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Ancient Jewish History: Berbers

BERBERS, indigenous North African tribes who originally spoke dialects of the Berber language. Medieval Arab writers ascribed the ancestry of the Berbers to *Goliath the Philistine and maintained their Canaanite origin. The Phoenician colonization of Africa, the long Carthaginian domination, and the survival of Punic, a language closely related to Hebrew, supported these legends which spread among the Berbers themselves. Similar tales are found in the writings of Greek and Latin authors and in the Talmud which spread the legend that the Canaanites immigrated of their own free will to North Africa. It is said that the survivors of the Jewish revolt in *Cyrenaica (115–116 C.E.) found refuge among the Berbers of Western *Libya . Scholars have frequently claimed that the Jews' desire to proselytize found a favorable atmosphere among the Berbers from the first to the seventh centuries. African Christianity, whose early converts were Jews, clashed with Jewish proselytism. Archaeological discoveries, epigraphs, and writings of the Christian scholars Tertullian and St. Augustine, indignant at the growing Berber conversions to Judaism, attest to these facts. The persecutions by the Byzantines forced Jews to settle among the Berbers in the mountain and desert regions. Ibn Khaldun confirmed the existence of a large number of proselyte Berbers at the time of the Arab conquest of Africa. The Islamization of these countries, however, did not abolish all previous beliefs. Christianity was abandoned rapidly; Judaism continued to exist and – from Tripolitania to *Morocco – modern ethnographers and anthropologists encountered small groups whom they called "Jewish Berbers." These isolated groups of Jews lived in the high mountains of North Africa until the last few decades. Some scholars designated them as the descendants of Berber proselytes. In most cases they eventually intermingled with the rest of the population. However, the survival of such groups to the present is now doubted.

It is difficult to evaluate Jewish life in Berber society because Berbers did not have a written history. Berber history was completely oral. Thus, information on Jewish life comes from travelers who visited the Atlas Mountains, from a few written sources, and from interviews with people who lived in these areas. Two main sources are Higgid Mordechai, written by Mordechai Hacohen, a Jewish scholar from Tripoli who wrote about the Jews in Jabel Nafusa, south of Tripoli, and a statistical study carried out between 1961 and 1964 by the Mossad, the Israeli secret service, during the "Yachin Operation," in which the Mossad organized the aliyah of the Jews in the area.

Jews coexisted within Berber society. They had complete autonomy, communal organizations, and the possibility of practicing their religion. Jews were mainly occupied in trade and the crafts and did not work in agriculture. There was some kind of understanding between Berbers and Jews about the occupational structure of each group, enabling each to earn a livelihood. They also shared religious rituals and customs. For example, at Shavuot the Berbers of Libya poured water on Jews as one of their customs.

The Mossad study referred to Jewish life in Berber society at the end of its existence. In the village of Gourama in southeast Morocco, for example, there were 285 Jews, 73% of them below the age of 30. About 20% of the families had eight members, 50% fewer that seven persons. Seven Jews were tailors, seven farmers, five merchants, and two butchers. Although more research is needed it seems that these figures characterize Jewish life in the Berber villages.


H. Fournel, Les Berbères (1875), 32–41; S. Gsell, Histoire ancienne de l'Afrique du Nord, 1 (1920), 236–343; E.F. Gauthier, Le passé de l'Afrique du Nord (1942), 140ff., 225–44, 270ff., 439; Simon, in: Revue d'histoire et de philosophie religieuses 26 (1946), 1–31, 105–45; M. Simon, Verus Israel (Eng. 1948), index; Hirschberg, in Zion, 22 (1957), 10–20; idem, in: Journal of African History, 4 (1963), 313–39; Hirschberg, Afrikah, 2 (1965), 9–36; N. Slouschz, Hébraeo-Phéniciens et Judéo-Berbères (1908); idem, Travels in North Africa (1927), 453–88, passim; A.N. Chouraqui, Between East and West (1968). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: M. Shokeid, "Jewish Existence in a Berber Environment," in: Sh. Deshen and W.P. Zenner (eds.), Jews among Muslims… (1996), 109–20; E. Goldberg, "Ecologic and Demographic Aspects of Rural Tripolitanian Jewry 1853–1949," in: International Journal of Middle East Studies, 2 (1971), 245–65; E. Goldberg and H. Goldberg, Cave Dwellers and Citrus Growers: Jewish Community in Libya and Israel (1972); E. Goldberg, "Communal Organization of the Jews of Tripolitania during the Late Ottoman Period," in: Jewish Political Studies Review, 5:3–4, (Fall 5754/1993), 77–95; idem, "The 'Maskil' and the 'Mequbbal'; Mordecai Ha-Cohen and the Grave of Rabbi Shim'on Lavi in Tripoli," in: H.E. Goldberg (ed.), Sephardi and Middle Eastern Jewries (1996), 168–80.

[David Corcos /

Haim Sadoun (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.