Northern Africa
A History of Jewish Muslim Relations: From Origins to the Present Day. Ed. Abdelwahab Meddeb and Benjamin Stora. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013. p223-[238].
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2013 Editions Albin Michel, COPYRIGHT 2013 Princeton University Press
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Page 223

Northern Africa

In Emergent Morocco: Emily Benichou Gottreich

Morocco as a protonational entity came into existence in the period stretching from the late fifteenth to the early nineteenth century. During this period its borders became fixed, its cities emerged as world capitals, and its defining political ideologies and institutions, including sharifism, maraboutism, the abīd al-būkhāri, and the makhzen (to name just a few), grew firmly entrenched. Meanwhile, Moroccan Jewish identity, despite its purported timelessness, likewise cohered into its recognizable form as a result of the new geopolitical and spiritual realities. The protonational identities forged during this period would be increasingly challenged by European intervention in the coming centuries, first by the Spanish and Portuguese, then more definitively by the British and French. The consolidation of the Moroccan state on the one hand and the Moroccan Jewish community on the other were not only concurrent processes but also, in many ways, contingent. The current chapter will trace these two processes, which culminated in a distinctive Moroccan culture characterized by unprecedented levels of Muslim-Jewish coexistence and cooperation.

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Emily Benichou Gottreich

Is Associate Adjunct Professor of History and Middle Eastern Studies, vice chair for the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and president of the American Institute of Maghrib Studies (AIMS). Her research interests include the history of Jews in Morocco, North Africa, and the relations between Jews and Muslims. Her publications include The Mellah of Marrakesh: Jewish and Muslim Space in Morocco's Red City (Indiana University Press, 2006).

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The Sephardic influx

The waning days of the last Zenata Berber dynasties (Marinids r. 1244–1465, Wattasids r. 1472–1554) brought great change to Moroccan society. Hitherto, Moroccans, while certainly not homogenous in terms of class or ethnicity, were nonetheless overwhelmingly of Berber (Amazigh) and/or Arabic culture and language. The majority of the Moroccan population lived in the south and the interior of the country. (Portuguese and Spanish settlements on the Atlantic Page 224  |  Top of Articleand Mediterranean seaboards inhibited settlement along the coast.) While most Jews lived simply, interspersed with Muslims in rural areas and villages, a few individuals had managed to ingratiate themselves with the Marinid court in Fez and were invested with greater responsibility and status. All that changed after 1492, however, when the Spanish Crown issued its writ of expulsion, jettisoning its Jews, known broadly thereafter as Sephardim, to be followed in short order by its Muslims. Although the precise number of exiles who sought refuge in Morocco is unknown, their social impact was clearly significant, particularly in the north, where Spanish is still spoken today. The Muslim immigrants were able to integrate into Moroccan society relatively quickly. The Jewish exiles (Heb., megorashim) had a more difficult time of it, a fact that is often glossed over in favor of the positive impact of this “precious” immigration.1 For Moroccan Muslims, the arrival of the Sephardim meant overcrowding, competition for jobs, and increased prices in the souk. Even in the south, where far fewer Sephardim settled, their presence was destabilizing, a fact that lies behind Mawlay ‘Abd al-Ghalib’s creation of a walled Jewish quarter (mellah) in Marrakesh, where the Jews could be better contained and monitored.2 Things were no easier for them in the Jewish microcosm. The Sephardim were a traumatized people, yet they were also extremely proud of their heritage and customs. They were distinguished by language (Haketiya, or Western Ladino), rituals, dress, food, and even aristocratic affectations (consistent with the Spanish emphasis on bloodlines, many prominent Sephardim identified themselves as belonging to the house of David). They were also responsible for bringing the first Hebrew printing press to Morocco, making Fez among the earliest publication centers since the end of the fifteenth century, followed by Tunis and Oran in the eighteenth and nineteenth, respectively. Seeing themselves as the inheritors of the high culture of al-Andalus, the Sephardim resisted mixing with the toshavim, the autochthonous Jewish population of Morocco, whom they derided Page 225  |  Top of Articleas foresteros. In the capital cities, they maintained separate quarters from the indigenous Jews, and for a period did not even share the same shkhita (Heb., practices of ritual slaughter), making it impossible for members of the two communities to eat together, let alone intermarry. While many Sephardic practices were eventually assimilated into Moroccan Judaism, for example, the “Castilian Law” forbidding bigamy, integrating the Sephardim themselves was not easy.


