Morocco’s Jewish past: Not as pretty as they say (pt. 2)

A cat lounges above the Fes Medina. Photo Credit: Author.

Last time, I showed that not all Jews in Morocco today have it as good as many media outlets, academics, and the King’s propaganda team would have the world think. Now we will look to the past to show that related proclamations of Morocco’s eternal kindness and benefaction are also lies.

To return to my unfortunate interlocutor Jordan Royt (again, I’m not picking on her, only taking her recent piece as a representative sample), the narrative of the forever-benign Morocco normally includes something like this: “Unlike other Arab countries that had government-sanctioned anti-Jewish policies, the Moroccan monarchy emphasized the Jewish facet of Moroccan national identity throughout a number of centuries. Mellahs — walled Jewish quarters unique to Morocco — were constructed between the 15th and 19th centuries in order to safeguard its Jewish communities. Mellahs, whose remnants can be found across the country in cities like Fez, Rabat, and…Marrakech, are often regarded as a positive artifact of cultural history in comparison to other Jewish quarters in both Europe and the Arab world.” 

Well who regards them as such exactly? I guess it depends on whom you ask. But the local Fesi Jews I met certainly didn’t. And many Muslim Fesis now know the now-Judenrein mellah colloquially as a place of prostitution and poverty. People scared of the King’s heavy hand (the current King’s father was known for inserting bottles into his political opponents’ bodies – you can imagine how) might be inclined to echo these carefully crafted lines about the Jews’ supposed golden eras of inclusion and tolerance, but I’m not a subject of the King (thank God), and so I can safely say that the reality was always (and theoretically, is) closer to something Martin Gilbert said in his book, titled “In Ishmael’s House”: “…the exclusion and persecution [or lack thereof] of non-Muslims depended on the severity or leniency of individual Muslim rulers.” 

And while it admittedly may be true that the first Moroccan mellah (or Jewish ghetto — not really unique in my opinion), in Fes, was built for the Jews’ protection, the practice of ghettoizing and impoverishing Jews was well-established from the first years of Islam onwards, and the history of Jews in Morocco (unless looked at the through the highly colored lens of the King’s propaganda) reveals not an “emphasis on the Jewish facet of Moroccan national identity,” but a distinct separation of the Jewish facet from the actual Moroccan national identity, the Muslims one — including physical separation, the actual point of mellahs. Let’s not forget the mellahs were built to protect Jews from violent masses who were often stirred up (as the still are — remember Esther’s brave defense of Jews against the khutba’s discrimination) by religious leadership.

This is actual Moroccan nationalism. And I’m not being dramatic or prejudiced. The massacre that necessitated the King’s protection vis-à-vis the construction of the mellah of Fes was not a one-off, but part of a well-established tradition in Morocco before and after its construction. The legally-mandated concentration of urban Jews in mellahs only made them easier targets. The Jews always suffered in times of political upheaval, scapegoated for “the nation’s” woes just as we know was the pattern in Europe. The Jews were special subjects of the King (this is all why the mellahs are flush against the palace), serving his economic needs, not members of “the nation.” A simple perusal of the Moroccan Jews’ Wiki page will show you how often massacres, displacements, and other forms of persecution were for them. The victims were not small in number either, favorable comparisons to “other Jewish quarters in both Europe and the Arab world” be damned.

A defunct Merinid tower, part of Fes’s old city walls, built by the same dynasty that built the first Jewish mellah. Photo Credit: Author.

Not only was this unfortunate, liminal status the norm for centuries (up until French colonization, and even after) in Morocco, but its degrading aspect has its basis in Islamic texts and practice. Those interested in the history of Jews in the “Islamic World” should be aware of the Shurut Umar (if you follow the link, be aware that though addressed to Christians, the conditions listed applied to Jews as well). Based on the previous Empires’ (Byzantine and Persian) surrender/vassalage agreements with the Jews that served to separate the Jews from the rest of the population, this “Pact” set out to define the accepted non-Muslim, dhimmi, populations’ conditions for continued existence in newly “Islamic” lands. According to Milka Levy-Rubin’s book entitled “Non-Muslims in the Early Islamic Empire,” the Muslims added clauses to their forerunners’ agreements to demote dhimmis to a second-class citizenry that knew its place as soon as it was politically possible to do so. 

