Tag: Jews of Morocco

A look at Jewish artisans and craftsmen in Morocco

Loca goldsmithing has virtually disappeared from Morocco, a consequence of the mass flight of  Jews. In this fascinating article in The Librarians, Chen Malul finds photographs recording the presence of Jewish professional artisans and craftspersons.  Even rabbis worked as craftsmen and women worked as seamstresses.  (with thanks: Moti)

A Jewish shoemaker

For centuries, Jews in Morocco made a living from crafts that the Muslim majority society engaged in as well. The terms of the Pact of Umar as well as the laws of Sharia did not impose severe restrictions on non-Muslim occupations, though only Muslims were allowed to work in the fields of government and public office. This was intended to prevent a situation where non-Muslims would hold more important government positions and have greater economic power and influence than Muslims. In other words, despite the fairly common claim among Israelis of Moroccan descent, it’s statistically impossible that everyone’s Jewish-Moroccan grandfather served an adviser to the king.

Despite the tolerant legal infrastructure, the Muslim majority population did eventually impose restrictions on non-Muslims through the guild system as a way to lessen competition in the craft professions. Not having much choice, the Jews flocked to the trades that were open to them.

According to Sharia law, Muslims are forbidden from working with silver and gold, as the labor results in a greater profit than the true value of the metals, making the profession immoral. The exclusion of Muslims from metalwork enabled Jews to integrate into the industries of goldsmithing and production of gold thread.

Being a professional craftsperson was considered a respected occupation among the middle and lower classes. Prof. Eli Bashan, who researched this subject, wrote – “Even sages and rabbis, who did not want to be paid for their Torah teachings, worked as professional artisans, and this was considered a virtuous act; These included mainly goldsmiths but also other skilled workers such as builders and barbers. Those who were chosen for communal leadership roles came from the ranks of the artisans.”

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Researchers find Jewish manuscripts in Atlas synagogue

According to this article in Haaretz by Ofer Aderet, academics and archeologists have found amulets and Hebrew manuscripts in the ruined  synagogue in Tamanart, one of  several Jewish sites slated for restoration by the  Moroccan government.   After the destruction of the First Temple, refugees fleeing Jerusalem are said to have established a Jewish kingdom in the adjacent village of  Ifrane in the Atlas mountains, one of the oldest  communities in North Africa. In 1792, 50 Jews  jumped into a burning furnace after the local ruler made them choose between converting to Islam or death by fire. They’ve been called “the immolated” since, their ashes interred in the ancient local cemetery.

The facade of the ruined synagogue in Tamanart, Morocco. (Photo: Orit Ouaknine-Yekutieli)

Remainders of a Jewish-Moroccan community that existed for centuries were recently found in a remote town in the Atlas Mountains, on the edge of the Sahara Desert. The small Jewish community of Tamanart lived there from the 16th century to the early 19th century. Recently, researchers from Israel, Morocco and France conducted salvage excavations in its ruined synagogue.

Along with the building’s walls, they found Scriptures and pages from the synagogue’s genizah, a repository for damaged written matter and ritual objects, as well as a few paper amulets. One was meant to protect a woman in labor and her newborn, another a personal charm meant to protect its owner from trouble and disease. “The texts in these amulets are based on formulas found in the Book of Raziel, an ancient Kabbalist book,” says Orit Ouaknine-Yekutieli, a researcher of modern Morocco who teaches at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The book, which includes texts for charms, was in use by Jewish communities in Morocco.

Among other texts written on these amulets were a Kabbalist version of one of God’s names, as well as quotes from the book of Genesis and from the priestly blessing (such as “the angel who hath redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads; and let my name be named in them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth” Genesis 48:16) and “The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace; So shall they put My name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them,” Numbers 6:26-7).

Ouaknine-Yekutieli says the synagogue was damaged by natural events such as the recent floods in the area, as well as by looters. She reached the remote site last month as part of a new historical and anthropological research study, together with her archaeologist husband Yuval Yekutieli and Moroccan and French researchers Salima Naji, Mabrouk Saghir, David Goeury and Aomar Boum.

Morocco to fund restoration of hundreds of Jewish sites

Morocco's King Mohammed vows to push for Israeli-Palestinian talks
King Mohamed VI

The press may think it is a new development, but the decision to restore hundreds of Jewish sites, as flagged up by Israel Hayom,  has been ongoing since at least 2013. What’s not to like in this initiative, which cements the Jewish component in Moroccan heritage? But restoration cannot conceal the reality, which is that the synagogues will be empty buildings without Jews.

According to Arab media reports, the move is part of the rapprochement between Rabat and Jerusalem, which resumed their diplomatic relations earlier this year as part of the Abraham Accords.

The plan is expected to see the renovation of hundreds of synagogues, cemeteries, and Jewish heritage sites in several cities in Morocco, among them the Jewish cemetery in the city of Fes, which includes 13,000 graves.

