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The Jews of North Africa: From Dido to De Gaulle by Sarah Taieb-Carlen (Translated by Amos Carlen). University Press of America: 2010 – Part Two

September 1, 2015

Part One


  1. North African Jewry: a long and distinguished history

A theme often repeated in Moslem countries concerning the treatment of Jews living there before the 20th century is that Moslems and Jews got along fairly well, that Jews were “a people of the book,” protected according to the Pact of Omar (Or Umar) and as a result, having a rightful, if clearly inferior, place with the broader Islamic society. It is often repeated by Moslem writers that through most of history until the modern era Jews living in Muslim countries were treated much more kindly and fairly than they were over the same period in “Christian” Europe. There is something valid in this statement although a more careful review of the history of the Jews living in the Muslim World in general and the Maghreb in particular suggests a much more nuanced, conflictual and rocky relationship throughout its 1300 year history.

As Jacques Taïeb notes in another excellent small volume, Être Juif au Maghreb á la viellie de la colonisation (Éditions Albin Michel: 1994) the Jewish experience in the Maghreb goes through four period: a “productive opening during the period of Classical Islam – in spite of the cruel excesses of the Almohads, a period of extended repression during the long centuries of Berbero-Arab domination, the period of “Turkish modernization” “full of contrasts” (ie, tolerance and repression combined) and the modern pre-colonial period, confusing and conflictual with many revolutionary and innovative aspects. Taïeb-Carlen’s work in many ways fleshed out Jacques Taïeb’s briefer sketch essentially using the same (or closely similar) historical periods.

What is noticeable, is that despite its many bumps and tensions, over that long historical period that Jewish-Muslim relations were, until recently, less conflictual than Jewish-Christian relations. If Islam looked down upon Judaism for its failure to recognize the sanctity of Mohammed as God’s prophet, at the same time, except for a few historical incidents that I could find during the Almohad period – and the current fanaticism of groups like ISIS – there are few incidents of Muslims insisting on forced conversion of Jews, offering them the choices of conversion, expulsion or death, choices quite common in Christian nations from the time of the Crusades and the opening of the second millennium (approx. 1000 ad). The early history of Christianity – and here one notes both in its Catholic and Protestant (especially Lutheran) version – includes a contempt and outright hatred of Judaism far more virulent in form than any similar theme in Islam. Still, the fate of Jews in the Maghreb was difficult, almost always filled with the tensions that mark any unequal social relationship.

The Dhimma

True enough, Islam relegates Judaism to a status inferior to itself.

Jews living in Muslim countries were at the same time considered “peoples of the book” (ie, the Old and New Testament) as were Christians, and as such were protected communities, not targeted for extermination as were pagans and non-believers. But their status, throughout Islamic history, has always been as “second class” (at best) citizens, without the rights of Muslims and with many restrictions placed on their activities and social relations. At no time over the 1300 year period of Islamic rule in North Africa did Jews in any way share in political power. They were subjects, not equals and their world was restricted by what in English is referred to as “the millet system,”, in Arabic the dhimma or dhimmis. Sociologically speaking, Catholicism too, approached Judaism in a similar fashion. The Catholic Church could never bring itself to do what it wanted to do: exterminate Judaism; it accepted what is clearly the Jewish roots of Christianity. Although it tried to denigrate and almost deny Christianity’s Jewish heritage through claiming, ultimately, the Jews, and not the Romans who killed Christ, and downplaying the simple yet obvious fact that Jesus was Jewish and that he functioned throughout his life as a Jew, the Catholic Church could never take this step, and didn’t. Instead it developed its own version of the millet system, (a subject I’ll leave for another essay.) The main point here, is that despite differences with Judaism and with each other and their attempts to either downplay and deny it, both Christianity and Islam grudgingly acknowledge Jewish sources and Jewish influence to their own theological values.

As Taïeb-Carlen uses the term dhimma, rather than millet, so will I.

The understanding of the dhimma and the role it played in North African Islamic society is important as it helps clarify both the nature of what was essentially a caste system into which Jews were placed. Regardless of whether its implementation was of a more or less tolerant nature, “even during the most peaceful times, they [Maghrebian Jews] felt – and were – in danger because of their official and legal stature as dhimmis (people of the dhimma). Understanding it also helps explain why it was, that after more than 1000 years of being caught in its web that North African Jews rebelled against its limitations reaching out for, what ultimately was for them, a poison chalice: the French version of citizenship, which in theory based participation on residency (ie – all persons, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity have citizenship rights if they are born in a country). The problem with embracing French calls for democracy was that it was made within a colonial context..

