Morocco's Vibrant Jewish Legacy
A fly with CTeen through the history of the Moroccan Jewish community
Henry Worcman Schmiliver // São Paulo, Brazil
Jewish presence outside its homeland is a reality across the entire world since the genesis of modern civilization. They were present either among the residents of the old country, or the pathfinders of the new. Remembered as one of oldest, Jewish presence in Morocco goes from early before the common era, until the present time. Being worthy of the attention of tourists, CTeen presents its brand new group trip to Morocco aiming to put the history of local Jews in the spotlight and promote the rich and authentic culture that fizzes there. This long-awaited trip is a milestone for the representation of Jews with distinct backgrounds, and in celebration of such an occasion, here is a deep dive into the history and origins of the Jewish community of Morocco.
First Jews to arrive in the land of current Morocco came with Phoenician traders before the common era. Others arrived from Carthage, Tunisia, into newly developed Roman cities — as Rusadir and Volubilis — and some from Cyrenaica, Libya which would convert into Amazighs, an indigenous nomad ethnic group from Maghreb. In the 8th century, Al-Kahena, a Jewish-born Almazigh queen, fought against Arab invasions commanded by Idris I, which would progress to the establishment of the Idrisid Dynasty. Both Jews and Christians, subjugated under the power of Idrisids, were initially forced to convert to Islam and fled to uncontrolled areas. Successor Idris II, however, eased intolerance towards such groups and developed the city of Fez, Morocco, inviting the Jews to live there under Islamic restrictions, but with positive economic conditions.
The fall of the Idrisid Dynasty as rulers of Morocco was followed by the establishment of the Kingdom of Sijilmassa — land on both Morocco and Spain — by the Amazighs, responsible for the development of Marrakesh, Morocco. Inside the kingdom, Jews first settled in Aghmat, in the south of the country, where sufficient freedom and free access to Marrakesh was conceived during daytime. Renewed Jewish scholars migrated into the newly developed community, producing important religious written works responsible for constituting a "Golden Age” of Jewish literature. In the 12th century, however, power was taken by the Almohad Caliphate under Abd al Mu'min, representing fundamentalist Muslims who desired to eliminate the Jews and promoted the destruction of communities in both Sijilmassa and Draa. Maimonides, based on Cordoba, also under the care of the Almohad Caliphate, left the city and suggested Jews in both Spain and Morocco to do the same. By the year 1224, there were no longer any synagogues in Morocco.
It was in the 13th century, however, that Morocco was taken over by the Merinid Sultanate — Amazigh-Muslim empire — which extended the city of Fez towards Fez el-Jdid (new Fez), forming the current model also composed by Fez el Bali. The Merinid Sultanate, now in the power of the Kingdom of Sijilmassa, promoted protection measures towards the Jewish communities, achieving great coexistence during the 14th century. In the 15th century, in contrast to the previous 'golden years', protection of the Jews became impracticable, motivating the ruling Sultanate to move Moroccan Jews into fortified areas of the city, adjoining the royal palace. This would, afterwards, become the first “Mellah” — Jewish quarters — in the history of Morocco.
The Merinid Sultanate came to its end, being replaced by the Saadian Sultanate commanded by Abu Abdullah al-Qaim in the 16th century, which persisted with the protection of Jewish communities. Differently from the Merinids, the Saadian rulers heavily taxed the Jews and granted them the monopoly of sugar production in the country, to assure the availability of the payments. At the time of Saadian domination, ‘New Christians’ — Jews forced to convert to Christianism during the Inquisition — fled to Morocco and reconverted into Judaism, enjoying the positive position of recent authorities towards the Jews. Following the Saadian Sultanate, the power of Morocco changed to possession of the Alouite Dynasty in the 17th century, lasting until the present time, being the dynasty of the current royal family of Morocco.
The Alouite Dynasty held great cooperation with Jews, since they played an essential role in the foundation of the new empire — with capital in Meknes, Morocco — by financing parts of it. Moulay Ishmael was responsible for pacifying the country and moving the Jews into the new Mellah in Meknes, where they became prosperous traders. Successor Moulay Mohammed, in the 18th century, encouraged Jewish families to move to coastal cities — Mogador, Agadir and Tangier — becoming traders in exchange for special financial treatment, in a relationship of mutual contribution suddenly interrupted by the following successor Moulay Yazid who pillaged Mellahs and eliminated communities on Meknes, Marrakesh, and Fez. Sultanates following the power of Moulay Yazid allowed Jews to return to their respective Mellahs, where they remained.
The 19th and 20th centuries are remembered for European interventions in Morocco — Spanish and French protectorates — representing periods of instability for Jewish communities in the country. In 1948, after the establishment of the modern State of Israel, Moroccan sultans remained positive towards the Jews and battled anti-semitism, despite disapproving of the Zionist movements. The situation became unsustainable, as a result of the geopolitical tensions, culminating in pogroms in Oujda and Jerada where vivid Jewish communities lived. The attacks intensified Aliah movements in Morocco, resulting in the departure of 60 thousand Moroccan Jews towards Israel. After the independence of Morocco, when Jewish immigration became illegal, secret networks enabled another 35 thousand to leave the country. When it was finally legalized in 1961, immigration movements got even more intense, ending up with only 2000 Jews left in Morocco nowadays. Despite the increasingly low number, the rich history of Moroccan Jews remains alive, interesting, and worthy of a visit.
History of Jews in Morocco goes up to before the common era, being one of the most traditional and ancient of all Jewish communities in the entire world. Discovering such magnificent history, in person, is a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity; only possible with CTeen in its exciting new group trip through the best of Morocco. Be prepared to visit the country’s most thrilling locations, in addition to historical Jewish sites, dated millennia from now. You do not want to miss the chance to experience the summer season in Morocco with friends, combining fun with apprenticeship, and partying, with history and tradition, so make sure to look for future announcements.
“Jews in Moroccan History.” Visiting Jewish Morocco, May 1, 2021. <https://moroccanjews.org/home/jews-in-moroccan-history/>
“Jews in Islamic Countries: Morocco.” Jews of Morocco. Accessed December 26, 2022. <https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jews-of-morocco>
“História De Marrocos.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, February 13, 2022. <https://pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hist%C3%B3ria_de_Marrocos>
“Category:Roman Towns and Cities in Morocco.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, April 7, 2013. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Roman_towns_and_cities_in_Morocco>