Most Moroccan Jews are called Mizrahi or Sephardi Jews. Some of the Mizrahi Jews came to the country over 2,000 years ago with the Phoenicians, after the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Others arrived a few centuries later with the Romans to seek refuge and participate in trade. Many of them intermarried with the native Amazigh population. Many came with the Arab Muslims 1,300 years ago, again to participate in trade.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus went to America. At the same time, both Jews and Muslims were exiled from Spain by the Christians. Many Sephardic Jews from Spain went to Morocco to live and trade, while others moved to the Ottoman Empire, centered on Turkey but extending to the Algerian border with Morocco.
The Jews have always been a minority in Morocco, but at times they made up one of every ten Moroccans. About 500 years ago, they were forced to live in their own walled portions of cities and towns, called mellahs. Many of them moved to European neighborhoods when France and Spain took control of Morocco in the first half of the 20th century.
Throughout Moroccan history, Jews have been subjects of and protected by the Sultan or King, who was the leader of both Muslims and Jews. In return for their protection, rich Jews collected money from the population to pay taxes to the Sultan.
Jews were excellent metal and jewelry craftsmen. Some would travel throughout Morocco to sell goods, while others would sell Moroccan and African products in Europe. They were good money managers. However, many Jews lived in poverty.
At times, the Sultans had problems controlling the country and would have difficulty protecting the Jews. Nevertheless, most Jews had good relations with Muslim Arab and Amazigh peoples.
Today, after large-scale emigration between the 1940’s-1960’s, Moroccan Jews are a tiny minority within their country. In many ways, they live like Jews in Europe, Israel and the US. They are citizens of Morocco, work in a wide range of occupations, pray at synagogues, attend schools, socialize with friends and family, celebrate holidays and life events, and get along well with their Muslim neighbors. They also stay in touch with their family members who left Morocco to live in other countries.
The Biggest Changes in the Jewish Community
The biggest changes to the Jewish community occurred when the French took control of most of the country in 1912. French people took the jobs of Jews, but treated them better than the Muslims. A French Jewish organization set up modern schools throughout Morocco, so Jews became much more educated than Muslims.
When Hitler took control of France during WWII, Jews in Morocco were expelled from French schools and could no longer live in the French neighborhoods. Independence came to Morocco in 1956, after several years of conflict with the French.
Many Jews who were nervous about what life would be like after independence left for Israel. Later, others left for France, Canada and the US. The population fell from 265,000 in 1950 to less than 2,500 in 2020.
Antisemitism in Morocco
Antisemitism exists, particularly in the countryside, but Jews have rarely felt that their lives were in danger. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, Israelis and French government officials made Jews think there was more antisemitism than there really was. On the other hand, even today, Jews feel uncomfortable discussing Israel. From 1956-1961, they were not allowed to move to Israel. Whenever Israel was at war, Jews in Morocco were nervous. However, the King always declared that Jews were his subjects and would remain protected.
Contact with Those Outside of the Community
Jews speak a number of languages – Judeo-Arab, Judeo-Tamazight, Hekatia (Judeo-Spanish or Ladino), along with Moroccan Arabic, French and Spanish. In addition, they use Hebrew for prayer. Many Jews in the 20th century were attracted by French and Spanish culture. In the mellahs, the rabbis in synagogues and Jewish courts controlled their lives. Most Jews had little contact with Moroccan authorities, but some went into business with Muslims. Community leaders represented the Jews with the authorities.
Many Jewish communities received support from Jewish organizations in Europe, the US and Israel. When they could not leave legally for Israel in the late 1950’s, Israel helped them to leave illegally. Today, there are a few very wealthy Jews who do much to support the community. There also are a few very poor Jews. Most Jews keep in touch with family members in Europe and in Israel.
Keeping Moroccan Jewish Traditions
With a community of 2,500 persons, it is difficult for Moroccan Jews to maintain their 2,000 year-old culture. Many Moroccan Jewish traditions are now followed in Israel, France and other countries. Jews work hard to keep the support of the King, but they try not to appear too close to Israel, to avoid antagonizing Moroccan Muslims who are concerned about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. One of the biggest challenges for Moroccan Jews is taking their money out of the country when they emigrate to Israel.
Customs and Religion
Moroccan Jews have unique customs. They are very superstitious. Just like the Muslims, they believe in good and bad spirits. When a boy is born, they protect him from the demon Lilith by waving a dagger around his crib until he is circumcized on the eighth day. They wear amulets that protect them from spirits and disease.
Moroccan Jews have special festivals to pray at the tombs of rabbis who died long ago. They call these rabbis “saints” and believe that praying at their tombs will help them overcome their problems.
Moroccan Jews pray according to the Sephardic tradition, which is a variety of Orthodox Judaism. For Chanukah, they eat doughnuts and put olive oil in their menorahs. They have established special holidays called Purims to remember times when the Jewish community was saved, such as when the American army arrived in 1942 to begin fighting the Nazis. One unique Jewish holiday is called Mimuna. At the end of Passover, Muslims visit their Jewish friends and colleagues, and Jews go from house to house visiting friends and family, to eat lots of sweets and bread.
Moroccan Jewish culture is closely linked to Muslim culture. Muslims visit Jewish saints and Jews visit Muslim saints. Jewish cooking is kosher, but is almost the same as Muslim cooking, including couscous, cooked salads, stews and fantastic pastries. Moroccan Jews will often wear traditional clothes, such as jellabas and caftans. Brass art and jewelry are now made by Muslims, based on designs and techniques of Jews. One shared symbol is the hamsa, or the hand of Fatima.
Jews often used traditional Moroccan wall carvings in their synagogues. Jewish marriage ceremonies feature Moroccan music, especially Andalusian music, which was developed by Jews and Muslims in Spain in the 15th century. At marriages, Jewish women wear traditional Moroccan robes and have their hands and feet covered with tatoos made of henna. Jewish men drink alcohol made from dates and anise, called mahiya.
The Future of Moroccan Jews
The Moroccan Jewish community is dying slowly. The community is getting smaller each year. The problems in Israel and Palestine make Jews in Morocco nervous, encouraging some of them to leave. Moroccan Jews who moved to Israel, France and Canada in the 1950’s and 1960’s are proud of their Moroccan culture, but their children feel less close to Morocco. While life was difficult for the first generation of Moroccan Jews in Israel, things are improving for their children and grandchildren.
Each year, over 50,000 Jews from abroad visit Jewish relatives as well as the graves of their parents and Jewish saints in Morocco. As many of Moroccan Jews are elderly and as emigration is continuing, by the year 2030, few Jews are expected to live within Morocco. That is why ongoing efforts by the King, local governments and the Jewish community to preserve Jewish synagogues, cemeteries and saints’ tombs are so important.