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9. The Jews in the Levant and the Maghreb

Throughout the Middle Ages, there were close ties between the Jews in the Maghreb and in Spain.

Les juifs au Levant et au Maghreb

From the Iberian Peninsula to the Maghreb

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Amulette (ilan ha-qaddosh), Algérie, XIXe siècle

The massacres and forced conversions in 1391 prompted a massive wave of emigration, mainly to Tlemcen, Algiers, the towns and cities along the Tunisian coast, and to a lesser extent Morocco, then in a period of dynastic instability.

After 1492, exiles settled mainly in Morocco (at Fez, Tétouan, Meknes, Safi, Salé and Rabat) and in western Algeria (at Tlemcen and Oran). But this was sometimes only a stopover on the way to the Levant and the Holy Land. The North Moroccan and Algerian coasts, coveted by Iberian monarchs, fell prey to numerous military campaigns, and major cities fell under Spanish control (Oran) and Portuguese domination (Meknes). The emigration of New Christians to the Maghreb continued in the 16th century because Fez was a very active center for reconversion to Judaism. Heirs to prestigious rabbinic, philosophical, intellectual and community traditions, these Iberian exiles (Megorashim) rapidly asserted their cultural and institutional pre-eminence, not without conflicts with the native Jews (Toshavim). In Fez they founded the first Hebrew printing works in the Maghreb. The Castilian decrees (taqqanot) compiled by exiles in the 16th century influenced and shaped Moroccan Judaism as a whole. Heirs to the Spanish esoteric tradition, the exiles and their descendants made North Africa one of the great centers for the perpetuation and development of the Qabbalah. Many, such as Jacob Rosales and Samuel Palache, became eminent diplomats, intervening between Iberian and North European powers. They also played a key role in the growth of economic and commercial relations in the Mediterranean and with Western Europe, particularly in the 18th century, actively taking advantage of existing Sephardi trade networks. Initially, the megorashim founded communities distinct from those of the Toshavim. With successive generations, these distinctions blurred, except in northern Morocco, in Tangiers and Tétouan, where Spanish-speaking traditions endured and were even revived by Spanish domination. In Tunisia, however, where many Portuguese Jews from Livorno settled from the 17th century onwards, the institutional, cultural and social separation between “native” Jews and Livornese Sephardim persisted until the 20th century.

The Jews in Algeria

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Synagogue de Constantine, peinture, Agérie, 1841

In the 7th century, the Berbers resisted Arab invasions, notably under the leadership of the legendary Dihya (or Kahina), “queen” of the Berber Jewish Jarawa tribe. Her death in 693 (702?) sounded the death knell of Berber independence, and most of her tribe converted to Islam. The Algerian Jews, about whom we know little during this period, were subjected to the dhimma, a form of contract in force in all Muslim countries, governing relations between Muslims and the “People of the Book,” including the Jews. In return for the payment of taxes, Jews and Christians were granted relative autonomy. Jews arriving from the East in the wake of the Arab armies re-established gradually the country’s ancient Jewish communities.

Algerian Judaism developed considerably with the arrival of refugees from Catalonia and the Balearic islands following the pogroms in 1391. These newcomers were relatively well received by the Muslim authorities. But their relations with the “native” Jews were not always harmonious due to the many differences in language, rituals and customs. The refugees lived in a separate quarter and had their own synagogue and cemetery, so as not to mingle with the local Jews. But if the old community resisted the domination of the new, it was quite invigorated by this influx.  

After their expulsion from Spain in 1492, very few Iberian Jews went to Algeria. By the French conquest of Algeria in 1830, the Jews had established large communities, mostly in the north of the country and on the Mediterranean coast (Algiers, Constantine, Oran, Tlemcen, etc.). They were led by a “chief Jew” (sheikh al-yahud) with extensive powers. In 1845, a law was passed establishing French-style consistories for the Algerian Jews. In 1870,  Adolphe Crémieux (1796-1880) secured their full French citizenship by decree. However, the Jews in the southern territories, under French military rule were excluded from this measure.   

From 1850 to 1900, the increasingly integrated Jewish population grew from 21,048 to 57,538. During the Second World War, the Algerian Jews fell prey to the anti-Semitic measures of the Vichy regime. On the eve of decolonization, the population had risen to 140,000. The imminent victory of the National Liberation Front in 1961 and Algeria’s independence in 1962 prompted a massive and definitive exodus, mainly to France.

The Jews in Tunisia

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Costume de mariage (marsaoui), Tunisie, début XXe siècle

There were already Jews living in ancient Carthage. Legend has it that they arrived on the island of Djerba during the reign of King Solomon. Their living conditions were favourable under the Romans until the triumph of Christianity, particularly in Carthage. The Arab conquest of the region began in 643, but did not really concretize until the foundation of Kairouan in 670. This city rapidly became an important Jewish center with its own chief (naggid), and was home to prestigious scholars and merchant families who subsidized schools. Other communities, such as the one in Gabès, grew comparably and distinguished themselves by the presence of famous Talmudists, such as the Ibn Shahin family. Rich merchants dominated trade with India and were influential in Mediterranean trade.

