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Pratiquer les sciences sociales au Maghreb

Mohamed Almoubaker
François Pouillon

Itinéraires et récapitulations

Writing the History of Jews in Morocco: A Call to Arms

Jessica M. Marglin

Texte intégral

1When most Americans think of the Middle East, they tend to think of Islam. The assumption evident in the media and in popular culture is that the Arab World is populated by Muslims, and perhaps by a few Christians in places like Lebanon and Egypt. Few realize the extent to which the Arab Middle East, including North Africa, was until recently a religiously diverse place with far more confessional pluralism than Europe. It is particularly rare to come across acknowledgements of the Jewish presence in the Islamic Mediterranean; because Jewish culture in the United States is so dominated by Ashkenazi Jews, Americans–including American Jews–tend to equate Judaism with Europe. This is part of what makes the study of Moroccan Jewish history so important; more than simply adding to our knowledge about the world, the history of Jews in North Africa can help change the way Americans think about Islam, Arabs, and the Middle East.

2As an historian of Jews in the Maghreb, I often find myself greeted with blank stares when I explain my research to non-specialists in America. However, my experience conducting research in Moroccan archives was entirely different. Moroccan historians, archivists–even taxi drivers and vegetable vendors–responded to my project with excitement and interest. In this sense, Morocco is unique in the Arab world; it is one of the few places where nearly everyone is aware of the history of Jews in their country. This is not to say that anti-Semitism does not exist in Morocco; the bombing of a Jewish community center in Casablanca in 2003 proves otherwise. Often, this anti-Semitism is closely related to opposition to Israel and support for the Palestinian cause. The vast majority of Moroccans I encountered, however, differentiated between Moroccan Jews–whom they considered part of their history and culture–and Zionism, which they generally opposed on political grounds. I found that for most Moroccans, Moroccan Jews were Moroccans first and foremost. Indeed, the new constitution (passed in the summer of 2011) enshrines the “Hebraic” contribution to Moroccan culture as part of the official narrative of Moroccan history.2

  • 3 This research was for my dissertation, entitled “In the Courts of the Nations: Jews, Muslims, and L (...)

3This popular perception shaped my reception as a graduate student in search of archival sources concerning the history of Jews. In 2009 and 2010, when I worked in the archives of the Makhzan (the Moroccan central government, as it was called in the nineteenth century), the archivists supported my desire to include Jews in my study of law in pre-colonial Morocco.3 At the Mudīriyyat al-Wathā’iq al-Malakiyya (Direction des Archives Royales) and the Maktaba al-Hasaniyya (Bibliothèque Hassaniyya) in Rabat, I was welcomed with open arms. If anything, my interest in Jews was encouraged; as one archivist put it, Jews played a central role in Moroccan society and thus anyone writing about Moroccan history naturally had to include Jews in her research. Even at the library of the Qarawiyin Mosque in Fez–arguably Morocco’s oldest and most prestigious Islamic institution–I found a warm welcome and a staff eager to assist me in my research.

  • 4 See especially the work of Daniel Schroeter, Mohammed Kenbib, Khalid Ben Srhir, and Emily Gottreich

4Perhaps more important than the welcome I received is the promise held by Moroccan archives for research on the history of Jews. While a number of historians have made use of Moroccan government archives in writing the history of Jews in pre-colonial Morocco,4 too many have limited themselves to internal Jewish sources written in Hebrew or European languages–sources which present only part of the story of Jews’ relationships with Muslims and their participation the broader society in which they lived.

  • 5 These are held at the Bibliothèque Hassaniyya under the call numbers K 157, K 171, K 174, and K 181

5Yet many government sources remain underutilized and some are completely ignored; for instance, I was the first to use the registers of the Ministry of Complaints (Wizārat al-shikāyāt), a series of records from the reign of Mawlāy Ḥasan (1873-94) which contain hundreds of letters regarding the petitions of Jews to the central government.5 These registers provided valuable information about the legal system in nineteenth-century Morocco, but my research far from exhausts the potential of these registers and much remains to be gleaned about the social history of Jewish-Muslim relations from their pages. The broader implication is that historians interested in the history of Jews in Morocco must concern themselves with the history of Morocco broadly speaking. More scholars must learn Arabic—really learn it, well enough to understand the rich but difficult manuscript sources housed in libraries and archives in Morocco.