If the dhimma offered Maghrebian Jews “protection”, it also restricted their social mobility and political input as well. If at times dhimma could be interpreted quite liberally, as it was in Muslim Spain, over most of its history, the restrictions dominated. The main point to be made about the dhimma is that as Taïeb-Carlen notes: [it made non-Muslims not only] “politically and legally inferior to the sovereigns but also to the Muslim masses.”(my emphasis). In a manner not unlike to how Southern whites in the United States might be living in extreme poverty, but at least in their minds they can consider themselves socially superior to Blacks – the heart and soul of American slavery-based racism – the poor Muslim masses could claim, that despite their poverty, at least they had higher status than the Jews.

Jews would grate at the status with all of its humiliating assumptions and actual rules. Attempting to remove their status as “protected citizens without rights” that the dhimma imposed, and to replace it with a new, more equal and democratic relationship with their Muslim neighbors, should come as no surprise. As Maghrebian Jewish Communities reached for society beyond the limits of the dhimma, they found themselves coming increasingly at odds with their Islamic neighbors, many, if not most of whom, understood Jews aspirations for a more equal relationship as a loss of Islamic status. The prospect of the loss of their long-held privileged status would angry reprisals from the Muslim masses that could and did at different moments turn into massacres, Russian-like pogroms, against Maghrebian Jews.

Taieb-Carlen expresses well the situation of Maghrebian Jews living under the dhimma:

“During the 13 centuries of Moslem domination, the Jews were decimated, exiled, forced to convert but sometimes they also lived in peace and harmony with the Moslems. Nonetheless, even during the most peaceful times, they felt – and were – in danger because of their official and legal status as dhimmis. As such they were always conscious of the fact that, in spite of the power and wealth that some of them had amassed, they could be destroyed very quickly and very easily. In act, they did not profit from any protection. It was never strong enough, nor permanent enough ultimately, their fate was completely in the hands of their lords and the Moslem masses.”

Maghrebian Demographic Trends

There is considerable demographic mobility among Maghrebian Jews with populations moving back and forth from Egypt to Morocco over the centuries. It should be kept in mind though, as Taieb-Carlen reminds us repeated that given the long history of Jewish presence in the Maghreb, going back to 900 BC with their arrival with the Phoenicians that “Jews of the Maghreb were marginalized natives, but not foreigners, and that there was an uninterrupted Jewish presence in North Africa for 1300 years prior to the Arab invasions of the late 7th century. True enough, this original population was joined by others, swept by the winds of history by repression and expulsion out of their living quarters in Europe. There are distinct waves of Jews escaping persecution in Europe – Spain and Portugal in particular, but elsewhere as well – finding shelter and a new home in the Maghreb. It started long before the famed Spanish Inquisition of 1492.

Among the earliest examples Taieb-Carlen cites comes as early as 596 when the 17th Council of Toledo declared that Jews living in Catholic areas could be sold or given as slaves to Christians. The King of the region, one Egica accused Jews in the then Spanish realm, which extended into what today is Southern France, of conspiring with “their cousins” (ie, the Moslems) of overthrowing Christian rule. Using this pretext – one of the earlier examples of “Jewish Conspiracy” nonsense, the council issued a decree depriving all Jews within the realm of their property(excepting for some reasons those in the Narbonne region just north of the Pyrenees). Confiscated Jewish property was to be given to those Christians who had been slaves of Jews and the Jews were to be enslaved themselves. King Egica himself decided who the new slave owners would be and these would be “contractually obligated” to never allow the practice of the Jewish religion again.

Grand Synagogue in Algiers, built 1865. There are no Jews left in Algeria although small number remain in Morocco and Tunisia, a shadow of their former presence

Grand Synagogue in Algiers, built 1865. There are no Jews left in Algeria although small number remain in Morocco and Tunisia, a shadow of their former presence

This exodus of Spanish Jews to the Maghreb led to a new somewhat synthesized Maghrebian Jewish Community in which the new immigrants mixed culturally with Jewish populations that had come to the region and established themselves during the time of the Roman dispersion of Jews corresponding to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, other having arrived even earlier with the Phoenicians. In a pattern that would repeat itself frequently, the new arrivals did not always mesh with the older more established communities, creating a kind of cultural diversity (and often social stratification within the Jewish communities themselves). For example, Jews emigrating from Spain throughout the Maghreb (and broader eastern Mediterranean) would speak Spanish (or some dialect of it) into the 19th and even 20th centuries. The same goes for Jews with connections to Italy in Libya and Tunisia who would speak Italian in contrast to the older, poorer Jewish Maghebians who spoke Arabic and whose culture was heavily influenced by Islamic themes as a result of the long coexistence. It is interesting though that one can see an example of this pattern developing even prior to the Islamic era.