Jewish communities in North Africa in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries

Jewish communities in North Africa in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Jews as intermediaries in emergent Morocco

The development of the Moroccan state during the sixteenth century provided a small cushion for these upheavals. In 1554 the Saadi dynasty came to power after a successful jihad to dislodge the Portuguese from the Atlantic coasts, something its predecessors had glaringly failed to do. This was followed in 1578 by a definitive Moroccan victory in the Battle of Ksar al-Kabir, which put an end to both the Portuguese threat from the North and Ottoman attempts at expansionism from the East. The relief felt by the Sephardic Jews of Morocco was tremendous. The threat of Christianization, which had hung over their heads for centuries, was now finally over. Jews in the North commemorated the events with a special “Pourim de los Cristianos.”3 Most important, these victories left Morocco free to claim a more influential—and lucrative—calling as the full economic and diplomatic partner of the emerging European powers, namely, England, France, and the Netherlands. Moroccan Jews found unprecedented opportunities in the emerging new world order, which in turn brought certain of them into close contact with the Moroccan Muslim elite. The Sephardim were especially useful middlemen, thanks to their mobility, contacts, and firsthand knowledge of Europe. From their ranks came several of the outstanding diplomats of the era, including the towering figure of Samuel Pallache.4 The Saadi state reached its apex under Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur (r. 1578–1603), who sought to link Morocco both to the Atlantic discoveries,5 and, more successfully, to the trans-Saharan trade. Jewish and Muslim merchants alike profited from the reinvigorated economy. Though Jews tended to dominate the sugar trade and Muslims the slave trade, members of both groups collaborated in all sectors of the Moroccan economy. The most successful merchants bore the title of tujjār al-Sulṭān (sing., tājir; royal merchants), who conducted trade on behalf of the makhzan. The leaders of each individual Jewish community, often themselves members of the tujjār, were given the title shaykh al-yahūd (shaykh of the Jews), in which capacity they acted as intermediaries between the makhzan and their coreligionists on the local level. Jewish merchants were instrumental in introducing new products Page 226  |  Top of Articleinto Morocco at this time, including staples like tea, coffee, and tobacco. Eventually entire new cities were built to accommodate the growing mercantile economy. Mogador, later named Essaouira, once a small fishing village, was developed in the eighteenth century and quickly became a central node in Morocco's long-distance trade, much of which was conducted by Jews, who came to comprise nearly half the population.

“Sephardim were especially useful middlemen, thanks to their mobility, contacts, and firsthand knowledge of Europe.”

The emergence of the state and its power to create or consolidate Jewish communities within national boundaries was a primary influence on Muslim-Jewish relations during this period. Undergirding these developments was a movement toward, if not secularism, at least a state-centered religious identity that was less hostile to Jews than at any time previously. In the sixteenth century, Morocco began to move away from a tribal-based power system toward sharifism, which privileged those who could claim descent from Muhammad. Sharifism had functioned as a foil to authority previously, but under the Saadis it became increasingly fused with notions of authority and legitimacy. With this shift came a changed attitude toward the Jews: whereas in earlier periods sharifism had been associated with animosity toward Jews, under the Saadis, the tables had turned to the point that certain Sufi groups rebelled against the Saadis precisely because they were seen as maintaining too close relations with Jews.6 But having conceded sharifism to the makhzan, they had lost an important ideological weapon in the battle.

The centralization that began under the Saadis was lended additional form and meaning by the Alawis, the succeeding sharifian dynasty (r. 1659-today), though the Alawis were able to assert their dominance over Morocco only in fits and starts. The slow collapse of Saadi rule had left Morocco deeply fragmented. While Mawlay Muhammad al-Shaykh was able to hold on to power in Marrakesh until 1655, in the North, various actors took advantage of the power vacuum to assert their independence. Salé functioned as an all but independent state populated by moriscos, Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula (and Spanish Jews), which from 1660 was ruled by the “pirate king” of the North, al-Khidr Ghaylan. Relations between the sharifs and the Sufi ṭarīqa-s were particularly tempestuous, with two rival marabouts, the charismatic head of the zawiya of Dila and the shaykh of Massa, fighting for supremacy. The marabout of Dila conquered Fez in 1641. It fell to Mawlay Rashid to recapture it and overthrow the zawiya, one of his defining acts, which established his position as the true founder of the Alawi dynasty. Jews in Fez and in the area of the zawiya were caught in the crossfire. According to the main Jewish source of the period, the mid-seventeenth century was known as the arba'in san'a diyal fitna, “the forty years of chaos.” It reports that in the year 546 (1645), “all the synagogues were closed and sealed by order of the sodomite of the zawiya,” and subsequently Page 227  |  Top of Articledestroyed.7 Compounding the physical destruction, Jews were also subject to excessive taxation. However, it should be kept in mind that all Moroccans, not just Jews, were victims of taxation. Along similar lines, both Jews and Muslims suffered terribly during Morocco's terrible draughts, particularly those of 1603–6 and 1662–69, which resulted in widespread hunger and famine.

