Factor 5: Increasing poverty and lack of economic opportunity

Beggars registering for a meal in Marrakesh, 20th century
Photo courtesy of the Jewish Ethnography Photographic Collection, 
The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

The fifth factor leading to significant emigration was increasing poverty and poor economic opportunity. By the end of World War II, a large percentage of rural Jews were living in poverty, leading many of them to migrate to overcrowded urban mellahs.

One of the most important factors contributing to emigration was poverty and economic displacement. During the early years of the protectorate, many Jews lived in towns and villages in the southern Amazigh areas of Morocco. In most cases, Amazigh people owned and worked the land, while Jews were artisans and traders. However, the Jews faced competition for these roles from the Arabs from Fez and the Imazighen from southwest Morocco. Consequently, many Jews emigrated to the cities, such as Marrakesh, Casablanca and Rabat. In the 1940s, 15,000 Jews, 25% of the southern Jewish population, moved to these cities. Casablanca’s population grew significantly with migration from the South. Few young people remained in the South, and fewer people were able to work.

A large percentage of the Jewish population was living in absolute poverty in 1950. For example, 12% of Marrakesh’s Jewish population was indigent. It was difficult for the Jewish community to take care of these individuals. According to the 1960 Census, in Casablanca, only 39% of Jews between 15 and 64 years of age were born in the city. Men’s major occupations were handicrafts and commerce. Women worked in handicrafts, industry, offices and services. Jews made up 4.5% of the urban population, but only .1% of the rural population. That year, the Census counted 151,250 urban Jews and 8,500 rural Jews countrywide.

Rural-urban migration contributed to overpopulation of urban mellahs. In 1948, Casablanca had a population equivalent to 215,000 persons per square kilometer. Fez and Marrakesh mellahs  had about half that density. As population density increased, sanitation and hygiene became major problems. Contagious ailments, such as trachoma, an eye disease, spread quickly. Child mortality was high.

In the urban areas, Jews were displaced in the labor market by French colonists until the end of World War II and competed with them until independence. Following independence, Muslims displaced Jews in some occupations.