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Morocco Virtual Jewish History Tour

Morocco Table of Contents

Morocco, the westernmost country in North Africa, has a rich and treasured Jewish history dating back to antiquity, including legends that say Jews settled in the country before the destruction of the First Temple. Following the establishment of Israel in 1948, many Jews were forced to leave Morocco. Today, the Jewish population of Morocco stands at approximately 2,100 people.

Learn More - Cities of Morocco:
Agadir | Arcila | Atlas | Azemmour | Casablanca | Debdou | Demnat | Dra | Fez | Marrakesh | Mogador | Ofran | Safi | Sous | Tangier | Waqqasa

Early History
Muslim Conquest
13th-17th Century
Jewish Professions & Culture
18th Century
19th-Early 20th Century
Growing Anti-Semitism & World War II
Modern History
Morocco Gains Independence
Jewish Education in Modern Morocco
Relations with Israel

Diplomatic Relations Established

Early History

From the fifth to the third centuries B.C.E., the Carthaginian gold market was situated in Morocco. On this historical basis, an ancient legend relates that some five centuries before the Carthaginian expansion, in the days of Solomon and the Phoenicians, the Hebrews came to Sala (Chella) in the vicinity of Salé (Rabat) in order to purchase gold in large quantities. In another legend, it is related that Joab was sent to Morocco to fight the Philistines, who had been driven out of Canaan; an inscription describing this expedition is said to have existed near the present-day town of Zagora. Wadi Oued Draa and the region of Oufran (Ifran of the Anti-Atlas) are said to have been the sites of important Jewish settlements before the destruction of the Second Temple. The earliest epigraphic evidence on the presence of Jews in Morocco, however, comes from the second century C.E. It consists essentially of inscriptions on tombstones found in the ruins of the Roman town of Volubilis, between Fez and Meknès, and another inscription discovered in Salé. The latter is in Greek, while one of the inscriptions of Volubilis is in Hebrew.

Morocco, like the remainder of the Maghreb, was one of the favorite territories for Jewish missionary activities. The Jews, together with those whom they succeeded in converting, appear to have originally been numerous and particularly powerful. The great Arabic historian of the 14th century, Ibn Khald?n, names a number of large Moroccan Berber tribes who were converted to Judaism prior to the Arab conquest. These were the Fandal?wqa, Mady?na, Bahl?la, Ghiy?ta, and Baz?z tribes. The capital of the last was also named Baz?z or Qul?at-Mlahd?. It was completely inhabited by Jews and did not disappear until the 12th century. It was situated near the present-day town of Sefrou. Other tribes, such as the Barghw??a, were also heavily Judaized. Between 581 and 693 many Jews were compelled to leave Spain as a result of the persecutions of the Visigoth kings who, while forcing them to accept baptism, also adopted draconian measures against them. According to later traditions, thousands of Spanish Jews had settled in Africa by 693. It is told that these Jews, together with their Moroccan coreligionists, plotted to conquer or deliver Spain into the hands of the more tolerant Muslims (694). Some historians maintain that there were Jews among the Berber-Muslim invaders of Spain in 711.

Muslim Conquest

The Arab conquest of Morocco and its conversion to Islam did not bring about the elimination of the Jews or the Judaized Berbers. However, when Idris I seized power in 788, it was his intention to compel all the inhabitants of the country to embrace Islam. After the death of Idris I, there remained some Jewish or Judaized tribes in the area of Fez. When Idris II (791–828) decided to establish his capital in Fez, he authorized Jews of all origins to settle there. Their dispersion in all the regions was one of the principal reasons for their economic strength at the time. The story goes that the inhabitants of Fez revolted against the ruler Ya?ya (860), who had violated the chastity of a Jewish girl. The pogrom in Fez in 1033 is to be seen as an isolated event due to the Jewish support for the Maghrawas, the rivals of the Ifrenids. At a later date, the Almoravids prohibited the Jews to live in their capital Marrakesh. The most brilliant period of the Jews of Morocco from the spiritual and intellectual point of view belongs to the reigns of the Idrisids and their successors. The numerous departures for Spain drained neither the strength of Moroccan Jewry nor its intellectual activity. Even after the departure of R. Isaac Alfasi from Fez for Cordoba (1088), Judaism in Morocco retained its vigor. Under the Almoravids there was even a trend in the opposite direction. Two of the physicians of the Almoravid sovereigns, Meir ibn Kamniel and Solomon Ab?ab Mu?allim in Marrakesh, were of Spanish origin, one from Seville and the other from Saragossa. Both were distinguished Torah scholars. There were also scholars in Ceuta, the native town of Joseph ibn Aknin, the disciple of Maimonides. There was also an important center of learning in Sijilmassa (ancient capital of Tafilalet oasis). Scholars were to be found in the Atlas region, in Aghm?t; of these, there is information on the talmudist Zechariah b. Judah Aghmati. In Fez studies were carried on continuously; it was for this reason that Maimonides and his family settled there after leaving Spain during the persecution of the Almohads.

The doctrine of the mahdi Ibn T?mart, which inaugurated the Almohad movement, did not tolerate the existence of non-Muslims. At the beginning, the latter were among the victims of the Almohad soldiers, who were highlanders in search of plunder. Indeed, many of the Jews were wealthy. By the time that ?Abd al-Mu?min (1128–63) had finally imposed Almohad domination in 1154, many Jews had already converted under the threat of the sword. After that, there was a short period of improvement in the situation of the Jews in Fez. Those who had been spared from the massacres and the conversions were then able to resume a relatively normal life. This situation changed with the advent of Abu Ya?q?b Y?suf (1165–84). The recrudescence of fanaticism once more resulted in the forced conversion of Jews. The dayyan of Fez, R. Judah ha-Kohen ibn Shushan, who refused to submit to this, was burnt alive, and at that time Maimonides left Morocco. The situation deteriorated even further under al-Mans?r (1184–99) who imposed on the Jews, including those already converted, the wearing of a distinctive sign, the Shikla, because he did not believe in the sincerity of their conversion. The presence of Jews was authorized once more by al-M?am?n (1227–32), but their appearance drew the anger of the Muslims who massacred all of them in Marrakesh (1232). The Jews did not return in considerable numbers until the time of the dynasty of the Merinids, who replaced the Almohads in 1269. During Almohad rule, many Moroccan Jews had left the country for the East, above all for Christian Spain. Large numbers of them settled in the territories of the kings of Aragon, in Catalonia and Majorca, where they were favorably received.

The Merinids proved themselves particularly friendly toward the Jews. When the still-fanatic mobs attacked them in 1275, the Merinid sultan intervened personally to save them. The sovereigns of this dynasty benevolently received the Jewish ambassadors of the Christian kings of Spain and admitted Jews among their closest courtiers. Of these Jews, Khalifa b. Waqq?sa (Ruqqasa) became steward of the household of the sultan Abu Ya?q?b and his intimate counselor. A victim of palace intrigues, he was put to death in 1302. His nephew, who was also named Khalifa, held the same office and suffered the same fate (1310). However, there were no repercussions against the Moroccan Jews as a result of the execution of their powerful coreligionists. They were the principal factors in the prosperity of the country. The Sahara gold trade, which was of primary importance, and the exchange with the Christian countries were completely under their control. Their relatives and associates in the kingdom of Aragon financed, when necessary, the navies which defended the Moroccan ports. In addition to the jizya(poll tax), they paid enormous sums to the treasury in customs duties for their imports and exports. In the outlying areas, particularly in the Atlas region where there were large concentrations of Jews of early origin, the Jews wielded great influence in both the political and spiritual domains. Jewish physicians enjoyed well-deserved renown. The study of Kabbalah, as well as philosophy, was then in vogue. The last Moroccan philosopher of the Middle Ages was Judah b. Nissim ibn Malkah, who was still alive in 1365.

13th-17th Century

From 1375, the Muslim world of the West clearly entered into its period of decline. The Jews of Morocco were all the more affected by this development because, unlike in Algeria, there was no revival due to the arrival of important Jewish personalities fleeing from the Spanish persecutions of 1391. The Jews who came to Morocco during this period were mainly of average erudition; moreover, just like their native brothers, they encountered the fanaticism which had been introduced among the Muslim masses by the mystics who had then founded the Marabout movement. This movement eroded the authority of the last Merinid sovereigns, and a serious deterioration in the condition of the Jews ensued. In 1438, the Jews of Fez were enclosed within a special quarter, the first Moroccan mellah.

The political and economic situation in Morocco during the 15th century was bad. The sultan ?Abd al-?aqq turned to the Jews in order to straighten out his finances. He chose the Jew Aaron ben Battas as his prime minister, but a short while later the Merinid dynasty was ended (1465) with the assassination of its last representative and his Jewish minister. A large number of Jews lost their lives in this revolution, and many others were forcibly converted. They were authorized, however, to return to Judaism when Muhammad al-Shaykh al-Wa???s? came to power in 1471. According to local traditions, groups of Jews had in the meantime taken refuge in Spain. Among these were the family of the scholar and poet Saadiah Ibn Danan, who settled in Granada, as well as ?ayyim Gagin, who became the leader of the native Jews upon his return to Morocco in 1492. The Jewish chroniclers are unanimous in their description of the welcome accorded by the sultan Muhammad al-Shaykh al-Wa???s? to the Spanish and Portuguese refugees (megorashim) in 1492 and 1496. Bands of plunderers, however, attacked the numerous Jews on the roads to Fez, the town to which they had been attracted. Once they arrived there, they found a lack of accommodation and camped in the surrounding fields. About 20,000 of them died as a result of disasters, famine and diseases. Many of them returned to Spain. Under the influence of powerful religious personalities, a majority, both distinguished families and common people, permanently settled in the country. Among this new population there were such eminent men as Jacob Qénizal, Abraham Saba, Abraham of Torrutiel, Joshua Corcos, Na?man Sunbal, and others. There was, however, also a trend for emigration to Italy, Turkey, and Palestine. Among those who left Morocco at that time were Abraham Zacuto, Jacob (I) Berab, David ibn Abi Zimra, and Judah ?ayyat.