“Whereas in earlier periods sharifiharifism had been associated with animosity toward Jews, under the Saadis the tables had turned.”


Synagogue in Fes. Charles Landelle, oil on canvas, 1866

Synagogue in Fes. Charles Landelle, oil on canvas, 1866. Paris, private collection.

Sufi groups and Sabbateans

The Sufi challenge had an interesting parallel in Moroccan Jewish society in the form of Sabbateanism, the mystical movement established in the Ottoman Empire by Shabbatai Tsvi, the so-called false messiah, who converted to Islam in 1666 and whose antinomian theology wreaked havoc throughout the Jewish world. Although Shabbatai himself never traveled as far west as Morocco, the introduction of many of the writings associated with the movement and the arrival of some of its main figures allowed Sabbateanism to establish a firm foothold. As in the Ottoman Empire, Sabbateanism found its greatest supporters among the Sephardim, especially the neo-Christians, or conversos. Special centers for reconversion had been established Page 228  |  Top of Articlein Morocco in the sixteenth century to help conversos return to Judaism, but they nonetheless remained vulnerable. Decades of living outwardly as Christians had left them with a tenuous grasp on Jewish law and ritual, which they knew in an amalgamated form if at all. Thus Salé, a city dominated by Iberian exiles, both Muslim and Jewish, became the most important center for Moroccan Sabbateanism—Elisha Ashkenazi, the father of Nathan of Gaza, settled in Salé, and one of the movement's most zealous leaders, Ya'akov b. Saʻadun, lived there as well8 —followed by Meknes, also a Sephardic stronghold, where a Sabbatean prophet by the name of Joseph ben Sur emerged in the late seventeenth century.

It is likely that links existed between Sufi groups and Sabbateans in Morocco, as they clearly did in the Ottoman Empire.9 At the very least, we know that the previously mentioned Jewish community living in the area of the Dila zawiya included Sabbateans, suggesting some degree of frequentation.10 Yet it is also true that conversion was a less prominent feature of Sabbateanism in Morocco than elsewhere, either in the form of Sabbateans converting to Islam after 1666 (i.e., following Shabbatai's example) or of Muslims joining the movement. Most important, in Morocco, the traditional Jewish authorities succeeded in controlling and ultimately assimilating the movement into normative Moroccan Judaism. Certain prayers and supplications from Sabbatean works were allowed to enter into the liturgy and prayer books, where they remain today.11 The strong messianic yearning in Sabbateanism was consciously separated from the rest of the theology of the “cult”: it was recognized as an acceptable tenet of Judaism and was allowed to persist. Thus vestiges of Sabbateanism were visible in Morocco as late as 1826: a letter from a British traveler describes an annual event whereby the Jews would select a virgin from their community and enclose her in a crate. They would then watch and wait for her to become pregnant by the Holy Ghost, which meant she would give birth to the messiah. But these behaviors were more indicative of a religious rift.12 Even today, when the rationalist Maimonides is accepted as the ultimate legal source by Moroccan Jews, strong mystical tendencies are still apparent in many aspects of Moroccan Judaism, such as saint veneration or the offering of toys or money to children on Tisha B'Av.13 These concessions are partly responsible for “saving” Moroccan Judaism from the fate of European Judaism, which became split between Haskalah and Hasidism in the post-Sabbatean era, while also rendering it uniquely resilient to European colonial intervention in the religious sphere.

“It is likely that links existed between Sufi groups and Sabbateans in Morocco, as they clearly did in the Ottoman Empire.”

A new order

With the ascension of Sultan Mawlay Ismail in 1672, certain practices that strongly reinforced the vertical relationship between the makhzan and the Jews, as well as Page 229  |  Top of Articlechanges that brought Muslims and Jews closer together, were instituted. For example, many ruined synagogues were rebuilt under Mawlay Ismail, bringing new spiritual (and economic) energy to the various communities. The new capital built in Meknes attracted migrants from throughout Morocco, including enough Jews for him to order the building of a mellah there in 1679, the third such entity in Morocco after those of Fez and Marrakesh. Muslim and Jewish craftsmen and artisans were employed for all these projects. At the same time, however, other external forces were working to pull apart Muslim-Jewish ties. Knowing that their appeal to Moroccan Muslims was limited, European powers were quick to identify the potential instrumentality of Moroccan Jews for gaining a political and economic foothold in the country. Jews were used as intermediaries in the ransoming of European captives, treaty negotiations, and the import/export trade.

