Tag: Jews/Berbers

Moroccans bitterly regret departure of Jews

 This interesting article by the academic Mohamed Chtatou in African Exponent extolls the myth of harmonious coexistence between Amazighen (Berbers) and Jews before the much-regretted mass Jewish exodus from Morocco. For Chtatou, an Amazigh, the villains of the piece are Moroccan nationalists, Zionists and the French colonial power.  While vaunting the role of Jews in finance and trade, Chtatou does not say that the Berber lands were not fully controlled by the Moroccan king until well into the 20th century. Jews who joined the Berber tribes in the Atlas mountains were always subordinate and their situation sometimes precarious. (With thanks: American Sephardi Federation.)

 Berber Jews of southern Morocco

Moroccan Jews were very good entrepreneurs, created businesses
everywhere and provided jobs to their Muslim brethren. They set up the
first Moroccan banking system from small shops in the Medina, and made
loans to trustworthy people without guarantees, so trade flourished and
with it employment and wealth. Imperial cities became trade centers and
with them coastal cities like Tangier and Agadir. The Alouite Sultan
Mohammed III, who reigned from 1757 to 1790, encouraged by the success
of Jewish business and trade, created a new coastal city he called
Mogador (Essaouira, today) and entrusted the Jews with the conduct of
international trade from its port by ships.

Muslims and Jews lived in harmony: Inland
cities, on the other hand, got involved in caravan trade, chief among
them was Sefrou, situated 30 kilometers south of the capital Fes and
which had a high concentration of Jews and was known as: “Little
Jerusalem.” In the city there were two kinds of Jews: the “Sitting
Jew,” a banker who financed the caravan trade and the “Walking Jew,” a
caravan leader and guide known in Amazigh language as: azettat.

is an Amazigh Jew, trusted by the Amazigh tribes. His caravan travelled
through their territories unmolested. He is traditionally, at the head
of the caravan carrying a long cane at the top end of which he flies the
woven colors of the tribe and which he will, duly, change in the
territory of the next tribe. The caravans started in the Middle Atlas
and went south through the Sahara desert to Mali’s Timbuktu, where salt
was exchanged against the Ashanti gold or ivory, gems, etc. The trip
lasted forty days each way.

In the Amazigh hinterland, sometimes
Jews and Muslims lived in the same house, shared food and celebrated
together their religious feasts, in a rare show of tribal solidarity and
religious tolerance.

However, distrust between Jews and Muslims
was intimated by the Istiqlal party, on its founding in 1944, on a
pan-Arab platform. One of its founders Balafrej, even sojourned, several
times, in Nazi Berlin at the invitation of the Third Reich.

the Second World War, King Mohammed V, denied the Nazi French
government the possibility of the internment of Moroccan Jews in camps
on the ground that the entire Moroccan population is Jewish, deep down,
by solidarity and, therefore, should all be interned.

The nationalists of the Istiqlal, on the independence of Israel and the, thereafter, occurrence of the Nakba, circulated posters asking Muslims to boycott Jewish business and trade. On the eve of the independence of Morocco,
the French colonial power incited the very rich Jewish families to
leave to France on the ground that Muslims could encourage pogroms. Of
course none of this happened.

However, from 1956 to 1965 the Jewish
Agency and other international organization sent agents all over Morocco
inciting Moroccan Jews to leave for Israel, where they will enjoy
everlasting security and creature comforts. And following the Six-day
war of 1967, many left and as such, in less than twenty years the
population decreased from 250,000 to 6,000. Today there are 3,000 left
in the big cities such as Rabat, Casablanca, Fes, Marrakesh and Agadir.

Nevertheless, the tradition of Jewish financial advisors is maintained
in today’s Morocco: André Azoulay is the current king’s advisor on financial matters.

Regrets: Today, the Amazigh and the Arabs likewise regret the departure of Moroccan Jews bitterly for emotional and practical reasons.

