Search Results for: exile in the maghreb

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)

Most Moroccan Jews ‘never died a natural death’

 The myth of happy Jewish-Muslim coexistence in Morocco is one of the most persistent. Exile in the Maghreb. by David Littman and Paul Fenton, is a corrective to this historical distortion. Ruthie Blum reviews the book for the Gatestone Institute (with thanks: Imre, Doug):

Exile in the Maghreb,
co-authored by the great historian David G. Littman and
Paul B. Fenton, is an ambitious tome contradicting the
myth of how breezy it was for Jews to live in their
homelands in the Middle East and North Africa when they
came under Muslim rule.

“Ever since the Middle Ages,”
the book jarringly illustrates, “anti-Jewish persecution
has been endemic to Muslim North Africa.”

Littman, before his untimely
death from leukemia in 2012, had intended this book on the
Maghreb to be the first in a series that would cover the
social condition of the Jews of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt,
Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Yemen, Iran and Turkey — an
ambitious project that he was unable to tackle in its

The impetus for the book, which
was first published in French in 2010
and in English in 2016, was to expose the
misrepresentation by certain historians of the relations
between the Jews of Morocco and Algeria and their Arab
rulers. One such historian cited in the book was the
French Orientalist, Claude Cahen, who dreamily
wrote in his chapter on “Dhimma” in the Encylopaedia of Islam:

“There is nothing in medieval
Islam which could specifically be called
anti-Semitism… Islam has, in spite of many upsets,
shown more toleration than Europe toward Jews who
remained in Muslim lands.”

The original idea for the book
— a massive collection of personal testimonies, photos
and documents spanning ten centuries (from 997-1912) — came
to Littman when he was on a humanitarian trip to Morocco
in 1961. Littman noted:

“Following the independence of
their country in 1956, the Jews of Morocco had begun to
redefine their hopes regarding the future. Whereas new
opportunities for them began to loom on the horizon, I
was astonished to observe that the Moroccan Jews were
making every possible effort to leave their native land
to immigrate to the struggling young State of Israel or
even to Europe, whose communities were still painfully
recovering from the tragedies of World War II.”

In an article for the Jerusalem Post — entitled,
Exploding the myth of Moroccan
” — Lyn Julius described an anti-Israel documentary by Al Jazeera
that blamed the Mossad for “play[ing] a key role in
convincing thousands of Moroccan Jews that they were in
danger and covertly facilitated their departure” to the
newly established state of Israel. Prior to that,
according to the broadcast, “Jews first began to settle in
Morocco over 2,000 years ago and for centuries they and
Muslims have happily co-existed there.”

Julius writes that Exile in the Maghreb
provides “a corrective to this common historical

There is, for example the
account of Samuel Romanelli (1758-1814), an Italian Jew
who visited Morocco at the end of Sultan Sidi Mohammad
III’s reign (1757-1790), and wrote about his travels in Oracle from an Arab Land

“Most of them [the Jews of
Morocco] never die a natural death nor do they share the
lot of common mortals: execution, torture,
expropriation, incarceration are their fate. Their
bodies might be mutilated and their residences turned
into cesspools…”

In the article, “What Is a ‘Refugee’? The Jews
from Morocco versus the Palestinians from Israel
published earlier this year, the renowned lawyer, Alan
Dershowitz, writes:

“Jews lived in Morocco for
centuries before Islam came to Casablanca, Fez and
Marrakesh. The Jews, along with the Berbers, were the
backbone of the economy and culture. Now their historic
presence can be seen primarily in the hundreds of Jewish
cemeteries and abandoned synagogues that are omnipresent
in cities and towns throughout the Maghreb…

“Now they are a remnant in
Morocco and gone from the other countries. Some left
voluntarily to move to Israel after 1948. Many were
forced to flee by threats, pogroms and legal decrees,
leaving behind billions of dollars in property and the
graves of their ancestors.

“Today, Morocco’s Jewish
population is less than 5,000, as contrasted with
250,000 at its peak. To his credit, King Mohammad VI has
made a point of preserving the Jewish heritage of
Morocco, especially its cemeteries. He has better
relations with Israel than other Muslim countries but
still does not recognize Israel and have diplomatic
relations with the nation state of the Jewish People. It
is a work in progress. His relationship with his small
Jewish community, most of whom are avid Zionists, is

in the Maghreb
is a most important book, which sets
the record straight about the true plight of the Jews
after the conquests of the lands in which they had
peacefully resided.