Caliph Umar II (682-720, often called ‘The Fifth Rashidun/Rightly Guided One’) is widely held as the standardizer of dhimmi status from what were various documents. This now-religiously-sanctioned standard “Pact” is what is known as the Shurut Umar. He included the extra provisions I mentioned, and it is known that he meant for these requirements to degrade non-Muslims, and exalt the Muslims. He claimed Quran 2:61 and 24:55 required this status differentiation. The former verse includes this gem about the post-exodus Israelites: “…And they were covered with humiliation and poverty and brought Allah’s wrath upon themselves, because they disbelieved in the signs of Allah and killed the prophets wrongfully…” Umar II called any official who did not fulfill enforce these strictures “weak and impotent,” and he dismissed his non-Muslim officials (Gilbert and Levy-Rubin again informed me here). So much for “rightly guided.”

The Shurut’s enforcement is particularly evident in the architecture and dreary character of Marrakesh’s mellah. The buildings are lower than the rest of the cities, many of the doors are small so people had to bow in humility to enter their own homes, and the city’s general ornateness is nowhere in sight. And as regards the human element of the Shurut, it is known from historical record that in Fes, conditions in the mellah reflected that “Pact’s” degradations quite well even into the 20th century. Depending on who was in charge at any given time, Jews were made to wear mismatching, one, or no shoes outside the ghetto where they also had to walk in the gutters with lowered gazes so as not to be elevated above or to insult a Muslim (keep in mind sewage standards). At times they were forbidden to ride horses – those being too regal – and had to take donkeys, and those only side-saddle for the same reason. The list goes on. But to add a little bit of humor to this dark picture, I’ll add a personal anecdote. After two months of hiding my religious identity from my house-brother (a Moroccan) in my first summer in Fes, he coaxed the admission out of me, and then slyly told me: “O, we already knew.” And when I embarrassingly asked how, he answered that my name was Ian (not Jewish, but OK), and that I “always wore black.” He meant this not in reference to Haredi garb I imagine, but the historical Fesi injunction that Jews must wear black or dark blue (even in the 115 F/46 C summer days)! I still love him though…

A view of Fes Jdid, the neighborhood adjoining the mellah and palace, also built by the Merinids. Photo Credit: Author.

To add to Moroccan Jews’ endurance of physical and psychological violence, physical separation, and physical demarcation, there was a financial aspect to their oppression as well. While it may not have been labeled as jizya in every instance of Moroccan history, the known, overly burdensome taxation, dues, and other fees imposed on the Jewish population of Morocco throughout every century – another aspect of Jews’ oppression and exclusion in Morocco – fits in this much-talked-about conceptual Islamic category, jizya. Jizya is essentially the Islamic version of the Mafia’s “protection racket.” The ones who are doing the threatening “protect you” when you pay their arbitrary sum. M.M. Bravmann in his 2008 book titled “Spiritual Background of Early Islam” defines jizya as “reward.” In its pre-Islamic form, it was the conqueror’s’ “reward” for sparing the lives of cowardly men who had not fought to the death. Interestingly, even pre-Islam, such conquered people were marked off by physical indicators, much like Jews under Shurut conditions.

Jizya’s source in the Quran is 9:29: “Fight those who do not believe in Allah or the Last Day and do not consider unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have made unlawful and who do not adopt the religion of truth…until they give the jizyah willingly while they feel humbled.” The final word can also be translated “subdued,” “subjected,” “humiliated,” or “brought low.” Whatever the case, it’s not good. The hadith literature reinforces this purpose (e.g. Abu Dawud 19.3076 and al-Muwatta’ 17.32). To add to this bleak picture, according to Islam’s classical commentators on Quran 2:100, 4:58, and 5:51, Jews are oath-breakers that can’t be trusted in business or as military allies (see Seyyed Hossain Nasr’s ‘The Study Quran’ on these verses). As Goitein, a preeminent scholar of medieval Islam, points out in his book “Jews and Arabs,” Muslim scholars have determined that Quran 3:112 and other verses should relegate Jewish people to poverty forever.