The newcomers were generally ill received by their native coreligionists (toshavim). In spite of the fact that the megorashim rapidly assumed the leadership in southern communities; such a possibility was for a long time withheld from them in the north. The toshavim feared their commercial rivalry and their technical superiority. Controversies broke out between the two elements. The former went so far as to question the faith of the megorashim. The latter, however, succeeded in strengthening their position and in due course dominated all the communities where they were represented. Fez became their spiritual center. Their rabbis issued a large number of takkanot, which were known by the name of “takkanot of the exiles of Castile.” These dealt essentially with the laws of marriage, divorce and inheritance and were based on Spanish tradition. For 450 years they separated themselves in this manner from the toshavim. The descendants of the megorashim jealously adhered to their ways and customs. They worshiped in their own synagogues and sometimes had their own lots in the cemeteries. In such northern communities as Tetuán and Tangier, the native Jews were completely assimilated among the descendants of the megorashim. Oblivious to their own origin, they disdainfully referred to their brothers of the interior as Forasteros (“aliens,” i.e., to the Castilian community). Until recently, most of these communities spoke ?akétia, a mixture of Spanish, Hebrew and an Arabic dialect. The ancient Castilian language, which differs from the Ladino spoken in the Orient, was, until the 19th century, in current usage among a large number of families of Spanish origin in both the north and south of the country.

At the beginning of the 16th century, Portugal occupied some of the Moroccan coast on the shores of the Atlantic. Communities of megorashim had settled in such ports as Azemmour and Safi. From the beginning, cordial relations were established between them and the Portuguese, who employed their members as official interpreters and negotiators. The political role of these men was of prime importance to the kings of Portugal. Indeed, the latter granted the Jews of their Moroccan bases rights which may be considered as extraordinary for that period; they loaded such families as Benzamero, Adibe and Dardeiro with favors. On the other hand, these Jews, as loyal subjects, did not hesitate in sacrificing their property or even their lives when this was required by Portuguese interests. The coreligionists who lived under the sharifs of Marrakesh or the Wattasidsof Fez were the principal factors in arranging the peace, always unstable, between the Portuguese and the Muslims. Jacob Rosales and Jacob Roti, talented ministers of the Wattasids, endeavored to create a lasting reconciliation between the Christians and the Muslims. Counselors of Muslim princes such as Menahem Sananes or Abraham Cordovi pursued similar objectives. These exiles from Spain and Portugal often traveled to the Portuguese kings as Moroccan ambassadors. During their stay in the Iberian Peninsula, they also induced the Marranos to establish themselves in Morocco. During the 16th century, Morocco became a haven for Marranos who arrived from the Iberian Peninsula, the Madeira Islands, the Azores, the Canary Islands and even the Americas. In Tetuán, Fez, Meknès and Marrakesh, there were centers for reconversion to Judaism. Some Jews succeeded in transferring their fortunes there, while others, such as skillful craftsmen and especially the gunsmiths, found immediate employment. It was early Marranos who introduced a new process for the extracting of sugar from sugarcane. Due to their methods, Morocco became the leading producer of the world’s best sugar during the 16th–17th centuries.

Jewish Professions & Culture

Until recent times, the Jews of Morocco engaged in a variety of professions. In some regions there were farmers and cattle breeders among them; in general, however, they were mostly craftsmen, small tradesmen, peddlers, and at times moneylenders. Some industries, such as that of beeswax, and the trading of rubber and ostrich feathers were exclusively concentrated in the hands of the Jews. For religious reasons, the Muslims ceded to them the craftsmanship and trade of precious metals as well as the making of wine and its sale. Until 1912, the overwhelming majority of the maritime trade was controlled by a closed society of Jewish merchants. Wealthy and influential from father to son, some of them were court bankers or high officials. They held the title of “merchants of the sultan,” obtained for themselves or their protégés monopolies over a large number of products or foodstuffs, and held a monopoly over certain ports or took them in lease; the European countries entrusted them with their interests and they represented them before the sultan, officially or semi-officially. But the majority of the Jewish population, however, suffered in helpless poverty. The droughts which preceded famine and the exorbitant and arbitrary taxes which were temporarily levied on the communities from the 16th to the middle of the 18th century were the cause of their poverty. Nevertheless, the misfortunes which struck one community did not affect the others. It was thus, for example, a common occurrence that while Jews died of hunger in Fez or were persecuted in Meknès, prosperity reigned in the mellah of Marrakesh and Jews ruled the town of Debdou.

When there was a weakening of the central authority of the sultan, Morocco was divided up into subordinated territory (Bled al-Makhzen) and unsubordinated territory (Bled al-Sib?), the latter of which was always that of the Berbers under whom the Jews generally suffered less in their capacity of tolerated “protected subjects” (dhimmi). Many of them were the serfs of the Muslim lord; however, until the 19th century there were also many Jews in the High Atlas Mountains, the S?s (Sous), and the Rif, essentially Berber regions, who carried weapons, rode horses, and did not pay the jizya. Like the Berbers, the Jewish masses of Morocco were marked by their religiosity. But a sincere, profound, and intellectual piety also prevailed within Moroccan Judaism; its development was inspired by the writings of Maimonides. Over the last centuries this Judaism produced genuine scholars and a large number of authors, such as members of the families of Ibn Dan?n, Ibn ?ayyim, Abensur, Almosnino, Assaban, Ben-Attar, Berdugo, de Avila, de Loya ( Delouga), Elbaz, Uzziel, Serfaty, Serero, Toledano, and others. On given dates, thousands of Jews left on regular pilgrimages (Ziy?ra) through the country to the tombs of saints whose origin was at times unknown and who were venerated by both Jews and Muslims.

In many educated circles, there was an inclination toward mysticism: its members devoted themselves almost exclusively to the study of Kabbalah. The Zohar, much esteemed in Morocco, was often the principal work in their curriculum. In several communities, particularly in Salé, Safi, and Marrakesh, teachers and disciples were grouped in closed circles from which emerged such personalities as: Joseph Gikatilla, author of Ginnat Egoz; Abraham ha-Levi Berukhim, author of Tikkun Shabbat; Joseph ibn Teboul, author of Perush al Idra Rabba; Abraham b. M?s?; ?ayyim b. Moses Attar, author of Or ha-?ayyim; Raphael Moses Elbaz, author of Kisse Melakhim; Joseph Corcos, author of Yosef ?en; Solomon Amar; and Abraham Azulai. Initiates of the Kabbalah have remained numerous in Morocco until the present day. Many others followed Shabbetai ?evi. During the middle of the 17th century, the movement of this pseudo-Messiah achieved considerable success in Morocco. In the West, an important role in checking it was played by the Moroccan rabbis Jacob Sasportas, Daniel Toledano and Aaron ha-Siboni.

According to a tradition, a Jewish scholar of Wadi Draa forecast to the Sa?dian sharifs that they would accede to the throne of Morocco. Encouraged by this prediction, they set out to conquer the country and took Marrakesh in 1525 and Fez in 1549. In fact, the Jewish counselors of the sharifs were not strangers to their progress. Their coreligionists – administrators, merchants and bankers – supplied their financial requirements; other Jews, former Marranos who maintained close relations with Europe, supplied them with weapons in their capacity as armorers. When the Portuguese army was defeated by ?Abd al-Malik at the Battle of al-Qa?r al-Kab?r (or Battle of the Three Kings, 1578), the Jews commemorated the event by a joyful Purim (Purim de los Cristianos). On the other hand, the tens of thousands of Christian prisoners taken in this battle were fortunate enough to be ransomed by the descendants of the megorashim, who treated them with indulgence. The liberation of these prisoners against ransom by their families and the conquest of Sudan in 1591 brought a considerable quantity of gold to Morocco. Many Jewish families, especially those in the retinue of Ahmad al-Mans?r, were among the beneficiaries of this exceptional prosperity. Of an enterprising nature, the Jews of Morocco traveled as far as India in the conduct of their trade; they also had gained a hold in the financial world, particularly in Tuscany, in one direction, and in northwestern Europe, in the other. This activity was in concert with the politics of the young Netherlands, which sought to strangle the economic power of Spain. In 1608 Samuel Pallachearrived in the Netherlands and in 1610 he signed the first pact of alliance between Morocco and a Christian country. The Pallache family played an active role in the political and economic interests of Morocco in Europe over a long period. The sultan Zidah (1603–1628) and his successors (1628–1659) took many other Jews into their service. As in former times, every Muslim leader had his Jewish counselor. The latter were the natural protectors of the Jewish masses. As a result, these masses generally lived in superior conditions to those of the Muslim population, which resigned itself to its fate.

“Frankish” Jewish families from Leghorn and Holland settled in Morocco. Some were attracted by the pirate traffic which operated from Salé and Tetuán. In Tangier, which was under British domination, a small community of “Frankish” Jews existed from 1661; relations with the Muslims, however, were maintained through the mediation of the Jews of Tetuán: until the evacuation of the town in 1684, the Parienté and the Falcon families played an important political role in the relations between the English and the Muslims. Moroccan Jews had also inaugurated a migratory movement a long while before.

There was a fair amount of emigration in the direction of the Holy Land, Turkey, Egypt, Italy (especially Leghorn and Venice), Amsterdam, Hamburg, England, and the countries of the two Americas. Occasionally, in their old age and once they had made their fortune, emigrants returned to their communities of origin. In Tetuán and later in Mogador, this was a frequent occurrence.

The Jews played a particularly important role in the rise to power of the Alawid(Alouite) dynasty of Hasanid descent, which still governed Morocco in the beginning of the third millennium. This role has been distorted by a legend which relates that at the time an extremely rich Jew, Aaron Ben-Meshal, governed the region of Taza and, as a tribute, demanded a young Muslim girl from Fez every year. By deceit, Mulay al-Rashid (1660–72) succeeded in assassinating this Jew and seizing his riches; the ?olba (“students”) assisted him in this exploit. He was thus able to become the first sultan of the ?Alawid dynasty. To this day, this legendary event is celebrated with much pomp by the ?olba of Fez. In reality, Mulay al-Rashid, who lacked financial means, was backed by the Jews of the Taza, which was then an important commercial center and the first place which he had dominated; he employed a faithful and wise Jewish counselor and banker, Aaron Carsinet. In order to gain control of Fez, where he was enthroned, he entered the city through the mellah, where in secret he spent the night in the house of a notable named Judah Monsano. Mulay al-Rashid subsequently adopted a favorable attitude toward the Jews. His reign was a most prosperous one.

The Jews also successfully contributed to the rise to power of the brother of Mulay al-Rashid, Mulay Ismail (1672–1727), one of the most outstanding Moroccan monarchs. Mulay Ismail was khalifa (“viceroy”) in Meknès when, through one of his Jewish friends, Joseph Maymeran, he learned of the death of his brother in Marrakesh. The speed with which he received this precious information and the large sum of money which Maymeran loaned him enabled Mulay Ismail to have himself proclaimed sultan immediately. It is also related that not wanting to be indebted to Joseph Maymeran, Mulay Ismail had him assassinated. In fact, he appointed him steward of the palace, a function of considerable importance which was later held by his son Abraham Maymeran, who had become the principal favorite of the sultan. The Toledanos, Ben-Attars, and Maymerans all enjoyed the favors of Mulay Ismail, who during various periods appointed one or the other as shaykh al-Yah?d with authority over all the Jews of the kingdom. Moses Ben Attar signed a treaty with England in his name; Joseph and ?ayyim Toledano were his ambassadors to the Netherlands and London. Moreover, Jews who were close to Mulay Ismail wielded their influence over him. Thus, in spite of his cupidity, violence and cruelty, the Jews fared better under him than the Muslim masses. The greatest part of his long reign was marked by peace and security, and the Jewish communities were able to develop in every respect. However, during the last years of his reign, which were overshadowed by plagues and conflicts between his rival sons, the situation of the Jews began to deteriorate.