As a result of increased European intervention, Morocco's port cities began to develop dramatically in the eighteenth century, a process that eventually led to their eclipsing of the traditional inland economic centers. This process was played out on the microcosmic level among the tujjār al-Sul ān, both Jews and Muslims, who emigrated from the inland centers to the coasts to take advantage of the new opportunities. Among the Jews, these included certain members of the Corcos family of Marrakesh, a branch of which grew to great prominence in Essaouira. On the national level, Jewish-Muslim relations continued to ebb and flow, with a particular low point coming in 1790–92, during Mawlay Yazid's “reign of terror” as the country fell into a vicious civil war abetted by the Spanish. The atrocities committed against the Jews during this period were among the last to escape the direct intercession of outside forces, however. As the nineteenth century dawned, European organizations, including the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Alliance Israélite Universelle, and the Anglo-Jewish Association, driven by multifaceted motives, began to take careful notice of the situation of the Jews, and Jewish-Muslim relations, in Morocco, and to take action.

1. The expression comes from Fernand Braudel, “Espangnols et mauresques,” Annales E.S. C. (1947): 4:403.

2. Emily Gottreich, The Mellah of Marrakesh: Jewish and Muslim Space in Morocco's Red City (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), 21–25.

3. Purim was originally a biblical celebration commemorating the miraculous rescue of the Jews of Persia, as the Book of Esther recounts. Subsequently, other local Purims were born to commemorate the rescue of a particular community.

4. For a full-length study on Samuel Pallache, see Mercedes Garcia Arenal and Gerard Wiegers, A Man of Three Worlds: Samuel Pallache; A Moroccan Jew in Catholic and Protestant Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).

5. Mercedes Garcia Arenal, Ahmad al-Mansur: The Beginning of Modern Morocco (Oxford: One World, 2009).

6. In 1614, the Sufi shaykh Yahya bin “Abdallah rebelled against Mawlay Zaydan in Marrakesh to protest the presence in the court of Jews like Abraham Wa'ish, who was in charge of the treasury, and Samuel Pallache. See Henri de Castries and Pierre de Cenival, Les sources inédites de l'histoire du Maroc, Archives et Bibliothèques des Pays-Bas (Paris: Leroux, 1907), 2:399.

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7. Divre ha-yamim shel Fez, fol. 20a, as cited by H. Z. Hirschberg, A History of the Jews in North Africa (Leiden: Brill, 1981), 2:237–38. It should be noted that the Jews of the zawiya were resettled in Fez, possibly due to their relative prosperity and political neutrality. Adherents of the marabout were all killed.

8. See the descriptions of Germain Mouette, a Frenchman captured by pirates who was held in Salé from 1670–81, in Relations de captivité dans les royaumes de Fez et de Maroc (Paris: Mercure de France, 2002), 47–49.

9. See Marc Baer, Honored by the Glory of Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 123–24, 129; and Matt Goldish, The Sabbatean Prophets (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 39–40. Both authors also discuss the influence of Christian millenarian movements on the development of Sabbateanism in the Ottoman Empire. This does not appear to have been a contributing factor in Morocco, where indigenous Christian communities ceased to exist after the Almohad period.

10. See Hirschberg, A History of the Jews in North Africa, 2:248.

11. Specifically those from the controversial text Hemdat Yamim, which, by the eighteenth century, had become a mainstay of Moroccan Jewish religious tradition.

12. G. R. Beauclerk, A Journey to Morocco in 1826 (London, 1828).

13. Tisha B'Av, the ninth day of Av, normally is a day of intense mourning: it commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem, and, more generally, the sufferings of exile. Sabbateanism, based on a midrashic story that the Messiah was born on this day, transforms the day of mourning and fasting into a celebration of the coming of the Messiah.

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Nota bene: Essaouira

The town of Essaouira (known as Mogador to Europeans) was Morocco's principal seaport for foreign trade from the latter half of the eighteenth until the late nineteenth century. The Jews of Essaouira (Mogador) were proportionally one of the largest Jewish communities of any city of the Muslim world, about 30 to 50 percent of the population for much of the town's existence. Founded in 1764 by the sultan Sidi Muhammad ibn ‘Abdallah, to serve as the port of Morocco's southern capital, Marrakesh, the town was settled by many inhabitants from the southern Atlantic port of Agadir, which was shut to commerce. Jews were among the Agadiris who settled in the new port, and they were joined by other Jews from the major Jewish communities of Morocco.