In the city of Sefrou, there is a grotto in the hill at the entrance of the city called kaf al-moumen
“the cave of the faithful,” a site where, both Muslims and Jews,
believe that their saints are buried inside. Prior to the departure of
the Jews, Muslims used the cave for prayers from January to June and the
Jews from July to December. Today these periods are still respected, in
spite of the departure of the Jews. The inhabitants believe that the
Jews will come back and business will pick up anew. They say their
departure was a big mistake for which both sides are responsible. As for
the government, it has recently embarked on a nationwide program of
refurbishing and revamping of Jewish schools, synagogues, tribunals,
cemeteries, etc. and has, also, signed an agreement with a European
shoah institution to recuperate archives on the Moroccan Jewish

Read article in full

Berbers set up antisemitism watchdog

As Berbers set up a Watchdog for the Fight against Antisemitism (as reported by JTA in the Jerusalem Post) Jews seem to be caught at the centre of a power struggle between Moroccan Berbers and Islamists. (With thanks Jeremy; Michelle; Eliyahu)

A group of Moroccan Berbers launched an organization dedicated to
fighting anti-Semitism and to strengthening cultural ties with Israel.

Moroccan Observatory for the Fight against Anti-Semitism founded last
week is headed by Berber minority rights activist Omar Louzi, according
to a report Thursday on the online edition of the Ya Biladidaily.

are here to stop the anti-Semitic attacks in mosques and elsewhere
against Jews and their culture,” the news site PanoraPost.com on
Thursday quoted Louzi as saying about his association, which he
co-founded with two other Berbers. Media reports did not name the other

Louzi is planning to organize trips to Israel for
Moroccans to “meet the Moroccan Jews and visit their holy places,
especially in Jerusalem,” Ya Biladi reported.

The initiative comes
amid a debate in Morocco about the country’s relatively friendly
relations with Israel. Last year, five political parties, including the
Islamist ruling party, jointly sponsored two bills to make it illegal to
trade with Israeli entities. At least one bill proposes to make it
illegal for Israelis to enter Morocco.

Among the supporters of the bills is the Moroccan Observatory against Normalization with Israel,
an association launched last year. It seeks to challenge the policy of
relative openness to Israel advanced by Moroccan King Mohammed VI.

formation of Louzi’s group follows the cancellation last month of a
planned visit by three Berber activists to Israel. The three — Omar
Ouchann, Boubker Ouchann Inghir and Mounir Kejji — were scheduled to
attend a conference which was organized by Tel Aviv University’s Moshe
Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies but they cancelled
amid allegations in national media that they are Israeli spies.

Read article in full 

Fourth museum victim had Berber-Jewish parents (French – with thanks: Sylvia) 

A market without Jews like bread without salt

Aomar Boum (right) is the son of illiterate parents of mixed Berber and Arab parentage

 This is a disappointingly bland interview with a Moroccan-born anthropologist, assistant professor at Arizona university Aomar Boum, by the Tablet magazine. Boum, who derives his research funding from Jewish organisations including the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC,  has written a book, ‘Memories of absence‘, comparing the different responses to Jews by four generations of Muslims in the Anti-Atlas mountains. The Jews, peddlars and merchants, helped the Muslims to survive in a inhospitable environment.  It comes as no surprise to learn that the youngest generation has been brainwashed by the most virulent antisemitism (of ‘Christian’ origin, he claims). But while he makes out that the oldest generation had friendly relations with Jews, there was also ‘anxiety, strife and enmity’. Tantalisingly, he never elaborates. (With thanks: Jonah)

In the early 20th century, nearly a quarter of a
million Jews lived among Muslims in Morocco’s towns and villages,
making common cause in commerce and culture. Over the course of the past century, nearly all of them have left. Now there are an estimated 4,000 Jews in Morocco. So few that most younger Moroccans have never met one.

Aomar Boum, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona, did meet
Jews growing up in Morocco—that is, once he moved from his small
village in the Anti-Atlas mountains to the city of Marrakesh for school.
He went back to his birth country to find out what Moroccans—four
generations of them—think of their former neighbors and acquaintances,
particularly in light of current tensions between Arabs and Jews in the
Middle East. The result of his investigation is Memories of Absence: How Muslims Remember Jews in Morocco.