18th Century

The 30 years of anarchy and plunder which followed upon the death of Mulay Ismail exhausted and impoverished the Jewish communities of the interior; they consequently transformed their social framework. The Middle Atlas region was literally drained of its Jews. The departure of the village Jews toward the urban centers changed the aspect of the mellahs of Fez and Meknès. These quarters, which had until then been well maintained, were converted into slums, with the exception of a few middle-class streets. Most of the ancient families were ruined and lost all power, only to be replaced by a few parvenus. Some Ben-Kikis and Mamans were sent on diplomatic missions to Europe; their rivalry with the former Jewish bourgeoisie caused controversies within the community; some members of the Levy-Yuly family became “confidants” of the sultans. Slowly, the towns of the interior were abandoned by their leading Jewish elements in favor of the ports, to which the new arrivals were already linked by ancient ties with the Jewish financial circles living there. Rabat, Safi and especially Marrakesh replaced Fez and Meknès as rabbinical centers.

Mulay Muhammad b. Abdallah (1757–1790) had formally been viceroy of southern Morocco from 1745. He had established security and, with the assistance of Jewish and Christian financial circles, an era of prosperity unknown in the north of the country reigned there. As under the Sa?dians, Marrakesh once more became the capital and royal residence. Its Jewish community flourished but then entered a period of decline as a result of the avariciousness of the sultan in his old age. The community of Safi took over the leading place in the foreign trade of Morocco, while that of Agadir acquired the monopoly over the trading with the Sahara. These roles later became the privilege of the community of Mogador (Essaouira), which was founded in 1764. The operations of the big Jewish merchants in Morocco began to expand. Sugar production and trade and maritime commerce were almost entirely concentrated in the hands of Jews. Commercial operations reached the ports of the eastern coast of the United States at the end of the 18th century. From the reign of Sidi Muhammad Ben-Abdallah (1757–90) down to the end of the 19th century, it was usually Jews who acted as agents for the European Powers in Morocco.

The wide-ranging activities of the Jews of this circle promoted the development of such communities as Sala, Asfi, Tetuan and Tangier and influenced the growth of new ones. These latter communities also gained economic supremacy over such older ones in the interior of the country as Fez and Meknès and the communities of the Marrakesh and Tapilalti regions. These Jews exploited their political and economic position to improve their legal and social status and improve the lot of the communities where they operated. In fact, beginning with the end of the 18th century, a circle of Jews arose in Morocco with rights protected by agreements under the aegis of the European Powers. Called “protégés,” their number reached a few thousand. An example of the prosperity of the new type of community is Mogador in the last third of the 18th century. The beginnings of its accelerated development are linked to Sultan Sidi Muhammad Ben-Abdallah, who was interested in developing trade with Europe. He rebuilt the city and turned it into the chief port of Morocco. Ignoring the protests of the Muslim religious leaders, he levied taxes and customs duties on imports and exports and all the merchandise in the market place. He also brought to the city dozens of Jewish families, giving them special rights and exempting some of them from all the strictures (aside from the jizya tax) that applied to the Jews of Morocco. According to one source, there were around 6,000 Jews in Mogador in 1785. The city took on a Jewish character and the commercial center closed down on the Sabbath. The Jews of the city developed wide-ranging economic relations with Jewish communities outside Morocco, such as Amsterdam, London, Leghorn and Algiers. The renewed desire of Morocco in the days of Mulai Abd Rahman (1822–59) to develop trade with Europe – a change caused partly by French pressure to open the gates of Morocco to European commerce – gave new impetus to the ‘tjjar esltan (“King’s merchants”), who had gone into decline during the reign of Sultan Saliman (1792–1822).

Jewish merchants possessed various advantages: knowledge of Arabic and European languages, familiarity with local conditions, a good name and the confidence of the Sultan. The Sultan gave them greater freedom of movement in the country and custom discounts, and a number of them received the title of “King’s merchants.” Mogador served as a base for Jewish merchants operating in the south of Morocco and distributing European goods in Sous (the southern region of the country) and Sahara and exporting to Europe gold, ivory, ostrich feathers, almonds, olive oil, and goatskins. The familiarity of Jewish merchants with local business practices and their connections with the Sultan led European governments even to appoint local Jews as consuls (up to 1857). The condition of the Jews now improved throughout the country. Jews from abroad came to settle in Morocco. Among these were the Attals and Cardosos (Cordoza), who entered the service of the sovereign. Cardoso, however, drew the jealousy of the Attals upon himself and paid for this with his life. The leading favorite of the sultan was Samuel Sunbal, a scholar, ambassador to Denmark, and the last “sheikh” of Moroccan Jewry. Certain Jewish personalities encouraged friendship with the United States, where their relatives had emigrated and with whom they had important commercial ties. Isaac Cordoza Nuñes, an interpreter of the sultan in Marrakesh, and Isaac Pinto, a Moroccan established in the United States, were largely responsible for the signing of a treaty between Morocco and the United States in 1787, whereby the U.S. Congress paid Morocco for the protection of U.S. shipping interests in the Mediterranean.

Mulay Muhammad entrusted the Jews with all his negotiations with the Christian countries. Those of the community of Tetuán, whose members included some wealthy merchants and who, as in Mogador, acted as consuls, refused the rebellious son of the sultan, Mulay al-Yazid, an important loan which he had requested from them. When he came to power, Mulay al-Yazid (1790–92) wreaked cruel vengeance upon them and his hatred fell upon all the Jews of the kingdom. This was the greatest disaster which befell them after the period of the Almohads. In the first place, the community of Tetuán was handed over to the army, which plundered and perpetrated murder and rape. The communities of Larache, Arcila, al-Qa?r al-Kab?r, Taza, Fez and Meknès then suffered the same fate. All the Jewish personalities who had been employed by the late sultan and upon whom Mulay al-Yazid could lay his hands were hanged by their feet at the gates of Meknès, where they remained for 15 days before they died. The treasurer Mordecai Chriqui, who refused to convert, was handed over to the executioner and Jacob Attal, who accepted such an offer, nevertheless died after being hanged by his heels. The notables and the Muslim masses then rose to intervene on behalf of the Jews. They hid many of them in their houses and saved a great many others. In Rabat, the governor Bargash saved the community from the worst. At the time Marrakesh had not been subordinated. Once it fell, the Jewish community was sacked, the men and children were massacred, and hundreds of women were taken into captivity. Mulay al-Yazid had the eyes of 300 Muslim notables of the town put out. Thousands of others were convened to the Great Mosque for prayers and massacred there. Shortly before he died as the result of a wound received in a battle near Marrakesh, Mulay al-Yazid ordered the drawing up of lengthy lists of Jewish and Muslim notables in Fez, Meknès and Mogador who were to be massacred. He died, however, before the order was carried out.

19th-Early 20th Century

Jews remained vulnerable throughout the country. For example, about 180 Jews were murdered in pogroms in Meknès in 1728, and another round of killings, instigated by the sultan Yazid, occurred in 1790 when the community’s synagogues were turned into mosques. The Jews there were attacked again in 1811 and 1894. 

The advent of Mulay Suleiman (1792–1822) came as a much needed respite. The new monarch was indeed opposed to violence but he proved to be a fanatic and the Jews felt the consequences. As he sought to seal off Morocco from foreign influence, he reduced trade with Europe to a considerable extent. He also decreed the establishment of ghettos in the wealthiest communities. In 1808 the Jews of Tetuán, Rabat, Salé and Mogador were for the first time enclosed within mellahs. The only exceptions were a few families in Mogador who continued to live in the residential quarter of the town. Since they were economically indispensable to the country, he restored to some of them their former prerogatives, notably to the Aflalos, the Corcos, the Guedallas, the Levy-Yulys, the Macnins, and the Sebags. He chose his diplomats, his bankers, and his counselors from these families.

The terrible epidemics of 1799 and 1818 depopulated Morocco and wrought havoc with its social and economic conditions. As a result, some of these families emigrated to England, where they gained a prominent place within the Jewish society of London. One of the members of the Levy-Yuly family, Moses, emigrated to the United States, where his son David Yuleebecame the first senator of Jewish origin.

The reigns of Mulay ?Abd al-Ra?man (1822–59) and his successors Mulay Muhammad b. ?Abd al-Ra?man (1859–73) and Mulay al-?asan (1873–94) were marked by the pressure of the Christian powers on Morocco and an increased activity of the Jews in the economic and diplomatic fields. Meyer Macninwas appointed ambassador in London (1827); Judah Benoliel, consul in Gibraltar, successfully negotiated several treaties; Abraham Corcos and Moses Aflalo were entrusted with several delicate missions; many other Jews, such as the families of Altaras, Benchimol, and Abensur, played important roles in Moroccan affairs.

Until 1875, consular representation in the Moroccan towns was almost entirely assumed by Jewish merchants, and many of them held such functions into the 20th century. The European powers, concerned with their economic interests, granted protection to a large number of Jews. By often exploiting the defense of their protégés as a pretext, they interfered within the internal affairs of Morocco. A Jewish consular agent, Victor Darmon, was summarily executed on a trumped-up charge (1844). This became one of the causes of the Spanish-Moroccan War of 1860, when Jews were compelled to take refuge in Gibraltar, while those of Tetuán were the victims of a pogrom. Tangier and Mogador were bombarded by the French fleet. In Mogador the Jews, assailed by the tribes who came to plunder the town, defended themselves by force of arms. In Tangier, which only suffered some material damage, the Jews celebrated with a Purim (Purim de las bombas). Emigration nevertheless rose and the sultan reintroduced the exit tax which was to be paid by every individual who left the country. However, those who desired to settle in the Holy Land were exempted from this tax (1858). A number of families, many of them wealthy, then established themselves in Palestine.