In the first decade of the town's existence, representatives from some of the major merchant families of Morocco settled there, including Macnin, Sebag, and Pinto of Marrakesh; Hadida and Israel of Tetouan; Merran of Safi; and Guedalla of Agadir. In the late eighteenth and first decades of the nineteenth century, they were joined by other Moroccan families who figured among the town's important merchants: for example, Corcos, Afriat, Ohayon, and Elmaleh. Representatives of prominent Algerian merchant families, such as Cohen-Solal and Boujnah, also settled in the new town. These Jewish merchants were key intermediaries between Morocco and Europe, connected to Jewish and Muslim traders in the interior of Morocco, especially in the Southwest (for example, Oued Noun, Iligh, and Ifrane of the Anti-Atlas), along the trans-Saharan trade routes, and to their agents in European commercial centers such as Livorno, Marseilles, Amsterdam, and London. The most important merchants in Essaouira, the tujjār of the sultans, were extended credit to trade and inhabited makhzan-owned houses in the elite casbah quarter of the town. The majority of the twenty to thirty royal merchants, listed in the makhzan registers as recipients of makhzan credit, were Jews. The elite Jewish families maintained close connections to the sultans, who in turn protected their commercial interests as well as their property rights. This relationship was maintained through the exchange of gifts, and mutual interests in maintaining the preeminent position of Essaouira as Morocco's principal port of trade.

The affluent Jews were dependent on the mass of poorer Jews, peddlers who plied their wares in the markets, workers who prepared goods for export, such as goatskins and ostrich feathers, and Page [232]  |  Top of Articlesimple artisans. Thousands of Jews, primarily from the Sous region of Morocco, came to settle in the town and inhabited the mellah. Initially the Jewish community did not live in a separate quarter, but in 1807 the sultan, Mawlay Sulayman, decreed that Jews in Essaouira, and in a number of other cities that did not have mellahs— Rabat, Salé, and Tetouan—should be compelled to live in a separate Jewish quarter. A few Jews from among the elite Jewish merchants were able to escape the injunction, and continued to inhabit the casbah, later joined by other Jewish merchants. From the time of its foundation, the Jewish merchants bought land and property in the mellah, including commercial premises and synagogues, a form of investment from profits accruing from trade. The population of Essaouira doubled from the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth centuries, from about 8–10,000 to about 17–20,000; the Jewish population may have reached 10,000. The growth of the number of inhabitants put pressure on the existing neighborhoods, and in the 1860s a new casbah quarter was built for the merchants; efforts were made, however, to expand the area of the mellah, increasingly overcrowded by poor migrants from the Sous (the area of the mellah formed one-eighth or one-ninth of the town, but housed about 40 percent of the total population). Though some new shops were built by the makhzan in the 1860s, the expansion of the mellah dwellings was vertical, with additional floors spiraling upward; only in the late nineteenth century was an adjacent area added to the mellah.


Jewish musicians in Mogador. Eugene Delacroix, 1847

Jewish musicians in Mogador. Eugène Delacroix, 1847. Paris, Louvre Museum.

While Jews lived somewhat separate lives, the mellah was hardly a place of confinement, and Muslims and Jews interacted in the marketplace, port, and regional weekly markets. Numerous shops in the bazaar (sūq) were rented by Jews, many of which belonged to the hubus (habous), Muslim pious endowments, and Jewish merchants owned or rented shops and warehouses in the medina. Jews and Muslims frequently entered into business partnerships, and Jews frequently loaned money to Muslims with whom they had commercial dealings. So numerous were the Jews of the town that the rhythms of daily life were very much ordered by the Jewish weekly and annual cycle (the market closed on Shabbat and Jewish holidays). The interdependency between Muslims and Jews helped maintain a system of relative trustworthiness: Muslims depended on Jewish brokers to market their merchandise, while Jews depended on Muslim transporters to convey their goods over long distances. ●

Daniel J. Schroeter is professor of history at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, where he holds the Amos S. Deinard Chair in Jewish History. His publications include The Sultan's Jew: Morocco and the Sephardi World (Stanford University Press, 2002).

