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  • Ilan Benattar

Moroccan Jews: Perception and Reality

Ilan Benattar on Emily Benichou Gottreich

The street signs are often tri-lingual: Arabic, French, and Amazigh, the latter being written in the Tifinagh alphabet. This tripartite signage is perhaps the most visible part of a trend toward incorporating Morocco’s non-Arab cultural elements into normative state-sponsored identity and education efforts, a slow process begun by King Mohammed VI. And yet prominent efforts at officially sanctioned multiculturalism have also leaned heavily on the country’s much-cited Jewish heritage. The difference of course being that where non-Arab Amazigh (more commonly known in English as Berbers) make up approximately 50% of the country’s 36 million residents, Moroccan Jews constitute little more than a few thousand elderly members concentrated in major cities. Nowhere on this multilingual and “multicultural” signage is the Hebrew alphabet, whose letters were historically used by Morocco’s Jews to write their dialect of Judeo-Arabic.

This is arguably the clearest representation of a simple fact: the Jews featured so prominently in the official Moroccan national narrative are not real Jews so much as they are the idea of Jews. Whereas the former requires official recognition and can make claims for themselves, the latter is free to be used as a floating symbol, as a signifier without a signified.


Emily Benichou Gottreich notes in the introduction to her welcome volume Jewish Morocco that when it comes to Jewish Morocco, the historian has the uncommon privilege of not having to choose between the text and the context, between telling the story of “Jews” or “Moroccans.”

So deeply enmeshed are these histories, Gottreich suggests, that it is improper to think of them separately at all. This observation forms the crux of her work, both from the perspective of methodology and from the perspective of content. She is not simply telling us that the historian of Jewish Morocco does not have to choose between text and context, but rather that the historian cannot choose for there is no choice to be made. This book is decidedly not a history of Jews inMorocco, nor a history of the Judaism of Moroccan Jews. Rather, it is a history of Morocco told through the history of its Jewish community, and from a Jewish communal perspective.

All this is to simply say that “Jewish Morocco” constitutes both interpretive theme and narrative subject of Gottreich’s work. It forms both a category used to group and analyze the disparate elements of Moroccan social life and also simply refers to its more immediate association, the Moroccan Jewish community. The book traces what the author terms “the pillars of Moroccan-ness”—Malikism, Amazighity, Sharifism, Europeanization, and Arabness— from the pre-Islamic period up until the post-colonial present, focusing on the ways Jewishness is deeply enmeshed in the historical experience of each of these Moroccan “pillars.” Each pillar forms its own respective chapters, each dealing with a discrete historical period.

What does this mean, to deem Morocco so deeply Jewish that its history can and ought be told in relationship to its constituent Jews? This is a historical method which “retains an investment in the formative power of place” and approaches the formation of communal identity from a multi-cultural and constructivist angle. Gottreich makes no qualms about the fact that present-day issues are front and center in her mind. Morocco’s 2011 constitution in particular, which emphasizes “the attachment of the Moroccan people to the values of openness, of moderation, of tolerance and of dialogue,” seems to be specifically important. Gottreich is animated by the manner in which Morocco’s Jewish heritage is being recast to fit this particular multicultural image of Morocco with which the state, or makhzan, is attempting to market itself as an exception in the “Muslim world.” Her work, therefore, attempts to set the record straight, so to speak, by investigating how Moroccan Jewishness “is being recast to suit the requirements and values of today’s world.” And yet, insofar as Jewish Morocco is concerned, it is an exception, claims the author. Not simply within the “Islamicate World” but also in the Jewish world writ large.