The Bedouin invasion in the 11th century put an end to this prosperity and led to the destruction of Kairouan and the beginning of persecutions. Not until the 13th century did the Jews again find peace. In the Middle Ages, in Tunis, where the Jewish presence in Tunisia is believed to have originated, they lived in a quarter with synagogues (hara), and enjoyed relative autonomy granted by the Muslim authorities.

The expulsions from the Iberian Peninsula and Sicily in the 15th century brought a number of refugees to Tunisia, where most of them remained for only a short time. From the 17th century, Livornese Jews settled in the country, then under Ottoman domination. They came to be known as Granas or Gornim, from the Arab name for Livorno (Gorna), as opposed to the native Jews (Twansas). Tensions between the two groups endured, and led to the Gornim forming a separate community in the 18th century.

In 1881 Tunisia became a French protectorate. Zionism and other modern movements took root there, as they did in the rest of North Africa. In German-occupied Tunisia during the Second World War, the Jewish population, then 89,000, had to endure the Nazi regime from 1942 to 1943. On the eve of Tunisia’s independence in 1956, the country had a population of 105,000 Jews, 70,000 of whom were French citizens. They emigrated either to France or Israel.

The Jews in Morocco

Many legends trace the Jewish presence in Morocco to a period prior to the destruction of the First Temple, when Jews are believed to have converted Berber tribes to Judaism before the Arab conquest. Under Arab domination, the Jews and Judaized Berbers continued to live in relative peace, with the exception of the pogrom in Fez in 1033, and these communities became a powerhouse of intellectual and spiritual activity. The family of the famous Jewish thinker Maimonides left Spain when it was invaded by the Almohad Caliphate, and settled in Fez in 1160 before leaving for the Holy Land. The Almohad regime, despite intervals of respite, was a period of intense fanaticism during which many Jews were forcibly converted to Islam and others massacred. 

In the 15th century, Jewish refugees from Spain and Portugal were welcomed by the Moroccan authorities, but as these newcomers (Megorashim) assumed control of communities in the south, they were regarded with great mistrust by the native Jews (Toshavim). The Toshavim also feared their knowledge and skills and the resulting economic competition. The refugees had their own synagogues and cemeteries and followed their own customs. Particularly in the north, in cities such as Tangiers and Tétouan, they assimilated the local communities and transformed these localities into prestigious centres of Iberian Judaism, treating the local Jews as forasteros (foreigners). Until recently, members of these communities spoke their own language, Haketia, a form of Judeo-Spanish, whereas the other Jews spoke Judeo-Arab. 

Later, Morocco became a refuge for numerous Marranos (Jews converted to Christianity secretly practicing Judaism) arriving from the Iberian Peninsula and the surrounding islands. The Jews exercised practically all professions, including farming and raising livestock, but were mainly pedlars, artisans, shopkeepers and moneylenders.

By 1912, when Morocco became a Spanish protectorate, the Jewish population had reached 115,000. It was confined to quarters called mellah. The colonial period set the community’s westernization in motion. The schools of the Alliance israélite universelle (an international Jewish institution dedicated to education, founded in Paris in 1860) played a crucial role in this process. When Morocco declared independence in 1956, the country had 225,000 Jewish residents, mostly Moroccan nationals. They emigrated principally to Israel, France and Canada.

The Jews in the Levant

Rideau d'arche sainte, Parokhet

Rideau d'arche sainte (parokhet), Empire Ottoman, XVIIIe siècle

One of the principal destinations for emigrants from the Iberian Peninsula was the Ottoman Empire, where Byzantine Jews, called Romaniots, had been established since the Roman Empire. They maintained their traditions, daily religious practices and community structures in Spain, and succeeded in converting these native communities to their own rituals, ignoring the principle that the newcomer should adopt the customs (minhag) of the local Jews. Between 1492 and the mid-16th century, arrivals from the Iberian Peninsula rose to 60,000.

This society, sure of its strengths and proud of its origins and creative intellectuals, rapidly overcame the trauma of exile. Its “golden age” came in the 16th century, when it played a crucial role in the country’s economy. The Ottoman Jews acted as intermediaries between the Empire and European markets, a role that increased with the arrival of marranos, who brought with them their possessions and capital but also their traditional networks of contacts. They established the first printing in the Empire in 1494, and Istanbul, Salonika and Edirne became major Hebrew publishing centres. Joseph Karo wrote his famous codification of Jewish law, ShulhanArukh (The Set Table) in the Ottoman Empire, and in the 16th century Safed became a famous centre of Qabbalah.

In the following century, Ottoman Judaism entered a phase of profound stagnation. It was in this gloomy context that one of the most important messianic movements in Jewish history emerged: Sabbateanism, named after the false messiah Sabbataï Zevi (Smyrna, 1626 – Ulcinj, 1676). Not until two centuries later did Jewish society begin to reverse this decline.

In the 19th century, the Judeo-Spanish cultural zone extended across the new states that had freed themselves from Ottoman domination, but the Judeo-Spanish language and culture endured despite these frontiers. The Orient absorbed the various modern movements developing in the Jewish world, notably the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah) and Zionism. The schools of the Alliance Israélite Universelle also did much to put this Judaism on the path of modernization, and French became its cultural language. The Shoah and emigration to Israel put an end to the Judeo-Spanish zone in the Balkans, which had lasted more than 450 years.