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Nota bene: Intermediaries between Christians and Muslims in Oran

The relations between Jews and Muslims in the Maghreb during the modern period were strongly marked by the military, diplomatic, and commercial presence of the Spanish and Portuguese monarchies in the region. The Sephardim, who were able to speak Spanish as well as Arabic or Berber, acted as intermediaries between Christian and Muslim powers. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 prompted hundreds of families to settle in the Maghreb, where many Jewish communities were established. The arrival of Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Jews in the region came about at a time when a network of small forts and larger fortifications called Christian presidios was being consolidated. Historians disagree on the number of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, and it is even more difficult to assess how many of those chose to settle in the Maghreb—though many sources attest to their substantial numbers. Families from Sepharad joined communities already present in Moroccan lands, particularly Fez and Salé. The Straits of Gibraltar in the last centuries of the Middle Ages no longer constituted an insurmountable barrier. The implantation of the Portuguese in Ceuta in 1415 inaugurated an era during which Portuguese, Castilians, and Genoese of Christian faith, on one side, and Muslims from Grenada and Jews, on the other, could pass from one continent to the other, depending on their objectives. For periods of varying lengths from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, the Portuguese and the Spanish established a string of military presidios in Mogador, Mazagan, Larache, La Mamora, Tangiers, Ceuta, Alhucemas, Melilla, Oran-Mers el-Kébir, and as far as La Goulette.

The best-known case documented by available archives remains that of the city of Oran, where the three religions coexisted from 1507 to 1669. When the Spanish troops seized the city of Oran and the port of Mers el-Kébir from the Zayanid kingdom of Tlemcen (1507–9), many Jewish families were living there. Some of them were from Spain, which they had fled upon the expulsion of 1492, some even earlier. These people spoke both Castilian and the languages of North Africa, and so were given authorization from the Catholic kings, then from Charles V, to remain there officially. Since the city was under the dual jurisdiction of Castile and the archbishopric of Toledo, the 1492 decree of the expulsion of the Jews should have applied to it as in any other place in Spanish territory. This authorization was, at the beginning, limited to two or three individuals, along with their families: the Satorras, the Cansinos, and the Zamirous. But the reason for the exceptional case of Oran resides less in the presence of influential Jews than in the fact that the authorities of the Castilian Crown recognized this “anomaly” as a “necessary evil.”

The new Spanish municipal and military institutions of Oran and Mers el-Kébir would not have been able to interact with their regional environment without interpreters. Thus, it was in their capacity as translators (lenguas) that influential Jews were allowed to remain within the city walls; later, some were probably able to translate not only Arab and Berber, but also Osmanlı Turkish into Spanish. The king of Tlemcen from the beginning of the Hispanic presence in his territory, established diplomatic relations with his Spanish rivals and negotiated economic and fiscal arrangements in order to assess their respective shares of the regional agricultural production. The other Jewish families acted as Tlemcen's agents toward the Christian authorities of Oran. In order to carry out their missions, they had occasion to reside Page 234  |  Top of Articlealternately in either city. Thus, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, only three families had been allowed within the presidio. But from 1527–30 on, the emperor Charles V was obliged to accept the residence of twenty-eight Jewish families in his city of Oran. Their role in diplomatic and commercial relations within the surrounding region proved indispensable. On that basis, the little community, in the course of the seventeenth century, grew to the respectable size of about five hundred people, and had a synagogue in which a rabbi, often of the Cansino family, officiated. But the real importance of the community was even greater if one takes into account the substantial population of dependents and slaves who worked in its service; in that Christian jurisdictional and religious context, the dependents of Jews could only be Jews or Muslims.

Oran was not the only place where the function of agent and interpreter for the local Christian powers in their relations with the regional populations and authorities was entrusted to prominent Jews. David el-Hatat was the interpreter of the Portuguese captain general of Ceuta; Juda Pariente and Brahim Malagui performed the same function in Melilla. But the particular strength of the Jews of Oran came from the fact that they had stable family networks in Tlemcen and Mostaganem, but also extending as far as Salé. The actual tolerance toward these Jewish families, within the legal framework of the Crown of Castile, stretched beyond the perimeter of the presidios in the Maghreb. Indeed, in certain cases, merchants belonging to these families contracted directly with Christian merchants of the ports of Malaga or Cartagena, without going through the intermediary of Christians from North Africa. The Spanish archives, especially those of the Inquisition, make mention of the presence of prominent Jews at the marketplaces of Castile in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These were probably a small number of individuals who were, in addition, closely watched from the moment of their debarkation. Still, the particular conditions of political and economic life in North Africa led the kings of Spain to accept this bending of the principle of territorial prohibition to any individual of Jewish or Muslim religion. Maghreb Muslims, too (but later), benefited from exceptions to the rule. This was the case with the arrival of hundreds of Muslim auxiliaries to the Spanish army who settled in Andalusia between 1708 and 1732, when the city of Oran fell into the hands of the Turks and the inhabitants of Algiers.

