Legacy of Jews in the MENA - World Jewish Congress
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The Jewish Legacy of Morocco

The earliest period of Jewish settlement in Morocco is difficult to ascertain and we must differentiate between myth and historical evidence. Some Jewish communities, particularly in the Atlas or Pre-Saharan Oasis regions, dated their origins to the destruction of the first temple in 587 BCE. A theory by Ibn Khaldun in the fourteenth century, promoted by French colonial authorities and maintained today by Amazigh activists (though largely rejected by historians), claims that the indigenous Jewish communities of Morocco are in fact Amazigh converts to Judaism. 

Whatever the case, Jews were present before the Muslim conquest of North Africa between 647 and 709 CE. In 1492 and 1497, following the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal, Morocco’s local Jews, or toshavim, were joined by large groups of Spanish and Portuguese refugees, or megorashim. Over the centuries, Morocco’s Jewish community remained diverse, with strong local identities often superseding pan-Jewish or Moroccan ones. Many Jews were multilingual; most spoke the local Moroccan dialects of Arabic and some spoke dialects of Tamazight, or Berber. Many, particularly in the country’s north, spoke Haketia, a Judeo-Spanish language developed by the descendants of Iberian refugees. By 1945, the community likely numbered between 250,000 and 300,000, dispersed in hundreds of localities from Morocco’s coast to its interior regions. Today, less than 3,000 Jews live in Morocco, largely in Casablanca. 

Students from the AIU school in Casablanca, now known as the Ittihad-Maroc. Both Moroccan Jews and Muslims attend. (c) AIU
Students from the AIU school in Casablanca, now known as the Ittihad-Maroc. Both Moroccan Jews and Muslims attend. (c) AIU

Jewish Community in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries 

Jewish communities were socially, economically, and culturally vital to Morocco in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Jews primarily worked as artisans and merchants, and represent, even to the present day, Morocco’s only recognized religious minority. The traditional Jewish merchant would travel from town to town, collecting and selling wares, returning only for the Sabbath. So central were Jews to Moroccan society that Morocco’s perhaps best-known adage about Jews goes: “Morocco without Jews is like bread without salt”.  In the nineteenth century, some Jews became particularly integral to the Moroccan government by forming an elite cadre of merchants in Essaouira (Mogador) with exclusive rights to international trade granted by the Sultan in an effort to combat European economic penetration. 

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, after a series of wars with France, Spain, and Britain, Morocco was compelled to permit the introduction of a system of capitulations by which local Moroccans could be granted nationality and legal protection by foreign countries. While most Jews continued to operate within local Jewish and even Muslim courts, some elite Moroccans, including Jews, obtained foreign nationalities and became eligible to access consular courts, utilizing this legal pluralism to their advantage. This system came to an end in 1912 when Spain and France began their formal colonization of Morocco and established two “protectorates,” one in the country’s north and one in the south. Subsequently, Moroccan residents were governed by distinct legal frameworks, where Jews were subject to Jewish law, Muslims were subject to Muslim law, and, in addition, Spanish or French law was also applicable.  

Exceptionally, the northern city of Tangier, became an international zone dominated by Spanish influence. In 1912, Moroccan Jewry numbered between 110,000 and 120,000 (Gottreich, 2020)

Jews had previously served as interpreters and advisors to the Moroccan government, and following the French and Spanish colonization, many began to occupy intermediary, middle-class roles in colonial industries and administrations. Perhaps the most extensive modern influence on Moroccan Jewry was introduced by the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU), a French-Jewish organization that had begun opening schools in Morocco in 1862. Following the expansion of the school network after 1912 and its attainment of French financial support in 1928, a growing number of Moroccan Jews  opted to speak French and adopted new habits and dress. Though historians may have differing opinons, we cannot overemphasize the influence of the AIU on Moroccan Jewry, with 83 schools and 33,000 students in Morocco in 1956. Many Jews regard the schools as having been essential to defining their  modern experiences. Today, AIU alumni networks continue to reinforce international ties between Moroccan Jewish emigrants. While the role of the AIU is often either romanticized as a modernizing “savior” or rejected as a tool of colonization and uprooting, by the middle of the twentieth century, the network was largely administrated by local Moroccan Jews and operated within the context and according to the needs of local communities. After the nationalization of one-third of the schools in 1960 and the departure of many Jews, the Moroccan AIU, renamed the Ittihad-Maroc, closed many of its schools. Four remain today in Casablanca, attended by Moroccan Jews and Muslims. 

Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, exclusive Jewish neighborhoods, or mellahs, were introduced in major cities such as Fez, Marrakesh and Meknes. Though most Jewish communities across Morocco were not obliged to live in any defined quarters, many tended to live close together even in cities or towns without mellahs. After 1912, many Jews in major cities moved outside the mellahs and began living in new neighborhoods, often those built for European settlers. During World War II, under the rule of the French protectorate and Vichy France, the colonial administration unevenly instituted policies of numerus clausus [quotas] of Jews in the liberal professions and forced many to move from the new European neighborhoods back to the crowded and unsanitary mellahs. These policies were particularly felt in Moroccan’s large, urban centers. Among rural Jewish communities in the Moroccan interior, the war was manifested in increased scarcity of staple goods and the appearance of labor and prisoner-of-war camps in the Moroccan countryside. 

Significantly, Moroccan Jews were not deported to concentration camps in Europe, and German soldiers did not land in Morocco as they did in Tunisia. A popular narrative among Moroccans, both Muslims and Jews, is that King Mohammed V of Morocco was asked by Vichy officials to institute policies that were discriminatory toward Jews and refused, answering, “There are no Moroccan Jews, only Moroccans.” While there is little hard evidence of the Moroccan government’s agency in this matter, and despite concrete evidence of discriminatory policies instituted against Jews, the narrative remains a strong and popular understanding of Moroccan history. 

After the 1912 riots, the remnants of the French colonial artillery destroyed the houses of the Fez Mellah. (c) Ben-Zvi Institute
After the 1912 riots, the remnants of the French colonial artillery destroyed the houses of the Fez Mellah. (c) Ben-Zvi Institute

Dissolution of the Community 

Historians often track the dissolution of Morocco’s Jewish community to the beginning of European influence and colonization in Morocco. Still others point to the establishment of Israel in 1948 and its influence on or even uprooting of local Jews. While simplistic narratives ignore the agency and high pre-colonial mobility of Moroccan Jews, the changed character of Moroccan Jewry and the introduction of new tensions in Moroccan society over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is undeniable. As stated above, European powers compelled Morocco to permit residents or citizens to obtain foreign nationalities in the nineteenth century, allowing some Jews to operate outside of local legal frameworks. Formal colonization in the twentieth century and the influence of the AIU schools contributed to local Jews’ orientation towards the European West and France in particular. Zionism represented a small influence in Morocco until the middle of the twentieth century, and it largely manifested in contributions to Jewish communities in Palestine. In the 1920s and 1930s, an elite movement of “Westernized” Jews in Casablanca considered Zionism a way to renew Jewish culture and society in Morocco. Following World War II, the Holocaust, the disappointment of France’s Nazi collaboration, and the establishment of Israel, Zionism in Morocco became increasingly popular, particularly among young, urban Moroccan Jews in Zionist-oriented scout movements. 

