New book demolishes Maghreb coexistence myth

An important new book in French drawing on original archive material by the Sorbonne professor Paul Fenton and the historian and human rights campaigner David Littman demolishes the myth that Jews and Muslims lived happily and as equals in the Maghreb. Indeed, it was the collective memory of Jewish suffering around the beginning of the colonial era which caused the mass Jewish exodus from Algeria and Morocco. Veronique Chemla interviews both authors for her blog (this English translation is slightly abridged) :

How did this book come about?

David G. Littman: I became interested in the fate of Jews from North Africa during my humanitarian mission in Morocco in 1961 to bring Jewish children secretly to Israel (“Operation Mural”).

By 1969, I had researched their history and that of oriental Jews, at the Quai d’Orsay, then the library of the Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU) where these records were so poorly explored. I discovered fragments of a collective memory of persecution, harassment and humiliation; the colonial period and the 1948 exodus have almost erased it.

I compared these testimonies with reports of the British counterpart of the Alliance, the Anglo-Jewish Association (AJA), and documents from the Foreign Office (FOR) in London.

The archives of the AIU formed a key source: they illuminate from within the abject condition of the vast majority of Jews from North Africa, and destroy myths.

In 1972, I spoke in Jerusalem with two eminent historians of Oriental Judaism, Shlomo Dov Goitein and Chaim Zeev Hirschberg. The first urged me to pursue my original research and Professor Hirschberg asked me to focus on Morocco and collaborate on the book he was writing about the history of the Jews of the Maghreb.

To ensure balance, Hirschberg proposed to complement the documentation of the IAU with tales of non-Jewish travellers of the nineteenth and previous centuries.

Through him, I met a doctoral student in 1975, Paul B. Fenton, who had visited Jewish communities at risk in Morocco and sent me to Hebrew and Arabic sources.

Unfortunately, Professor Hirschberg died in January 1976 – six months after we had spent a long period working together at home – without completing the proposed work.

I decided to pursue the topic of study that I mentioned in several articles and a monograph (1985) on the mission to Morocco in 1863-1864 by Sir Moses Montefiore.

Since 1986, my duties as a representative of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to the Commission on Human Rights at the UN in Geneva and my collaboration with other historians took me away from this project.

Much later, I returned to it with my friend, Paul B. Fenton, now a professor.

So the book is the result of work begun 40 years ago.

What are the unique features of this book?

Paul B. Fenton: The fruit of many years of research, this is the first attempt to capture the historical reality of the social and legal status of Jews in Algeria and Morocco under Islam from the Middle Ages until the colonial era.

The originality of the book is mainly due to its wealth of documentary sources. To-date, no other book has provided such a large and varied corpus of legal, literary and historical texts, often taken from rare editions and unpublished archives.

Travellers, adventurers, diplomats, doctors, lawyers, writers and teachers – Jews, Christians and Muslims – provide a vast anthology giving readers and researchers access to primary sources, some translated into French for the first time from English, German, Scandinavian languages, Arabic, Spanish, Hebrew and Dutch.

Each document is presented and discussed in order to highlight the uniqueness of its testimony.

The whole is accompanied by a rich iconography of historical documents, prints and artistic press photographs. (…)

Why does the title refer to the galut?

Paul B. Fenton: The Jews of North Africa associated their suffering with the galut, a Hebrew word meaning “exile” or “captivity”.

David G. Littman: I noticed during my humanitarian mission in 1961 that the Jews of Morocco were seeking by every means to leave their homeland and return to their ancestral land.

Why has your book focused on Morocco and Algeria? Are both countries representative of the Jewish condition in the Maghreb?

Paul B. Fenton: Since the time of the expulsion of Jews from Spain, Morocco and Algeria had the largest Jewish presence in Islamic lands. Both countries were early centres of interest for Europeans. There is therefore the greatest amount of information on Jewish sources, European and Muslim, on the status of Jews under Islam.

Unlike Egypt and Lebanon where there were large Christian communities, the Maghreb countries form a single paradigm: given the virtual disappearance of Christians, they were home from the twelfth century to a population comprised mainly of Muslims and a Jewish minority.

How many Jews lived in North Africa during the period studied?

David G. Littman: This number has varied over the centuries. Depending on the vicissitudes suffered by the Jews, it is difficult to assess.

