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Virtual Jewish World: Casablanca, Morocco

Casablanca (Ar. D?r al-Bai??), located near the capital city of Rabat, is the main Atlantic seaport in Morocco. Its man-made harbor has a 3,180-meter-long jetty with fishing and canning as the primary industries. With a population of approximately 3,000,000 people, Casablanca is the largest city in Morocco. Not surprisingly, it has the largest Jewish community in the country, numbering about 5,000.

The city’s origins are closely connected to the medieval town of Anfa, which is now a suburb of the modern metropolis. The Berbers, who made Anfa their capital in the 7th century, quickly embraced Islam, but held fast to certain heretical doctrines. For example, they embraced their own prophet and developed a Qur’an in the Berber language. With the invasion of the Almoravids in the 11th century, the Berbers in Anfa were targeted. It was not until the Almohads in the 12th century that the Anfa sect was finally defeated.

The Merinid Dynasty of the 13th century also controlled the city, but as their power waned, Anfa became independent. The Portuguese destroyed it in 1468 as a reprisal for the piracy that plagued their trade, and its Jewish community was dispersed.

The Portuguese rebuilt the city in 1575 and renamed it Casa Branca, but they came under constant attack by Muslim tribes. A terrible earthquake in 1755 finally forced the Portuguese to abandon the city. The Arabs rebuilt the site and added a mosque. They called it Dar Al Beida (The White House). It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that Casablanca began to grow because of regular sea traffic between Europe and Morocco.

A Jewish presence never really developed (despite the completion of the Rabbi Elijah Synagogue in 1750) until 1830 with the arrival of Jewish merchants from Mogador, Rabat and Tetulan. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were 20,000 inhabitants of Casablanca, with about 6,000 Jews, two synagogues, eight talmud torah schools, and four private schools. The first Alliance Israélite Universelle school, founded in 1897, was supported by the local notables.

The Musa Ibn Maimon High School was established in 1950. It now has an enrollment of 400 that is approximately 90 percent Muslim. The director, Shimon Cohen, said when the school opened, the number of Muslim students was between 5 and 10 percent. Cohen believes the growth in the number of Muslim students reflects the values they share with Jews. He said relations with Moroccan Muslims “reveal a set of virtues such as humility and human warmth, which are priceless feelings that our Muslim brothers express whenever we see them or talk to them.” He added, “These virtues must be taught and preserved, and I seek to make this institution a model for the rest of the educational institutions, here and anywhere else.”

Students learn Hebrew and Arabic, and celebrate Jewish and Islamic religious holidays. Sarah Belabbes observed the school “is a model for coexistence and education between Jewish children and their Muslim peers who share the classroom and the recreation area and play” and that “these links extend outside the walls of the institution to the point of friendship between families.”

After the plunder in 1903 of Settat, an important center of the region, the community received 1,000 Jewish refugees. Later, Casablanca was itself devastated by rebellious tribes, and many of its inhabitants were massacred in August 1907. Among the Jews, there were 30 dead; 250 women and children were abducted.

By 1912, Casablanca had become the economic capital of Morocco and, thereby, an important center for the Jews of Morocco, as well as for their coreligionists all over North Africa and Europe. The Casablanca community distinguished itself in all spheres by the intensity of its activities. Many of its members held high positions in commerce, industry, and the liberal professions.

The process of urbanization in Morocco during the 20th century turned Casablanca into both the country’s major economic center and the place of the chief concentration of its Jews. The new Jewish population was young. Many Jewish immigrants to Casablanca were like the Muslims who were moving from agriculture to modern professions, but they resembled no less the city’s European residents: the more skillful Jews became agents for French commercial companies; others joined the ranks of the French bureaucracy or became suppliers to its administration and army or telephone and telegraph companies.

Casablanca required numerous officials, lawyers, notaries, technicians, and manual workers. In all these fields, Jews had to compete with other groups. Socioeconomic differences were expressed in residential areas as well. The more affluent lived among the Europeans in Casablanca’s new quarters, the poor resided in the suburbs, in the med?na or the Muslim quarters. Among the Jews immigrating to Casablanca from 1850 to the early 20th century were those from the villages in the Middle Atlas who had suffered from the arbitrary rule of the ??ids or the internecine quarrels of the Berber tribes.

In 1931, Jews numbered close to 20,000 (out of a total population of 163,000), almost as many as the longer established community in Marrakesh. In 1936–51, their number grew by more than 90 percent (while the number of Muslims tripled), but most continued to live in their own mellah – both for socioeconomic reasons and because they felt safer there.

The upper class of Casablanca’s Jewish community founded numerous philanthropic societies to care for the needs of their coreligionists who arrived in successive groups from the interior of the country. The new arrivals, who were often without any means of livelihood, gathered in the mellah district of the ancient medina and lived in poverty. The “community council” provided them with various kinds of support, the funds for which were collected from a tax on meat and from private donations. The schools of the Alliance also provided free education.

During World War II the anti-Jewish policies of the Vichy government restricted the rights of the Jews, especially in Casablanca, where a Gestapo office was active, and even deprived them of their livelihood until the landing of the Allies in 1942. A transit camp was later set up near Casablanca for about 3,000 Jewish refugees from Spain, Malta, Libya and Greece, most of whom migrated to the U.S. After the liberation of Morocco, many Jews from the interior, often only the men, were attracted to Casablanca by the city’s prosperity.

For more than 35 years the community was led by Yahia Zagury (d. 1944). Principal spiritual leaders of the community had included Hayyim Elmaleh (d. 1857), David Ouaknin (d. 1873), Isaac Marrache (d. 1905), Moses Eliakim (d. 1939), and ?ayyim Bensussan. A bet din continued to deal with matters of personal status, ritual slaughter, and supervision of the cemeteries. Rabbis continued to encourage the community and, in some cases, to stand up for the poor, R. David Danino, who devoted most of his writings to remonstrate with the rich about their indifference to their less fortunate brethren. Among the well-to-do were immigrants from Algeria, who had their own synagogues, like the splendid Beth-El.

The community has declined from a peak of 70,000 members in 1948 to roughly 5,000 today.


B. Meakin, Land of the Moors (1901), 179–83; N. Leven, Cinquante Ans d'Histoire… (1920), 83–86; J.L. Miège, Maroc, 2 (1961), 178–83; 3 (1962), 26–28; 4 (1963), 377–81; (index). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: Y. Bauer, American Jewry & the Holocaust (1981), 202–5; D.F. Eickelman, Knowledge and Power in Morocco (1985), 72–79; M. Laskier, The AIU and the Jewish Communities of Morocco 1862–1962 (1987), 100–47.

SourcesEncyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved;
Sparks! - an e-zine for Jewish families;
Sarah Belabbes, “With Maimonides High School seats, Jewish and Muslim students study side by side,” MAP, (January 8, 2021).