The Moroccan people, already fanaticized by the French conquest of Algeria, accused the Jews of being the agents of European influence in Morocco. In some of the regions populated by the Berbers, the situation of the Jews became quite precarious. Measures which even went beyond the restrictions of Muslim law were imposed against the Jewish masses of the interior, which were more vulnerable than those living along the coasts: Jews were often sentenced to bastinado for trifling reasons. This situation prompted a visit by Sir Moses Montefioreto the court of Mulay Muhammad in Marrakesh; the later promulgated a dahir (“royal decree”; February 1864) which was marked by extreme benevolence toward the Jews and granted them equality of rights with all Moroccans. Nevertheless, this decree was never respected by the q??ids and pashas. An energetic protest was then made by the consul general of the United States and other powers intervened on behalf of the Jews. France reinforced the system of consular protection and the other nations followed in her wake.

During the reign of Mulay al-?asan and at the beginning of that of Mulay Abd al-Aziz (1894–1908), the Jews lived in tranquility. Mulay al-?asan held a positive attitude toward his Jewish subjects, receiving their deepest respect in return. Upon the death of the sultan, the chamberlain (vizier) Ba Ahmad treated the Jews with justice and fairness.

During the 19th century Moroccan Jewry, whose number has been variously evaluated as being between 200,000 and 400,000, produced many renowned rabbis, poets, and talmudists, as well as a number of legal authorities whose works continued to serve as the basis for the justice dispensed by Jewish tribunals under the French Protectorate. These scholars included: R. Abraham Coriat and R. Mas??d Knafo of Mogador, R. Mas??d Ben-Moha and R. Mordecai Serfaty of Marrakesh, R. Joseph Elmaleh of Rabat, R. Raphael Encaoua of Salé, R. Vidal Serfaty of Fez, R. Isaac Ben-Wal?d of Tetuán and R. Mordecai Bengio of Tangier. Many of these leaders realized the importance of secular studies for the masses and they assisted the Alliance Israélite Universelle of Paris in founding its first schools in Tetuán in 1862, in Tangier in 1865, in Mogador in 1867, and in other Moroccan towns from 1874. In contrast, other rabbis violently opposed the establishment of these schools, which they foresaw would encourage an estrangement from Judaism.

Upon the death of Ba Ahmad (1900), an epidemic of plague ravaged Morocco. In the mellah of Fez alone, there were more than 3,000 victims; the country then entered a period of anarchy during which the Jewish population suffered greatly. During the entire second half of the 19th century, thousands of impoverished Jews swelled the Jewish populations of the large urban centers. The overcrowding of the Jewish quarters became indescribable. This exodus went on uninterruptedly into the 20th century. Casablanca, which underwent a tremendous expansion, was its final halting place.

Jews were also victims of violence. A news report on March 7, 1898, said that Chiatz Arabs pillaged the Jewish quarter at Tatza, killed several Jews, and abducted the Jewesses. Another report said that on July 17, 1903, the Jewish quarter of Ofran was looted by Arabs, a building was destroyed, and a girl was abducted. In August 1907, Jews were attacked in Mazagan and Casablanca. On the 8th, it was reported that the “Moors attacked the Jewish quarter of the town and killed many persons.” A witness in Casablanca quoted on the 9th said, “I saw Jews being beaten and shot and their homes being emptied by a rabble led by Arabs.”

The misery which prevailed in the Jewish quarters and which was partly due to the inability of the ex-villagers to adapt to urban life, became one of the social stains of Morocco. Jewish economic activity reminiscent of years past was considerably curtailed, also, because of the creation of the French Protectorate in 1912 which brought competition from French firms and large banks (and later from other West European and American ones). But at the same time a new bourgeoisie of middle-class merchants, professionals and white-collar workers began to flourish.

In 1912, Morocco was divided into two colonial zones and protectorates: French Morocco that encompassed central Morocco, the key inland cities and towns, the Atlas Mountains to the south, and the Atlantic coastal areas; and Spanish Morocco (in the north and the Rif Mountains). In December 1923, Tangier in the north became an international zone. The establishment of the French Protectorate in March 1912 was marked in Fez by a pogrom which claimed over 100 victims (April 18–19, 1912). However, there were no incidents in the zone assigned to Spain or in Tangier, which was declared an international town. Under the French and Spanish domination, the Jews enjoyed complete freedom in all matters pertaining to their traditions, religion, occupations and movement. France and Spain did not interfere with the status of the Jews of Morocco, who remained subject to the sultan’s protection – this proved to be advantageous for them when the anti-Jewish laws were latter issued by the Vichy government.

In a dahir of May 22, 1918, the French authorities contented themselves with granting official status to the existing organization of the Jewish communities, with a few modifications. These changes were more particularly emphasized by the dahir of 1931. During the 19th century, a council of notables appointed by the population was responsible for the administration of the community. A gizbar (“treasurer”), who was elected by the leading personalities of the town, was co-opted to the council. The council and the gizbar were responsible for the nomination of the rabbis-judges (dayyanim).

After 1912, the nation which assured the protectorate, i.e., France, claimed for itself, directly or indirectly, most of the prerogatives emanating from this organization and more particularly the tutelage of the community committees, which then became mere benevolent institutions. These committees, the number of whose members varied with the numerical importance of the community, as well as their presidents, were appointed by the grand vizier, who in practice was dependent on the protectorate authorities. Moreover, the committees were supervised by a Jewish official of the government, who was chosen because of his devotion to French interests. By the maintenance of such a strict control over the Jewish elements of the country, the protectorate authorities revealed their distrust. Few Jews, however, were politically hostile toward France. It was the task of the community committees to bring relief to the numerous Jews living in miserable conditions. Their budget continued to be raised from the income derived from the sale of kasher wine and meat, the revenues from charitable trusts (hekdesh) which they administered, and the often generous contributions of the upper classes and Jews from overseas. The authorities did not grant them any subsidies.

With the exception of Tangier, where there were special circumstances, and a few other rare cases, the old Jewish upper class kept its distance from these community committees. They were constituted of new elements which came from a middle class that until then had been practically nonexistent in Morocco. The members of these committees were generally all loyal to the French authorities. The children of the long-time upper class were usually sent to the French primary or secondary schools. Their religious instruction was entrusted to private teachers. Living within a traditional environment which had withstood many a trial, they were sheltered from religious estrangement and unreserved assimilation. The westernization of the new class, which was accomplished by the Alliance Israélite Universelle, did not alienate this stratum from Jewish traditions and values. Their potential complete integration among the colonizers, however, was thwarted by the antisemitism of the middle-class Frenchmen of North Africa. A large number of Jews of this new social class amassed considerable wealth as a result of the accelerated development of the country. This new middle class formed an important section of the larger, as well as the smaller, communities. Moroccan Jewry was consequently transformed. Some Jews took up higher studies in Morocco itself or in French universities. At the same time, however, the French refused requests by educated Jews to grant them French citizenship and thus release them completely from Moroccan judicial jurisdiction. Unlike Algeria where the Jews were granted French citizenship collectively in the spirit of the Crémieux Decree of October 24, 1870, or Tunisian Jewry who were offered the same status on a moreselective basis in the context of the 1923 Morinaud Law, the Moroccan counterparts were denied this privilege. The French protectorate authorities, like the Spanish zone administration, did not wish to alienate Moroccan Muslims over this sensitive issue; they were equally concerned about the reactions of the European settlers who regarded the bestowal of any significant privilege on the Jews as a threat to their own status.

From 1912, Morocco attracted a large number of Jews from Algeria and Tunisia. Others arrived from Middle Eastern countries and Europe. In 1939 the Jewish population of Morocco, including foreign Jews, was estimated at 225,000. Until then, political Zionism had won only a few adherents in Morocco. Zionism, however, was often discussed in youth movements and organizations and regular lectures on the subject were given in Jewish circles.

The philanthropist Raphael Benozérof was most active in the Zionist movement in Morocco, spreading its ideas among both the masses and the elite of the Jewish community. A periodical, L’Avenir Illustré, which was published in Casablanca from 1926, regarded itself as the organ of Moroccan Jewry, as well as the standard-bearer of Zionism. It actually became the unofficial voice of the Moroccan Zionist Federation that was then subordinate to the Zionist Federation of France and aroused the opposition of those who stood for the evolution of Moroccan Jewry and its assimilation into French culture. The French authorities, too, were unhappy with the orientation of the periodical. From 1932, elements opposing the Zionists published L’Union Marocaine.

In 1939, World War II interrupted the publication of these two Jewish organs. Although Zionism gained momentum in the mid-1940s through the action of emissaries from Ere? Israel who came in contact with local Jews and helped them establish halutzic movements affiliated with Ha-Shomer ha-?a’ir, Bnei Akiva, Dror, Habonim, Gordonia and Betar, while Zionist parties became part of the Moroccan Zionist associations and the federation (Mapai, Po’alei ?ion, Ha-Po’el ha-Mizrachi, General Zionists and ?erut) starting in the late 1940s, Zionist activity between the two world wars still carried some symbolic weight.

Growing Anti-Semitism & World War II

Modern anti-Semitic tendencies, though prevalent among the European settlers, were practically nonexistent among Moroccan Muslims before the 1930s. The situation changed after 1933, when German and Italian fascist propaganda became widespread. European anti-Semitic elements in Morocco seized upon the Palestinian Arab Revolt of 1936–39. They presented “international Jewry” negatively before Muslims whose solidarity with the Palestinian Arabs was unquestioned. Furthermore, Moroccan nationalists were then unhappy with local Jewry’s lack of enthusiasm for their cause. Some nationalists were moderates, but others identified with aspects of European fascism. Muslim-Jewish tensions emerged in several inland French Moroccan cities as a result of this atmosphere.

In the Spanish zone anti-Jewish nationalist declarations disturbed Jews. When the secretary of the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, visited the zone in July 1939 to raise money, nationalists held conferences where they yelled, “Death to the Jews” and “Death to the British.” The Spaniards did nothing to contain the unrest. Yet the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 prompted the Spaniards to restrain pro-fascist youth gangs which harassed Jews.

The outbreak of World War II in 1939, the German occupation of France in 1940, and the establishment of the Vichy government rendered the Jews of French Morocco powerless. King Mohammed V met with representatives from Nazi Germany and Vichy France to discuss the issue of Jews in Morocco. The king said, “There are no Jewish citizens, there are no Muslims citizens, they are all Moroccans.” 

Still, on October 3, 1940, the Vichy government enacted its first anti-Jewish law in France. Article 9 concerning the status of the Jews was introduced in the French zone by the Sultanic Decree (zahir) of October 31, 1940. It applied to all Jews by “race,” which was defined as three Jewish grandparents, as well as all members of the Jewish faith. The law expressly authorized the exercise of rabbinic jurisdiction and allowed Jews to continue teaching at institutions intended solely for Jews. The Vichy Law of June 2, 1941, increased the hardships inflicted by the law of October 1940. It was implemented by the zahirs of August 5, 1941, which were issued separately for Moroccan Jews and the European Jews living in the zone.