Probably less than 50,000 Jews survived in the Maghreb during the Middle Ages, but at the dawn of the twentieth century this number rose to more than 200,000 souls, and in 1948 it exceeded 400,000 souls – and more than 500,000 if you include the Jews of Tunisia. (..)

You present 300 documents and 73 illustrations in your book. How did you choose them?

David G. Littman: Our selection criterion was the subject matter: the day-to-day traditional relationship between Jews and Muslims.

Your first part consists of 135 eyewitness accounts by European travellers. What are your sources?

David G. Littman: These stories come from many different sources: English, French, German, Dutch, Italian and Scandinavian.

Their descriptions of the humiliations inflicted on the Jews of the Maghreb all tally. We reproduce many examples from travellers, diplomats, doctors and slaves taken by the Barbary pirates.

Many travellers shared the anti-Judaism of the time. However their writings betray a tone of sympathy, even pity, for the suffering of the Jews. Take the case of the Rev. Lancelot Addison, a chaplain living in Tangier ( from the reign of Charles 11 under British rule ) from 1662 to 1669. He described the condition of the Jews as “another form of slavery” (doc. 45). During the same period in Morocco, Germain Seagull wrote: “They [the Jews] have justice rarely done to them in this country.” (Doc. A 47)

The documents emanating from objective eyewitnesses and victims alike give an accurate reflection of the reality in the Maghreb. They record the voices of the little people.

What would you say to those claiming that you have painted a partisan account? Are there any stories giving a different picture of the Jewish condition in the Maghreb and nuancing this bleak picture?

David G. Littman: We have released documents showing that some Muslim authorities were able to demonstrate an understanding favourable to the Jews at different times. Without the protection (“dhimma”) of the Sultan, the fate of the Jews would have been even worse.

The publication of these hundreds of emotionally-charged testimonies does not intend to have a political objective. We do not want to stir up old grudges or stymie attempts at interfaith dialogue.

We believe – as Bat Ye’or has stated in her writings – that any dialogue between Jews and Muslims which does not recognize the historical reality of dhimmitude, is fated to be fruitless guff and breaks away from a future based on the acceptance of an equal Other.

As for the allegation that we are pushing an agenda, these 720 pages show the emptiness and futility of polemical and “political” allegations.

Our book does not pretend to be exhaustive, but we challenge those who challenge us to collect as many texts that show that Jews have lived happily and equal to Muslims in North Africa during the period studied.

Magna veritas, et praevalebit / The truth is powerful, and will triumph.

Over the centuries, how have things evolved and is there a pattern to them?

Paul B. Fenton: Even if, during its conquest of North Africa and elsewhere, Islam has spared the “People of the Book” (Jews, Christians) while other peoples were conquered or forced to embrace the new religion or be slaughtered, theology and Islamic law have made every effort to force Jews and Christians to convert.

Physical bullying and the economic status of the dhimmi eventually wore down the Christian communities in the Maghreb. Once-flourishing Christian communities in pre-Islamic North Africa gave us one of the fathers of the Church, St Augustine, who died at Hippone (now Annaba, Algeria).

Jewish communities have held firm, but at the cost of enormous sacrifice. Their history is punctuated by a long series of massacres, persecutions and forced conversions. The nadir was extermination at the time of the Almohades (1147-1269) and the anti-Jewish theologian Abd al- Karim al-Maghîlî (circa 1493) of Tlemcen, whose hateful sermons can be compared to the work of Luther.

The writings of Muslim theologians are included in the first texts printed in Morocco in the nineteenth century and remain a reference up until the colonial era.

I would add that the beginnings of French colonization, both in Algeria and Morocco, have coincided with periods of great suffering for the Jews, traditional scapegoats for Muslim frustration.

The Cremieux Decree of 1870, which granted French citizenship to Jews born in Algeria, removed them from their dhimmi status, causing a sharp rise in Arab anti-Semitism in Algeria.

If the Jews have persisted in the Maghreb, it is thanks to “reasons of state” that recognized as useful their industriousness and acumen, intellectual and craft skills.

Their spiritual and economic prosperity, repeatedly plundered by their fellow Muslims, gave them the strength to survive.

