A history of Judaism in Morocco.

Authors Avatar

A History of Judaism in Morocco

James Cooper

Jews in Morocco have one of the most ancient and vibrant stories in all of Africa. Their story is partly one of persecution and conflict, but also of peace and cooperation. Berbers, Arabs, and Jews were the three people that built Morocco into what it is today. The intermingling of their various ways of life, traditions and religions has created a cultural heritage that is both fascinating and unique. Jews have always been a small minority in Morocco, but their impact on the country’s history has been huge.

Jews arrived in North Africa long before the Romans or Arabs. Hebrew inscriptions have been found on tombstones in the Moroccan town of Fez that are over 2,000 years old. Some of the earliest Jews came with the Phoenecians to Carthage, and then moved westward to Morocco. Many more arrived in 586 B.C. when Nebuchadnezzer destroyed the First Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. During the Great Diaspora, a time when Israelites were scattered across the globe, thousands of Jews came to Spain, and then Morocco. In this early society, the Jews slowly forged lasting cultural and economic relations with the native Berber population. As they traded with inland Berbers, Jews brought an already ancient and awe-inspiring religion to those people. Gradually, many Berber tribes adopted Judaism and found ways to integrate into it their own beliefs. A  Judeo-Berber language was developed along with a unique mix of rituals in which a superstitious fear of demons was combined with the devoted worship of Yahweh.  

In the seventh century, Muslim Arabs invaded North Africa. When they came to Morocco they were quite surprised to find strong Jewish-Berber tribes. One of these tribes was led by the legendary Queen Cahina who, at great odds, was able to ward off the encroaching Arabs for years. Finally defeated, she indignantly burned farms and crops so that they couldn’t be captured and pillaged by the Arabs. Many Berber communities were able to keep their Jewish faith by retreating to small mountain and desert villages.

Subsequent Muslim rulers wavered between tolerance and intolerance of the Jewish population. When Idris II gained power in 800 AD, he severed control of Morocco from Muslim Baghdad and opened the city of Fez to Jewish immigration. This sparked a long era of Jewish renessaince in which Fez became an important center of cultural and intellectual advancement. Many Hebrew scholars and Rabbis lived and wrote during this time, most notably Alfasi Yitzchak and Moses Maimonides. Maimonides is considered by many to be one of the greatest philosophers of all time, gentile or Jewish.

Join now!

By the eleventh century, perhaps in reaction to the economic success of some Jews, Arab persecution began. It was during this time that the Chief Judge of Baghdad, Abu Al-Hassan Al Mawardi, wrote down twelve laws called the Charter of Omar that dictated Jewish life as second-class citizens, or dhimmis. Under Islamic rule, Jews couldn’t read the Koran, speak against the Prophet, touch Muslim women or try to convert any Muslim against his faith. Some of the laws were very ridiculous. On the pain of death Jews could not drink wine in public or own a horse. Starting in ...

This is a preview of the whole essay