A very revealing anecdote concerning these exchanges was related by a member of the great Cansino family. Jacob Cansino was not only an interpreter and negotiator but also a collector of taxes owed by neighboring tribes to the Christian authorities of Oran. So he was constantly in contact with the Muslim pastors and farmers from the hinterlands of Algiers. He issued documents to them showing their regular payments made to the municipality. One day in October 1659, as he was camping in a tent in the farming area, he was visited by an elderly peasant: “A poor Moor from the Arab village of el-Bazasz and his wife, dressed in a teliz, because she did not have the wherewithal to obtain an Al-quicel, were in tears because the cow they owned had been stolen and because people from Uled Balegh had beaten them and tied the little shepherd of their flock to a tree; they were still looking for their sheep. To console them, I had them stay with me and had dinner given to them, continuing to speak of the incident and of others concerning complaints by people from Jaffa. Then I requested that two tales by ben Garein be read to them, as in the tragedies of Don Quixote.”1 This episode is very striking in that it shows the degree of intimacy between a Jewish agent of the Christian power and the Muslim inhabitants of the region in a generalized system of mutual negotiation and exchanges.

Among the Jews of Oran, the Cansino family was probably the best known in seventeenth-century Castile. Their greatest notoriety, in the court of Madrid Page 235  |  Top of Articleat least, was attained when Isaac Cansino had an important work printed under his name in 1638: the Book of the Splendors of the City of Constantinople, presented as the translation of a work by Rabbi Almosnino of Salonika. The fact that it was published in Madrid is remarkable in every way. Cansino, its translator and publisher, accompanied the work with a presentation of his family, the most emblematic of the community of Oran. Through this portrait, he revealed to a public readership, which would not be well informed on the matter, the existence of a Judaism of Oran—that is, a Spanish Judaism—still quite alive. He dedicated his publication to the Count-Duke of Olivares, thus acting as any other author of the Spanish system of letters and of bookselling of his time. Finally, through Moses Almosnino, the author he translates here, he disseminates praises for the Ottoman sultan, who is capable of religious tolerance with respect to the non-Muslims of his empire. Thus the Spanish readers find, in their own language, the demonstration that the sultan, whom they considered the most despotic of sovereigns, was capable of greater goodwill than the kings of Spain were toward his infidel subjects. The message could not be clearer, but it is not certain that it was very helpful to Philip IV's favorite at the very moment when he was being attacked by his opponents, who presented him as the friend of Portuguese bankers of Jewish origin.

But we must not limit ourselves to these manifestations of openness and intimacy taken out of the larger picture of an era in which mutual contempt often overrode respect. In connection with the relations between Jews and Muslims as they may be seen in the context of the Christian presidios of North Africa, we cannot pass over in silence the intense participation of the great Jewish families in the Muslim slave trade. The two main clans of the Oran community were the two largest slave owners and traders. Of course, that activity was in no way particular to Jews: it was common to all contemporaries as well. The history of the intertwined captivities of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the Mediterranean in the modern era shows this quite clearly.

The history of the main Jewish community of the Hispanic Maghreb is interrupted in 1669 with the total expulsion of the Jews from Oran. They had to liquidate their goods in a few weeks and embark en masse in ships that transported them to Livorno and Nice. The expulsion was decided on in the feverish context of the crisis brought about by the mystic episode of Sabbatai Zevi and the terror inspired by the Ottoman conquest of the island of Crete in 1667. As always, this sort of event is presented from the Spanish perspective as a glorious exploit of Catholic orthodoxy, and as a tragedy by the victims. After the expulsion, we may reasonably assume that the Page [236]  |  Top of ArticleSpanish of Oran continued to deal with the Jews of the Maghreb. The later documentation, especially in the eighteenth century, indicates, between the lines, that prominent Jews continued to gravitate to the Christian presidios of North Africa, while at the same time retaining their bases on Islamic soil.


Cover of the book Extremos y grandezas de Constantinople, by Rabbi Almosnino of Salonika, translated by Jacob Cansino. Madrid, 1638

Cover of the book Extremos y grandezas de Constantinople, by Rabbi Almosnino of Salonika, translated by Jacob Cansino. Madrid, 1638. Madrid, Complutense University.

On one point, at least, Christians and Muslims were in agreement: the Jews were useful in facilitating their endless negotiations in a situation marked by chronic instability. But is this enough to make the case for a continuum between the experience of the Hispanic Oran of the modern period and the situation of intercommunity relations in Oran during the French Empire? That step is too hazardous to be taken without solid proof. It is preferable, pending the discovery of new documents, to assume that these two histories are in fact separate. The question of the relations between Jews and Muslims in French colonial Algeria, in both Oran and the rest of the country, is probably a totally different matter. ●

Jean-Frédéric Schaub is director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris. His publications include Les Juifs du roi d'Espagne: Oran 1507–1669 (Hachette Littératures, 1999); La France espagnole: Les racines hispaniques de l'absolutisme français (Seuil, 2003); Lois, justice, coutume (EHESS, 2005); Oroonoko: Prince et esclave (Seuil, 2008); and L'Europe a-t-elle une histoire? (Albin Michel, 2008).

