Factor 2: French efforts to divide Jews and Muslims

The lion cage of Sultan Abdelhafid’s menagerie where he gave
asylum to Jews fleeing the pillage of the mellah, 1912.
Worldwide Zoo Database

The second factor contributing to the emigration of Moroccan Jews was the efforts by the French colonists to solidify their control over Morocco by dividing Jews and Muslims.

Protectorate Treaties

In 1912, the Sultan was forced to sign separate treaties with France and Spain putting Morocco under their protection. France protected the majority of the country, while the Spanish controlled the Northern coast and adjacent mountain areas. Tangier was made an international city. The Sultan was not forced to step down, but was required to put the royal seal on any major policies or laws issued by the colonial powers. Spain played a similar role as France in dividing Jews and Muslims under its protectorate.

Pillage of the Fez Mellah

The Treaty of Fez was signed on March 30, 1912, establishing the French protectorate. On April 17, the Sultan’s troops in Fez revolted, but they were unable to enter the European quarter, which was protected by French troops. Instead, the soldiers and a crowd following them pillaged the mellah (Jewish quarter), from which the French had previously confiscated all weapons. In order to force the rioters away from the mellah, French soldiers fired missiles and bombs, destroying houses and causing fires. As a result, Jews abandoned the mellah, which was pillaged the next day by villagers. During the three days of violence, 51 Jews were killed and 72 were wounded. French troops had a similar number of casualties, while almost 1,000 Muslims were killed or wounded. A third of the mellah was destroyed, and 12,000 Jews found themselves homeless.

French Efforts to Divide Jews and Muslims

In response to an outcry from foreign Jewish organizations about the Fez pogrom, France took control of the administration of the Jewish communities. The Resident General and those who work for him replaced the Sultan and his administrators in this role. However, the French expected Jews to remain subjects of the Sultan. This gave them the justification to oppose French nationality for the Jews, unlike in Algeria, where Jews were given French citizenship. The inability of Jews to obtain French citizenship contributed to the appeal of Zionism, especially following World War II.

The French used Jews as means to control the Muslim population. As part of this process, they took actions to divide the two groups. After the Fez riot and other violent incidents prior to the establishment of the protectorate, some Jews began to lose trust in Muslims. The French profited from these feelings by making the Jews believe that they had come to rescue them. They told the Jews they could give them civilization, equality and emancipation. By supporting the work of the Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU) to establish secular francophone schools for Jews, they encouraged the Jews to learn French, take on French names, and use less Arabic. A frenchified elite arose among the Jews, although they were never accepted as equals with the French. Many of the French colonists didn’t hide their anti-Semitic feelings. Most of the Jewish population had limited contact with the French, however.

Another reason France tried to separate the Jews from the Muslims was to prevent a common front in opposing the French presence. Jews were expected to play a role of inferiors to the French, although superior to Arabs and Amazigh.

This was a strategy that paralleled France’s efforts to separate Amazigh and Arabs. In 1930, the French had Sultan Mohammed V issue a decree that removed Moroccans living in areas where Tamazight was primarily spoken from his legal jurisdiction. These efforts to divide Arabs and Amazigh catalyzed the nationalist, anticolonial movement that culminated in Morocco’s independence in 1956.

While many of the pre-Protectorate legal restrictions against the Jews were eased, French colonists received preferential legal treatment. As a result, in certain occupations French colonists displaced Jews. In response to decreasing economic opportunities, emigration from the rural areas to the urban mellahs  increased.

Searching for victims of the pillage of the Fez Jewish mellah in 1912