DEBDOU, town in N.E. *Morocco in the region of Oujda near the Algerian border whose Jewish population was largely comprised of Sephardi Jews from Seville who arrived in Morocco in 1391 and, apparently, also in 1492 following their expulsion from Spain. The Jewish community was governed by several influential families who engaged in internecine conflicts and power struggles over communal leadership. The most noted families in the disputes were the Cohen-Scalis, the Murcianos, the Benhamous, the Bensusans, the Benaims, the Ha-Cohens, and the Moralis. Toward the mid-18th century the community was ravaged by a cholera epidemic resulting in several deaths and the relocation of 300 families to other parts of Morocco. Thus the community was reduced from 630 families to 330. Nevertheless the Jews made up some two-thirds of the total population.
In 1903 the Debdou community encountered hostility from Muslims in nearby Oujda and local villagers. They were thus exposed to physical danger while, at the same time, the economic decline that affected much of Morocco rendered many of them helpless. They turned to the Paris headquarters of the *Alliance Israélite Universelle (which did not open a school in their community) and asked for financial assistance to ride out the difficult times. The Alliance responded favorably and assisted Debdou's Jews partially to overcome their problems. The inauguration of the French Protectorate in 1912 eliminated their security problems and improved their economic prospects.
Though other Moroccan Jewish communities made up one-fourth to one-third of the entire population of other cities and towns – notably Sefrou and Tangier – Debdou was the only area in Morocco where Jews remained the majority of the population well into the first half of the 20th century. In fact, Debdou was unique in the sense that it was doubtlessly the only Jewish community in Muslim lands where Jews formed a majority. David Cohen-Scali served as the unofficial governor of Debdou between 1895 and 1910.
Until the mid-1950s Debdou remained a vital center of Maghrebi Jewish life. Its scribes were famous for producing Scrolls of the Law for many of the Jewish communities of northern Morocco and Algeria. Debdou had more than a dozen synagogues, which preserved the religious rituals and customs of Spain. Like other Moroccan communities Debdou's Jewry engaged in craftsmanship and included small-scale merchants, tailors, and weavers. Some, however, were shepherds. After World War II as many as 1,000 Jews still lived in Debdou. They were organized for aliyah by the Jewish Agency's Immigration Department emissaries in 1955–56 and settled in the moshavim of Israel's southern and northern peripheries.
Sources:B. Meakin, Land of the Moors (1901); N. Slouschz, Travels in North Africa (1927); A. Chouraqui, Between East and West: A History of the Jews of North Africa (1973); M.M. Laskier, The Alliance Israélite Universelle and the Jewish Communities of Morocco: 1862–1962 (1983).
[Michael M. Laskier (2nd ed.)]
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