Read article in full

Book explodes myth of Moroccan coexistence

In January 2015 the Qatar-owned satellite channel al-Jazeera broadcast a programme about Jews in Morocco. “Jews first began to settle in Morocco over 2, 000 years ago,” said the presenter.”… and for centuries they and Muslims have happily co-existed there.” Now the English version of a compilation of commented original documents, L’Exil du Maghreb, mainly but not exclusively found in Jewish sources, will provide a corrective to this common historical distortion. Professor Paul Fenton, director of Hebrew and Arabic studies at the Sorbonne,  gave a Harif/Spiro Ark lecture about his book, written jointly with the late historian David Littman. Report by Lyn Julius. 

Exile in the Maghreb is a compilation of documents shedding light on the conditions in which Jews lived in the Maghreb over 10 centuries. It was produced at first in French by two British-born historians. It is about to be published in English.

The makers of the Al-Jazeera programme
might never have heard of the fanatical Almohades, who ruled Morocco
for 250 years in the 13th century and invaded Spain, causing many Jews
to flee. Fundamentalist Almohad rule led to Christianity being wiped out
in the Maghreb. Many Jews such as Maimonides converted to Islam on pain of death in the
Middle Ages, if only for a short time – according to some historians.

conditions later improved under the Marinids, converts reverted back to
Judaism. Sephardi Jews from Spain came to settle in the coastal towns of Morocco,
but one group headed for the deep south – the city of Touat.

commerce-minded, cultivated Jews soon established a thriving presence
in Touat. They set about building synagogues. One even overlooked a
mosque, in violation of traditional rules.

they did not reckon with, in the fateful year of 1492,  was the arrival
in Touat of a cleric from Tlemcen (in present-day Algeria): Muhammed
al-Karim al -Maghili.

who was instrumental in converting large numbers of Africans in the
south of Morocco to Islam, was shocked by the Jews he saw in Touat. He
wrote an epistle to the local chieftains calling on them to destroy the
synagogues and  expel those swine Jewish infidels, or enslave them. (The
epistle is among the documents featured in Exile in the Maghreb.)

This the chieftains did.

is a sorry sign of how intolerant of minorities were the theologians of
the al-Maliki school of Islam in the Maghreb until the colonial era,
that one of the first things they  published when the printing press came to
Morocco in the 19th century, was not a scientific tract, or even the
Koran, but the Epistle against the Jews  which al-Maghili wrote to the
chieftains of Touat five centuries earlier.

Maghreb scholars preserved a strict interpretation of the dhimmi
laws which governed the relationship of Jews and Muslims under the 8th
century Pact of Omar.  The Arab prophet of Islam Muhammad had spared the lives of the
defeated Jews and Christians  as ‘People of the Book’, rather than put
them to the sword, but they had to abide by rules denoting their
subjugation and inferiority to Muslims.

Following codification in the 13th century by the literalist theologian Ibn Taymiyya, ‘Dhimmi
acquired a precise meaning in Islamic jurisprudence: non-Muslims would
be ‘protected’ by Muslims in return for a capitation or poll tax. This
begs the question – protected against whom?

mobs singled out the Jewish ‘Other’ for  attack and looting.  Jews
would ‘cop it’ at times of political turmoil or trouble.

could not build new synagogues or repair them without permission; they
had to allow Muslims to enter them at will. Jewish homes had sometimes
to be painted red or blue, even after Jews had been permitted in modern
times to  move out of the Jewish mellah into the medina.

were forbidden from teaching their children the Koran. This was to
prevent Jews engaging in theological polemics with Muslims.

Jews had to wear special badges and black attire. A Jew’s djellaba was worn awkwardly ‘off the shoulder’ for maximum discomfort. Jews were not permitted to blow the ram’s horn (shofar) in a public place. The Palestinian Mufti of Jerusalem would use this pretext to incite anti-Jewish riots in 1929.

could be accused of insulting Islam on the slightest pretext – so they
avoided including ‘Allah’ in their greetings in case they were overheard and misinterpreted.
The penalty was conversion to Islam. For 600 years, and as late as
1890,  Jews had to submit to a humiliating slap on the neck when they
handed over the jizya or poll tax.

was to help overcome these arbitrary and degrading rules, recorded by
19th century travellers and reported by the teachers of the Alliance
(AIU) schools network, founded in 1860, that the AIU, the Anglo-Jewish
Association,  and their German-Jewish counterpart, determined to improve
the lot of the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa, primarily
through education.

was almost no escape  unless a Jew managed to obtain a foreign
passport. As go-betweens, translators or agents of European powers, Jews
demanded colonial protection. The Jews of the port of Mogador were
lucky enough to hold British passports.

