Jewish Ideas Daily: The last Berber Jews

You can still see traces of the Berber Jews in the geometric, humanoid carvings on the gravestones in the old Jewish cemetery of Essaouira.

Berber (370) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Berber (370)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The article first appeared on Jewish Ideas Daily and is reprinted with their permission.
As a child, the French filmmaker Kamal Hachkar learned the Berber language from his grandparents in Tinghir, a Berber oasis city east of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. As an adult he discovered that the now exclusively Muslim town once had a substantial Jewish community.
In Hachkar’s film Tinghir-Jerusalem, Echoes from the Mellah: The Rediscovery of a Judeo-Berber Culture, which appeared at the New York Sephardic Film Festival this spring, Hachkar walks through Tinghir with his grandfather.
They stop at a certain spot, and Hachkar asks the old man if this is where the synagogue was. It is there no longer: All that remain in the old Jewish quarters of this and other Berber towns are crumbled adobe walls, vacant lots, and once-Jewish stores now owned by Muslims.
Hachkar was told what other young Moroccan children are told if they ask about the vanished Jews: that the Zionists forced the Jews to leave their beloved villages and that the Jews left in tears. Intrigued, he follows the story to Israel, where he tracks down the elderly Jews who were uprooted from Tinghir. Tears flowing, the immigrants reminisce about their childhood homes and friends. They sing old Berber songs and sigh. Berber Jews from Morocco have not had easy lives in Israel.
But do they regret leaving? No – and not merely, as one Israeli-born daughter reminds her mother, because in Morocco the women had to wash clothes by hand in the river. The Jews left because they had to.
The Berber regions of Morocco were tribal and were not fully controlled by central authorities until well into the 20th century. Although Berber tribes understand themselves as extended families, descendants of a single, named ancestor, reality is more complicated.
Families of slaves, former slaves, and survivors of defeated tribes can join a tribe as subordinate members. Berber Jews belonged to their tribes in this subordinate way.
In the film, Hachkar walks among the ruins of the abandoned Jewish quarter of a small Berber town as an elderly man describes the close friendships between the Jews and Muslims. The Jews of his tribe were like brothers, he says, and fought with the tribe to defend its territory.
But when asked whether Jewish and Muslim young people could fall in love and marry, he recoils in shock.
You can still see traces of the Berber Jews in the geometric, humanoid carvings on the gravestones in the old Jewish cemetery of Mogador, modern Essaouira.
Berber Jews fascinated 20th-century French ethnologists, who came to study them and photograph Jewish Berber women, with their distinctive tribal jewelry, embroidered robes and tattooed faces.
But only a small percentage of Morocco’s Jews were Berber-speakers. Larger numbers of Arabic-speaking Jews lived in Fez, Marrakech and other cities and spoke Jewish versions of their regions’ Arabic dialects. After 1492, they were joined by Sephardim expelled from Spain. For the next five centuries, the communities maintained their distinctive customs, languages and synagogues.
It is easy to get nostalgic about Jewish life in Morocco – picturesque towns, wonderful food. Today, the few thousand Jews who remain, mostly in the business hub of Casablanca, have full citizenship. Jews are welcome to visit and run businesses. The government has a moderate attitude toward Israel.
But Jewish life in Berber or Arab Morocco was never secure. This year is the centennial of the Fez Pogrom of 1912, a useful reminder that the history of the Jews in Arab North Africa was very like their history in other Christian and Muslim lands.
Muslims saw Jews as inferior. Jews understood that they lived at Muslim sufferance. Jews could and did rise to great wealth and power in Moroccan society; but they had no rights, only such privileges as Muslim society and sultans chose to grant them. For centuries, they put up with what their neighbors dished out: petty humiliations, heavy taxation, occasional violence. The Jews of Fez responded to news of the first Zionist Congress in 1897 by establishing a chapter of Hibbat Zion (Lovers of Zion).
In 1948, Moroccans responded to the creation of Israel with deadly pogroms in Oujda and Jerada. In a wave of Jew hatred over the next several years, Jews were kidnapped and murdered. They were not expelled, as in Algeria; but Morocco had become dangerous, and they began to leave. They went to France, Montreal – and Israel, because, for the first time in history, they had the opportunity to go home. Indeed, so many families immigrated to Israel that in 1956, King Hassan, fearing that other Arab states would blame him for allowing immigrants from Morocco to strengthen Israel, forbade the Jews to leave.
After emigration was banned, Jews escaped clandestinely. On January 11, 1961, the Egoz, a small boat leased by the Mossad to smuggle Jews from Morocco to Gibraltar, capsized. All 44 of the olim drowned. Half were children.
After the Egoz disaster, the Jewish Agency and the Mossad worked with threatened Moroccan communities to rescue the children first. In Operation Mural, 530 Moroccan Jewish children were sent by their families on an ostensible holiday in Switzerland – and, from there, flown to Israel.
Four months later, a deal was struck for a larger emigration.
King Hassan, embarrassed by the international attention paid to the Egoz drownings, agreed that Moroccan Jews could emigrate secretly, so as not to draw the attention of anti-Israel governments – and the king would receive an indemnity for each Jew who left.
The figures were never released, but it is estimated that between $5 million and $20m. flowed to the royal treasury in exchange for the 80,000 Moroccan Jews who were allowed to make aliya between 1962 and 1964.
The last Berber Jews left Tinghir and other Berber towns silently, in the dead of night. Word was passed among them; they left with only what they could carry and without telling their Muslim neighbors. They walked, some of them single file down mountain trails, to roads outside their villages. There, they boarded buses to begin their journey to the Jewish state.
The writer is an American author and historian. She is at work on a book tentatively entitled Nationhood: The Foundation of Democracy.