18th c. Jews tried, and failed, to alleviate their lot

There was a little girl who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead;
When she was good, she was very, very good,
And when she was bad she was horrid.

It’s with this English nursery rhymethat Professor Paul B Fenton* of the Sorbonne in Paris and author (with David Littman) of L’Exil du Maghreb, likes to describe ‘dhimmitude’ – the subjugated status of Jews under Islamic rule. There were times, under benevolent rulers, when ‘despised but indispensable’ Jews could thrive. In exchange for services to the Sultan they could enjoy all sorts of privileges. In an atmosphere of ‘cordial hatred’, Jewish usurers practising a trade forbidden to Muslims could grow extremely rich on the backs of their Muslim clients.

On the other hand, the great mass of Jews were desperately poor. There were times of great hardship and misery, when Jews were burdened with unbearable taxes. In the interval between two rulers, it was not unusual for Muslim mobs to raid the Jewish quarter and pillage what riches and property they could lay their hands on.

The pressure to convert to Islam to escape the vicissitudes of dhimmitude was always there. Muslims reserved a special greeting forJews and Christians, who were customarily entreated to ‘see the light’ and renounce their misguided ways. Many Jews succumbed: it is thought that a large percentage of Muslims in Fez, a stronghold of fundamentalism, have Jewish origins.Morocco in 1701 was one of those ‘horrid’ times: the Sultan wished to impose a crippling poll tax, or jizya, of 30 percent on the Jews to finance his next war. Jews trembled at the prospect of having to melt down their rimonim, silver Torah ornaments. They would not be able to afford meat for the festival of Pesah. A time for celebration would become a time for lamentation.

In the depths of despair, the Jews hit on a stratagem to improve their lot. They dug up an old Arabic document which has only just come to the notice of contemporary scholars. It purports to be a deed of privileges delivered by the Prophet Mohammed himself in 628 to the Jews of Khaybar in Arabia.Among the privileges the Jews claimed had been promised to them was ‘Allah’s protection’. For this they were not to pay more than four dirhams a month if they could afford it.
They also asked not to have to wear the dhimmi belt or zunnar, and the right to don the red or white turban – regal headgear reserved for Muslims. (Jews had to wear a black cap, the colour of mourning.)The Jews presented the document to the Grand Kadi of Fez, Muhammed ben Abdel -Qadr. Was it an act of naivety or monumental chutzpah?Although there are at least two similar documents in circulation, Abdel-Qadr threw the document out as a forgery.

The crestfallen Jews would have to wait over a century to be freed from the disabilities of the dhimmi. Redemption came in the form of the French conquest of Algeria in 1830. ‘Les juifs sont libres!’ the Jews chanted as they paraded through the streets of Algiers. And they wore red turbans.

*Professor Fenton was presenting a paper at the Jews of Morocco London conference, UCL, 20 – 22 June 2011.


  • Juniper, the Alawites are a religious sect, an offshoot of Shi`ite Islam, considered so heterodox by Sunni Muslims that they are often considered non-Muslims. The Alawites as a sect –to which much or most of the Syrian governing elite belongs– are found mainly in Syria, with some in SE Turkey and northern Lebanon. The ruling dynasty in Morocco is called Alawite [or: alaouite] because they claim descent from `Ali, Muhammad's cousin who married Muhammad's daughter Fatima. But they are Sunni Muslims now.

    The Alawite sect [of Bashar Assad, etc] believes in a kind of trinity that features both Ali and Muhammad as well as a certain Salman.

  • All your comments are thoughtful and knowledgeable, but this one was especially amazing

  • Bataween,
    Feel free to post my entries at anytime. You do not need to ask for permission…They are facts of history… of course sometimes I inject some claims of value judgment, specially with the madman religion….I do not think one can remain neutral forever….

  • Thank you Sammish, with your permission I will put up your comment as a separate post.

  • "Alaouite king Moulay Rashid "

    Could this be the same as the Alawite tribe of Bashar al Assad, that rules Syria?

  • You wonder what was worse for Jews a century ago or more, living in Europe under anti-Semitism or under Arab rule as lower-class folk. I suppose the latter must have been worse, because the Arab anti-Jewish attitude was endemic in its entire populace.

  • True Jews tried BUT IT IS THE OTHER SIDE THAT FAILED to Alleviate their suffering… In fact, they made it impossible to alleviate anything….

    Back to Moroccan Judaism and Jewish culture…

    There was an ancient Jewish controlled territory in Southern Morocco where now the Chleuh (Amazighen Berbers) live in what is called the Souss Valley. This territory had its main focal point in the city of Oufrane (Oufrane of the Anti-Atlas). This particular territory (often referred to in French literature as a Kingdom) was established before the destruction of the second temple. Thus one can only infer that it was settled and developed after the destruction of the first temple. But this territory grew in size and power with the second diaspora with the roman expansion in North Africa and with the venue of the Arabs Muslims from Arabia.

    Life after the Muslim subjugation of the local population was never the same for the Jews. Life depended was whimsical fancies of the Alaouite (present dynasty still ruling nowadays) rulers and their descendants. The first Alaouite king Moulay Rashid subjugated the Jews in financing his wars in order to take over Morocco and pacify all the tribes, by taking power from the Saadiens. By 1660, he was successful, thanks to the Jews. Because of this, the Moroccan Alaouites still to this day owe a lot about their ascendency to the monarchy to their Jewish population. And they know it. The Jews literally build financially and physically the ancient cities of Meknes and Fez only to be told that they needed to live separately (in the Mellahs). While only few Jewish familiies had grown into prominence at the royal courts, the majority of workers, artisans, shopkeepers and commercial undertakers (the backbone of the medieval economy) were cramming the mullahs to its capacity. Still life was ensured in a mutual sense of hatred to the Jewish subject. But things turn ugly when a ruler dies and leave a power vacuum. Jews suffer the worst of calamities. One descendent of Rashid was his grand-grand son named Yazid. His hatred of the Jews showed no bound. In 1790, he forced all Jews to depart from Meknes and Fez even Marrakech was not spared, although few had remained. Most flocked to cities like Casablanca, Mogador, and Oufrane.

    Back to the Oufrane Jewish "kingdom" of Morocco. There in 1790, 60 Jewish brave souls jumped to their own fire death instead of converting to Islam, under the order of some local thugs incited by Moulay Yazid to inflict sufferings on an already marginalized and humiliated lives.

    I went to visit this site in 1984. It was chilling. Nothing remained in this site, just dusty desert place where a circle stands to the testament of brave “Masada” like suicide a la North Africa. In fact, people around become suspicious of me. And all I was doing is wondering and meditating about an ancient Jewish territory that was entirely Jewish in its own right and grandeur, before the advance of the madman religion from Arabia.

    It is something to wonder about if only things have not turned out that way… but life goes one and Judaism is timeless…


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