Exile in the Maghreb consists of a wealth of original documents amassed by David
Littman. He found them  in the archives of the Anglo-Jewish Association,
the Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU) and British foreign office documents. The Alliance teachers felt it was their duty to get
better legal protection for their Jews, even at the cost of their lives.

myth persists that the Jewish communities at the heart of the Ottoman
empire were better treated than the Jews in the Maghreb. Conditions were
generally less harsh because the Jews were among several minorities,
and the Christians bore the brunt of any popular violence. However,
Professor Fenton did come across one document where Jews in Safed
complained to the Ottoman sultan that the local Pasha was making them clear animal refuse on Shabbat. Jews could even be required to do chores on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.

for the myth that Islam was more tolerant of Jews than Christendom,
Professor Fenton pointed out that more Jews (3,000) had been massacred
in Granada, Spain, in 1066 – in a Muslim backlash against the Jewish
vizir Joseph ibn Naghrela – than lived in the Rhineland towns of Speyer,
Worms and Mainz during the Crusades.

(Copies of Exile in the Maghreb (regular
price $59.99) by Paul B Fenton and David G Littman may be obtained from at a 30 percent discount (39.17 Euros) until 31 December
2015. Quote code UP30AUTH16.)

Crossposted at the Jerusalem Post

The curious case of the Moroccan Marranos

Veronique Chemla interviews  Littman and Fenton 

Historians battle over nature of Jewish-Muslim relations

The historian Georges Bensoussan has hit back against accusations of ‘essentialism’ and writing a ‘lachrymose’ version of relations between Jews and Muslims in the Arab world.

Georges Bensoussan: hitting back

The accusations came from Lucette Valensi, herself a historian, speaking at the opening session of a recent conference in Paris. 

She singled out Georges Bensoussan, David Littman and Paul Fenton for criticism  and attempted to distinguish between legitimate historians and ‘jobbing’ historians. Littman and Fenton were the authors of the ‘excellent’ (according to Bensoussan)  Exile from the Maghreb, a compilation of  documents detailing antisemitic abuses suffered in 19th century Morocco.

Bensoussan himself was acquitted in a case against incitement to racial hatred in 2017. Given a right-of-reply by Akadem, the ‘Jewish digitial campus’, Bensoussan claimed that ‘essentialist’ was another term for ‘racist’, without the legal implications. It was simply an attempt to shut him down.

Pointing to the introduction to his major work, Juifs en pays arabes: le grand déracinement, published in 2012 (See English version here), Bensoussan had clearly written that a lachrymose version was as inappropriate as an idealisation of the past, vaunting a golden age, as promoted by the Wissenchaft historians of 19th century Germany. Nonetheless, his book was based  not on police reports but hard archival evidence that Jews had suffered grave abuses at the hands of Muslims.

There was not one memory of the the Jewish past in North Africa, there were several layers of memory, depending on social class. Cultural attitudes were not static but evolved over time.

In turn, Bensoussan accused Valensi of speaking for a privileged ‘comprador’ merchant elite, representing less than one percent  of the Jewish population. The great mass of Jews lived in the oppressive city mellahs.  Bensoussan remarked that the conference featured an appearance by royal adviser André Azoulay, who was pushing the agenda of the king of Morocco. Valensi could be said to have a political agenda herself, being associated with a project to establish a Jewish museum  supported by the Tunisian ministry of Tourism.

Bensoussan contrasted Lucette Valensi’s take on history with that of fellow-Tunisian, Albert Memmi, who grew up in the poor Tunis hara, or  Jewish quarter. Bensoussan quoted Memmi’s words, written in 1975: ‘ The much vaunted idyllic life of the Jews in Arab lands is a myth! The truth, since I am obliged to return to it, is that from the outset we were a minority in a hostile environment; as such, we underwent all the fears, the agonies, and the constant sense of frailty of the underdog.”

The Akadem interview by Antoine Mercier with Georges Bensoussan on Facebook has garnered over ten thousand views,  and comments mostly favourable to Bensoussan.

