VISITING JEWISH MOROCCO


VISITING JEWISH MOROCCO

Morocco is the only country in the Arab World both rich in Jewish history and with a living Jewish community. Both Jewish and non-Jewish tourists have delighted in its ancient walled cities, thriving markets, and sumptuous feasts. With a little effort, the tourist interested in the Jewish heritage of Morocco can discover hundreds of fascinating historical and spiritual sites. A visit to “Jewish” Morocco is a lesson in the potential for Jewish-Muslim coexistence. Only through seeing Morocco through Jewish eyes can one understand the deep attachment of the Moroccan Jewish diaspora to their homeland.

THE ROLE OF JEWS IN MOROCCAN SOCIETY

Jews have been a vital part of Moroccan society ever since they arrived over 2,000 years ago. Each time a new people extended their power over Morocco, Jews were called upon to carry out important commercial, financial and diplomatic functions. For this reason, Moroccan Jews generally felt “at home” in their country and welcomed Jewish refugees from other countries into their communities, except during periods of insecurity.

Moroccan leaders have shown a special interest in assuring the security of the Jewish community. When Jews were used as scapegoats for complaints against government abuse, the authorities took strong steps to protect them from attack. By guaranteeing the safety of the Jews, Moroccan leaders believed they were contributing to the stability of their regimes.

Berbers, Arabs and Jews are the peoples that together have built Morocco. The Berbers are believed to have migrated to Morocco from the Middle East over 3,500 years ago. Prior to the Arab conquest in the eighth century, several Berber tribes converted to Judaism. Once Arabs populated Moroccan cities, Jews played an important role in commerce between them and the Berbers.  Jewish traders were rarely harmed, and even in times of instability, they were able to use their special relationships with Berber leaders to travel safely. 

 
 Chief Rabbi Monsenegro delivers a 

speech in front of a picture of King 

Mohamed VI, when he was the Crown Prince.

Counting the Votes for the Jewish Community 

Council’s Elections 

Tangier, 1982

Beth Hatefutsoth Photo Archives

Courtesy of Gladis Pimienta, Jerusalem

The Arabs came to Morocco from the Middle East to extend both their power and their religion over the land. While some Jewish Berber tribes converted, many Jews refused to give up their religion. Over time, the majority of Jews moved from rural areas to Arab-controlled towns and cities, where they fell under the protection of the Sultans. As Sultans tried to extend their power over rural Berber tribes, occasionally the tribes would attack the cities, using Jews as scapegoats for their problems. In general, however, Arabs and Jews developed mutually-supportive roles within urban society, although they lived clearly in separate cultural worlds.

Under Islam, Jews were considered dhimmis, a protected but disdained people. Within certain limits, Islamic law allows the free exercise of Judaism and gives Jews the right to practice their traditions, hold property, govern their community and enforce their own civil law system. Under the rules governing  dhimmis, Jews must recognize Islamic sovereignty, show respect for Islam, exercise their religion discretely, refrain from proselytizing, pay special taxes and wear special clothing. These rules were rarely applied to the letter, although they remained the law until the French made Morocco a Protectorate in 1912.

To the Jewish community, the Sultan was its salvation. By paying heavy taxes, the community secured its right to practice Judaism and live in peace. At times, almost 50 percent of government revenues came from Jews. In some ways, Jews lived in greater security than Muslims. They had less danger of individual persecution, although their neighborhoods were occasionally pillaged. They also were able to gain access to the authorities and obtain justice more easily than Muslims. However, while many Sultans treated Jews with a great deal of tolerance, Jews often experienced strong pressure to convert to Islam.

Together, Jews and Muslims rode the cycles of Moroccan history. Typically, there was a calm period, characterized by a sense of ease, security and even prosperity for much of the population. When a ruler’s claim to power was challenged by competing claimants to the Throne, the country often would be thrown into chaos, when no one could live in security. Jews, however, would be more vulnerable than Muslims to attacks. Once a new ruler established his authority, both Jews and Muslims would attempt to regain their previous living standards. Under these circumstances, many Jews were reduced to poverty and could not escape.