Cordoza), who entered the service of the sovereign. Cardoso, however, drew the jealousy of the Attals upon himself and paid for this with his life. The leading favorite of the sultan was Samuel Sunbal, a scholar, ambassador to Denmark, and the last “sheikh” of Moroccan Jewry. Certain Jewish personalities encouraged friendship with the United States, where their relatives had emigrated and with whom they had important commercial ties. Isaac Cordoza Nuñes, an interpreter of the sultan in Marrakesh, and Isaac Pinto, a Moroccan established in the United States, were largely responsible for the signing of a treaty between Morocco and the United States in 1787, whereby the U.S. Congress paid Morocco for the protection of U.S. shipping interests in the Mediterranean.

Mulay Muhammad entrusted the Jews with all his negotiations with the Christian countries. Those of the community of Tetuán, whose members included some wealthy merchants and who, as in Mogador, acted as consuls, refused the rebellious son of the sultan, Mulay al-Yazid, an important loan which he had requested from them. When he came to power, Mulay al-Yazid (1790–92) wreaked cruel vengeance upon them and his hatred fell upon all the Jews of the kingdom. This was the greatest disaster which befell them after the period of the Almohads. In the first place, the community of Tetuán was handed over to the army, which plundered and perpetrated murder and rape. The communities of Larache, Arcila, al-Qaṣr al-Kabīr, Taza, Fez and Meknès then suffered the same fate. All the Jewish personalities who had been employed by the late sultan and upon whom Mulay al-Yazid could lay his hands were hanged by their feet at the gates of Meknès, where they remained for 15 days before they died. The treasurer Mordecai Chriqui, who refused to convert, was handed over to the executioner and Jacob Attal, who accepted such an offer, nevertheless died after being hanged by his heels. The notables and the Muslim masses then rose to intervene on behalf of the Jews. They hid many of them in their houses and saved a great many others. In Rabat, the governor Bargash saved the community from the worst. At the time Marrakesh had not been subordinated. Once it fell, the Jewish community was sacked, the men and children were massacred, and hundreds of women were taken into captivity. Mulay al-Yazid had the eyes of 300 Muslim notables of the town put out. Thousands of others were convened to the Great Mosque for prayers and massacred there. Shortly before he died as the result of a wound received in a battle near Marrakesh, Mulay al-Yazid ordered the drawing up of lengthy lists of Jewish and Muslim notables in Fez, Meknès and Mogador who were to be massacred. He died, however, before the order was carried out.

19th-Early 20th Century

The advent of Mulay Suleiman (1792–1822) came as a much needed respite. The new monarch was indeed opposed to violence but he proved to be a fanatic and the Jews felt the consequences. As he sought to seal off Morocco from foreign influence, he reduced trade with Europe to a considerable extent. He also decreed the establishment of ghettos in the wealthiest communities. In 1808 the Jews of Tetuán, Rabat, Salé and Mogador were for the first time enclosed within mellahs. The only exceptions were a few families in Mogador who continued to live in the residential quarter of the town. Since they were economically indispensable to the country, he restored to some of them their former prerogatives, notably to the Aflalos, the Corcos, the Guedallas, the Levy-Yulys, the Macnins, and the Sebags. He chose his diplomats, his bankers, and his counselors from these families.

The terrible epidemics of 1799 and 1818 depopulated Morocco and wrought havoc with its social and economic conditions. As a result, some of these families emigrated to England, where they gained a prominent place within the Jewish society of London. One of the members of the Levy-Yuly family, Moses, emigrated to the United States, where his son David Yulee became the first senator of Jewish origin.

The reigns of Mulay ʿAbd al-Raḥman (1822–59) and his successors Mulay Muhammad b. ʿAbd al-Raḥman (1859–73) and Mulay al-Ḥasan (1873–94) were marked by the pressure of the Christian powers on Morocco and an increased activity of the Jews in the economic and diplomatic fields. Meyer Macnin was appointed ambassador in London (1827); Judah Benoliel , consul in Gibraltar, successfully negotiated several treaties; Abraham Corcos and Moses Aflalo were entrusted with several delicate missions; many other Jews, such as the families of Altaras , Benchimol , and Abensur , played important roles in Moroccan affairs.