The decrees which followed were designed to deprive Jews from working in a wide array of professions, including real estate, moneylending, banking, non-Jewish journalism, and radio broadcasting. Jewish children were expelled from schools, Jews were fired from government jobs, and there were quotas on how many Jews could attend universities or work as doctors, lawyers and pharmacists. Jews were allowed to engage in crafts and wholesale trading. At the same time, Vichy policy allowed only two percent of the total number of lawyers and physicians to be Jews.

The Vichy Law of July 22, 1941, concerning the “Aryanization” of the economy was implemented in Algeria but was not introduced into French Morocco. In education, the policy of limiting the number of Jews in the protectorate’s schools to 10 percent was enforced harshly though perhaps not completely. The French continued to subsidize the AIU schools because they did not wish to see Jewish children developing an aversion to French culture.

Morocco’s Jews were not forced to wear the yellow star, their property was not seized, they were not stripped of their citizenship, and not a single Jew was sent to a concentration camp. Foreign Jews who sought sanctuary in Morocco, however, were placed in labor or concentration camps, together with “undesirable” elements.

Immediately after the U.S. landings in North Africa, the Rabbi Eliahu Synagogue in Casablanca was desecrated and pogroms broke out all over the country. The landing of the allied forces in French Morocco on November 8, 1942, and its liberation did not result in the immediate obliteration of Vichy influence. This occurred only in the summer of 1943 when French Gen. Charles de Gaulle‘s supporters replaced the pro-Vichy elements.

While it is premature to assess the extent of the implementation of Vichy laws in French Morocco, not a single discriminatory law was issued against the Jews in the Spanish zone after General Francisco Franco came to power in Spain. Spanish and local government officials foiled the efforts of German agents in the zone to foment anti-Jewish feelings. Jews in the International Zone of Tangier, however, faced certain problems related to immigration.

During 1942–43, Tangier had 1,500 to 2,000 Jewish refugees, many of whom had arrived before the war. Approximately half were Sephardim originating from the Dodecanese Islands (then under fascist Italian occupation); some had left Rhodes for Italy and France even before Italy introduced anti-Jewish laws in 1938. The Central Europeans had come mainly from Hungary and Poland via Italy. As long as Tangier remained an international zone, refugees were admitted without difficulty. After the fall of France and Spain’s temporary occupation of Tangier, these people were deprived of various rights, including work.

The indigenous Jewish elites of Tangier were far better off than their counterparts in French Morocco before and during the Spanish occupation. The small businessmen and lower middle class, however, were heavily taxed and they could not renew their import-export licenses. Politically, the Spanish occupiers dissolved the zone’s legislative assembly, while the zahir of February 15, 1925, legalizing the Jewish community council, was abrogated. All community activity came under Spanish supervision. The Jewish community lost the subsidies that the government had hitherto allocated generously, as well as the right to elect a slate of community leaders from which the Spaniards would select appointees. All these restrictions were lifted with Spain’s withdrawal in 1945 and the restoration of the international zone.

More than 43,000 Moroccan Jews have received reparations since 2011, when Germany finally recognized them as Holocaust survivors.

Modern History

In 1948, about 238,000 Jews lived in French Morocco, 15,000 in Spanish Morocco, and 12,000 in the international zone of Tangier. The 1951 census in French Morocco indicated 199,156 Jews and, together with the Jewish population of Spanish Morocco, the total number of Moroccan Jews reached then about 222,000. The first census conducted in united Morocco in 1960 recorded 159,806 Jews while, in 1962, an estimated 130,000 Jews lived in the whole of Morocco, decreasing to 85,000 in 1964 and about 42,000 in 1968.

The two censuses of 1951 and 1960 give valuable evidence of the demography of the Jewish population in Morocco. In 1951, over a third of the Jews lived in small towns and villages, but in 1961, as a result of the mass exodus to Israel, only about a quarter of them still lived there. The continued aliyah after 1960 reduced this number even further, so that the majority of Jews in the country in the late 1960s were concentrated in the major cities. Census data show that among the emigrants there were more young people than old; this is confirmed by the census conducted in Israel in 1961.

The dispersal of Moroccan Jews throughout scores of towns, townlets, and villages, which sometimes contained only a few dozen families, made it difficult to provide Jewish education for all who wanted it, and up to the time of the mass exodus there were places in which there were no Jewish educational institutions. This is one of the reasons for the high percentage of illiteracy among Moroccan Jewry, even in 1960.

In a sample of 2% of the overall Jewish population aged five and over, taken in Morocco in 1960, 43.2% were illiterate (i.e., could not read Arabic or French, for those who knew only Hebrew letters were counted as illiterate). However, the 10–14 age group had an illiteracy rate of only 18.1%, whereas the age group 60 years and older had a rate of 76.3%. The 52 schools of the Alliance Israélite Universelle had 21,823 pupils in 1948 and, in 1956, 28,702 pupils attended its 82 institutions. The number of its pupils subsequently dropped to 9,000 in 1965, of whom about 1,000 were non-Jewish.

In October 1960, the Moroccan government nationalized a fourth of the schools run by the Alliance Israélite Universelle, turning them into government schools, to which hundreds of non-Jewish pupils enrolled. Apart from the Alliance Israélite Universelle institutions, there were also schools run by O?ar ha-Torah, Em ha-Banim, and, from 1950, by the Lubavitcher ?asidic movement. Talmud Torah schools and ?adarim continued to exist, despite the fact that the opening of new ?adarim was forbidden in 1953.

The lack of a sufficient number of schools, along with the emigration of many educated Jews to France, resulted in a low number of university graduates in Morocco. In 1954, there were only 239 Jewish university students, of whom 151 had studied abroad. According to government statistics in 1964, of the 75,000 Jews who remained in the country there were only 60 physicians, 15 dentists, 50 pharmacists, and 44 lawyers. However, in proportion to the Muslim population, the Jews were better educated, for in that year the whole country contained only 232 lawyers.

Despite the fact that a few wealthy Jews lived in Morocco, most Moroccan Jews were considered to be poor. Many of them were peddlers or artisans or lived on social assistance. Since Jews lived in poverty and poor sanitary conditions in crowded homes of the mellah, where eight to ten people sometimes dwelt in one room, many Moroccan Jews suffered from diseases, especially trachoma. In fact, among the pupils attending Alliance Israélite Universelle institutions in Casablanca 30% suffered from trachoma, and the Alliance Israélite Universelle had to open a special school for them. This was also one of the reasons for the Israel government’s adoption of a policy of health selectivity toward Moroccan immigrants. The Jewish Agency for Israel and OSE worked in cooperation with many local doctors to treat Moroccan Jews before entry to Israel.

In the mid-20th century the legal status of Moroccan Jewry improved. With the exception of a few Casablanca Jews, they did not have the right to vote in local elections. Disputes between Jews and non-Jews had to be settled in Muslim courts, which judged according to Muslim religious and secular law. Jews were not allowed to elect their own representatives on the Jewish community councils, the members being appointed by the authorities.

 After the independence of Israel (1948), the Jews in Morocco, as in the East, suffered from severe attacks by the population. On June 7, 1948, 43 Jews were murdered and 155 injured at Jérada (Djérada) and Oujda, after nationalists incited the population. However, the government brought scores of guilty to trial, sentencing two of them to death and others to imprisonment.

Beginning in August 1953, anti-colonial manifestations in French Morocco became widespread following the exile of the pro-nationalist Sultan Sidi Muhammad ben Yusuf to Madagascar. One year later, and then again in 1955, pro-nationalist forces attacked Jews in Casablanca, Rabat, Mazagan and Petitjean. A number of Jews were murdered. Much Jewish property was looted in various places throughout the country; the Alliance Israélite Universelle schools at Boujad, Mazagan and elsewhere were set on fire. Emigration subsequently increased. While between 1948 and 1953 about 30,000 Jews went to Israel, emigration figures in 1954–55 rose to 37,000 and in 1956, on the eve of Moroccan independence, to 36,301. Jews may have reached Israel in greater numbers at the time had the State of Israel and the Jewish Agency refrained from enforcing social and medical selection policies which deprived numerous elderly, sick, and economically disadvantaged elements from leaving Morocco. The Jews, however, feared that in an independent post-colonial Morocco their situation would worsen.

Morocco Gains Independence

When Sultan Muhammad ben Yusuf (King Muhammad V since 1957) returned from exile in November 1955, and Morocco gained its independence in March 1956, the situation of the Jews improved temporarily. For the first time in their history, they were to enjoy greater equality with Muslims. A Jewish leader, Dr. Leon Ben Zaqen, was appointed minister of posts in the first independent government. Other Jews began to gain important positions in the government administration as officials and in courts of law as judges. Jews were also appointed to the advisory council, the first being David Benazareff, shortly after his appointment to the presidency of the Casablanca community council. But on May 13, 1956, an order was issued forbidding Jews to leave for Israel. Then, in June 1956, the offices of the Cadima organization – the name under which the Jewish Agency’s Immigration Department functioned inside Morocco since 1949 – were closed. The Israeli aliyah emissaries, as well as envoys of other Jewish Agency departments dealing with Youth Aliyah, Zionist education and youth movements, were then compelled to leave the country. After long negotiations with the representative of the World Jewish Congress, the government permitted the emigration of the 6,325 Jews in the Mazagan camp who were ready to leave for Israel. At the same time, the Jewish Agency succeeded through channels and the bribing of senior Moroccan officials in smuggling several thousand additional Jews to Israel via Casablanca harbor and a “special route” through Tangier. However, vigilance on the Moroccan frontiers increased in 1957, after pressure from the opposition parties, and obstacles began to be placed in the way of those Jews requesting permission to travel legally for a short visit abroad, if it was suspected that their final destination was Israel. From that time on they had to show proof that they were able to support themselves abroad.

Afterward (1958–59), a number of Jews were tried and sentenced for smuggling their currency, or even for possessing an obsolete calendar issued by the Jewish National Fund. In 1958, when a new government was formed, Ben Zaqen was not included, and a number of Jewish officials were dismissed. In 1959, all Zionist activity was forbidden in Morocco and many Jewish organizations were forced to close their doors. That year, swastikas were daubed in Casablanca and Rabat.

As a result of this situation and despite the illegal exit, about 25,000 Jews went from Morocco illegally to Israel between 1956 and 1961. The groundwork for the illegal activity was laid in 1955, when Israel, fearing that Moroccan independence was imminent, formed a Zionist underground. The Mossad, Israel’s secret service agency, created the Misgeret (Framework), which organized self-defense training for all of the Maghreb. Misgeret’s operational headquarters were in Paris; Casablanca became its center in Morocco. Misgeret’s Israeli emissaries arrived in the Maghreb between August 1955 and early 1956. In Algeria and Tunisia they engaged mostly in self-defense training, but in Morocco they had five units in the urban centers: Gonen (self-defense), Ballet (recruiters of activists), Oref ?ibburi (the channel for communicating with leaders of the Jewish community councils), Modi’in (intelligence gathering for missions), and Makhelah (illegal aliyah).