As Taieb-Carlen notes, expulsions of Jews from Europe to the Maghreb continued regularly across the ages. In the 13th century, Jewish-Christian relations in the Catholic-dominated regions of Spain soured some. Fearing new restrictions, many Spanish Jews panicked and sought refuge in the Maghreb. Then in 1391, Spanish Jews fled “merciless persecutions” in Catalonia and Mallorca found refuge mostly in Tunisia and Algeria. Using Algeria by way of example, Taieb-Carlen notes that its Jewish Community “were descendants of those who were banished from Europe: from Italy in 1342, France 1403 and England 1422.” Add to that the even numerically greater expulsions of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497. As a result of these essentially forced migration based upon Catholic Spanish ethnic cleansing, a number of Judeo-Spanish communities were established throughout the Maghreb including in Algiers, Fez, Marrakcch, Mostaganem, Oran, Tlemcen, Tripoli and Tunis.

If expulsion through religious bigotry was the reason for many Jewish Maghrebian immigration, it was not true of all. A strong Jewish community was established in Livorno, Italy (also known in English as “Leghorn”) which produced a strong merchant community known as the Grana. They come to Italy a bit later, in the 1580s, many having been expelled from Spain and Portugal. In Livorno, given unusual political and economic freedom, they established themselves as some of the Mediterranean’s most active and prosperous merchants. By 1900, they numbered more than 10,000. The Grana established trading colonies through the Maghreb but particularly in nearby Tunisia, the southern tip of Sicily and the northern reaches of Tunisia being less than ninety miles apart. The Livornese Jews soon established a solid presence in Tunis and other Tunisian coastal cities (Bizerte, Sousse, Sfax, Mahdia) but throughout the centuries strong tensions existed between them and the more Arabized Jews who had come earlier as was the case with arrival of the Spanish Jews as well. There were also Jewish demographic shifts within the Maghreb, mostly for economic reasons. The example given is the migration of Moroccan Jews to Algiers in 1287. Some of these shifts were from rural to more urban coastal cities where employment opportunities were generally improved.

Beginning already in the late 18th and certainly early 19th centuries, with the advent of an increasingly active and aggressive European colonial and commercial presence throughout the Maghreb and the continued weakening of the Ottoman Empire, the dhimma began to break down. As that foreign presence intensified, the system legally collapsed. The coming of European colonialism would create a permanent crisis in the old system from which it would never recover and the colonial period as a whole represents a period of uncertainty  with both new hopes and problems for Maghrebian Jews who would, once again, through very little having to do with their own doing, would find themselves caught in the vice of history. The oppressive weight of the dhimma would be removed but in its place would be hard and painful choices, and in most cases, no “choices” per se at all.

The temptations to identify with the (largely) French colonial experience which freed them, at least legally from the chains of dhimma and offered Maghrebian Jews what I will refer to as “the illusion of equality” were great indeed. But in so doing they often found themselves, either knowingly or not, in opposition to the growing nationalist, anti-colonial movements which began to stir almost immediately after the colonial control began. These movements took on great speed and dynamism in the early 20th century throughout the Maghreb. One profound aspect of these movements was their defense of the Islamic religion which had been denigrated to one degree or another throughout the region. Maghrebian nationalism thus had a strong religious component as well. These anti-colonial movements would result, one way or another, in a wave of independence in the 1950s and 1960s. Nationalism, which should have (at least as I see it) been as much of a liberating force for the Jews as for the Moslems, turned into something else – a powerful eroding factor that would in its own way, at times consciously, at times not – lead to a collapse of North African Jewish life – an unintended ethnic cleansing, nothing less.

I will examine this period, marked by so much initial hope at the outset, but with tragedy (at least as it concerns North African Jews) at the end, in the next part of this series.

  1. A term which roughly parallels the European colonial invasion and general take over of the region. One can date it from the Napoleonic Invasion of 1798 or the French Invasion of Algeria in 1830.
  2. This is in contrast to what is often referred to as a German (note – not Nazi, but simply German) definition in which citizenship has an ethnic basis.



History of the Jews of the Caribbean by Ralph G. Bennett

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