Until 1875, consular representation in the Moroccan towns was almost entirely assumed by Jewish merchants, and many of them held such functions into the 20th century. The European powers, concerned with their economic interests, granted protection to a large number of Jews. By often exploiting the defense of their protégés as a pretext, they interfered within the internal affairs of Morocco. A Jewish consular agent, Victor Darmon , was summarily executed on a trumped-up charge (1844). This became one of the causes of the Spanish-Moroccan War of 1860, when Jews were compelled to take refuge in Gibraltar, while those of Tetuán were the victims of a pogrom. Tangier and Mogador were bombarded by the French fleet. In Mogador the Jews, assailed by the tribes who came to plunder the town, defended themselves by force of arms. In Tangier, which only suffered some material damage, the Jews celebrated with a Purim (Purim de las bombas). Emigration nevertheless rose and the sultan reintroduced the exit tax which was to be paid by every individual who left the country. However, those who desired to settle in the Holy Land were exempted from this tax (1858). A number of families, many of them wealthy, then established themselves in Palestine.

The Moroccan people, already fanaticized by the French conquest of Algeria, accused the Jews of being the agents of European influence in Morocco. In some of the regions populated by the Berbers, the situation of the Jews became quite precarious. Measures which even went beyond the restrictions of Muslim law were imposed against the Jewish masses of the interior, which were more vulnerable than those living along the coasts: Jews were often sentenced to bastinado for trifling reasons. This situation prompted a visit by Sir Moses Montefioreto the court of Mulay Muhammad in Marrakesh; the later promulgated a dahir (“royal decree”; February 1864) which was marked by extreme benevolence toward the Jews and granted them equality of rights with all Moroccans. Nevertheless, this decree was never respected by the qāʾids and pashas. An energetic protest was then made by the consul general of the United States and other powers intervened on behalf of the Jews. France reinforced the system of consular protection and the other nations followed in her wake.

During the reign of Mulay al-Ḥasan and at the beginning of that of Mulay Abd al-Aziz (1894–1908), the Jews lived in tranquility. Mulay al-Ḥasan held a positive attitude toward his Jewish subjects, receiving their deepest respect in return. Upon the death of the sultan, the chamberlain (vizier) Ba Ahmad treated the Jews with justice and fairness.

During the 19th century Moroccan Jewry, whose number has been variously evaluated as being between 200,000 and 400,000, produced many renowned rabbis, poets, and talmudists, as well as a number of legal authorities whose works continued to serve as the basis for the justice dispensed by Jewish tribunals under the French Protectorate. These scholars included: R. Abraham Coriat and R. Masʿūd Knafo of Mogador, R. Masʿūd Ben-Moha and R. Mordecai Serfaty of Marrakesh, R. Joseph Elmaleh of Rabat, R. Raphael Encaoua of Salé, R. Vidal Serfaty of Fez, R. Isaac Ben-Walīd of Tetuán and R. Mordecai Bengio of Tangier. Many of these leaders realized the importance of secular studies for the masses and they assisted the Alliance Israélite Universelle of Paris in founding its first schools in Tetuán in 1862, in Tangier in 1865, in Mogador in 1867, and in other Moroccan towns from 1874. In contrast, other rabbis violently opposed the establishment of these schools, which they foresaw would encourage an estrangement from Judaism.

Upon the death of Ba Ahmad (1900), an epidemic of plague ravaged Morocco. In the mellah of Fez alone, there were more than 3,000 victims; the country then entered a period of anarchy during which the Jewish population suffered greatly. During the entire second half of the 19th century, thousands of impoverished Jews swelled the Jewish populations of the large urban centers. The overcrowding of the Jewish quarters became indescribable. This exodus went on uninterruptedly into the 20th century. Casablanca, which underwent a tremendous expansion, was its final halting place.

The misery which prevailed in the Jewish quarters and which was partly due to the inability of the ex-villagers to adapt to urban life, became one of the social stains of Morocco. Jewish economic activity reminiscent of years past was considerably curtailed, also, because of the creation of the French Protectorate in 1912 which brought competition from French firms and large banks (and later from other West European and American ones). But at the same time a new bourgeoisie of middle-class merchants, professionals and white-collar workers began to flourish.

In 1912, Morocco was divided into two colonial zones and protectorates: French Morocco that encompassed central Morocco, the key inland cities and towns, the Atlas Mountains to the south, and the Atlantic coastal areas; and Spanish Morocco (in the north and the Rif Mountains). In December 1923, Tangier in the north became an international zone. The establishment of the French Protectorate in March 1912 was marked in Fez by a pogrom which claimed over 100 victims (April 18–19, 1912). However, there were no incidents in the zone assigned to Spain or in Tangier, which was declared an international town. Under the French and Spanish domination, the Jews enjoyed complete freedom in all matters pertaining to their traditions, religion, occupations and movement. France and Spain did not interfere with the status of the Jews of Morocco, who remained subject to the sultan’s protection – this proved to be advantageous for them when the anti-Jewish laws were latter issued by the Vichy government.