The need to organize illegal immigration and to create the Makhelah unit stemmed from the Moroccan decision to dissolve Cadima; the Mossad understood that the Jewish Agency had erred in not evacuating more Jews when the opportunity existed under colonial rule. Between the end of 1956 and mid-1961 Misgeret smuggled out many of the 25,000 Jews who left Morocco, using various land and sea routes. Many Misgeret operations were successful because of services rendered by Spanish and Moroccan smugglers, who assisted Misgeret in evacuating Jews without travel documents. The underground falsified passports, bribed Moroccan officials in seaports, and enlisted the help of the authorities in the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, the British in Gibraltar, and the French who still controlled Algeria. The Moroccan government failed to destroy the underground, although many activists were arrested.

In January 1961, on the occasion of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser‘s visit to Casablanca, Jews were beaten up and jailed. Several days later the Egoz, one of the Misgeret’s smuggling ships, foundered at sea, and 42 Jewish immigrants drowned. The repercussions of these events prompted local Jewish leaders, Israel, and international Jewish organizations to pressure Morocco to liberalize immigration. King Muhammad V promised to tolerate immigration and instructed his minister of the interior to grant passports to all Jews who wanted to leave. But the king died in February 1961 and was succeeded by King Hassan II; these events prevented the policy from being implemented immediately. The intercession of two influential Jews close to the palace enabled Israel to enter into discreet negotiations with the Moroccans through a series of meetings held in Europe; the result of the negotiations between the Misgeret’s top envoy in Morocco and a representative of King Hassan II was a plan. HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) would open offices in Morocco and, under its auspices, Israel could organize more semi-legal departures; Morocco would then receive “indemnities” for the loss of the Jews. Known as “Operation Yakhin,” between November 1961 and spring 1964 more than 90,000 Jews left for Israel by chartered planes and ships from Casablanca and Tangier via France and Italy. The secret negotiations leading to Yakhin also paved the way for Moroccan-Israeli negotiations over behind-the-scenes cooperation in intelligence and defense endeavors which yielded benefits in subsequent decades.

Until 1961, when the Moroccan authorities tightened restrictions on immigration, the remaining Jewish elite still held some privileges. In fact, the post-1956 elites were divided into three currents. The first, influenced by French and European schooling, emphasized the central importance of European culture. In general, the members of this group were not attracted to Zionism, and they eventually settled in France.

The second group included those who, despite the education they had received at the Alliance Israélite Universelle schools, were still influenced by Zionism. The third group, which favored a Judeo-Muslim entente, emerged during the mid- and late 1950s and was by no means homogeneous. This group included about 400 activists with strong leftist tendencies and about 500 communists, as well as moderate leftists and conservatives.

Several activists in the third group advocated Jewish-Muslim integration with Jews frequenting the same clubs as Muslims and attending the same schools, in order to bridge the political and intellectual gap between the two peoples. Others were more cautious, arguing that rapprochement should not compel Moroccan Jews to sever their ties with Israel or to embrace Arabic language and literature at the expense of French culture. To achieve national unity and engender reforms within the Jewish communities, the leftist integrationists affiliated with the Istiqlal party and, in 1956, the Union Marocaine de Travail, the Moroccan labor union, founded a pro-entente movement known as al-Wif?q (Agreement). During the late 1950s, leaders sharing their political orientation gained some prominence within the community councils, although eventually they either moderated their stance and remained in positions of authority or more moderate elements prevailed.

When Morocco gained its independence, a royal decree of January 1956 abolished rabbinical courts and turned them into state courts of law, with the exception of the Supreme Rabbinical Tribune in Rabat, which was abolished by government order in 1965. From 1945, the rabbinical court was headed by Chief Rabbi Saul D. ibn Dan?n, who went to Israel in 1966. From 1965, the other members of the rabbinical court were appointed judges in state courts. Jews who remained in Morocco were subject to military service.

Emigration continued to both Israel and other destinations. Aliyah reached a low point in the years 1965–67, but picked up its pace after the June 1967 war. Between 1967 and 1970 as many as 4,000 Jews left for Israel annually. Israel ceased to be attractive for most Moroccan Jewish immigrants afterwards.

Those who left Morocco in the 1960s included wealthy and educated Jews, not only the lower socioeconomic stratum. In 1970, some 35,000 Jews were living in Morocco. Of those who had emigrated a considerable number, mainly the wealthy and more highly educated, settled in France and Canada. Among the immigrants were lawyers, engineers, and doctors who were marginalized in their place of work in favor of Muslims.

The mass exodus caused the closing of most Jewish institutions, yeshivot, schools and many synagogues. The community in the 1960s lacked rabbis, dayyanim and even readers of the Law in synagogue. The charitable organizations that functioned throughout Morocco were liquidated; Jewish newspapers were closed. One of these, La Voix des Communautés, was an official communal organ.

During this period anti-Jewish propaganda increased, organized mainly by the Istiql?l Party, led by ?All?l al-Fasi, who at the time also served as minister of Islamic affairs. The party journal, L’Opinion, and the rest of the Moroccan press, with the exception of newspapers supported by the government party, published much incendiary material against Jews, and in 1965 the al-Istiql?l newspaper published extracts from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. During and after the June 1967 war, the Istiql?l party encouraged Muslims to enforce an economic boycott of the Jews, but King Hassan adopted a firm policy so that Jews were not seriously harmed, and the economic boycott was implemented only partially.

In the 1970s, with a Jewish population of some 20,000 (1975), two-thirds of whom were concentrated in Casablanca and the remainder in Rabat, Marrakesh, Tangiers and Fez, Morocco had the largest organized Jewish community of any Arab country. But Moroccan Jewry was indeed moving slowly toward its self-liquidation. The school population was perhaps the best yardstick. Jewish day schools saw their enrollment drop by about 15 percent between October 1972 and October 1973, and they have noted subsequent drops of about 5 percent every year since. Yet the Arab-Israeli War of 1973 and later Middle East conflicts did not result in the end of Morocco’s Jewish communities. Those who remained weathered the crises and expressed confidence in the monarchy’s ability to safeguard their well-being.

Despite the tolerant attitude of the authorities toward the Jews, difficulties were still placed in their way in respect to national organization or attempts to establish contact with Jewish organizations abroad, apart from philanthropic or religious organizations such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Alliance Israélite Universelle and the Lubavitch ?asidim.

Several communities of Jews delayed their complete departure in the 1970s through the 1990s, partly because they owned large pieces of communal property valued at many millions of dollars. These properties were registered with the Ministry of the Interior and could not be sold without the ministry’s permission, while the proceeds of the sales had to be kept in cash in a bank or reinvested in other property.

After King Hassan’s death on July 23, 1999, his son, Muhammad VI, ascended to the throne. In sharp contrast to his father’s aspirations of involving Morocco in regional and international politics, Muhammad VI seemed – in the first years of his royal tenure, at least – to concentrate on domestic social reforms, greater equality for women, and democratizing the nation’s political institutions. Thus far he has also demonstrated a belief in peaceful Muslim-Jewish coexistence. He retained André Azoulay as the monarchy’s chief adviser and facilitated the return from France of Abraham Sarfati, the exiled communist activist, whom the king appointed as his chief expert on sources of energy.

The terrorist acts of the Moroccan al-Qai’da-affiliated Salafiyya Jihadiyya Islamist radical group in Casablanca (May 16, 2003) claimed many lives and also caused damage to Jewish institutions. This and other acts by Islamists may well hasten the departure of younger Moroccan Jews who will be followed to the West by their parents. Nevertheless, the king vowed to punish the perpetrators while the Moroccan press unanimously condemned the act. The latter argued that Morocco had always been a haven for Muslims and Jews, and no extremist forces would be allowed to sabotage the good relations between the two religions.

In 2005, some 3,000 Jews lived in Casablanca and there were smaller communities in Rabat, Marrakesh, Meknès, Tangier, Fez and Tetuan. The major Jewish organization is the Conseil des Communautés Israélites in Casablanca. The welfare organization in Casablanca is responsible for medical aid to the needy and hot meals for underprivileged Jewish students. Most of the community are of the upper middle class and enjoy a comfortable economic position. Most Jewish schools are closed and only those in Casablanca – under the auspices of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, Ort, Chabad and O?ar ha-Torah – remain active. Interestingly, the number of kosher restaurants in tourism-oriented cities is on the rise.

A Jewish museum documenting the Jewish presence in Morocco, he first of its kind in the Arab world, and a foundation for Jewish Moroccan cultural heritage were established n Casablanca. In cooperation with UNESCO, the restoration of old synagogues has commenced.

In 2010, King Mohammed VI announced a plan to restore at least 167 Jewish burial sites throughout his country. In August 2019, Moroccan officials and Jewish community leaders celebrated the renovation of a Jewish cemetery in the coastal city of Al Jadida, about 80 miles southwest of the capital Rabat.

In January 2020, King Mohammed VI inaugurated a $1.5 million center dedicated to Jewish culture in the city of Essaouira, a port city that once had a large population of Jews. Today, only a handful of Jews remain. The center, Bayt Dakira (Arabic: House of Memory), was mostly funded by the government. It is in home that houses a small synagogue, a museum, research center and space for cultural events.

In December 2021, it was reported the king planned to renovate of hundreds of synagogues, cemeteries, and Jewish heritage sites. The move came in the wake of the normalization of relations with Israel. In May 2022, for example, the 10-acre cemetery in Meknès, was renovated.

Moroccan Jewish Education in the 20th Century

The history of the educational system represents the stabilization of a Jewish society under French rule that had preserved traditional values over a long period of time and now had to accommodate itself to new times and forms. Moreover, the importance of education grew because it served as a base for social mobility, particularly the growth of new elites: community leaders, merchants, officials and professionals achieved their positions through modern Western education. Some of them managed to combine education of this kind with values stemming from the Jewish heritage as it crystallized in Morocco.

Until the middle of the 19th century, public education was the responsibility of the Jewish community. In many places, no special buildings were set aside for the Talmud Torah, and elementary schools and often yeshivah studies as well were conducted in synagogues, this being the origin of the name slla (“synagogue“ in Moroccan Arabic) as used for schools. The sllas were run by local teachers. The aim of elementary schooling in Jewish traditional education was to teach the child to read and write and prepare him to take part in the life of the synagogue. The yeshivot, which were post-elementary schools, were intended mainly for youngsters from rabbinical families. The status of the rabbi-teachers was shaky; they lived in dire economic straits, and were forced to take other jobs, as ?azzanim, sho?atim, etc., or abandon teaching when they found more remunerative occupations. Jewish girls generally remained ignorant, aside from what they learned from their mothers, which mainly concerned practical Jewish matters like kashrut, family purity, and the like.

