Relations among Jews and Arab and Amazigh Peoples until 1660
The first factor setting the stage for the emigration of Moroccan Jews was the efforts by European states to take control of Morocco. Colonial powers destabilized the symbiotic but occasionally tense relationships with Muslim Arab and Amazigh peoples beginning in the mid-19th century. Moroccan Sultans had difficulty protecting Jewish communities in the face of increasing control by colonial powers and popular resistance to colonization.
When the first Jews arrived in Morocco around 500 B.C.E., they found Amazigh tribes who had migrated previously from the Middle East. Jews mingled with Phoenician traders and lived under Roman and Amazigh rule until the Arab conquest in the late seventh and early eighth centuries. The Arabs brought Islam, under which Jews were dhimmis, a protected but disdained people. In return for their freedom to practice the Jewish religion, the Jews had to abide by many restrictions: including limited use of public baths; limitations on employment and occupations; the rejection of Jewish testimony in Muslim courts; limitations in the size of synagogues; and the requirement to wear clothes of a certain color. The Jewish community leader was required to pay a special tax for the community, for which he received a ritual slap. Jews were an object of disdain, but not hate. They were required to show respect for Islam, the Koran and Muslim women. Sometimes these rules were applied to the letter, but many Sultans and local leaders applied them liberally.
The position of Jews was in some ways better than that of Muslims. They had the right to practice the Jewish religion freely but discreetly, own property, control their community, and pass their own civil laws. They were taxed by Jewish community leaders, and had less danger of individual persecution than Muslims, although their neighborhoods were occasionally pillaged. They were able to gain access to the authorities and Sultans more easily than Muslims. They also were able to obtain justice more easily than Muslims.
Several Muslim dynasties ruled Morocco beginning in the eight century. The lives of the Jews during most of this time were no more insecure than those of the Muslims. In the twelfth century, however, the Almohads, an Amazigh mountain people, developed a fundamentalist Islamic doctrine that did not provide protection to the Jews. Instead, they expelled the Jews from Marrakesh and tried to eliminate their presence from Morocco. By 1224, there may have been no synagogues left in the country. Resentment of the Amazigh Merenid Dynasty Sultan and his close ties to the Jews incited a pogrom in Fez in 1276. Subsequently, he forced the Jews to move into a fortified area adjoining the royal palace, to ensure their safety. This was the first Jewish quarter, or mellah, in Morocco. From that time until the 20th century, Jews lived in the mellahs of towns and cities, but were free to move about the other areas of the cities and rural areas.
Riots of 1391 in Muslim-controlled Grenada began the exodus of Jews from Spain to Morocco. Later, the Moroccan Sultan neither encouraged nor prevented tens of thousands of Jewish refugees from Spain and Portugal from entering Morocco in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Although hundreds of thousands of Jews entered Morocco, only about 20,000 made the country their new home, while the rest continued on to the Ottoman Empire.