Gottreich’s claim of Jewish Morocco’s singularity is not, technically speaking, hers alone. Indeed, social scientists (mainly historians and anthropologists) have long claimed that the Jews of Morocco were seamlessly integrated and critical part of the Moroccan populace, forming an outsize portion and sometimes majority of larger towns, albeit only around 3-5% in Morocco as a whole. In sketching this image of what might yet be called “Jewish Morocco,” Gottreich appears to mix several categories into one. She claims to write a history of Morocco from the perspective of its Jewish community yet makes little distinction between events and processes which have analogues in the Jewish experience, events and processes which Jews simply experience, or events and processes in which Jews actually play a central role. Still, Gottreich’s work amounts to a uniquely important book and significant scholarly contribution. But in not distinguishing between real Jews and figural Jews (i.e. the idea of Jews) Gottreich ends up underwriting the conceit of officially sanctioned Moroccan multiculturalism which does much the same.


Dividing a wealth of historical data into a slim interpretive volume such as Jewish Morocco is no small feat. This, in turn, is precisely what makes it all the more critical to disaggregate the claims that constitute the volume’s macro-argument, perhaps even more so than for a descriptive monograph or “general history.” The notion of a Moroccan history told from a Jewish perspective is an achievable although certainly bold goal. Why then is it critical to distinguish between events and processes which have Jewish analogues, events and processes in which Jews play a central role, and events and processes which Jews simply experience? Do they not all fall under the same heading of “a Jewish perspective”?

An analogue, something which is “like” something else, does not necessarily imply causal connection— merely similitude. A similarity in form does not require a similarity in content. Gottreich tells us, for example, of the chronological overlap between the “Maraboutic Crisis” of the 16th and 17th centuries in Moroccan history and the history of Moroccan Sabbateanism. Gottreich notes that contra the standard historiographical treatment of the Sabbatian movement in Morocco, the proper explanation for these synchronous developments can be identified in the ambient Moroccan socio-political climate, namely “sharifism and its relationship to mysticism.” What all this means requires some explanation.

The Maraboutic Crisis is a term used to identify a central political dynamic occurring between the collapse of the Marinid Dynasty in the late fifteenth century and the rise of the Alaouite monarchy in the mid-seventeenth century. During this period certain longstanding countryside lodges inhabited by adherents (marabout-s) to an ascetic and mystical Muslim practice known as Sufism formed alternative power centers which challenged the makhzan’s authority. To use Weberian language, the makhzan was unable to claim monopoly over the use of legitimate force. And indeed “maraboutic crisis” is something of a misnomer; this period is much better identified as a crisis of state authority. “Sharifism” refers to the idea that the only legitimate leaders of the Muslim nation, or umma, are descendants of the prophet Muhammad. In this context, it refers to the Alaouite dynasty’s legitimizing claim to being descendants of a close relative of Muhammad. The Maraboutic Crisis was brought to a close by the first two Alaouite sultans, Al-Rashid (r. 1666-1672) and his son Ismail (r.1672-1727) who were successful in doing so not by rejecting the mystical practice of marabout-s and their tribal supporters, but rather by accepting and incorporating it into state-sanctioned Islam. They were aided in doing so by the fact that the dominant school of muslim religious law in Morocco, the Maliki madhhab, allows local custom (‘urf) and public interest (al-maslaḥa al-‘amma) to serve as legal precedent.

Jewish Morocco: A History from Pre-Islamic to Postcolonial Times. Emily Gottreich. Bloomsbury, 2020. pp. 264 £59.50 (hardback)

Sabbatianism, on the other hand, was a messianic movement founded by Shabbtai Zvi, son of a prominent rabbinic family in Ottoman Izmir, who proclaimed himself messiah in 1648. His followers spread quite rapidly across the Jewish world, a millenarian trend no doubt aided by the compounding tragedies that had occurred in recent memory, the Spanish Expulsion of 1492 and the Khmelnitsky Massacres of 1648-1657, along with a series of devastating droughts in Morocco. To draw the comparison between the eventual resolution of the Sabbatian Crisis and that of the Maraboutic Crisis, Gottreich notes two major points. Firstly, that the center of Moroccan Sabbatianism was the south of the country, much as the center of the dissident Marabout-s. Secondly, that much the same as the Alaouite dynasty with Sufi practice, Moroccan rabbis were able to sap the energy of the Sabbatian movement not by defeating it outright but by adopting certain aspects into normative Moroccan Judaism. Concurrently, Gottreich notes, the relationship between the state and the Jewish community was becoming institutionalized, thereby allowing the anti-Sabbatian rabbis to harness the threat of Alaouite state power to weaken their opponents. The fact that these important processes were concurrent to the consolidation of the dynasty which remains Morocco’s ruling dynasty till today allows Gottreich to assert that the birth of Jewish Morocco was “parallel with and contingent to the birth of the Moroccan state itself.”

