Under the Romans
When the Jews began to disperse throughout the Roman empire after the dissolution of the Jewish state in 70 CE, many settled in Mauretania including part of modern-day Morocco. These settlers engaged in agriculture, cattle-raising, and trades. They were divided into bodies akin to tribes, governed by their respective heads, and had to pay the Romans a capitation-tax of 2 shekels.
Under the dominion of the Romans – and after 429 of the Vandals – the Mauretanian Jews increased and prospered to such a degree that Church councils of Africa found it necessary to take a stand against them. The Justinian edict of persecution for North Africa, issued after the Vandal rule had been overthrown and Mauretania had come under the dominion of the Byzantines (534), was directed against the Jews as well as the Arians, the Donatists, and other dissenters.
In the 7th century, the Jewish population of Mauretania received as a further accession from Iberian peninsula those who wished to escape Wisigothic legislation. At the end of the same century, at the time of the great Arab conquests in northwestern Africa, there were in Mauretania, according to the Arab historians, many Jews.
Arab Conquest and the Idrisids (703–1146)
It was a supposedly Berber Jewish woman Dahiyah, or Damia (mistaken identity), better known as Kahina, who aroused her people in the Aures, the eastern spurs of the Atlas Mountains in Algeria, to a last although fruitless resistance to the Arab general Hasan ibn an-Nu’man. As in the Hellenic lands of Christendom, so also in Mauretania, Judaism involuntarily prepared the way for Islam; and the conversion of the Berbers to Islam took place so much the more easily. Berbers also accepted Islam while others were persuaded by the fact that the other side had been successful. The Jews were largely accepted.
However, the theory of massive Judaization of the Berber population is called into question by the recent study on the mtDNA (transmitted from mother to children). In the study carried out by Doron et al. indicate that Jews from North Africa lack typically North African Hg M1 and U6 mtDNAs. Hence, the lack of U6 and M1 chromosomes among the North African renders the possibility of significant admixture between the local Arab and Berber populations with Jews unlikely.
When, at the end of the 7th century, Morocco came under the dominion of the Arabs, another incursion of Arab Jews into Morocco took place. The [Moroccan] Jews, like all other Jews in the Islamic empire, were subject to the Pact of Omar, which defined the status of dhimmi. The dependence of Morocco from the Caliphate of Baghdad ceased in 788, when, under the Idris ibn Abdallah (known as Idriss I), the dynasty of the Idrissids, the descendants of Ali, was founded and proclaimed its independent rule over Morocco. The Jews undertook a political role in the history of the subjection of Morocco to Idriss I.. After he had conquered Tangier and Volubilis, he wished to induce the Jewish ‘tribes’, which were inclined to remain faithful to the caliph of Bagdad, to join his army. To make them more pliant to his wishes he caused them to be attacked and robbed in some of their cities, as in Temesna, Chellah, and Magada, whereupon the Jews of Tadla, Fazaz, and Shawiya joined Idriss’ army under their ‘general’ Benjamin ben Joshaphat ben Abiezer. After the combined army had met with some successes, the Jews withdrew, because they were horrified at the spilling of blood among those of their own brethren who were hostile to Idriss. The victorious Idris, however, took revenge by again falling upon them in their cities. After an unsuccessful resistance they had to conclude a peace with him, according to which they were required to pay an annual capitation-tax. Later traditions attribute even still greater indignities inflicted on the Jewish women of Morocco by Idris.[unreliable source?]
Idriss II, successor of Idriss I, allowed the Jews to settle in a special quarter of his capital, Fez (founded in 808), in return for a tax of 30,000 dinars; in one of the many versions of the narrative of the founding of the city a Jew is mentioned. Moreover, at the end of the 7th century, under Idriss I, Jews could settle in different cities of the realm by paying the above-mentioned capitation-tax.