The dominant idea, even in French history textbooks, is that of a happy and egalitarian interfaith coexistence under Islam. Your book paints a dark and upsetting picture of the Jewish condition under Islam: a dhimmitude of suffering, humiliation, massacres, forced conversions, rape, looting, punctuated by accusations of ritual crimes, etc. Why this contrast? Were there periods of tolerance and friendship between Jews and Muslims?

Paul B. Fenton: Some people want us to believe that the Jewish experience in North Africa was a serene idyll disturbed only by the advent of Zionism in the 20th century.

The evidence gathered in our book, from Jewish and non-Jewish sources, is overwhelming: they reveal an uninterrupted catalogue of suffering through the centuries.

We must extinguish once and for all the myth of the “Golden Age”. There has never been happy interfaith coexistence and equality under Islam.

Only under the French and Spanish protectorates did Judaism in the Maghreb experience calm and happiness. “The guest only remembers the night before,” says the Jewish-Arab proverb. Memories of good times have distorted our historical vision.

However, a collective Jewish memory kicked in the aftermath of decolonization, otherwise one cannot understand why North African Jewry has opted almost entirely to leave its ancestral homeland.

This does not preclude, at the individual level, strong friendships between Jews and Muslims, when they were not troubled by collective hostility.

Your second part consists of the archives of the AIU and French and British diplomats. The AIU was founded in 1860 by six French Jews who expressed their ideas in their Appeal combining Judaism and ideas of the Revolution of 1789: Equal rights, freedom, etc. These founders fought for all persecuted religious minorities, especially for Jews in Morocco, Christians in Lebanon, the Protestants in Spain. They gave priority to access to education and French culture in the empowerment and “regeneration” of the Jews, so that they could become modern citizens of the world. What do the archives of the AIU tell you?

David G. Littman: The earliest documents date to the beginning of the penetration of the AIU in Morocco with the founding of the first Jewish school in Tetouan late 1862.

In 1863, Adolphe Cremieux became president of the AIU.

Hundreds of letters confirm accounts of European travellers in the age of liberalism and emancipation.

The vast majority of these documents describe the demeaning and vulnerable situation of Jews in the Maghreb countries and the humiliation they endured. The precariousness of their situation worsened in some areas more than others.

These texts reveal the extraordinary courage of the AIU representatives who tried to protect local populations and selflessly defended humanitarian causes from the many perils and assaults and daily injustices suffered by their co-religionists.

The archives of the AIU provide historical documents relating to major events that have been completely forgotten by the chroniclers, such as the massacre of Jews in Casablanca and Settat in 1907 – fifty Jews were killed, hundreds injured; women and girls suffered the worst outrages and Jews were kidnapped then sold. In the Fez pogrom in 1912 more than sixty Jews were killed, fifty wounded, a third of the mellah was set on fire, the district completely ransacked and aish, a Jewish population of 10,000 souls reduced to 8000, the remainder forced to survive on charity.

The pogrom of Fez has deeply influenced the collective memory of Moroccan Jewry and is a major factor in the mass exodus of Moroccan Jews in the aftermath of the independence from their ancestral country in 1948.

In the AIU archives, there are also fascinating stories of a more general nature, describing, among other things, public events, local customs, folklore, superstitions.

These documents allow a comparative picture to emerge of the Jewish condition in various parts of North Africa at that time, and the reactions of individuals and the Jewish community.

The AIU documentation on Morocco is probably the most complete. It reflects the many aspects of Jewish life in Morocco in the social, cultural and educational field.

The letters from the archives, mostly published for the first time in this book have been selected for the light they cast on the Arab-Jewish relations in Morocco. They illustrate the state of perpetual humiliation, latent hostility and occasionally physical violence that was the lot almost daily of the Jewish masses in Morocco until the beginning of the First World War.

What is the role of French and British Jews, including Sir Moses Montefiore, in respect of their co-religionists in Morocco and Algeria?

David G. Littman: I will give some examples on Morocco, a situation quite different from that of the Jews in Algeria after the French conquest (1830).

In this period of imperial greatness, some circles of the nobility and clergy in England were led by messianic aspirations. Moved by the humanism of the liberal era, Jews were recognized as heirs to a glorious past, worthy of sympathy and interest, especially where England had political and strategic concerns. In 1837 the young Queen Victoria knighted Moses Montefiore, a relative of the Rothschild family.