The monarch has also reportedly decided to reinstate the original names of some of the country’s Jewish neighborhoods.

Several Jewish museums have already been opened in Morocco, alongside other initiatives seeking to cater to the growing interest in preserving Moroccan Jewish heritage.

Israel welcomed King Mohammed’s initiative, which comes as the two countries mark the first anniversary of their newfound alliance.

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Why is the Moroccan King funding Jewish sites?

Prayer for IDF heard in Moroccan synagogue

For the first time, the prayer for the Israel Defence Forces was heard in a synagogue in Rabat, in the presence of IDF soldiers from Israel, some of whom had Moroccan roots.  Led by defence minister Benny Gantz, the IDF representatives  were warmly welcomed  in Morocco, which is hoping for greater cooperation with Israel in intelligence and know-how. The Times of Israel reports (with thanks: Ariel):

Cantor Gabriel Deri recites prayers during a visit by Defense Minister Benny Gantz to the Talmud Torah synagogue in Rabat on November 25, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defence minister Benny Gantz and his IDF listen to Cantor Gabriel Deri recite prayers in a Rabat synagogue

RABAT, Morocco — It is not every day that you hear the prayer for the well-being of Israel Defense Forces soldiers in an Arab country, especially not when there are IDF soldiers in uniform standing alongside you.

But so it was on Thursday when Defense Minister Benny Gantz visited the Talmud Torah synagogue in Rabat, a once larger community that is now down to double-digits, unable to regularly put together the 10-man quorum needed to hold Orthodox prayers.

As it happens, two of the three IDF soldiers in uniform had Moroccan roots, as did a Knesset member who was part of the delegation, Shas’s Ya’akov Margi, who was born in Rabat, and so were a number of other people on the trip, including some journalists.

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How TIME reported the North African exodus in 1962

Press reports about the mass exodus of Jews from North Africa and the Middle East are rare: perhaps the media just haven’t considered it newsworthy. But in 1962, TIME did devote column inches to the subject. Most Jews did go to Israel, although a fair proportion did end up in France. Now French Jews of North African origin are making aliya in their thousands.

Refugees from North Africa arriving in Marseille

The independence of Morocco, Tunisia and now Algeria—joyful news to Moslems—has for Jews signaled another vast and melancholy exodus like so many other uprootings since Moses. A decade ago, 250,000 Jews lived in Morocco. 150,000 in Algeria and 100,000 in Tunisia; now about half of them have left. Last week alone, 5,000 North African Jews arrived by ship and plane in Marseille. By 1975, Jewish leaders estimate, their communities in North Africa will be reduced to less than 15% of their former size.

Jews were living and working in North Africa before the Romans came. Some of them are Berber tribesmen whose ancestors were converted from paganism before the 7th century A.D. Others are Sephardim—Descendants of Spanish Jews who were forced into exile across the Mediterranean by Visigothic persecution in the 6th century or the Inquisition of the 15th. A third strain consists of European Jews who settled in North African cities after World War II. All three have found that exile is the inevitable aftermath of independence.

In Tunisia, President Habib Bourguiba promised that Jews would be allowed to practice their religion in peace: “While I am alive, not a hair on Jewish heads will be touched.” But Tunisian Jews are trapped in the cold war between Israel and the Arab states. Bourguiba’s government has disbanded even Jewish religious organizations on the ground that they promote Zionism, and Jews fear that other Arab countries could force Tunisia to impose restrictions upon them.

In Morocco, the government placed restrictions on Jewish emigration until last October, and fortnight ago closed down the office of the agency in Casablanca that chartered ships and planes for Jews eager to leave the country. Although Jews who leave for Israel are officially forbidden to return to their homes, there is little overt anti-Semitism in Morocco. But emigration goes on, and businessmen in Casablanca complain that they cannot find Jewish labor. “Morocco is down the drain for us,” says one Jewish cafe owner.

In Algeria, Jews fear the onset of independence this week even more than their Christian pied-noir neighbors. Many were active supporters of the underground Secret Army; in Constantine, for example, the first anti-Moslem commando force was composed largely of Jews—and the F.L.N. has not forgotten it.

In many Algerian towns, Moslems have stopped patronizing Jewish-owned movie houses. In the streets of Djelfa, Moslem children chant: “Ben-Gurion to the gallows, Ben Bella to the palace.” In the last 18 months, entire communities of Arabized Jews from the Sahara, whose speech and dress are indistinguishable from their Moslem neighbors, have left the country.

Some North African Jews have, of course, gone to Israel, but more than two-thirds have settled in France, if for no better reason than that they speak French. Thanks to the exodus, France now has the fourth largest Jewish community in the world.* Jewish, Christian and nonreligious charitable organizations have collaborated to help the newcomers, but their life is often unbearably hard.

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This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

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Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

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