This is quite a novel and plausible interpretation of events. Even more so considering that historians have typically identified the origin of something which can be termed a singular Moroccan Jewish community much later along with the coming of the French Protectorate in 1912. Still, Gottreich does not establish a causal link between the Sabbatian Crisis and the Maraboutic Crisis. What is demonstrated is a striking similarity of form and not one of content. This does not negate the possibility that causality can potentially be established. Though Gottreich traces the development of analogous themes and processes we still do not have a case for a history of Morocco from the perspective of its Jews. To suggest this constitutes a history in which Jews played a significant role is to assign an outsized causal role to a miniscule, albeit prominent, minority.


The issue with not distinguishing between the categories of Jewish involvement or noninvolvement in different historical episodes is that we tend to lose sight of exactly what type of Jewish subject is narrated into being. Is this an active subject, a passive subject, an addendum to the main historical plotline, or a side character? Perhaps most importantly, is this a physically present Jewish subject or are we dealing with the idea of Jews?

Two episodes that feature prominently in Gottreich’s work further highlight the importance of this distinction—the 1907 murder of French doctor Émile Mauchamp in Marrakesh and the Fez Riots of 1912. In 1907 Émile Mauchamp, director of a French pharmaceutical dispensary in Marrakesh was murdered by an angry mob who suspected him of espionage on behalf of the French government. This, in turn, was used as pretext by the French to invade Morocco via the city of Oujda at the Algerian border and bombard Casablanca by sea. Where Moroccan Jews fall into these events is quite important. Mauchamp had been staying close to the mellah of Marrakesh, the Jewish quarter, and had also been known to associate with circles of French-speaking Moroccan Jews involved with the educational-philanthropic enterprise known as the Alliance Israelite Universelle (A.I.U.). After Mauchamp’s murder, further anti-European sentiment and violence spread throughout the city, causing Europeans to seek shelter in the mellah, historically the only place where they were allowed to stay. What follows is something along the lines of a typical guilt by association charge, whereby Moroccan Jews were assumed and accused of being in league with Europeans. This in turn, sped up “social isolation” and an increased sense of insecurity among the Jewish population. What we have here is an episode, a process which did not necessitate any sort of activity or involve any role on the part of actually existing Jews. Rather the Mauchamp affair demonstrates how the idea of Jews could take on a life of its own and had consequences that did not stem from what real Jews actually did or did not do. We might very well say that this episode constitutes a “Jewish history” but only if we also specify that the subject of this history is not Jews so much as it is figural or spectral Jews.

Similarly, in 1912 when the Treaty of Fez was signed in secret and the French Protectorate began, certain military installations in Fez learned of the treaty’s strict military regulations and in anger reacted by killing Frenchmen in the city. The French military quickly surrounded the European “Ville Nouvelle” and so the Moroccan soldiers headed toward the mellah located in Fes Jadid, also where the royal kasbah was located. Whether or not the Moroccans intended to enact violence on the Jewish neighborhood or simply chose the quarter due to its proximity and identification with the royal seat is an ongoing point of historical debate. Regardless, what followed was a pitched two-day battle between the French and the Moroccan soldiers in which many perished and following which nearly the entire 10,000-strong Jewish population of the mellah left the city. The event became known in Moroccan Judeo-Arabic as al–tritl (“the pillage”). Again, just as with five years earlier, the centrality of Jews to this episode was not consequent to anything Jews actually did but rather due to how they were identified, where they were located, and how their space was treated by others. If this is Jewish history, then it is Jewish history in the passive voice. Real Jews did not, at least insofar as is known, play a leading role here. Rather they were pawns in another’s game. Again, this is not so much a history of Morocco from the perspective of its Jews as it is a history of the Jewish idea in Morocco.


