The European Intervention (1860s)

Jewish refugees from northern Morocco who found shelter in Gibraltar during the Spanish-Moroccan War of 1860
Engraving after a drawing by M.C. Yriarete 1860
Photo: Gerard Silvain (Paris, Gerard Silvain Collection) 

Succeeding Sultans allowed Jews to rebuild their homes, businesses and synagogues, although not outside the mellahs. While Jewish life in Morocco flourished in the early nineteenth century, the ability of the Sultans to control the country deteriorated. In several geographic regions, Muslim fraternities and traditional tribal leaders had greater political support than the Sultan. European powers attempted to impose their authority, particularly with respect to trade. As a result, Moroccan Sultans were not always able to protect the security of the Jews.

In February 1860, Spain prepared to invade the city of Tetouan, in efforts to extend its political influence beyond the Mediterranean ports of Ceuta and Melilla. Tribes and unruly soldiers attacked the mellah, to protest the impotence of the Sultan against the Spanish. The entire city was pillaged the following day to prevent the Spanish from benefitting from Jewish wealth. In desperation, the Muslim leaders opened the gates of the city to the Spanish soldiers, who took control without fighting. Tetouan remained occupied for two years. During the occupation, the Spanish treated the Muslims harshly, but refused to apply Islamic legal restrictions on Jews. In this more liberal environment, some Jews developed close political and business relationships with the Spanish occupiers. To demonstrate their gratitude to the Spanish for having taking Tetouan and protected the Jews from further pillage, Tetouan Jews declared a special Purim, the Purim of the Christians.

After Tetouan was returned to Moroccan control in 1862, the Jewish population feared it would be attacked, given the close business relationships between some Jews and the Spanish. Taking advantage of this sentiment, European consulates encouraged the Sultan to protect Jews in Tetouan and throughout the country, because they saw the Jews as potential allies in increasing European financial, commercial and political control over Morocco.

In response to reports of persecution of Tetouan Jews, the French Alliance Israelite Universelle sent an investigation mission to Morocco and concluded that life was very difficult for Moroccan Jews. They asked for the French Government to intervene. Moses Montefiore of the British Anglo-Jewish Association was asked by the Jews of Gibraltar to negotiate better treatment for Moroccan Jews. In February 1864, he visited Sultan Sidi Mohammed in Marrakesh and
negotiated a royal declaration affirming that the Jews would be treated as equals under the law, with justice and impartiality, and that anyone mistreating them would be prosecuted. Some European consuls distributed this declaration to Government officials, indicating their readiness to protest any mistreatment of Jews.