In a dahir of May 22, 1918, the French authorities contented themselves with granting official status to the existing organization of the Jewish communities, with a few modifications. These changes were more particularly emphasized by the dahir of 1931. During the 19th century, a council of notables appointed by the population was responsible for the administration of the community. A gizbar (“treasurer”), who was elected by the leading personalities of the town, was co-opted to the council. The council and the gizbar were responsible for the nomination of the rabbis-judges (dayyanim).

After 1912, the nation which assured the protectorate, i.e., France, claimed for itself, directly or indirectly, most of the prerogatives emanating from this organization and more particularly the tutelage of the community committees, which then became mere benevolent institutions. These committees, the number of whose members varied with the numerical importance of the community, as well as their presidents, were appointed by the grand vizier, who in practice was dependent on the protectorate authorities. Moreover, the committees were supervised by a Jewish official of the government, who was chosen because of his devotion to French interests. By the maintenance of such a strict control over the Jewish elements of the country, the protectorate authorities revealed their distrust. Few Jews, however, were politically hostile toward France. It was the task of the community committees to bring relief to the numerous Jews living in miserable conditions. Their budget continued to be raised from the income derived from the sale of kasher wine and meat, the revenues from charitable trusts (hekdesh) which they administered, and the often generous contributions of the upper classes and Jews from overseas. The authorities did not grant them any subsidies.

With the exception of Tangier, where there were special circumstances, and a few other rare cases, the old Jewish upper class kept its distance from these community committees. They were constituted of new elements which came from a middle class that until then had been practically nonexistent in Morocco. The members of these committees were generally all loyal to the French authorities. The children of the long-time upper class were usually sent to the French primary or secondary schools. Their religious instruction was entrusted to private teachers. Living within a traditional environment which had withstood many a trial, they were sheltered from religious estrangement and unreserved assimilation. The westernization of the new class, which was accomplished by the Alliance Israélite Universelle, did not alienate this stratum from Jewish traditions and values. Their potential complete integration among the colonizers, however, was thwarted by the antisemitism of the middle-class Frenchmen of North Africa. A large number of Jews of this new social class amassed considerable wealth as a result of the accelerated development of the country. This new middle class formed an important section of the larger, as well as the smaller, communities. Moroccan Jewry was consequently transformed. Some Jews took up higher studies in Morocco itself or in French universities. At the same time, however, the French refused requests by educated Jews to grant them French citizenship and thus release them completely from Moroccan judicial jurisdiction. Unlike Algeria where the Jews were granted French citizenship collectively in the spirit of the Crémieux Decree of October 24, 1870, or Tunisian Jewry who were offered the same status on a moreselective basis in the context of the 1923 Morinaud Law, the Moroccan counterparts were denied this privilege. The French protectorate authorities, like the Spanish zone administration, did not wish to alienate Moroccan Muslims over this sensitive issue; they were equally concerned about the reactions of the European settlers who regarded the bestowal of any significant privilege on the Jews as a threat to their own status.

From 1912, Morocco attracted a large number of Jews from Algeria and Tunisia. Others arrived from Middle Eastern countries and Europe. In 1939 the Jewish population of Morocco, including foreign Jews, was estimated at 225,000. Until then, political Zionism had won only a few adherents in Morocco. Zionism, however, was often discussed in youth movements and organizations and regular lectures on the subject were given in Jewish circles.

The philanthropist Raphael Benozérof was most active in the Zionist movement in Morocco, spreading its ideas among both the masses and the elite of the Jewish community. A periodical, L’Avenir Illustré, which was published in Casablanca from 1926, regarded itself as the organ of Moroccan Jewry, as well as the standard-bearer of Zionism. It actually became the unofficial voice of the Moroccan Zionist Federation that was then subordinate to the Zionist Federation of France and aroused the opposition of those who stood for the evolution of Moroccan Jewry and its assimilation into French culture. The French authorities, too, were unhappy with the orientation of the periodical. From 1932, elements opposing the Zionists published L’Union Marocaine.

In 1939, World War II interrupted the publication of these two Jewish organs. Although Zionism gained momentum in the mid-1940s through the action of emissaries from Ereẓ Israel who came in contact with local Jews and helped them establish halutzic movements affiliated with Ha-Shomer ha-Ẓa’irBnei Akiva, Dror, HabonimGordonia and Betar, while Zionist parties became part of the Moroccan Zionist associations and the federation (MapaiPo’alei ẒionHa-Po’el ha-MizrachiGeneral Zionists and Ḥerut) starting in the late 1940s, Zionist activity between the two world wars still carried some symbolic weight.