And though some scholars like Goitein have described supposed Jewish affluence in the first years of Islam, others like Wasserstrom in his book entitled “Between Muslim and Jew: The Problem of Symbiosis Under Early Islam,” believe there is “much more proof that the Jewish masses were in a severely miserable condition.” According to the latter, the Genizah Papers, a critical trove of documents for the period, demonstrate Jews’ most common occupations were weavers, jailers, and executioners. These were considered the “lowest” professions in the cultures of Islam, Rome, the Jewish Tosefta, and further east. So while some might see Moroccan Jews’ ability to pay the Kings’ extortion prices throughout the centuries as evidence of their relative affluence, it is known that foreign (often European) benefactors and rich local families often bore the brunt. The Jewish masses of Morocco were not well off whatsoever, as the Muslim masses there today are not.

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So when Royt says, “Sometimes characterized as a mirage, this Jewish and Muslim harmony in Morocco is a prototype of multiculturalism; a quality which Morocco had exuded in its history and only temporarily lost in the emergence of the 1930s Arab Nationalist ideology, attempting to unify the Middle East and North Africa under a single Arab identity”, I must ask: What harmony exactly? The Oxford English Dictionary via Google defines multiculturalism as “the presence of, or support for the presence of, several distinct cultural or ethnic groups within a society.” Moroccan history and even present leans heavily to the side of “the presence of.” Does that really make the country unique in any way? Not really. And regardless, it is a Sunni Muslim, specifically Maliki, Arab identity defining the public sphere (I forgot to mention in my first article being Shiite is also illegal there). The diversity within that Sunni identity is divided up between mystical orders and ethnic groups who also were at each others’ throats up to the not-so-distant past.

Later in her article, Royt again mentions Arab Nationalism constraining and negatively impacting the diversity of “the Moroccan nation,” calling “Berbers” (this is actually a pejorative term for Amazigh, the native people of north and northwestern Africa, five subgroups at least of which live in Morocco) as another example alongside Jews of the newfound “[reclamation of] a rich and established Moroccan national identity of religious inclusion” (an identity I hope you will see by now never and does not exist). This completely ignores the fact that the Amazigh people of Morocco’s northern Rif region have held mass protests over high unemployment, lack of infrastructure, and the basic right to teach their language in their schools for years. I was there in 2018 when the protest leaders were sentenced to a collective 250-year prison sentence. The people were not happy. But they know what happens when you speak against the government. Are repressive kings who people like Royt and her academic backers really want to bolster?

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Arab nationalism comes up as a focus one more time in her article: “Compounded by Arab nationalism and political Islam’s popularity, the number of tangible artifacts indicative of Morocco’s Jewish past diminished. However, Jewish life in Morocco was comparatively preferable to others in the Arab world. In neighbouring countries like Iraq, bloody pogroms killed thousands of Jews and eradicated one of the world’s oldest Jewish populations, most notably in the Farhud of 1941. While Morocco never expelled its Jews, as the 20th century progressed, Moroccan Jews envisioned a deteriorating and hopeless future amidst observations of religiously-based hatred nearby. Their reasons for leaving their Moroccan home was largely motivated by grinding poverty, political instability, and Zionist ambition spurred by the newly established state of Israel in 1948.”

OK, yes; poverty, instability, and Zionism were certainly factors, but the next part I take serious exception to: “Coercion and violence was far less a factor in Morocco than in countries further East…” Leaving aside that “thousands” did not die in the Farhud (and by that I’m not trying to diminish its horror), there were known massacres of Jews in Morocco in 1948 in Oujda and Djerada where 43 Jews were killed. There was also widespread harassment, intimidation, and threats on a daily basis throughout the country. Read about Jewish lives of that era on the jewishrefugeeblogspot. One article from JPost, “The ‘Nakba’ of Morocco’s Jews”, details: “If you said something they didn’t like, you were in danger,” Dina recalls. “Most of the time everybody got along. But when you are in a lower place in society, you don’t dare to stand up for yourself.” Sound familiar by now? 

The same article recounts countless episodes of intimidation and harassment, unanswerable thefts, kidnappings, pogroms, racist Islamic justice systems, arson, property abandonment. And in contrast to Royt, historian Heskel M. Haddad wrote, “The major cause of the Jewish exodus from Morocco is the two pogroms that occurred in 1948 and 1953…” So Moroccan Jews’ history was full of massacres and persecution, violence was occurring daily, what was going on in neighboring countries was known, and the constant threat of it getting closer was not imagined. Perhaps the Jews’ flight can’t so easily be chalked up to Zionism and poverty. Instability, as the Moroccan Jews knew all too well, meant they were on the chopping block. Who would stay for that when the world (and Israel!) were finally open to Jews?? “White, Ashkenazi Zionists” didn’t seduce the “poor, Eastern” Moroccans with their dubious intellectual power as current Arab propaganda implies (and I’ve heard this line from the mouths of loved, respected, well-educated Moroccan friends).