Under the Almohads (1146-15th century)
The tolerance of the jizya (the tax demanded of dhimmis) paying Jews and Christians in the cities of Morocco came to an end under the intolerant dynasty of the stern Almohades, who came into power in 1146. Jews and Christians were compelled either to accept Islam or be killed. Here, as in other parts of North Africa, many Jews who shrank from emigrating pretended to embrace Islam. For example, names such as Benchekroun (initially Chokron or Choukroun or Chekroun depending on the pronunciation), El Kohen, and Kabbaj were Jewish in origin. Maimonides, who was staying in Fez with his father, is said to have written to the communities to comfort and encourage his brethren and fellow believers in this time of oppression (see Ibn Verga). In the above-mentioned elegy of Abraham ibn Ezra, which appears to have been written at the commencement of the period of the Almohads, and which is found in a Yemen siddur among the kinot prescribed for the Ninth of Ab, the Moroccan cities Ceuta, Meknes, the Draa River valley, Fez, and Segelmesa are especially emphasized as being exposed to great persecution. Joseph ha-Kohen relates that no remnant of Israel was left from Tangier to Mehdia. Moreover, the later Almohads were no longer content with the repetition of a mere formula of belief in the unity of God and in the prophetic calling of Muhammad. Abu Yusuf Ya’qub al-Mansur, the third Almohad prince, suspecting the sincerity of the supposedly converted Jews, compelled them to wear distinguishing garments, with a very noticeable yellow cloth for a head-covering; from that time forward the clothing of the Jews formed an important subject in the legal regulations concerning them. The reign of the Almohads on the whole exercised a most disastrous and enduring influence on the position of the Moroccan Jews. Already branded by their clothing as unbelievers, they furthermore became objects of scorn and violent despotic caprice from which there was no escape.
An account by Solomon Cohen dated January 1148 AD describes the Almohad conquests:
“Abd al-Mumin … the leader of the Almohads after the death of Muhammad Ibn Tumart the Mahdi … captured Tlemcen [in the Maghreb] and killed all those who were in it, including the Jews, except those who embraced Islam. … [In Sijilmasa] One hundred and fifty persons were killed for clinging to their [Jewish] faith. … One hundred thousand persons were killed in Fez on that occasion, and 120,000 in Marrakesh. The Jews in all [Maghreb] localities [conquered] … groaned under the heavy yoke of the Almohads; many had been killed, many others converted; none were able to appear in public as Jews.”
The Spanish Expulsion of the Jews and life under the rule of the Merinids and the Saadites
By 1249, The Spanish Reconquista had concluded its main phase. During the murderous scenes which were enacted in 1391 in Spanish-Controlled Seville, and were repeated in a large part of Spain and then across the sea in Majorca, the Sephardi Jews of Spain were glad to seize the first opportunity to emigrate to North Africa in order to escape the persecution. A hundred years later, Ferdinand and Isabella decreed the [Alhambra Decree|Edict of the Expulsion of the Jews]. The Jews were then driven from Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1496. Their sudden inroad upon Morocco and the whole of North Africa was then repeated on a very much larger scale.
This unexpected flood of Spanish immigrants, which soon caused overcrowding in the larger cities of Morocco, aroused uneasiness both among the Muslims, who feared an increase in the price of necessities, and among the Jews already settled there, who had hitherto barely succeeded in gaining a livelihood by following handicrafts and in petty commerce. In addition to this, unfriendly reception, the newcomers had to endure much from both great and small rulers eager for booty, as well as from the Moorish population (see Ibn Verga). In Sale, in 1442, many Jewish women were raped; and in Alcazarquivir, the Jews were robbed of all they possessed. Many died of hunger and some returned to Spain; most fled to Fez, where new trials awaited them. A terrible conflagration occurred in the Jewish quarter of that city, from which the historian of these events, Abraham ben Solomon of Torrutiel, then eleven years of age, escaped. A famine broke out soon after the fire, during which more than 20,000 Jews died in and around Fez. Notwithstanding these untoward events, the secret Jews or Marranos who were left in Spain and Portugal and who were determined to remain true to their faith under all circumstances so little feared the dangers and trials of removing to a foreign country that Manuel I, King of Portugal (1495–1521), felt obliged to forbid the Jews to emigrate without express royal permission. This prohibition was contained in two ordinances dated respectively April 20 and April 24, 1499. Nevertheless, with the aid of money and the exercise of shrewdness many Marranos succeeded in escaping to Africa. A certain Gonçalo of Loulé was heavily fined because he secretly transported Neo-Christians from Algarve to Larache on the coast of Morocco.
