Background on the History of the Jews in Morocco and North Africa
Legends relate that Hebrews from the Twelve Tribes arrived in North Africa in the time of King Solomon in order to bring back
metals, especially gold, for the construction of the Temple. Apparently, Hebrews came by the 10th century BCE with the
Phoenicians and also when the city of Carthage was founded in 814 BCE. After the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE,
Jews came to North Africa for the most part in the area that is now Libya. About 300 BCE, the successors of Alexander the
Great brought Jewish soldiers to the area known as Cyrenaica, which is part of contemporary Libya. It is known that there was
a Jewish presence here later during Punic Wars. At first, the Roman government appeared tolerant. Flavius Josephus relates
that in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE more Jews arrived and Titus settled several thousand in
Carthage. In the years 87 and 115, resistance to the Romans broke out in Cyrenaica even before the Bar Kokhba Revolt in Eretz
Israel. Beginning with the third century, Christianity spreads to North Africa. In 430, the Vandals, the Visigoths come to
the area. In 535, the Byzantine Empire defeats the Vandals who were helped by the Jews. In 642, the Arabs attempt to rule
over all of North Africa but they meet resistance from the Berbers. Their original name was Amazighen or Imazighen, which
means "free people". The name Berber was given to them by the Romans. The name derives from the Latin word barbarus, meaning
"stranger". The origin of this ancient people is unknown. They live in a wide stretch of territory from Egypt to the Sahara
(1). Throughout all this time the Jews maintain good relations with the Berbers. A great deal has been written about Jewish
influence on a portion of the Berber tribes and if some of them even were converted to Judaism. The legend of Queen Kahina (2)
at the time of the Moslem conquest is an example. In spite of the fact that there are testimonies about the conversion, one
must be careful concerning the number of converts as scientific evidence is lacking (3). The correct question should be what
was the extent of Jewish influence on the Berbers and Berber influence on the Jews?
The use of family surnames came later in the Jewish world and often they had some connection to the environment. My Mother's
maiden name, Amozig, apparently derives from a Berber source.
A Historical Sketch of Islam, Fez and its Jews
The infiltration of Islam in Morocco begins in 683 and it spreads in the 8th century. In 789 Idris I founded the city of
Fez on the Fez river. Idris II developed it in 809. It is on a crossroads in an area rich with metals required for the
growth of the city. In 817, Moslem families who had been expelled from Cordova, Spain and Egypt arrive in Fez. Apparently
some Jewish families accompanied them. What may be called the first university in the world was established there in the
9th century, predating the Sorbonne in Paris and Oxford in England, - the "Elkarayouine" mosque-university (founded by
families from Kairouan)
Fez is transformed into an important religious center especially for Islam. At the same time, it also becomes a Jewish
The Jews had a neighborhood called Foundouk el Yehudi and many important rabbis lived there. They included David ben Abraham
Alfasi, Shlomo ben Ahouda and the most famous of them all, Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, the Rif. Dunash ibn Labrat and Judah Hayoudi
wrote the first Hebrew grammar books in the 10th century. During the Idris and Almoravid dynasties, the conditions under
which the Jews lived depended on the king. The Jews were expelled in 987 and in 1035 and 1125 six hundred Jews were murdered.
In 1125 the Berber Almohad tribe seized power. They were especially fanatical and sought to extend their rule over Libya and
Spain. Jews as well as Christians were put to death.
In Spain, Rabbi Maimon and his son Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Rambam-Maimonides) who was born on March 1138 flee from Cordova,
which was under the rule of the Almohades and wander from city to city. When they remember that Fez is a Torah and spiritual
center, they decide to come to Fez and hope for peace and quiet. The Rambam had already written on Aristoteles and on the
Hebrew calendar. While he was in Fez, he improved his knowledge of medicine, philosophy and astronomy studying with the
leading Moslem scholars. This was "The Golden Age" of Moslem culture. At the same time, a false Messiah named Moshe Der'i
appears. The Almohads return to Fez and again, Jews are executed. Rabbi Maimon writes Iggeret Nehama (the Epistle of
Consolation) in Arabic in which he wants to express encouragement and hope, and rules that conversion to Islam is not
idolatry ("Avodah Zara") in contrast to Christianity, which is, and because of this one does not bring upon himself the
death penalty. Later, the Rambam composes Iggeret Ha Shmad (Epistle on Apostacy) in which he opposes a fanatical rabbi and
defends those who outwardly converted to Islam on the condition that they observe in secret as many mitzvoth as possible and
return to Judaism as soon as they can. However, around 1165, the Almohades require all Jews to convert or to be put to death.
Rabbi Yehuda Hakohen Ibn Soussan, the leader and rabbi of the community, refuses and is publicly executed in front of a large
crowd on 8 April 1165. Rabbi Maimon and his family succeed in reaching the city Ceuta and sail for Eretz Yisrael on 18 April
The Almohades are defeated in Spain and the Merinides come to power.
In 1269 Fez again serves as the capital city and Fez El Jedid (New Fez) is established. After the first expulsion from Spain
in 1391, Jewish families arrive in Fez and join the community. The Fez Mellah, the Jewish quarter, is created in 1438.
A number of explanations are given concerning the Mellah.
Why a neighborhood like this? Was it to protect the Jews or to punish them? Was to prevent them from entering a city holy to
the Moslems, Fez Al Bali, the old city, where the graves of the founders of the city were located, and to safeguard its
holiness? There are number of explanations as to the meaning of the word Mellah: was it previously an area where salt was
found; or did the ruling powers force the Jews to salt (??? ) the heads of their defeated enemies (7) and put them on poles
in order to strike greater fear in their enemies and perhaps they would loose the will to fight. (8-9-10)
Throughout all this period the Jews benefited from some respite, but not always. Pogroms were followed by large fines,
hunger, disease, fires and all kinds of trouble. Walls with heavy gates that were locked at night surrounded the Mellah.
It was located near the sultan's palace.
In the wake of the 1492 expulsion from Spain many families found their way to the Mellah. They were referred to as the
"megurashim" the "expelled ones".The local people were referred to as the "toshavim"" residents". Over time there were many
differences of opinion between the two groups concerning the interpretation of halakha Jewish law. The two groups did not
speak the same language and their cultural levels were different. For dozens of years, the shehita, the slaughtering of
kosher meat, of one group was not acceptable to the other. The "exiles" made their decisions independently – Takkanot
(Decrees) of the Jewish Exiles from Castilia (Spain). (11)