6Without any doubt, the rich sources I encountered were central to the success of my research. But my work was also facilitated by the unique nature of Morocco itself. Morocco is the only Arab country which still houses a thriving—if extremely diminished—Jewish community, and this continuity was crucial to my experience as an historian there. Jews remain prominent figures in Moroccan business, politics, and culture. Aïcha, the popular brand of canned goods and fruit jams found on nearly every grocer’s shelf throughout Morocco, is owned by a Jewish family from Meknes. André Azoulay, who hails from a Jewish family in Essaouira, is an advisor to King Mohammed VI and has played a central role in promoting the study and celebration of Moroccan Jewish culture. Gad Elmaleh, a Moroccan Jew who migrated to France, is a popular comedian and actor among Moroccans both at home and abroad.

  • 6 “Ma‘a qahwati as-ṣabāḥ,” p. 1, 7 May 2010 (22 Jumādā I, 1431).

7Even if only three or four thousand Jews remain in Morocco (most of whom are concentrated in Casablanca), many Moroccans throughout the country still remember the experience of having Jewish neighbors, business associates, and friends. The memory of Jews remains a powerful shaper of Moroccan identity, as Aomar Boum has demonstrated in his ethnographic research in southern Morocco. I cannot begin to count the number of times I told someone about my research and was rewarded with stories of the Jews who used to live and work alongside their Muslim neighbors. In a taxi on the way to Sefrou, our driver spoke at great length about the Jews who used to live in the small city to which we were headed; he even quoted the Quran to demonstrate the inherent affinity between Islam and Judaism. The belief that Jews were and still are integral parts of Moroccan society was echoed in an editorial on the front page of al-Masā’, the most widely-read daily newspaper in Morocco.6

  • 7 For instance, Jamaâ Baïda, was recently appointed director of the Moroccan Archives (a new position (...)

8Perhaps most importantly for members of the academic community, Moroccan Muslim scholars are among the few Arab Muslims to write extensively about the history of Jews in their own country. The pioneering work of Mohammed Kenbib, Jāma’ Baïda, Khalid Ben-Srhir, Mohammed Hatimi, Ahmed Chahlane, and Mohammed Medlaoui–among others–has been central not only to the development of Moroccan Jewish history, but to Moroccan history more broadly. Nor are these scholars relegated to the margins of their professions; on the contrary, they are prominent members of Moroccan academia and Moroccan society.7 I personally benefited tremendously from their support, advice, and encouragement. Their accomplishments attest the extent to which the study of Jews in Morocco is not only acceptable but applauded in Morocco itself.

9To study of the history of Jews in Morocco is to discover a different Arab World from the one spread across the front pages of American newspapers and the TV screens of millions of viewers around the world. What I encountered in archives, markets, and taxis is a Muslim-majority country where non-Muslims’ place is at the center of society; where Jewish history is an integral part of Moroccan history and where treasure troves of sources still await the careful eye of historians to recover the rich story of Jewish-Muslim relations in this extraordinary place. This call to arms is directed at students and young scholars: I encourage you to go to Morocco (and other parts of the Islamic world) yourself, to learn Arabic, to sit in the archives, and to re-write the history of the Middle East and the Jews who lived (and live) there. Ideas are powerful and they have the potential to change the way people in the West think about Jews, Muslims, and the Islamic World.


2 See the “Préambule,” p. 2. The full text can be found at (accessed 26 December 2012).

3 This research was for my dissertation, entitled “In the Courts of the Nations: Jews, Muslims, and Legal Pluralism in Nineteenth Century Morocco” (Ph.D. Thesis, Princeton University, 2013).

4 See especially the work of Daniel Schroeter, Mohammed Kenbib, Khalid Ben Srhir, and Emily Gottreich.

5 These are held at the Bibliothèque Hassaniyya under the call numbers K 157, K 171, K 174, and K 181.

6 “Ma‘a qahwati as-ṣabāḥ,” p. 1, 7 May 2010 (22 Jumādā I, 1431).

7 For instance, Jamaâ Baïda, was recently appointed director of the Moroccan Archives (a new position created in 2011), and Mohammed Kenbib served as the conseiller culturel for the Embassy of Morocco in France from 1997-2001.


Assistant Professor, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

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