A new group of Marranos was brought to Morocco through the definite establishment of the Inquisition in Portugal under Pope Paul III in 1536. But in spite of all the suffering which Portugal had brought upon the Jews, there yet remained enough patriotism in the hearts of her rejected Jewish sons to cause them to help their former oppressors to preserve their old possessions on the Moroccan coast and to gain new ones. Through the strategy of a Jewish physician the Portuguese in 1508 succeeded in conquering the old seaport town of Safi, which had a large number of Jewish inhabitants and which, chiefly through them, had become an important commercial center. Two years later, in the same city, upon the reconquest of which the Moors had been steadily intent, was besieged by a large Moorish army. Thereupon two Portuguese Jews, Isaac Bencemero and a certain Ismail, brought assistance to the besieged with two ships manned by coreligionists and equipped at their own cost. In Safi, the Jews were allowed to live as such by Emanuel’s permission; also in Asilah after 1533, which had long been a Portuguese possession. In the quarrels which afterward took place between the Moors and the governors of Azamur in 1526, Abraham ben Zamaira and Abraham Cazan, the most influential Jew in Azemmour in 1528, served the Portuguese as negotiators. The Jews Abraham and Samuel Cabeça of Morocco also had dealings with the Portuguese generals. When, in 1578, the young king Sebastian with almost his whole army met death, and Portugal saw the end of her glory, at Alcazarquivir, the few nobles who remained were taken captive and sold to the Jews in Fez and Morocco. The Jews received the Portuguese knights, their former countrymen, into their houses very hospitably and let many of them go free on the promise that they would send back their ransom from Portugal. Numerous newly immigrated Jews, whose descendants faithfully adhere to the use of their Spanish dialects, Ladino and Haketia to the present day and who surpass older Jewish Moroccans in education and intellectual achievement, subsequently become prominent in Moroccan history. With their skill in European commerce, arts, and handicrafts, hitherto largely unknown to the Moors, and with their wealth, Jews have contributed conspicuously to the rise and development of the Alaouite Dynasty since its beginning in 1666.
Under Moulay Rashid and Moulay Ismail
Kabbalistic charm against scorpions from Morocco.
The Jews suffered much during the great conquests of Moulay Rashid, who united the separate parts of Morocco into one single state, and wished to add to it all northwest Africa. According to Chénier, when Al-Raschid took the city of Marrakech in 1670, at the desire of the inhabitants he caused the Jewish counselor and governor of the ruling prince Abu Bakr, together with the latter and his whole family, to be publicly burned, in order to inspire terror among the Jews. He also tore down the synagogues of the city, expelled many Jews from the Berber region of Sus and treated them tyrannically. His demands on the Jews in the way of taxes were enormous; he had them collected by Joshua ben Hamoshet, a rich Jew, to whom he was under obligations for various services and whom he appointed chief over the Jews. He even ordered the Jews to supply wine to the Christian slaves.
Moulay Rashid’s successor was his brother Ismail (Moulay Ismail) (1672), one of the cruelest of tyrants. On his accession Ismail appointed his Jewish adviser Joseph Toledani, son of Daniel Toledani, Moulay Raschid’s counselor, to be his minister, in which capacity Joseph concluded a peace between Morocco and Holland. Under Ismail’s rule the ruined synagogues were rebuilt, although his taxes on Jews were oppressive. One day, he threatened to compel them to accept Islam if their Messiah did not come within a definite time. The Jews understood the hint and satisfied his pious zeal with a very large sum of money. The Jews, who served as tax-collectors on the whole coast, used to give Ismail a golden riding-outfit as an annual “present”–an inducement to keep them in office—and a hen and a dozen chickens fashioned in gold as a tax payment for the whole Jewish community. Ismail had another way of securing money: for a certain sum he would sell to an aspirant for honors the position and wealth of one of his favorites. In one such transaction Maimaran, who was chief ruler over the Jews of the realm, feared a rival in Moses ibn ‘A??ar, and offered the sultan a certain sum for his head. Ismail then let Moses ibn ‘A??ar know how much had been offered for his head, whereupon Ibn ‘A??ar offered double the sum for the head of his opponent. The sultan took the money from both, called them fools, and reconciled them to each other, whereupon Ibn ‘A??ar married a daughter of Maimaran and shared with his father-in-law reign over the Jews. The same Moses ibn ‘A??ar was Moorish plenipotentiary in the making of a compact with Great Britain in 1721.
In the 18th century
Jews of Fez, c. 1900.
A Jewish house in Mogador, by Darondeau (1807–1841).