In London, the Board of Deputies – the organization representing British Jews – under the chairmanship of Sir Moses had established a relief committee to the Jews of Morocco to assist those refugees from Tetouan and Tangier to Gibraltar and Algeciras in the war between Spain and Morocco (1860). This resulted in the first AIU school in Tetouan in 1862 with at its inception, a staff of over 100 students under the joint protection of the French and English.

Through close collaboration with Lord Palmerston, Prime Minister and Earl Russell, a dynamic Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sir Moses Montefiore completed missions abroad on behalf of of his co-religionists. England supported him with diplomatic help when he decided to go to Morocco soon after what became known as the so-called “Moroccan atrocities” involving Catholic Spain. In fact, the Safi case in 1863 concerned the sudden death of the Spanish Consul and the accusation by the Deputy Consul that a Jew, the servant of the Consul, had killed the diplomat with the complicity of other Jews. Hoping to improve their miserable situation and free the unjustly-incarcerated Jews, Montefiore, then an octogenarian, began a humanitarian mission in Morocco, where he also had relatives.

Most letters from Morocco end with an appeal to British and French governments to “relieve the Jews of Morocco from the oppression of the Moorish authorities. Supplications were offered in all the synagogues, and November 17, 1863 Sir Moses left Dover. (…)

How do Morocco and Algeria depict Jews in their national history?

Paul B. Fenton: The great contribution of Jews to the economy and culture of Algeria and Morocco has long been ignored or erased by the authorities.

Remember that the Minister of Culture Khalida Toumi, in an interview with the Arabic-language newspaper As-Shourouk in February 2009, spoke of “de-judaising Algerian culture. Does she know the simple fact that by importing wheat into Algeria Jews repeatedly saved the Muslim population from famine in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?

Morocco, too, has stripped the Jews from its history. The streets of the mellahs named after Jews have been emptied of them and Islamised. Textbooks contain nothing on the 2,000- year old presence of Jews, who were there before the arrival of the Arabs. Many young people are not aware that Jews even lived in their country.

In 1997 in Casablanca there opened a museum of Moroccan Jewry, the only Jewish museum in the entire Arab-Muslim world, but it was an initiative of the Council of Jewish Communities of Morocco and not a Arab organization.

However, there is emerging a timid interest, especially in Morocco where Hebrew is taught at several universities, in the history of Jews in the country. When you begin to scratch the business, legal and social records, the fact is unavoidable.

But many of these studies carry the imprint of cliches and anti-Jewish bias.

They disfigure even the writings of a great Moroccan academic who had the merit of generating interest in the history of the Jews of Morocco. Unfortunately, if you read closely what he writes, one can discern a “revisionist” trend ignoring the bloodstained pages of history and constantly minimizing suffering, often suggesting that the Jews themselves caused it!

Paul B. Fenton and David G. Littman, L’ Exil au Maghreb: la condition juive sous l’Islam 1148-1912. (Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2010. 800 pages. ISBN: 978-2-84050-725-3). Book available at PUPS – 8, rue Danton, 75006 Paris and other bookstores from Nov. 25 2010.

Read post in full (French)


  • Both the authors are English speakers, so I think it will come out in English eventually.

  • It seems the Western world is finally waking up to the import of Arabic words such as "dhimmi". Next, let us consider the meanings of "taqiyah", "naskh" "ijima", "ghazva (or razzia)" and "rabat". Being ignorant of these few Arabic words is brute stupidity for any non-believer who values their own culture and the well-being of their loved ones. Perhaps these and other key Arabic words could be the subject of new scholarly studies.

  • actually we have an evil Dutch troll molesting us in the comment section and he goes on forever about what the Moroccan king said and how good the olive oil is besides telling us that Zionism and Islamism are essentially the same.
    So your piece came in very handy. That the Elder picked it up from the comment section is either pure luck (he gets many suggestions) or he is as fed up with the troll as we are and saw the usefulness of it.

    let's hope it'll get the subject on the radar a bit more

    in retaliation? the troll is now posting dirty stuff under my moniker. If a woman goes after them it seems to gall them even more than when a guy does it which is fine to me because that way they expose themselves faster and I enjoy feeling useful



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