Read article in full

My comment: One commenter objects to the term ‘left’, as opposed to ‘fled’, to describe the departure of Jews in response to antisemitism, but backs down when Boum himself intervenes in the discussion. The Jews ‘left’ because Israel had reached an agreement with Morocco, he says. The reasons why Jews ‘left’ are ‘complicated’. But Boum never makes clear that Jews were forbidden from emigrating for six years. This ban in itself was a violation of their human rights. I find his tendency to blame antisemitism on Christian sources simplistic and politically-correct. What about home-grown bigotry?

The Jewish kingdom of Oufrane in the Anti-Atlas

A Berber artist’s journey back to her Jewish roots

 Fascinating article in This is Africa about Chama Mechtaly, an Amazigh (Berber) artist in Morocco whose discovery that her grandfather was Jewish sets her off on a journey of internal ‘decolonisation’. Her story illustrates how Arabisation and Islamisation have conspired to create an identity crisis for people like Chama by cutting off her indigenous roots.  (With thanks: Ari)

 Raised in Casablanca, Chama went to a public school in Morocco and was
taught the Arab nationalist ideology that permeates the school system
under state Arabization policies.  In high school, she began to consider
questions of identity, which in turn led her to research her family’s
genealogy.  After finding family documents in Tamazight
– the indigenous language of North Africa – and Hebrew, Chama realized
that she might not be Arab after all, that her very ethnicity and
religious heritage were radically different from what she had been
taught to believe.

 The loss of this history from her family’s memory
had happened gradually, like when her grandfather moved to the “Arab”
urban center of Casablanca, married a Muslim woman, and became
disconnected from his land and heritage. He repressed his Amazigh Jewish
identity under state and societal pressures of Arabization and
Islamization, which were imposed after Morocco gained “independence”
from France and Spain.  Arabization policies discriminated heavily
against Imazighen, and in particular against the Amazigh Jews who once
were a substantial community in Morocco.


Jewish Woman from Ait Hdidou, oil on canvas, 2013, by Chama Mechtaly.

to accept that she was Amazigh rather than Arab, African rather than
Middle Eastern, represented a crisis of identity for Chama, just as the
same frictions and conflicting identities lead to crises in North Africa
in general. In Morocco, Chama new self-discovery provoked strong
reactions and drew fierce criticism, such as the one high school teacher
who berated her for being “brainwashed by the West” and blamed French
colonizers for “creating” Amazigh identity and “dividing” the

This reaction illustrates one of the ways in which
religious and ethnic diversity are seen to threaten the hegemonic
“unity” of the Moroccan state, and are thus silenced. In actuality, by
discovering her Amazigh identity, Chama was undergoing an internal
process of decolonization and discovering her own Africanité. In
response, Chama started to paint portraits of Amazigh Jewish women from
French colonial era photographs.  The paintings often prominently
display distinctive symbols, such as characters from the Hebrew and
Tifinagh scripts.


Girl from Debdou, 2012. Oil painting by Chama Mechtaly. Behind the girl
are gold Hebrew and Tifinagh letters against a dark background.

describes the portraits as a ‘repetition,’ an artistic expression of
her own process of coming to terms with her new identity and working
through the shock of finding a denied and repressed ethnic and religious
background. How would it feel to realize that the ethnicity and
identity you were raised with are essentially a lie, an erasure of your
own self? By addressing these issues through art, Chama seeks to promote
a religious pluralism, restore stolen histories, and fight against the
homogenous Arab-Islamic identity that has been imposed on North Africa.

struggle to define North Africa continues, with opposing forces and
identities of African/Arab, colonizer/colonized, and Muslim/Jewish.  In
the last half-century, dominant Arab-Islamic impositions have worked to
define the region according to their ideology, although now Amazigh
activists are countering that and seeking to revive the indigenous
African culture.

Although you won’t find this history formally taught in North Africa, Jewish and Christian communities were long established in the region
before the Arab-Islamic invasions of the 7th century C.E. In addition,
many Imazighen held polytheistic beliefs that were derided by the Arab
conquerors, just as countless other traditional African religions and
spiritualities were abused and repressed under European colonial rule. 
Colonial religions that are foreign to most of the continent – Islam and
Christianity – now dominate religious belief across Africa,
while in many cases our own traditional beliefs are cast aside or have a
social stigma attached to them as an ongoing consequence of colonialism
and globalization.