Even Omar Louzi, the president of the Moroccan Observatory to Fight Anti-Semitism in Morocco said, “The Arab-Israeli conflict has always been used by Moroccan pan-Arabists to promote hatred between Muslims and Jews.” According to Said Gafaiti, PhD, a professor of Hebrew and Hebraic Studies at the University of Fes, Saïs (I believe where my friend Esther was ousted no less!) says even today Jewish practice is conflated with Zionism contrary to Royt’s claims. Before 1948, Moroccans didn’t need the Arab-Israeli conflict to justify hating and murdering Jews. 99% of an ancient population doesn’t leave a place if things are tolerable. They weren’t. Moroccans need to do some soul-searching on the subject, and Morocco needs to take responsibility, not try to BS their way out of it. 

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So why the concerted push to hoist the blame solely on Arab nationalism, turning a blind eye to well-documented and obvious reality? I’m not going to enter into a lengthy digression, but it has to do with the same type of propaganda-laden people presenting Islam as the “Religion of Peace,” and colonized nations as innocent victims of the lunatic aggression of depraved outsiders; even “nationalism” as such is dubbed by these people as a foreign importation wreaking havoc on post-colonial states (‘noble savage’ much?). Get real. Europeans didn’t invent nationalism, they just wrote about and defined it as a discrete phenomenon for the first time. Moroccans conquered Western Europe for centuries. Muslims tried to conquer Europe in the name of their religion until the mid-18th century until they got beat back to where they came from. As Thomas Hobbes famously put it, life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”, “war of every man against every man.” That’s still true for most of the world, and was true for everyone until like a hundred years ago. Again, let’s just cut the BS already. As one of my Rabbis once put it: “We’re not the turn the other cheek people.” Enough making excuses for our former oppressors. It’s not helping them either. 

Now let me briefly say something on the other important piece of the Moroccan Monarchy’s propaganda machine, something even more widespread than what we’ve been discussing until now, their wartime behavior. As Royt put it: “King Mohammed V refused to implement the anti-Jewish policies that Nazi-occupied France was encouraging. Defending the Jewish population in the context of global anti-semitism legitimized the monarchy’s claims of conserving religious and cultural diversity.” One thing is right here – it did legitimize the King’s claims. But the truth is that not long after the King’s famous proclamation that “there are no Jews in Morocco, only Moroccans,” his monarchy came under threat and he cowered into submission, signing every Vichy (read: Nazi) law that passed before him. Not only that, but he resisted the Jews’ full emancipation after the war as well. Morocco even had labor camps. Moroccan Jews that lived in the country during WWII are eligible for German reparations. All the propaganda about Morocco’s benevolence to the Jews then are almost a century old by now. And before such claims began, nobody cared what happened to the Jews. But we know better now. 

Or maybe many of us don’t…apparently. A Morocco World News article from 2016 describes the predominance, even “popularity” of Nazi classics like “Mein Kampf,” “Protocols,” and “The International Jew”  “on Moroccan streets” and at Casablanca’s international Book Fair, thought by some to be the most important in the Arab world. This phenomenon is known throughout the “Arab World.” Google it. And I can affirm it to be the truth. I saw such books for sale around Fes and even in Essaouira’s book-seller tent section. On more than one occasion, from both acquaintance and stranger, I heard the praise of Hitler, including one instance at Essaouira’s Sunday flea market where I was browsing with two Germans. The vendor said: “Hitler, good!” with a thumbs up…and then the same thumb was used to figuratively slit his throat as he said “Jews” with a smile on his face.

Shimon Samuel, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Director of International Relations said, “[Moroccan authorities] may wish to appease extremists by turning a blind eye to anti-Semitism.” In September 2011, Mimouna, the non-profit since lauded for its post-Abraham Accords efforts, organized a conference commemorating Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust and honoring King Mohammed V for his refusal to assent to the persecution of Jews during the Vichy occupation. The conference was recognized by the New York Times as “the first of its kind in an Arab or Muslim nation and a sign of historical truth triumphing over conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic dogma.” Honestly though, if the historical truth is that the King did not do so, using a false narrative for one’s own self-promotion is just multiplying your antisemitism, sorry.