The condition of the Jewish community was unchanged under Mohammed III (1757–89), who distinguished himself by his attempt to introduce European culture into his kingdom. His eldest son, Moulay Ali, governor of Fez, courageously opposed his father’s suggestion to impose a tax upon that city in favor of his other brothers, which tax was to be paid by the Jewish community. He stated that the Jews of Fez were already so poor that they were unable to bear the present tax and that he was not willing to increase still further their excessive misery. His minister was the Jew Elijah ha-Levi, who had at one time fallen into disgrace and had been given as a slave to a smuggler of Tunis, but had been restored to favor. The accession to the throne of Yazid, on the death of Mohammed III in 1789, led to a terrible massacre of the Moroccan Jews, having refused him their support in his fight with his brother for the succession. As a punishment the richer Jews of Tetouan, at his entry into the city, were tied to the tails of horses and dragged through the city. Many were killed in other ways or robbed. Jewish women were raped. The Spanish consul, Solomon Hazzan, was executed for alleged treachery, and the Jews of Tangier, Asilah, and Alcazarquivir were condemned to pay a large sum of money. Elijah, the minister of the former king, who had always opposed Yazid in the council, quickly embraced Islam to avoid being persecuted; but he died soon after. The cruelty of the persecutors reached its climax in Fez. In Rabat, as in Meknes, the Jews were ill-treated. In Mogador, strife arose between the Jews and the city judge on the one hand, and the Moorish citizens on the other; the dispute was over the question of Jewish garb. Finally the Jews were ordered to pay 100,000 piasters and three shiploads of gunpowder; and most of them were arrested and beaten daily until the payment was made. Many fled beforehand to Gibraltar or other places; some died as martyrs; and some accepted Islam. The sanguinary events of the year 1790 have been poetically described in two kinot for the Ninth of Ab, by Jacob ben Joseph al-Mali? and by David ben Aaron ibn Husain.
From the second half of this century various accounts of travels exist which give information concerning the external position of the Jews. Chénier, for example, describes them as follows:
“The Jews possess neither lands nor gardens, nor can they enjoy their fruits in tranquillity. They must wear only black, and are obliged when they pass near mosques, or through streets in which there are sanctuaries, to walk barefoot. The lowest among the Moors imagines he has a right to ill-treat a Jew, nor dares the latter defend himself, because the Koran and the judge are always in favor of the Mohammedan. Notwithstanding this state of oppression, the Jews have many advantages over the Moors: they better understand the spirit of trade; they act as agents and brokers, and they profit by their own cunning and by the ignorance of the Moors. In their commercial bargains many of them buy up the commodities of the country to sell again. Some have European correspondents; others are mechanics, such as goldsmiths, tailors, gunsmiths, millers, and masons. More industrious and artful, and better informed than the Moors, the Jews are employed by the emperor in receiving the customs, in coining money, and in all affairs and intercourse which the monarch has with the European merchants, as well as in all his negotiations with the various European governments.”
Berber Jews of the Atlas Mountains, c. 1900.
There were, indeed, quite a number of such Jewish officials, negotiators, treasurers, councilors, and administrators at the Moroccan court, whom the European is inclined to call “ministers,” but whom in reality the ruler used merely as intermediaries in extorting money from the people, and dismissed as soon as their usefulness in this direction was at an end. They were especially Jews from Spain, the megorashim, whose wealth, education, and statesmanship paved their way to the court here, as formerly in Spain. One of the first of such ministers was Shumel al-Barensi, at the beginning of the 16th century in Fez, who opened the “state career” to a long succession of coreligionists ending in the 19th century with Masado ben Leaho, prime minister and representative councilor of the emperor in foreign affairs. It would be erroneous to suppose that these Jewish dignitaries of the state succeeded in raising the position and the influence of their fellow believers, or that they even attempted to do so. They were usually very glad if they themselves were able to remain in office to the end of their lives.
Moroccan Jews were employed also as ambassadors to foreign courts. At the beginning of the 17th century Pacheco in the Netherlands; Shumel al-Farrashi at the same place in 1610; after 1675 Joseph Toledani, who, as stated above, concluded peace with Holland; his son Hayyim in England in 1750; a Jew in Denmark. In 1780 Jacob ben Abraham Benider was sent as minister from Morocco to King George III; in 1794 a Jew named Sumbal and in 1828 Meïr Cohen Macnin were sent as Moroccan ambassadors to the English court 
In the 19th century
Jewish Wedding in Morocco by Eugène Delacroix, Louvre, Paris
The 19th century, which brought emancipation to the Jews of most lands, left those of Morocco on the whole in their old state of sad monotony and stagnation. Every new war in which Morocco became involved in that century with any foreign country sacrificed the Jews of one district or another of the sultanate to the general depression and discontent which an unsuccessful war usually calls forth in political and commercial life. The war with France in 1844 brought new misery and ill treatment upon the Moroccan Jews, especially upon those of Mogador (known as Essaouira). When the war with Spain broke out on September 22, 1859, the Moors had nothing more fitting to do than to plunder the houses of friendly Jewish families in Tetuan. Most of the Jews saved their lives only by fleeing. About 400 were killed. A like result followed the conflict with Spain in 1853 in consequence of the violent acts of the cliff-dwellers in Melilla. During this century and up to 1910, around 1000 families of Moroccan Jews migrated to Amazonia, in the North of Brazil, during the rubber boom.