Growing Anti-Semitism & World War II

Modern anti-Semitic tendencies, though prevalent among the European settlers, were practically nonexistent among Moroccan Muslims before the 1930s. The situation changed after 1933, when German and Italian fascist propaganda became widespread. European anti-Semitic elements in Morocco seized upon the Palestinian Arab Revolt of 1936–39. They presented “international Jewry” negatively before Muslims whose solidarity with the Palestinian Arabs was unquestioned. Furthermore, Moroccan nationalists were then unhappy with local Jewry’s lack of enthusiasm for their cause. Some nationalists were moderates, but others identified with aspects of European fascism. Muslim-Jewish tensions emerged in several inland French Moroccan cities as a result of this atmosphere.

In the Spanish zone anti-Jewish nationalist declarations disturbed Jews. When the secretary of the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, visited the zone in July 1939 to raise money, nationalists held conferences where they yelled, “Death to the Jews” and “Death to the British.” The Spaniards did nothing to contain the unrest. Yet the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 prompted the Spaniards to restrain pro-fascist youth gangs which harassed Jews.

The outbreak of World War II in 1939, the German occupation of France in 1940, and the establishment of the Vichy government rendered the Jews of French Morocco powerless. King Mohammed V met with representatives from Nazi Germany and Vichy France to discuss the issue of Jews in Morocco. The king said, “There are no Jewish citizens, there are no Muslims citizens, they are all Moroccans.” 

Still, on October 3, 1940, the Vichy government enacted its first anti-Jewish law in France. Article 9 concerning the status of the Jews was introduced in the French zone by the Sultanic Decree (zahir) of October 31, 1940. It applied to all Jews by “race,” which was defined as three Jewish grandparents, as well as all members of the Jewish faith. The law expressly authorized the exercise of rabbinic jurisdiction and allowed Jews to continue teaching at institutions intended solely for Jews. The Vichy Law of June 2, 1941, increased the hardships inflicted by the law of October 1940. It was implemented by the zahirs of August 5, 1941, which were issued separately for Moroccan Jews and the European Jews living in the zone.

The decrees which followed were designed to deprive Jews from working in a wide array of professions, including real estate, moneylending, banking, non-Jewish journalism, and radio broadcasting. Jewish children were expelled from schools, Jews were fired from government jobs, and there were quotas on how many Jews could attend universities or work as doctors, lawyers and pharmacists. Jews were allowed to engage in crafts and wholesale trading. At the same time, Vichy policy allowed only two percent of the total number of lawyers and physicians to be Jews.

The Vichy Law of July 22, 1941, concerning the “Aryanization” of the economy was implemented in Algeria but was not introduced into French Morocco. In education, the policy of limiting the number of Jews in the protectorate’s schools to 10 percent was enforced harshly though perhaps not completely. The French continued to subsidize the AIU schools because they did not wish to see Jewish children developing an aversion to French culture.

Morocco’s Jews were not forced to wear the yellow star, their property was not seized, they were not stripped of their citizenship, and not a single Jew was sent to a concentration camp. Foreign Jews who sought sanctuary in Morocco, however, were placed in labor or concentration camps, together with “undesirable” elements.

Immediately after the U.S. landings in North Africa, the Rabbi Eliahu Synagogue in Casablanca was desecrated and pogroms broke out all over the country. The landing of the allied forces in French Morocco on November 8, 1942, and its liberation did not result in the immediate obliteration of Vichy influence. This occurred only in the summer of 1943 when French Gen. Charles de Gaulle‘s supporters replaced the pro-Vichy elements.

While it is premature to assess the extent of the implementation of Vichy laws in French Morocco, not a single discriminatory law was issued against the Jews in the Spanish zone after General Francisco Franco came to power in Spain. Spanish and local government officials foiled the efforts of German agents in the zone to foment anti-Jewish feelings. Jews in the International Zone of Tangier, however, faced certain problems related to immigration.

During 1942–43, Tangier had 1,500 to 2,000 Jewish refugees, many of whom had arrived before the war. Approximately half were Sephardim originating from the Dodecanese Islands (then under fascist Italian occupation); some had left Rhodes for Italy and France even before Italy introduced anti-Jewish laws in 1938. The Central Europeans had come mainly from Hungary and Poland via Italy. As long as Tangier remained an international zone, refugees were admitted without difficulty. After the fall of France and Spain’s temporary occupation of Tangier, these people were deprived of various rights, including work.

The indigenous Jewish elites of Tangier were far better off than their counterparts in French Morocco before and during the Spanish occupation. The small businessmen and lower middle class, however, were heavily taxed and they could not renew their import-export licenses. Politically, the Spanish occupiers dissolved the zone’s legislative assembly, while the zahir of February 15, 1925, legalizing the Jewish community council, was abrogated. All community activity came under Spanish supervision. The Jewish community lost the subsidies that the government had hitherto allocated generously, as well as the right to elect a slate of community leaders from which the Spaniards would select appointees. All these restrictions were lifted with Spain’s withdrawal in 1945 and the restoration of the international zone.

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