Part of Essaouira’s old mellah, currently under renovation, and until at least 2019, a drug market and small squatter area. Photo credit: Author.

Finally, coming to the present, as Royt mentions: “In 2011, King Mohammed VI ‘enshrined’ Judaism in the country’s constitution. He further stated that he cannot ‘speak of the land of Islam as if only Muslims lived there’ and he ‘protect[s] Moroccan Jews as well as Christians from other countries who are living in Morocco.’” To note, it’s a little strange for the King to speak only of Christians from other countries as if no Moroccan is inclined toward Jesus, but anyway, she is referring to the preamble to Morocco’s 2011 “post-Arab Spring constitution.” It states that Morocco “is a sovereign Muslim state…whose unity is nourished and enriched by its African, Andalusian, Jewish [or Hebrew], and Mediterranean constituents.” Let’s just be clear: Judaism is still a footnote subsumed under a Muslim identity. There’s nothing much to see here. As I said to one of the above-mentioned Hitler-lovers: “It’s easy to hate Jews when you never met one.” And most Moroccans haven’t I’d venture to guess. Morocco is 99% Muslim. It’s also all-too-easy to make proclamations about a tiny minority who are largely voiceless unless they echo the propaganda. Zhor Rehihil, the Muslim director of Morocco’s Jewish Museum, said that the role of the Jewish Museum is to “tell Moroccans about their identity, including Jewish culture, which is one of its main parts.” But it’s not one of its main parts. Morocco’s identity scared all the Jews away, sorry.

The King’s official recognition of Jewish heritage… [and] program to restore 100 Jewish synagogues, cemeteries, and heritage sites, and [pledge] to rename a number of previously Jewish-inhabited neighborhoods to their original names” is surely a welcome endeavor, but the primary beneficiaries are the tourism industry in Morocco, Moroccan Jews abroad, and Moroccans themselves who need to remember their past and learn from their mistakes. But local Jews find themselves in a not unfamiliar position to their historical one – a tentative, conditional one. It’s easy to tout great benevolence and tolerance when your country is 99% one group. But if my friend Esther can’t graduate college or defend Jews from antisemitism, it’s all just for show. If the elderly man I met in Fes’s synagogue can’t wear a yarmulke in public without feeling threatened, nothing has changed except the way Moroccans talk about themselves to themselves and the world – a grand illusion.

The with two donkeys over Fes. Photo credit: Author.

I want to end on a positive note, and donkeys are funny. Ms. Royt says: “Morocco remains one of the only Arab countries with any Jewish population at all, and judging by the rhetoric from some of the country’s most influential authorities, including the King and other royal notables, Morocco intends to protect and cultivate its Jewish population…Time will tell if Morocco is a mere outlier in its inclusion of Jewish identity in the Muslim world, or simply just the first country in what may reveal to be a domino effect of religious inclusion and historical recognition…Morocco keeping their Jewish community alive serves as an incredible step towards the inclusion of Sephardic Jews in their homelands, and it may forever change the perception of Jewish history in the Arab world.” There’s much work to be done as of now, but I sure hope you are right Ms. Royt! If King Muhammad VI’s changes take root, and this becomes a multi-generational effort, I have faith. But one thing she said I hope will come to fruition more than anything: “…the coexistence of the Jewish minority and Muslim majority seeks to pave way for a shared future by virtue of a shared past…” And I hope to see it with all the Jews of the world in Israel, surrounded by a loving sea of Arab “cousins,” taking on the world as partners, unstoppable.

Ken y’hi ratson!/May it be so! A better future for us both and for all.

B’ezrat Hashem/Insha’allah.

Thanks for reading.

About the Author
South Jersey native, Reform Jew turned former Baal Teshuva, Ian studied human evolution and religion for his BS and religion for his MA, where he focused on Ottoman Islam and modern Islamic fundamentalism. An EMT by day, his current project is a (very) deep-dive into what the three "Abrahamic religions" (he hates the term) have to say about each other. A year spent in Jerusalem and a year in Fes shaped him profoundly. He hopes you will learn, enjoy, and use "Contact Me" to send him questions and comments!
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