Religion, like issues of ethnicity and
language, has been affected by colonial legacies across Africa, and the
North is no exception. Although the traditional polytheistic beliefs of
Imazighen have largely been destroyed, there is a continual process of
rejecting the religious pluralism and diversity which once characterized
North Africa. Some form of this identity crisis is common in African
and diasporic communities, where issues of hybridity and post-colonial
identity abound. The dominant societal rejection of Jewish legacies in
North Africa contributes to the erasure of diversity, although some
Amazigh activists are now also working to restore their religious
histories in a process of decolonization, as they are the cultural
histories mentioned above. For example, in the Libyan Amazigh village of
Yefren, Imazighen protect and maintain the old Jewish synagogue,
now a relic of the former Jewish population. The Jewish Amazigh past
and present are honored and fully accepted as a part of our history.

Read article in full

Berber film is an essay in nostalgia

  With thanks: Ahuva; Lily

Kamal Hachkar’s film about the Berber Jews and Muslims of Tinghir in the Atlas mountains (Tinghir-Jerusalem: les Echos du Mellah) is the inspiration for an in-depth Associated Press article on the Jews of Morocco.   Hachkar comes across as a judeophile – he travelled to Israel and even learned some Hebrew. The AP articlereports that the film has been attacked in Morocco for ‘normalising’relations with Israel. It has been widely picked up in the international press. Here is an extract:

“A surprising critic of the film is one of
Morocco’s Jews, Sion Assidon, a leftist activist, former political
prisoner and a member of a group advocating the boycott of Israeli

“The film is effectively a vehicle for the
message of normalizing with Israel,” Assidon told the AP. “The people we
see are never once questioned about the essential issue, which is that
they are colonizers occupying the land of another people that were
earlier expelled.”

The Moroccan Jews in the film do look back
fondly on how well they got on with their Muslim neighbors and lament
the daily violence and hatred that characterize the tense relations in
Israel today with the Palestinians.
(My emphasis – ed)

About 1 million Jews of Moroccan origin now
live in Israel. Some 50,000 Israelis — many of them Moroccan — visit
Morocco every year, said Sam Ben Chetrit, the head of the World
Federation of Moroccan Jewry, who moved to Israel from Morocco in 1963.

Ben Chetrit said that on a visit last year,
“we were told (by legislators) ‘we are happy you are here, this is your
home, but make sure you bring your children too.’”

Read article in full


However, the historian Georges Bensoussan, has questioned the truthfulness of the film. In this clip, he points out that the film says more about how people choose to remember what they lived through, than  it does about the historical facts themselves. 

Bensoussan explains that the Muslims interviewed in Tinghir do not remember having much interaction with the Jews. The Jews of Tinghir, interviewed in Israel, are more talkative, but paint a picture of harmonious coexistence, to the extent that one old lady almost kisses Hachkar and even lashes out against Israel.

But when you dig a little deeper, Bensoussan says, it appears that ‘coexistence’ between the two groups was limited to when the women did the laundry. They did not visit each others’ houses. They did not celebrate festivals together, and after the creation of Israel, the Muslims showed frostiness if not hostility towards the Jews.

 He describes meeting a 58-year old Jew from Tinghir, whose 87-year-old father, born in the town, was still compos mentis, although a bit deaf. His son sat him down for the 52-minute film, with a pair of headphones on so that he could grasp every word. At the end of 52 minutes, the old man said:”It’s all false!”

How can one explain the discrepancy between the coexistence described in the film, and the old man’s reaction? Bensoussan claims that the director did a fair amount of selection himself in favour of positive coexistence stories. Hours and hours of filming must have ended up on the cutting room floor. But at the end of the day, it is only human to want to remember the good and blot out the bad – and this is what makes Tinghir: Les Echos du Mellah so fascinating an essay in nostalgia.

Film shows Berber Jews are in exile in Israel 

Did history start in 1960? (Noam Nir’s blog)


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