Moroccan Jews in Israel

Moroccan-Israelis Amir Peretz and Orly Levy during the electoral campaign in Tel Aviv, September 3, 2019, from Jeune Afrique, ABIR SULTAN/EPA/MAXPPP

Moroccan Jews who emigrated to Israel and their descendants consider themselves Israelis. In addition to assuming a new nationality and identity, they also developed a Moroccan Israeli culture. Yet whether they are first, second or third generation Israelis, they never forget their Moroccan roots. Many maintain Moroccan traditions and religious practices, while participating fully in Israeli society in cities, towns and rural areas and serving in the military.

While long-term discrimination and marginalization has limited the educational and employment opportunities of many Moroccan-Israelis and forced some of them into poverty and crime, it has not prevented them from gaining political power. Ten Israelis of Moroccan ancestry were named ministers in the May 2020 government. Israelis consider Moroccans Mizrahim, Jews who originated in countries with large Muslim populations spanning from India to Morocco. Most Moroccan-Israelis, are on the political right. Many of them support the Sephardic Orthodox religious party, Shas. The objectives of Shas are to preserve orthodox religious authority over family law, protect Mizrahi and Sephardic religious and cultural heritage and fight discrimination against Mizrahim.

Israelis of Moroccan ancestry have made the Moroccan Jewish holiday of Mimouna an Israeli holiday. In addition, they have brought to Israel their tradition of making pilgrimage to the tombs of Jewish saints (hiloulot). Over 50,000 Moroccan Jews visit Morocco each year. Many third generation Israelis who have at least one parent or grandparent born in Morocco are particularly curious about their Moroccan heritage.


A still from 'Tinghir-Jerusalem: Echoes from the Mellah' shows Aicha Elkoubi, left, and Hannah Schmouyane, Moroccan Jews who immigrated to Israel, reminisce about the old days. (photo credit: AP Photo/Les Films d'un Jour)
A still from the documentary ‘Tinghir-Jerusalem: Echoes from the Mellah’ shows Aicha Elkoubi, left, and Hannah Schmouyane, Moroccan Jews who immigrated to Israel, reminiscing about the old days. From The Times of Israel: AP Photo/Les Films d’un Jour

In Israel, Moroccan Jews and Jews of Moroccan ancestry make up about 1 million out of the country’s 9.1 million population in 2020. In 2015, 7.72% of Israeli Jews declared that they either emigrated from Morocco or had a father from Morocco. The data excludes third generation Moroccans and those who declared they were Israeli only or had mothers of Moroccan ancestry.

The Israeli identity of Jews of Moroccan heritage is more important to them than their ethnic identity. A 1998 survey by Oren Yiftachel and Erez Tzfadia found that 60% of North African immigrants in six development towns called themselves Israeli Jews, while only 4% called themselves Moroccan-Israelis or Mizrahi-Israelis.

Between 1948 and 1971, 254,000 Jews immigrated to Israel from Morocco. In the first few years of the state, Israeli leaders depended on immigration for several objectives. They needed men and women to strengthen the army and defend the country. These leaders sought to increase the Jewish population and spread it beyond the main cities of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. They also wished to establish agricultural and urban settlements along the country’s borders to increase the security of existing settlements. Israel’s leaders believed these efforts would help establish the country as a Jewish state with an Arab-Palestinian minority. Since the number of Ashkenazi refugees from Europe was inadequate to achieve these goals, Israeli leaders encouraged immigration from North African and Middle Eastern countries. Morocco held the largest number of Jews in this region.

Ashkenazi immigration absorption administrators faced enormous challenges in taking care of and acculturating the hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Europe. However, it was even more challenging for them to do so for the Mizrahim. The cultures, values and behavior of the Mizrahim differed greatly from the Ashkenazim. Ashkenazim, who believed they were superior to the Mizrahim, created absorption systems that discriminated against them and demeaned their culture. Jews of Moroccan ancestry, while proud Israelis, have never forgotten the second class treatment they or their families received in immigrating to Israel.

Ma’abarot (Transit Camps)

Ma’abara Tel Mond, 1950, By אין מידע – Mond House – Tel Mond via the PikiWiki – Israel free image collection project, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1950’s, almost all Moroccan immigrants were first housed in ma’abarot (transition camps). In each of these camps, thousands of people lived under hundreds of tents. Some Moroccans stayed in the camps for as long as four years. Living conditions were extremely difficult, and it was difficult for camp residents to find work. Even those who were employed had difficulty providing for their families. Some Moroccans who brought resources with them became entrepreneurs in the camps, but most relied on government support. Many Moroccans were angry about the cold treatment they received from Ashkenazi government officials. In 1952, more than 220,000 people were living in ma’abarot.

Trailer for the Israeli Documentary Ma’abarot

Development Towns

Israel established a policy of guiding 60% of Moroccan immigrants from the ma’abarot into development towns. These towns would absorb hundreds of thousands of new immigrants, provide them with work and housing, protect existing settlements from attack and promote interaction between urban and rural settlements. By 2003, the country had created 30 development towns, with a total population of over 800,000 people. Mizrahim constituted 85–90% of the development town inhabitants during the 1960s and 1970s.

Many development towns did not thrive. First, the national government was unable to provide all the goods and services it promised. Second, Mizrahi inhabitants perceived that government officials discriminated against them. Third, government planners focused more on establishing development towns than on sustaining them. Finally, many inhabitants saw no future for themselves in the development towns and migrated to the cities.

In addition, planners expected that inhabitants would work in nearby agricultural settlements. However, few settlements needed such labor. Many entrepreneurs, whom planners expected to start up business in the development towns, preferred to initiate them in the cities. Also, town management was a challenge for new immigrants. Town leaders struggled with immense social problems as people adapted to their new lives. Young people were especially discontent that they could not live in the cities.

On the other hand, better planned towns, mostly those established after 1965, succeeded. Larger, southern and coastal towns, such as Beersheba and Ashdod, grew faster than smaller ones in the North.

Moroccan Jews living in many development towns felt marginalized. They believed the Ashkenazim viewed them as inferior. Communities found themselves dispersed across the country, families were separated, and traditional secular and religious leaders were dismissed from their duties. In response, many development town inhabitants took part in organized protests over living conditions. Moroccans living in development towns joined other Mizrahim in supporting right-wing parties, such as Likud, and the Sephardic Orthodox religious party, Shas.

The 1990’s wave of immigration from Russia and other Soviet republics changed the make-up, interpersonal relations and politics of development towns. In the early 2000’s, they constituted 25-40% of these towns’ population. In response, Moroccans became more aware of their dual identities as Israelis and Moroccans/Mizrahim.

Development Town Mitzpe Ramon, 1957, Israeli GPO photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons