Amazigh, Arabs and Jews

Amazigh, Arabs and Jews are the peoples that together have built Morocco. The Amazigh people, to whom 60% of Moroccans identify, are the indigenous people of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Speaking various dialects of an Afro-Asiatic language, Tamazight, and with a unique culture, they organized themselves into sub-groups and kingdoms. Beginning in the 5th century BCE, the Phoenicians established coastal settlements, where they traded with the Amazigh. The Amazigh revolted frequently against the Phoenicians as well as against the Romans who established the Mauretania province in Morocco about 33 BCE. Jews accompanied both the Phoenicians and Romans to Morocco, living as minorities in their settlements. In some Amazigh areas, Jews gained power and converted Amazigh sub-groups to Judaism. Among other Amazigh sub-groups, Jews lived as a minority people.

Muslim Arabs conquered and settled Morocco in the eighth century, displacing the Amazigh from urban areas. Some Jews accompanied Arabs in their emigration from the Middle East, living as a protected minority group. Other Jews moved from Amazigh-controlled rural areas to Arab-controlled cities. Urban Jews played an important role in commerce between Arabs and the Amazigh people.  Jewish traders were rarely harmed, and even in times of instability, they were able to use their special relationships with Amazigh leaders to travel safely.

Inspired by Islam, the Arabs came to Morocco from the Middle East as settler colonialists to extend both their power and their religion over the land and people. It took military force and centuries for them to consolidate power over the Amazigh and to get them to convert to Islam. While Arabs took control of and settled in Moroccan cities, they depended on Amazigh soldiers to conquer and settle Andalusia (Spain).

Most Jewish Amazigh sub-groups converted to Islam, but some of them refused to give up their religion. Over time, the majority of Jews moved from rural areas to Arab-controlled towns and cities, where they fell under the protection of the sultans. As sultans tried to extend their power over rural Amazigh sub-groups, occasionally the sub-groups would attack the cities, using Jews as scapegoats for their problems. Amazigh sub-groups conquered Morocco and established dynasties from 1060-1549. Since then, Arab dynasties have ruled Morocco, including the current Alaouite dynasty.

Jewish exiles from Andalusian Spain were allowed to immigrate to Morocco by Amazigh sultans in the late 15th century. Speaking an Arabic-influenced dialect of Spanish, Haketia, many of them moved to Fez and other areas of Morocco, where they maintained or imposed their Sephardic traditions on the existing Jewish communities. Most Sephardic Jews built their lives in the Arab-controlled cities and towns, but some moved to Amazigh-controlled rural areas.

Beginning in the 19th century, French and Spanish colonization was based on the policy of divide and rule, creating cleavages among Arabs, Amazigh and Jews. Some of these divisions worsened during the Moroccan independence struggle and after the country gained its independence. The creation of the state of Israel on Arab-majority land and its efforts to seek Moroccan Jewish immigrants added to the tensions among Arabs, Amazigh and Jews.

View from Telouet Kasbah, the High Atlas Home of Thami El Glaoui, the leader of the Southern Moroccan Amazigh and Pasha of Marrakesh from 1912-1956. El Glaoui collaborated with the French to depose Sultan Mohammed V and send him into exile in 1953.

In the 20th century, despite occasional conflicts, the three peoples maintained mutually-supportive roles within urban and rural Morocco. Many families and individuals interacted closely, although some sought to associate only with people who shared their culture. Jews were not a small minority everywhere in Morocco, In Casablanca, Jews made up about 10% of the population at one point.

Until the 21st century, Moroccan kings repressed the expression of Amazigh culture, including the teaching of the Amazigh language in the schools. King Mohammed VI has gone a long way towards opening up Moroccan society to Amazigh culture and giving greater freedom to the Amazigh people.

Few Jews are left in Morocco, but those who remain are proud of the Arab and Amazigh influences on their culture and the close relationships among the three peoples. Many Jews living abroad who were born in Morocco try to maintain a culture forged by Jews, Arabs and Amazigh over centuries. They also cherish the memories of the Arab and Amazigh friends and neighbors they left behind.