See Akadem interview with Georges Bensoussan (French)

More about Georges Bensoussan


The brilliant, but short, life of a Hebrew printing press in Fez

For eight years in the 16th century, the Moroccan town of Fez had a Hebrew printing press until it was forced to close down due to a Spanish prohibition on the sale of paper. There would not be another until the late 19th century. Marvin J Heller writes in  Sephardic Horizons (Winter 2021):

Jewish houses in Fez, 1932

Jewish residence and Jewish history in Fez, in northern Morocco, is both continuous and lengthy. Jewish settlement dates to the early ninth century, continuing to the present day. Although not always positive, since there were periods of extreme oppression, Jewish residence was, more often than not, beneficial to Jews.

Among the little-known aspects of Fez Jewish history is the existence of a brief press that printed as few as seven to nine books, and perhaps even more between c. 1515 to the early 1520s. 

 Fez was founded in 789 by Idrīs I. It became the capital of the kingdom in 808 under Idrīs II. The latter admitted a significant number of Jews, who settled in the al-Funduk al-Yahūdī quarter. They paid an annual tax of 30,000 dinars. 

 A positive example of this early Jewish residence in Fez is cited by André N. Chouraqui, quoting Roud el Kartas, who relates that when Idris I assaulted the Jews and Christians in the Maghreb in 789, they were defeated and forced to convert to Islam, despite being ensconced in fortresses. The majority who did not submit were executed. 

Nevertheless, even the Idrises’ efforts were limited, for according to Ibn Khaldun, Yahya ibn Yahya ben Mohammed, the last emir of the elder branch of the Idrises, was attracted to a young Jewish girl of Fez. He attempted to seize her while in her bath. The people of Fez revolted, forcing Yahya to take refuge in the Andalusian quarter of the city. Chouraqui concludes that “this episode shows that the townspeople of Fez were concerned for the welfare of their Jews and of their women, and may be accounted for by the strong Berber influence that remained in the town.”

 Three subsequent events in Fez stand out in vivid contrast to this anecdote; in ca. 987, a portion of the community was deported to Algeria; in 1035, 6,000 Jews were massacred by fanatics who conquered Fez; and in 1068, the Almoravides sacked the city. A century later, in 1165, a new Almohad monarch instituted changes including forced conversion. Among the victims the dayyan R. Judah ha-Kohen ibn Shushan was burned alive for refusing to submit and Maimonides and his family, who were refugees from Spain, left for Egypt. Another source of affliction for the community was the appearance, in about 1127, of a pseudo-messiah, Moses Dari. Somewhat later, in 1438, the Jews of Fez were required to live in a separate section of the city known as the Mellah in New Fez. 

 All of this notwithstanding, Chouraqui writes that “these crises were of a passing nature” and Fez was, once again, felt to be a safe city so that Jews could settle there, including, as noted above, Maimonides’ family. Indeed, apart from the trials of Jewish life, Fez was also a home to Jewish scholars and scholarship with moments of security and even prosperity. Indeed, Chouraqui notes that it was a “center of Jewish learning.” 

Among the early rabbinic figures who resided in Fez are R. Judah ibn Kuraish (9th century), known as the “father of Hebrew grammar,” R. Dunash ben Labrat (mid 10th century), and R. Judah ben David Hayyuj (c. 945–c. 1000), renowned grammarians. Most celebrated of the sages in Fez was R. Isaac ben Jacob Alfasi.9 Among the later sages is R. Jacob Berab (Beirav, c. 1474–1546) and R. Abraham ben Jacob Saba (d. c. 1508). The former was appointed rabbi of Fez at the age of eighteen. He left for the Middle East several years later, where, in Safed he was involved in the attempt to renew semikhah (ordination for a Sanhedrin) for the first time in several hundred years. 

 The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 saw large-scale immigration to Morocco. The Fez community increased to number as many as 10,000, comprised of “Spanish exiles” (megorashim) and “natives” (toshavim).11 It was to this community that Portuguese émigrés Samuel ben Isaac Nedivot and his son Isaac came. 

As Abraham J. Karp notes, as the presses of the Iberian Peninsula closed and the Italian presses had not yet achieved eminence, there was a need for Hebrew presses. The time appeared propitious for a new press. The Nedivots who had learned the printer’s craft at the press of Eliezer Toledano in Lisbon founded their Hebrew press in Fez in circa 1516, the first in Africa.

Indeed, there is a similarity to the works published in both places.The press would publish seven to nine titles between 1516 and 1524, including a Sefer Abudarham, Azharot, Hilkhot Rav Alfas, Tur Yoreh De’ah, and several Talmudic tractates, although the attribution of several of the tractates is in question.

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