While periods of targeted violence against Jews in Morocco have been historically few and far between, several stand out: the Almohad rule (1121–1269), the eighteenth-century rule of Alwai sultan Mawlay Yazid, and the period encompassing events following World War II and the establishment of Israel. In particular, disturbances in Casablanca’s mellah following the Allied landing in 1942, riots in the cities of Oujda and Jerada in 1948 that left 44 Jews dead and over one-hundred wounded, the massacre of seven Jews in Sidi Kassem (Petitjean) in 1953, and riots that erupted following news of the king’s return from exile in 1955 in numerous cities such as Casablanca and Taza stand out in the memories of Moroccan Jews. Despite guarantees of equality by Moroccan nationalists, many Jews feared a greatly deteriorated situation as Morocco hurtled towards independence in 1956. Though a small cadre of Moroccan Jewish nationalists, particularly Moroccan Jewish Communists, were active in Morocco’s decolonial movement and in independent Moroccan politics, most Jews were not active in the nationalist movement.  Additionally, the independent Moroccan state’s policy of not issuing passports to Jews between 1957 and 1961 until the tragic sinking of the clandestine ship the Pisces (Egoz) en route to Israel, and the deaths of the 44 Jews aboard, remain blights in Moroccan Jewish collective memory. 

Jews began emigrating in large numbers, particularly to Israel, following 1948. By 1960, 160,000 Jews remained in Morocco, and between 1948 and 1971, over 200,000 Moroccan Jews made their way to Israel. Over the twentieth century, relatively large-scale immigration to France, Canada (particularly Francophone Quebec), and Latin America (particularly Venezuela and Argentina) also took place. A small number of Jews returned to live in Morocco from Israel in the years following 1948, but by the 1970s the local community had dwindled, and continues to do so. Less than 3,000 Jews remain in Morocco today. 

Pinpointing a single reason for the departure of Moroccan Jews is not possible. The influence and organization of immigration by Israel; Jews’ traditional and sometimes messianic attachment to the Land of Israel; both European colonization and the uncertainties associated with decolonization; instances of violence and the fear of violence against Jews in Morocco; the Moroccan state policy of “Arabization”; Moroccan nationalists’ recurrent and sometimes antagonistic suspicion of Jews’ loyalty to Israel; Jews’ increased attachment to “Western culture” and the opportunities offered by foreign education; the exponential effects of emigration; and the rapidly changing economic and social conditions of the independent country; and many other factors can all be said to have played a part. 

The Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU), a French-Jewish organization, had begun opening schools in Morocco in 1862. (c) AIU
The Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU), a French-Jewish organization, had begun opening schools in Morocco in 1862. (c) AIU

The emigration of Moroccan Jews must also be understood within larger contexts of migration, some of which predate colonization. Movement between Palestine and North Africa took place for centuries before colonization, particularly in the form of shlihim, Jews who traveled to collect donations for Palestine’s Jewish communities. Shlihim who died in Morocco were venerated as saints, and many such graves still serve as pilgrimage sites for the Moroccan Jewish Diaspora. Other Moroccan Jews, such as elite merchants, traveled abroad under the sponsorship of the sultan as far as Britain. In the 19th century, communities of Maghribi (North African or Moroccan) Jews were recognizable in multiple Mediterranean ports such a Livorno and Jaffa, and in Jerusalem. 

Northern Moroccan migration to Latin America began in the nineteenth century, with Jews from Tangier and Tetouan seeking economic opportunities such as in the Peruvian rubber industry. These robust networks of Jewish migration between Latin America and northern Morocco existed before French and Spanish colonization. Later, Spanish colonial “philosemites” capitalized on northern Moroccan Jews’ attachment to Spain through narratives that considered these Jews Spanish “repatriates”. These narratives meshed well with northern Moroccan Jews’ existing accounts of ancestry in Spain, enabling a strong chemistry to develop between these Jews and Spanish settlers. The subsequent adoption of modern Spanish by many northern Moroccan Jews, in addition to pre-existing networks of migration, facilitated their migration to Latin America and later Spain. 