1. Quoted and translated in Jean-Frédéric Schaub, Les Juifs du roi d'Espagne [The Jews of the King of Spain] (Paris: Hachette Littératures, 1999), 114.

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Nota bene: Jews in Libya

Jews lived in Libya before the Muslim conquests of North Africa. According to the Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, tribal groups in a mountainous region of Tripolitania, Jebel Nefusa, accepted the Jewish religion before Islam arrived. There are debates about the certainty of this information, while it is likely that Jews migrated into Libya soon after Muslim presence was established there.

Historical documentation of life in Libya is thin. Gravestones in the Jebel Nefusa from the twelfth to the thirteenth centuries indicate the presence of Jewish life, and there is also evidence that Jews in the whole region suffered under the harsh rule of the Almohads at that time. Three hundred years later, when Tripoli was conquered by Spain during the first half of the sixteenth century, and the Spanish Inquisition was in force in the city, the interior mountain communities served as a refuge for the Jews, and Jewish life was able to quietly continue there.

A more continuous view of Jewish life begins toward the end of the eighteenth century. One prominent Jew, Abraham Khalfon (1741–1819), served as a head of the community, representing it to the ruler of Tripoli, and was also a scholar. He composed a history in Hebrew utilizing records in government archives and documents in the rabbinic court. In his own days, a tyrannical ruler from abroad controlled the city between 1793 and 1795, oppressing both Muslims and Jews. Members of both communities rejoiced when the invader was overthrown, and the Jews instituted a local Purim holiday to commemorate the date of his fall.1

Much of Khalfon's history was later lost, but part was copied into the Hebrew manuscript of Mordecai Ha-Cohen (1856–1929), a native of Tripoli.2 Ha-Cohen described both Muslim and Jewish life in the city during the period of the nineteenth-century Ottoman reforms. In this new situation, Rabbi Yaaqov Maimon was able to participate as a judge in the reorganized court, along with Muslim judges. Ha-Cohen's portrayal of this development assumes that there was overlap in the legal understandings of Jews and Muslims regarding a range of issues that might come before the court.

Later in the nineteenth century, another rabbi, from abroad, criticized Jews in Tripoli for visiting Muslim Page [238]  |  Top of Articlecoffeehouses upon finishing Sabbath morning prayer. This had long been the local custom, and Jews returned to the shops after the Sabbath ended to pay for what they had ordered. On the other hand, there still were occasions, like the mawlid (birthday celebration) of Muhammad, during which Jews and Christians in Tripoli cautiously kept off the streets lest outbursts of religious ecstasy be directed against them. By the end of the century, growing influence from Italy brought new factors into the fabric of daily life that fundamentally affected relationships between Muslims and Jews. ●


A Libyan rabbi. Italian postcard, 1912

A Libyan rabbi. Italian postcard, 1912. Paris, private collection.

Harvey E. Goldberg is professor emeritus and the Sarah Allen Shaine Chair in Sociology and Anthropology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His work has sought to combine anthropology and Jewish studies, including a translation from Hebrew of an indigenous account of the Jews of Libya: The Book of Mordechai by Mordecai Hacohen (Philadelphia, Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1980, 1993). He is the author of Cave Dwellers and Citrus Growers (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1972) and Jewish Life in Muslim Libya (University of Chicago Press, 1990), and editor of Sephardi and Middle Eastern Jewries (Indiana University Press, 1996).

1. Harvey E. Goldberg, “Les jeux de Pourim et leurs déclinaisons à Tripoli: Perspective comparative sur l'usage social des histoires bibliques,” Annales: Histoire, Sciences Sociales 49 (1994): 1183–95.

2. Mordecaï Ha-Cohen, Higgid Mordecaï: Histoire de la Libye et de ses Juifs, lieux d'habitation et coutumes [in Hebrew]. Edited and annotated by Harvey Goldberg (Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute, 1978).

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
"Northern Africa." A History of Jewish Muslim Relations: From Origins to the Present Day, edited by Abdelwahab Meddeb and Benjamin Stora, Princeton University Press, 2013, pp. 223-[238]. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http%3A%2F%2Flink.galegroup.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FCX6519400018%2FGVRL%3Fu%3Dcolu60512%26sid%3DGVRL%26xid%3D22d835b9. Accessed 17 Oct. 2018.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX6519400018