From the beginning of reform in traditional education, Jewish institutions outside Morocco were involved – the Alliance Israélite Universelle and American institutions. The first school of the Alliance was founded in Tetuan in 1862. In conformity with its philanthropic-intellectual leanings, its institutions aimed at providing a secular education in French and in this way at achieving the Emancipation as understood by Western Jews, namely to abrogate the status of Jews as a tolerated minority and prepare them to take their place as useful citizens employed as craftsmen, merchants, and officials.

From the outset of Alliance activity, a major problem was the absence of teaching staff familiar with the new trends and a suitable pedagogic background. At first, out of political considerations, the Alliance, wishing to coexist with the communities and expand its activities, did employ teachers who had studied in traditional schools to teach Jewish subjects. But out of fear that the schools would become old-fashioned, the Alliance teachers, most of whom came from Alsace and different parts of the Ottoman Empire, tried to get these other teachers dismissed. Filled with the zeal of pioneers in pursuit of their aims, the Alliance director and teachers entrenched themselves in the communities, particularly from around 1900 on. Not only did they assert their authority in educational matters but often settled disputes within the community and served as go-betweens for the community and the European consuls with the aim of protecting the Jews from the Muslims. In addition, once they had consolidated their position, they came out against slla education and its outdated methods. In the period from the mid-19th century to the early 1920s there were rabbis, mainly representing communities in the interior of the country less exposed to European influences, who regarded the Alliance schools as “centers of heresy.” These rabbis clung to a policy of keeping their youngsters out of these schools so long as they had not completed their traditional educations. As a result many young people did not go to these schools.

The Alliance personnel at this time were not conciliatory. Nurtured on secular Western education in the rabbinical seminary of Paris, they lacked sensitivity to the values of Moroccan Jewry and their traditions. They sought to underscore the gap between the enlightened world and the tradition and experience of the parental generation and the slla schools, which they termed “centers of reaction.” In fact their depiction of the Talmud Torah schools as lacking any value was an oversimplification. One of the problems that cropped up in the 1924–45 period in Alliance educational activities derived from its negative attitude to Jewish nationalism in the Land of Israel and to Hebrew as a living language. Other organizations took advantage of its difficulties to step in and operate in Morocco. First the Em ha-Banim Talmud Torah network, which had started operating through the efforts of Rabbi Zar Halperin, an East European Zionist who was in Morocco from 1914 to 1922, flourished. By 1935, it had important schools in the interior of the country, mainly in Fez, Sefrou, Meknès, and Marrakesh.

The stepped-up activities of the World Zionist Organization in the 1920s also constituted a challenge to the Alliance. At first the WZO tried to found societies for the renewal of Hebrew culture and language and to collect money for the development of Ere? Israel. Later it became a focus of local Zionist pressure exercised against the Alliance not only in the name of pedagogic advancement and the creation of new educational structures but also to adapt education to the needs of Zionism. The Alliance’s problems did not only stem from its universalist ideology; it also had practical causes. The organization had received considerable financial support from the French government, a fact which the French used to put pressure on it to give priority to French and general studies over Hebrew and Jewish education. This pressure had a positive effect, as many parents wanted their children to receive an education that would prepare them for jobs in the modern bureaucracy of the Protectorate or in banks and business firms. However, they were uneasy about the cutback in Jewish studies. The arrangement also made life difficult for the pupils. They, as well as those who had studied first in a slla and then in an Alliance school, reached the fourth grade of elementary school at the age of 17.

The only way the Alliance could reconcile various circles by teaching Jewish subjects while instituting teaching reforms was by training a special staff of teachers. An attempt in this direction was made by supporting a local initiative on the part of the Torah and ?ayyim Society of Tangier to set up a teachers’ seminar. Teachers from within the community taught Jewish subjects while general subjects were taught by teachers from the French schools in the city and the Alliance faculty. Another change was in the encouragement given by the Alliance chief representative in Morocco, Yom Tov Sémach, to the teaching of modern, spoken Hebrew. Though not an adherent of political Zionism, but rather the opposite, Sémach argued that the teaching of living Hebrew was an expression of Jewish solidarity, the first and foremost means of communication in the Jewish world and part of the renascence of Jewish culture. The Alliance administration in Paris also did not heed the advice of the Tangier seminar’s director to bring over teachers from Ere? Israel who had studied at the teacher training institute in Paris. Out of fear of the nationalistic reactions of Morocco’s Arabs and the possibility that such a step would be interpreted as pro-Zionist, Hebrew studies were not allowed at the institute. But the pressure exerted by rabbis and parents did not abate. The parents sought a balanced curriculum in Alliance schools, with more Jewish studies than in the past.

The period after World War II, from 1946 until the 1960s, represented a major turning point in Jewish education in Morocco. The Zionist Organization contributed to the process by accelerating the acclimatization to modern Jewish thought and education in Jewish institutes. Another factor, after 1948, was the growing importance of aspects of Hebrew as a language representing the link between Moroccan Jewry and the State of Israel. Moreover, with increasing financial assistance from the Jews of America and Europe, the Alliance began to develop Jewish programs of study that were not totally subordinate to the French colonial administration in Morocco despite continued French aid to expand secular education.

Another factor contributing to the change was the disappointment of the Alliance leaders, who underwent bitter experiences during the war and witnessed the tragic failure of the ideology of “emancipation through assimilation” (which rather than being met with enthusiasm by colonial society provoked antisemitic propaganda). And indeed, from 1946 on, though the Alliance did not cooperate with the emissaries of the Jewish Agency, it did cooperate with influential local Zionists. An excellent example of this is the establishment of the Hebrew teachers seminar in Casablanca in cooperation with the Zionist Magen David Society. In 1956, almost all the teachers who were products of traditional education were replaced by graduates of the seminar. This produced big changes in the Jewish studies in schools, not to mention the fact that such an institute as the Hebrew University agreed to award graduates the “Jerusalem certificate,” which exempted them from the University’s entrance exam in the Hebrew language. The prestige of the seminar spread through the communities of Morocco and won for it rabbinical support. Graduates of the seminar began teaching in Alliance schools along the Mediterranean Basin and in Iran and, in the course of time, also in Israel, Latin America, Western Europe, and Canada. These graduates also played a part in the Arabization of the schools with the introduction of Arab studies after 1956. They also contributed to the creation of a social and economic elite among the Jews who remained, as the independent Moroccan government was not favorably inclined toward teachers educated in French (even if they were Moroccans). Moreover, while the number of admissions to French high schools before independence was relatively low because of the undeclared quota system, now after independence, admission became easier because of Moroccan policy. At the same time, the Alliance schools, which up to the mid-1950s had provided education up to junior high school only, now became full-fledged high schools. Thus the impetus of social and economic change that had its start in the 1940s and 1950s was not stopped with independence.

The 1946–60 period also represented a turning point in terms of the initiative shown by American Jewry on behalf of the Jews of Morocco in educational affairs. The outstanding American organization was O?ar Hatorah, a society of Sephardi Jews believing in a combination of Jewish and general education and supported financially mainly by the Joint Distribution Committee. O?ar Hatorah started operating in the large centers like Rabat and Mogador, and also in small villages in south Morocco. At first, relations between O?ar Hatorah and the Alliance were tense. The representative and teachers of O?ar Hatorah in Morocco (as opposed to the directorate in New York) regarded the Alliance teachers as confirmed secularists who had driven away the young Jews of Morocco from the Jewish heritage. But when they saw the Alliance’s powerful popular support and the Hebrew teachers seminar was set up in Casablanca, they toned down their criticism. After Morocco received its independence they cooperated in such projects as preparing and printing Hebrew and Jewish texts in the face of Morocco’s ban on the import of Hebrew books printed abroad. Not the least important of the Alliance’s activities was its campaign to update traditional education. Together with O?ar Hatorah, it succeeded in persuading a number of community leaders to institute reforms in curricula and methods in the old-fashioned Talmud Torah schools in the community. This influence continued to grow until in 1970 the number of students in reformed Jewish studies exceeded the number in Alliance schools: 7,800 compared with 7,100. This renascence of Jewish education made it possible to provide spiritual leaders for the North African communities in Western Europe and Canada. The change was also felt among the rabbis identified with this trend who reached Israel in the 1960s and 1970s. In the last three generations important work has also been done in Morocco by the Chabad educational system. The results of the work done by the Alliance and O?ar Hatorah were impressive. On the eve of Moroccan independence in 1956 there were 83 Alliance schools with 33,000 students, representing 80% of all Jewish children of school age. The O?ar Hatorah system had 6,564 students, or 16%, in 32 institutions. It is therefore correct to say that, in the 1940s and 1950s, the Jews of Morocco rapidly entered a new era in their history.

In 2020, the primary-school syllabus incorporated Moroccan Jewish history and culture, the first time any Arab country had taken such a step. Meanwhile, the Musa Ibn Maimon High School in Casablanca, established in 1950, now has an enrollment of 400 that is approximately 90 percent Muslim. Students learn Hebrew and Arabic, and celebrate Jewish and Islamic religious holidays.

Relations with Israel

The Moroccan-Israeli relationship is rooted in the presence of roughly one million Jews of Moroccan descent.

When Hassan II took power, he developed a close relationship with the Mossad, which had informed the king of a plot to overthrow him by opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka. Israel provided weapons and training to the king’s forces and shared intelligence with his intelligence service.

In September 1959, Morocco severed postal ties with Israel, ties that were renewed only in 1994. This and other measures instituted at the time were a result of Morocco’s policy of avoiding conflicts with Egypt and Middle Eastern states at war with Israel. The Egyptians were quick to accuse the Maghrebi states of permitting Zionist activity and aliyah, which according to their argument, only strengthened the Jewish State. Moreover, Morocco did not desire to lose Jewish nationals as this could have been detrimental to the Moroccan economy.

Despite the fear of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the king allowed the Mossad to bug rooms used by Arab leaders and military commanders meeting in Casablanca in 1965, which tipped Israel off to their plans and capabilities. “These recordings, which were truly an extraordinary intelligence achievement, established our feeling…that we will win the war against Egypt,” recalled Gen. Shlomo Gazit. 

Israel did favors for Morocco as well, including luring Ben Barka to Paris where he was abducted and killed by Moroccans. “Mossad agents disposed of the body, which was never found,” according to Ronen Bergman.