Montefiore’s journey to Morocco
Moroccan Jewish woman, c. 1900.
In 1863 Sir Moses Montefiore and the Board of Deputies of British Jews received a telegram from Morocco asking for help for a group of Jews who were imprisoned at Safi on suspicion of having killed a Spaniard. Two others had already been executed at the instigation of the Spanish consul; one of them publicly in Tangier, the other in Safi. Sir Moses, supported by the British government, undertook a journey to Morocco to demand the liberation of the imprisoned Jews and, as he said in a letter to the sultan, to move the latter “to give the most positive orders that Jews and Christians, dwelling in all parts of Your Majesty’s dominions, shall be perfectly protected, and that no person shall molest them in any manner whatsoever in anything which concerns their safety and tranquillity; and that they may be placed in the enjoyment of the same advantages as all other subjects of Your Majesty.” Montefiore was successful in both attempts. The prisoners were liberated, and on February 15, 1864, the sultan published an edict granting equal rights of justice to the Jews.
This edict of emancipation was confirmed by Mohammed IV’s son and successor, Moulay Hasan I, on his accession to the throne 1873 and again on September 18, 1880, after the Conference of Madrid. Such edicts and promises of a similar nature made from time to time to the Alliance Israélite Universelle, even if they are seriously intended, are, however, absolutely meaningless, since they are not executed by local magistrates, and if they were they would reignite old, deeply rooted hatreds of the Jewish population. Thus, for example, the sultan Sulaiman (1795–1822) decreed that the Jews of Fez might wear shoes; but so many Jews were killed in the streets of that city as a result of the edict that they themselves asked the sultan to repeal it. According to a statistical report of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, for the years 1864–80 no less than 307 Jews were murdered in the city and district of Morocco, which crimes, although brought to the attention of the magistracy upon every occasion, remained unpunished.
See also: Jews outside Europe under Axis occupation, 1948 Oujda and Jerada pogrom, Operation Mural, and Operation Yakhin
In 1940, the Nazi-controlled Vichy government issued antisemitic decrees excluding Jews from public functions. Sultan Mohammed V refused to apply these racist laws and, as a sign of defiance, insisted on inviting all the rabbis of Morocco to the 1941 throne celebrations.
In 1948, approximately 265,000 Jews lived in Morocco. Around 2,500 live there now, mostly in Casablanca, but also in Fes and other main cities.
In June 1948, soon after Israel was established and in the midst of the first Arab-Israeli war, riots against Jews broke out in Oujda and Djerada, killing 44 Jews. In 1948-9, 18,000 Jews left the country for Israel. After this, Jewish emigration continued (to Israel and elsewhere), but slowed to a few thousand a year. Through the early 1950s, Zionist organizations encouraged emigration, particularly in the poorer south of the country, seeing Moroccan Jews as valuable contributors to the Jewish State.
The Aben Danan synagogue in Fes
In 1956, Morocco attained independence. Jews occupied several political positions, including three Members of the Parliament of Morocco and a Minister of Posts and Telegraphs. However, emigration to Israel jumped from 8,171 in 1954 to 24,994 in 1955, increasing further in 1956. Beginning in 1956, emigration to Israel was prohibited until 1963, when it resumed. In 1961, the government informally relaxed the laws on emigration to Israel and when Mohammed V died, Jews joined Muslims in a national day of mourning. But over the next three years, more than 80,000 Moroccan Jews emigrated to Israel. By 1967, only 60,000 Jews remained in Morocco.
Zaouit el Bir Dades Cemetery South Morocco
The Six-Day War in 1967 led to increased Arab-Jewish tensions worldwide including in Morocco. By 1971, its Jewish population was down to 35,000; however, most of this new wave of emigration went to Europe and North America rather than Israel.
Despite their current small numbers, Jews continue to play a notable role in Morocco; the King retains a Jewish senior adviser, André Azoulay; they are well represented in business and even a small number in politics and culture; and Jewish schools and synagogues receive government subsidies. However, Jews were targeted in the Casablanca attacks in May 2003. King Hassan II’s pleas to former Moroccan Jews to return have largely been ignored.
As of 2004, Marrakech had an aging population of about 260 Jews, most over the age of 60, while Casablanca has between 3,000 to 4,000 Jews. Meanwhile the State of Israel is home to nearly 1,000,000 Jews of Moroccan descent, around 15% of the nation’s total population.