Jews and Morocco: 10 Fascinating Historical Facts
As Israel and Morocco establish full diplomatic ties, take a look at some of Morocco’s epic Jewish history.
1. Oldest archaeology
There have been Jews in Morocco for at least 2,000 years when some 30,000 Jews fled to North Africa following the destruction of the Second Temple. It is believed there had been Jews there even earlier too, perhaps as long ago as 2,500 years. The oldest known evidence of Jewish life in the country are two menorah shaped oil lamp from the 3rd century, found at the site of Volubilis, a once Roman city located at the southwest extremity of the Empire, today near to the city of Fez. Jewish gravestones, some in Hebrew and some in Greek, were also found, with one referring to the head of the synagogue.
One of two oil lamps found in Volubilis, now in the Rabat Museum of Archaeology
2. Golden Age of Tolerance and Jewish study
Following the first Arab conquest in 703, Morocco and especially Fez a spirit of tolerance pervaded attracting a diverse kind of population, including many Jews who contributed their commercial capabilities. A thriving and vibrant community developed in the old city, known as the Medina. This beckoned in a golden age for the Jewish community which lasted for almost 300 years, from the 9th to 11th centuries and saw the creation of yeshivahs, attracting and producing brilliant scholars, poets and grammarians. The tolerance of this period left a powerful imprint in Moroccan culture. Today, the Museum of Moroccan Judaism in suburban Casablanca is the only museum on Judaism in the Arab world.
The Ibn Dahan synagogue, Fez
3. Darker times
One of the periods of harsh persecution of Jews in Morocco was during the reign of the Almohads dynasty, (1121- 1269) a radical Muslim dynasty bent on enforcing a strict and pious observance of Islam's rituals and laws. Jews were faced with conversion to Islam or death, compelling many to convert, or at least pretend to (which was possible due to the many similarities between Jewish and Islamic practice). In 1557 Spanish Jewish historian Joseph HaKohen wrote about the fierce persecution that “no remnant of Israel was left from Tangier on the northern tip of the country, 100 kilometers south to the port of Mehdya.”
The later Almohads were not content with Jews stating they had accepted Islam upon themselves and forced them to wear a yellow cloth for a head-covering, making them the focus of even greater scorn and attack.
The Bet El Temple in Casablanca, Morocco
4. Home to Maimonides
Rabbi Moses Maimonides, one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars in the Middle Ages, lived in Fez from 1159 to 1165. Originally from Cordova in Spain, he had fled with his family to escape the Almohad persecution of Jews. (Later this same persecution would see him leave Fez, eastward for Egypt) It was in Fez that Maimonides, as well as serving as working as a physician to the Sultan, wrote one of his most famous works, his Commentary on the Oral Law. The stone home where he lived, still stands.
Maimonides home in Fez, where he lived and wrote the 14 volume Code of Jewish Law
5. Mellah, the Moroccan Jewish quarter.
The first mellah, a forced quarter for Jews, was created in 1438 in Fez and continued to recent times. The original pretext given was that the tomb of a Muslim saint had been located in the Medina. By royal decree, all non-Muslims were ordered to leave and resettle elsewhere. The word mellah means salt, because the new Jewish quarter was based on salt deposit. It was the first of dozens of such areas, which due to Jewish commerce became busy areas for markets and trade. A mellah was often surrounded by a wall with a fortified gateway and usually situated near the royal palace or the residence of the governor, in order to protect its inhabitants from recurring riots since its inhabitants played a vital role in the local economy. To this day, Mellah’s have bustling and lively markets, with many of their road names bearing the memory of once bustling Jewish populations.
The entrance to the Mellah of Fez
6. Jewish prime minister
Aaron (Harun) Ibn Baṭash, was just one of many Jews to reach the highest position of vizier, in Morocco. A courtier and confidant of Sultan Abdel al-Haqq, Ibn Batash had moved to Morocco on account of the Inquisition in his native Spain and settled in Fez. After a prolonged association with the court as a banker or tax collector, he was appointed vizier in 1464. As a result of his influence, Saul Ibn Batash, a close relative, was appointed chief of the police and director of the sultan’s palace.
Ibn Batash imposed heavy taxes on the population but was accused by the Muslim leaders of using the money to support the impoverished Jews of the town. In addition, he was perceived as violating the code for dhimmis (non-Muslim minorities) by serving in such a high office, riding on horseback and wearing a sword. In consequence Muslim leaders incited the mob to attack the Jewish quarter. The sultan and his Jewish vizier were both assassinated.
The Jewish cemetery of Marrakhesh,
7. Giants of Kabbalah
Morocco was home to some of the greatest kabbalists of the Jewish world including Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, also known as the Or ha-Ḥayyim (The light of Life) after his kabalistic commentary on the Torah. Rabbi Abraham ben Mordecai Azulai (c. 1570–1643) was another such giant who wrote a commentary on the Zohar.
Among the pilgrimage sites for Jewish travelers in Morocco, the most popular is the tomb of Rabbi Yehuda Ibn Attar in Fez (1655–1733), who served as the chief rabbi of Fez. A saintly and pious man, he was known as a miracle worker and was revered by the local Jews and Muslims alike, who refused to accept a salary from the community.
It is told that Rabbi ibn Attar was put into prison and left there until the Jewish community paid a heavy ransom to free him, but the amount was too great. The rabbi remained in prison until the governor decided to throw him into the lions’ den. Rather than being mauled, the guards witnessed him sitting quietly on the ground and pursuing his studies with the lions respectfully crouching around him. As soon as he was informed, the governor liberated the rabbi and accorded him great respect.
The tomb of Rabbi Yehuda Ibn Attar, Fez
8. Protecting its Jews
As a French colony, Morocco was subject to antisemitic decrees from Nazi-allied Vichy France during the Second World War. In 1941, Sultan Mohammed V refused to deport Morocco’s 250,000 Jews to the killing factories of Europe. Despite this stand to shelter the Jewish community, some antisemitic laws were imposed on Morocco, with Jews working in colonial administration, physicians, bankers, pharmacists, journalists, teachers, hospital nurses and others forced to abandon employment positions. On November 7, 1942, American forces landed on the shores of Morocco as part of Operation Torch and quickly took control of the country.
9. Largest Jewish community in the Muslim world
In 1948, before the majority began moving to Israel, the Jewish community of Morocco numbered 265,000 making it the largest Jewish community in the Muslim world. Three reasons can explain this. Firstly, the continued presence of a Jewish community without expulsions, secondly the large influx of Spanish Jews from the inquisition there in 1492 and lastly, aside from the notable exception of the Almohad rule, Moroccan Jews were not forcibly converted with minorities or Dhimmis, receiving protection from the King in return for protection dues.
10. Establishment of the State of Israel
Today, there are almost one million Jews of Moroccan descent in Israel
The establishment of a Jewish State in 1948 was met with riots in the north east towns of Oujda and Jerada where 43 Jews were killed and approximately 150 injured at the hands of local Muslims. This, prompted Jews to flee from the country. In 1961, Israel launched Operation Yachin, named after one of the pillars of Solomon’s Temple to aid the aliya (immigration) efforts. By 1964, more than 97,000 Jews had left Morocco, mainly to Israel where today there are almost 1,000,000 Jews of Moroccan descent.
Today there are 2,500 Jews living in Morocco, mostly in Casablanca. The community has good relations with King Mohamed VI who encourages religious tolerance. Morocco has dozens of beautifully preserved and active synagogues.