Israeli and Egyptian officials met secretly in Morocco in the 1970s to discuss the possibility of peace. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat preferred this channel to short-circuit U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s efforts to convene an international peace conference which he believed would be an impediment to reaching an agreement with Israel. These talks formed the basis for the Camp David negotiations.

In the mid- and late 1990s, 6,000 Jews remained in Morocco. Influential Jewish leaders – among them Robert Assaraf, a noted entrepreneur and one of the most affluent Jews in Morocco, and Serge Berdugo, who served as a minister of tourism in the 1990s –wielded influence, playing a cardinal role in politics. Their intimate ties to both the monarchy and opposition parties enabled them to promote diverse Moroccan-Israeli connections.

While Berdugo was minister of tourism, Israeli-Moroccan tourist exchange gained considerable momentum. This came in the wake of the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accord of 1993 that led to the establishment of liaison offices in Rabat and Tel Aviv. The primary purpose of the liaison apparatus was to promote even greater tourist activity, particularly from Israel to Morocco.

In October 1994, André Azoulay, a Jewish economist and one of King Hassan’s confidants, was the driving force behind the first Middle East Economic Summit in Casablanca. The intermediary role played by the king in bringing Israel and the Arab states closer together, leading to the Egyptian-Israeli peace initiative in 1977, also contributed to Muslim-Jewish coexistence at home.

The outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000 compelled Morocco to shut down its liaison office in Tel Aviv and ask Israel to recall its representative from Rabat – a move that is seen as a temporary break in ties.

Despite the lack of official diplomatic relations between the two countries, in November 2016, seven journalists from Morocco visited Israel to meet with government and military officials and tour the Gaza border. The group trip, which included five female and two male journalists, was organized to help combat negative stereotypes about Israel in the Arab media.

In 2017, a conference was held in Israel for the first time with seven Muslim guests from Morocco and other participants from the United States and Europe. A second meeting was held in August 2018 in Strasburg, France.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a secret meeting with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in September 2018. During the meeting, Netanyahu expressed interest in making a public visit and normalizing relations with Morocco. They also discussed their mutual interest in countering Iranian actions in the region. Earlier, Morocco had cut ties with Iran due to Iranian interference in Moroccan internal affairs.

Ten Israeli judokas participated in the Judo Grand Prix, held in Marrakech in March 2019 and the Israeli flag was hoisted twice after two Israeli judokas won two bronze medals.

Both before and after Morocco broke relations with Israel, the countries had a close but secret security relationship. In the 1970s, Israel shipped tanks to Morocco. A British report claimed Israel sold electronic warfare, communication, and control systems through a third party to Morocco. Israel also sold three reconnaissance drones that were transferred through France in January 2020 as part of $48 million arms deal. The drones were to be used against extremist groups and rebel movements in the Western Sahara. A year earlier, Amnesty International reported that in 2017 Morocco began using Pegasus spyware from the Israeli company NSO Group to track and collect information on journalists and human rights activists.

Diplomatic Relations Established

In a deal brokered by the Trump administration, Morocco said on December 10, 2020, it would grant overflights and direct flights to and from Israel for all Israelis. Less than two weeks later, on the 22nd, Morocco agreed to establish full diplomatic relations and resume official contacts with Israel. Liaison offices in Rabat and Tel Aviv will be reopened with the intention to open embassies soon.

The decision was coupled with the announcement by the Trump administration that the United States would recognize Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara. This was a goal of King Muhammad VI, who had sought the help of Israel and American Jews to convince the United States to ignore international support for the Saharawi people.

On December 22, 2020, Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner flew aboard the first direct commercial Israeli flight on El Al from Israel to Morocco. The same day, Morocco, the U.S., and Israel signed a joint declaration formalizing the re-establishment of diplomatic relations. The statement said Israel and Morocco will also promote dynamic and innovative bilateral economic cooperation in the fields of trade, finance, investment, and technology. The countries also agreed to cooperate in civil aviation, visa and consular services, tourism, water, agriculture, food security, development, energy, and other areas.

The declaration was signed by Jared Kushner, Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat, and Morocco’s Head of Government Saad Eddine El Othmani before King Mohammed VI during a meeting at Rabat’s Royal Palace.

Also in January 2021, El Mehdi Boudra, the president of Association Mimouna, and Elan Carr, the U.S. State Department’s envoy to combat anti-Semitism, signed a Memorandum of Understanding “to work together to share and promote best practices for combating all forms of anti-Semitism, including anti-Zionism and the delegitimization of the State of Israel” and “for combating other kinds of intolerance and hatred, including Islamophobia.”

The agreement is similar to one signed in October 2020 with a Bahraini institution.

The Israeli Liaison Office in Morocco reopened on January 26, 2021, when former ambassador to Egypt David Govrin arrived in Rabat. It had been closed for 20 years.

When President Biden took office, there was some discussion of reversing Trump’s annexation of Western Sahara and upending the deal with Israel. Secretary of State Tony Blinken told his counterpart in April 2021, however, that the administration would not do so.

On July 25, 2021, Israir and El Al initiated the first direct commercial flights of Israeli airlines to Morocco. Israir is planning three flights a week to Marrakesh, the agency quoted the airline’s officials as saying, and El Al five flights a week, to Marrakesh and Casablanca.

Also in July, a Royal Moroccan Air Force C-130 landed at the IAF’s Hatzor air base in advance of an international military exercise. This was the first time an air-force platform belonging to the North African country landed in Israel. A few months later, the air force purchased five Israeli Skylock Dome anti-drone defense systems. The year before, Morocco purchased three Israeli Heron drones for reconnaissance to combat insurgent groups in Western Sahara.

In August 2021, Hebrew University and Ben Gurion University signed agreements with Morocco’s Mohammed VI Polytechnic University to promote academic and technological cooperation. According to Hebrew University President Professor Asher Cohen, the collaboration between the institutions will include “joint research and collaborative degrees,” “innovation on a global scale” and the “exchange of publications and academic materials.”

In an example of how extreme the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement is in its campaign to ostracize Israel, the Palestinian BDS National Committee denounced Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh for meeting with the Moroccan prime minister. “We strongly condemn Haniyeh’s meeting with the Moroccan prime minister, which betrays our people and furthers normalization with the occupation and its continuing crimes,” the committee said.

During his visit to Morocco, Minister of Defense, Benny Gantz and Moroccan Minister Delegate to the Head of Government in Charge of National Defense, H.E. Abdellatif Loudiyi, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on November 24, 2021. “It is a very significant development,” said Gantz, “which will enable us to work on joint projects and promote industrial cooperation.”

In February 2022, Israel Aerospace Industries agreed to provide the Moroccan army with the Barak MX air and missile defense system in a $500 million deal. The same month, Morocco and Israel signed a trade and economic cooperation agreement with Israel hoping to increase annual trade volume from $131 million to $500 million.

A Memorandum of Understanding in the aeronautics sector was signed by Morocco’s Minister of Industry and Trade, Ryad Mezzour, and the Chairman of the Board of Directors of Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), Amir Peretz in March 2022. The agreement, according to IsraelDefense focuses on 3D printing, the manufacture of cabin interiors and engine parts and aerostructures, the establishment of an R&D and engineering center, and the development of an ecosystem of local suppliers through sourcing partnerships with IAI.

“This is a strategic partnership for both countries that we are sealing today. It opens the way for win-win industrial collaboration in the aerospace industry,” said Minister Mezzour. “This partnership leverages IAI’s aviation expertise and the technological capabilities of our aerospace platform and its positioning as a growth driver for the investment and development in advanced industrial and aeronautical services sectors.”

Peretz said, “The MOU we are signing today is an additional step in creating a new partnership between IAI and the aviation and space industries in Morocco. I am familiar with the incredible potential that exists in Morocco, and this is just the beginning.”

In July 2022, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi became the first Israeli Chief of Staff to visit Morocco. “This visit is another example of historic shift in the region and the role of the IDF in creating a future of partnership,” he said.

Two years after normalizing ties, the popularity of the move was declining. In August 2022, the Arab Barometer, a nonpartisan research network, reported that 31% of Moroccans favor normalization with Israel, dropping 10% since 2021 but still significantly higher than the figures for other Arab countries.

According to the study, Moroccans’ support for the normalization with Israel is likely related to the United States recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara simultaneously with normalization. The authors hypothesize that the relative popularity of normalization in Morocco “is the result of citizens focusing on the strategic benefits” to the country.

In June 2023, Amir Ohana became the first Speaker of the Knesset to make an official visit to an Arab country. He emphasized to members of the Moroccan Parliament the importance of diplomatic and security cooperation between the countries. Ohana also said he was “aware of the importance of the recognition of the Moroccan Sahara” and that he believed Israel should recognize it as the U.S. did. “There are currently serious discussions between our governments on that matter,” he confirmed, adding, “I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu will be announcing this decision in the near future.”

Fulfilling a promise that was part of the deal for normalization, Israel announced its recognition of Morocco's sovereignty over the Western Sahara region. A few hours earlier, the IDF appointed its first military attache to Morocco. 

Professor Bruce Maddy-Weitzman observed, “Israel now helps building the capabilities of the Moroccan army, and this angers Algeria immensely. We have a sort of arms race with Morocco, the U.S. and Israel on the one hand, and Algeria, Russia and Iran on the other.”


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Oumaima Latrech, “Morocco Purchases Israel’s Skylock Dome System,” Morocco World News, (November 21, 2021).
“Israel and Morocco sign historic Defense Memorandum of Understanding,” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, (November 24, 2021).
Shahar Klaiman, “Moroccan king orders restoration of hundreds of Jewish sites,” Israel Hayom, (December 13, 2021).
Danny Zaken, “Israel Aerospace Industries will provide the Moroccan military with the Barak MX air and missile defense system,” Globes, (February 13, 2022).
“Israel looks to increase trade with Morocco to $500 million,” Reuters, (February 21, 2022).
“Historic aeronautics MoU signed between Israel and Morocco,” IsraelDefense, (March 24, 2022).
Cnaan Liphshiz, “Moroccan authorities restore ancient Jewish cemetery of Meknes,” JTA, (May 23, 2022).
“‘A Historic Shift in the Region’: Israeli Army Chief Returns From Morocco,” Haaretz, (July 21, 2022).
Michael Robbins, “Public Views of the U.S.-China Competition in MENA,” Arab Barometer, (July 2022).
“Israel to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara soon, official says,” Reuters, (June 8, 2023).
Safaa Kasraoui, “Israel Officially Recognizes Morocco’s Sovereignty Over Western Sahara,” Morocco World News, (July 17, 2023).
Rina Bassist, “Israel-Morocco security ties set to deepen after Western Sahara recognition,” Al-Monitor, (July 18, 2023).

Map: CIA World Factbook.