One episode Gottreich recounts which can be legitimately classified as Moroccan history from a Jewish communal perspective is what has become known as the Battash Affair. In 1464, the final Marinid Sultan Abu Mohammed ‘Abd El-Haq appointed a Jew, Aaron b. Battash, as his leading minister. Both Aaron and his relative Shaul were soon accused by prominent Muslims in Fez, the Marinid capital, of violating a seventh century document entitled the Pact of ‘Umar which specifies responsibilities, restrictions, and privileges incumbent on non-Muslim religious minorities (dhimma). Not only did the ensuing popular revolt claim the lives of both Aaron and Shaul, but also that of Sultan ‘Abd El-Haq. The Marinid Dynasty was ended with the 1465 revolt and seven years later the short-lived Wattasids came to power.

Here is a clear cut instance in which Jews do, in fact, play a leading role in Moroccan history. Simply put, this particular episode cannot be told sans Jews. We are not dealing here with the idea of Jews, nor with something analogous happening among Morocco’s Jewish cohort, but a full-fledged Moroccan history from a Jewish perspective.

Other than the Battash affair and several isolated episodes, the only clear examples Gottreich brings where Jewish history and Moroccan history seem to be congruent pertain to Jewish political organizing in the final decades of the protectorate and the early years of independence. She skillfully demonstrates the diversity of opinion among the Moroccan Jewish populace and the potential futures they were imagining. What does it mean though, that in a book-long attempt to write a history of Jewish Morocco, the only sustained treatment of something that might actually be termed a Jewish Moroccan history comes as this history begins drawing to a close, at least in a territorial sense? What does it mean that active Jewish subjects only begin to consistently appear as a Moroccan Jewish history outside of Morocco starts to become imaginable?

There is no clear telos in Gottreich’s narration, no imposed sense that Jewish communists were naïve or that Zionists were especially prescient. Many developments are correctly assigned to the accident of history. Even if the origins of eventual Moroccan Jewish deracination can be identified nearly a century prior to independence, Gottreich gives us no sense that the mass migration of the majority of Jewish Morocco to Israel was inevitable or even strictly necessary. This is refreshing. Far too often has the history of Moroccan Jewry in particular and Middle Eastern and North African Jewry in general been narrated with the telos of Israel and Zionism never far on the horizon. And yet, avoidance of this most central question is to forego arguably the most important problematique which must be dealt with in a history of Morocco from a Jewish perspective, put simply: Why did they leave? Gottreich lists the usual suspects—international Jewish organizations, the Moroccan government, the American government, Israeli intelligence services—but in this author’s estimation downplays the complicity of the Moroccan state and monarchy. Here Moroccan Jews themselves become the leading characters in their own deracination which would have scarcely been imaginable mere decades before. And yet, this is where the active voicing of Moroccan Jewish history falls short; they were not always lead characters in their own story.


What this all amounts to is a novel interpretive history of Jewish Morocco which charts new paths forward and provides much interesting material for both specialists and casual readers alike. Intent on writing a history of Morocco from a Jewish communal perspective, Gottreich slips at important points into a history of the Jewish idea or Jews as symbol. These are both critically important issues which warrant close investigation. They are not, however, Moroccan histories told from a Jewish perspective. Much like the street signs in Morocco void of Jewish representation despite official narratives extolling Jews, a history of Jewish Morocco remains an unrealized potential at critical turning points in this work. What we do have, however, is a history of Moroccan Jews not as interlopers, passing migrants, or a foreign element, but as the unambiguous inhabitants of Moroccan time and space. This is no small feat and it warrants praise.


Ilan Benattar is a Doctoral Candidate in the Skirball Department of Hebrew & Judaic Studies and the Department of History at New York University. His dissertation projects focuses on Ottoman Jewish cultural politics surrounding the Chief Rabbinate from 1902-1909. He tweets at @IlanBenattar.


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