The Moroccan Jewish Diaspora 

Today, Jews of Moroccan descent largely reside in Israel, France, Canada, the Unites States, and several other centers. Moroccan Jews continue to represent a highly mobile and interactive Diaspora, with many families residing in more than three countries and regular movement between centers. Additionally, though return migration and visits were always possible for some Moroccan Jews, in the 1980s a booming “heritage travel” tourism industry began to develop, and today tens of thousands of Moroccan-born Jews and Jews of Moroccan descent visit Morocco every year to see the cities in which their families once lived or the cemeteries in which their families are buried, to pray at the graves of Moroccan Jewish saints for hiloulot [the anniversary of the death of a famous rabbi], or to take part in the wider Moroccan tourist industry. 

“Moroccanness” is also a strong Diasporic identity for descendants of Moroccan Jews around the world, particularly in Israel. Moroccan Jews have undergone multiple identity metamorphoses and revivals over the twentieth century, such as a “Sephardi” revival, notably in France and Canada. On the other hand, the desire to preserve their history and the discrimination faced by Moroccan Jews in Israel from the 1950s through the 1970s have spawned strong Moroccan, Mizrahi, and Sephardi identity movements, manifested through communal organizations such as brit yotzei marokko (the Association of Moroccan Jews), the Israeli Black Panther movement, and the World Sephardi Federation. In Israel, Moroccan contributions to culture, food, and music have become core aspects of Israeli Jewish society, both in central cities such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and peripheral cities with high concentrations of Moroccan Jews such as Beit Shemesh, Ofakim, Ashdod, and Be’er Sheva, among others. One example is the Mimouna festival, celebrated by many Moroccan Jews the day after Passover and particularly popular in Israel, but also among Moroccan Jews across the world. 

Jews In Morocco
Simon Lévy (1934–2011)

Simon Lévy (1934–2011), a prominent Moroccan political activist, linguist, and anthropologist, was born in Fez, Morocco, and dedicated his life to advocating for Moroccan independence and Jewish heritage preservation. In 1954, he joined the Moroccan Workers' Union, the National Moroccan Student Union, and the Moroccan Communist Party. Lévy refused French citizenship during the French colonization of Morocco, leaving him without citizenship for over 24 years. He remained committed to the Communist Party throughout his life, ascending its leadership ranks and advocating for a democratic Morocco. Lévy was an active member of the Party of Progress and Socialism (PPS), serving as a member of the Casablanca municipal council from 1976 to 1983 and holding editorial positions at various leftist-nationalist journals.

Hélène "Nelly" Bénatar (1898–1979)

Bénatar was a trailblazer in the field of human rights and law in Morocco. As the country's first native-born female lawyer, Bénatar used her education and platform to advocate for the rights of Jewish refugees and her community. In the 1930s, she was a prominent voice in local Jewish community life, writing articles and serving as the first female member of the Governing Board of the Moroccan Zionist Congress. Bénatar's legacy lives on as a reminder of the impact one person can have on the fight for justice and equality.

Zohra Elfassia (1905–1994)

Zohra El Fassia (1905–1994) was a renowned Moroccan female vocalist, known for her ​​​​shaʿbī and malḥūn singing styles, which narrated tales of politics, beauty, and heartbreak. Born in Sefrou, she began singing in coffee houses and cabarets in Fez, eventually earning the titles of ​​​​cheikha or maalema [master]. She moved to Casablanca in the mid-1920s and released numerous 78 rpm records through international labels, including Columbia Records and ​​​​Gramophone Company. El Fassia was one of a group of distinguished Jewish musicians across North Africa who achieved significant mainstream success. The king of Morocco, Mohammed V, was so impressed by her voice that he invited her to sing at his court.

Samy Elmaghribi (1922 – 2008)

Samy Elmaghribi, born Salomon Amzallag in Morocco in 1922, is an icon in Jewish-Moroccan music, harmonizing Andalusian and Jewish melodies. Nurturing his passion from a young age, he established the record label Samyphone, earning royal patronage and international acclaim. His musical journey led him from Morocco to Montreal and Israel, culminating as a cantor and Sephardi liturgy expert in New York. His legacy, immortalized through his foundation and captivating melodies, stands as a testament to music's power to bridge cultures and generations.

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