Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 13, 2015

Jews of the Magreb

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 2:30 pm

An Algerian Jew of the 19th century

A passage in a very important article titled “Israel and the Jews” in today’s CounterPunch reminded me that I had planned to post an article of mine that appeared originally in Critical Muslim:

Jews have lived for centuries in the Islamic world. They have even been welcomed by the Ottoman empire after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Today, Israel participates in the demonization of Arabs and of Muslims by behaving as a model pupil in the ‘clash of civilizations’ classroom. Some politicians having made it their stock in trade, anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia is openly displayed, and acting on them is not uncommon.

In Israel, propagandists compete to explain that Jews have lived in hell in the Muslim world, concealing the fact that anti-Semitism has been above all of European and Christian origins. In Israel, Oriental Jews experience social discrimination and racist contempt. They have often been humiliated and discriminated against on their arrival. They are cut from their roots and urged to renounce their identity. The expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 is presented as an ‘exchange of populations’ whereas Zionism is the principle cause, both of the Nakba and of the departure of Oriental Jews from their countries.

The Jews of the Maghreb

By Louis Proyect

Zionist historians have an ideological mission. They must look back into history and draw essentialist conclusions about the “enemies” of the Jews no matter the countervailing evidence. As long as there have been gentiles determined to persecute and even exterminate the chosen people, there will be a need for an Israel armed to the teeth with jet fighters, advanced missile systems, and nuclear weapons.

Benzion Netanyahu, the father of Israel’s prime minister, wrote a book on the Spanish Inquisition that traced what he called “Jew hatred” to ancient Egypt, long before Christianity. Naturally that would give his son the license to create an apartheid-like system in the West Bank.

Despite 19th century Germany’s vanguard role in forging an Enlightenment that would give Jews full equality, Daniel Goldhagen wrote a book that depicted the German race as essentially bent on the destruction of the Jews from time immemorial.

But pre-Zionist Islam constitutes the biggest challenge for the ideologically-driven historian. Against the preponderant evidence that Jews flourished for the most part under early Muslim rule, there is also some evidence that they were persecuted. This evidence is generally subsumed under the category of dhimmitude, a neologism based on the Arab word dhimmi that is applied to non-Islamic peoples like the Jews and the Christians who were supposedly second-class citizens.

Although Paul B. Fenton and David G. Littman’s 2010 L’ Exil au Maghreb: la condition juive sous l’Islam 1148-1912 was never translated into English, the book’s tendentious findings have been picked up by Muslim-bashing bloggers. Littman’s Islamophobia is of a long-standing character. In 2005 he contributed several articles to the collection edited by Robert Spencer titled The Myth of Islamic Tolerance: How Islamic Law Treats Non-Muslims.

Over on the aptly named jihadwatch.com, there’s a review of Fenton and Littman by one Ibn Warraq, who despite his Arab lineage is an Islamophobic stalwart. His best-known book is “Why I am not a Muslim”. Warraq states that the book offers “proof of the abject condition of the Jews in the Maghreb in the Nineteenth Century, destroying along the way a number of myths that were current up to that time.”1 Of course, it understandable why attention is paid to the nineteenth century rather than the period most scholars deem as a golden age for Jews under Islam. As should be obvious, any attempt to describe relations between Muslim and Jews across continents and across millennia is a fool’s errand and one that obviously recommends itself to the Zionist historian.

You can get a sense of what is in L’ Exil au Maghreb: la condition juive sous l’Islam 1148-1912 from the introduction to Jews under Muslim Rule in the late Nineteenth Century, an earlier Littman title that is available in English:

Till the last decades of the nineteenth century and even into the twentieth, the Jews in many parts of the Maghreb – as in most other Muslim lands – were still obliged to live in isolated groups amidst the general population. They resided in special quarters and were constrained to wear distinctive clothing, the carrying of arms was forbidden to them and their sworn testimony was not accepted in any Muslim Court of Law. Their discriminatory status remained that of ahl al dhimma: a ‘protected’ people, i.e. people enjoying the protection of Islam and the Koran, while at the same time subject to the disabilities and humiliations laid down in specific regulations known as the Pact of Omar (634—644 C. E.), which degraded both the individual and the community.2

For Littman, the wearing of “distinctive clothing” was identified with the Nazi policy of making Jews wear a Star of David. There is little interest in showing what Jewish life was like in the Maghreb apart from identifying policies that would not be permitted in today’s enlightened European landscape that allows skinheads to beat up or kill Arab or North African immigrants with impunity.

Littman, who died in May 2012, was a lightning rod for student protests against Islamophobe appearances on campus. Wikipedia reports that when he submitted a proposed speech to be given at Georgetown University in October 2002 on the “Ideology of Jihad, Dhimmitude and Human Rights” to student organizers, a Jewish student requested that he not deliver his lecture.3 He, like Muslim students, felt that charges of sexual abuse against Muhammad were better suited for Pam Geller’s website rather than a major academic institution. Littman attributed the objections of Jewish and Christian students to a dhimmi mentality.

All that being said, it is necessary to draw a balance sheet on the experience of Jews in the Maghreb. If Jews were forced to wear special clothing and were not permitted to carry arms (or ride horses for that matter), what does that really say about what life was like for them in its totality in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya—the four countries that make up the Maghreb (the Arab word for the West)?

To get a handle on Jewish life in what some scholars regard as a golden age, there’s no better place to start than with Shelomo Dov Goitein’s 5-volume Mediterranean Society, a work that attempts to recreate the daily lives of Jews through the examination of the Cairo Geniza documents, a collection of 300,000 manuscript fragments from the storeroom (geniza) of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo. There were both religious and secular documents ranging from 870 AD to as late as 1880. These were largely of a quotidian nature sought by historians trying to write “history from below”. They were preserved only because they were written in Hebrew, God’s language, and as such could not be destroyed. Essentially, in other words, the geniza was a glorified trash bin.

While reading the full Mediterranean Society is a task relegated to the specialist, I can recommend the 263 page Jews and Arabs: a Concise History of Their Social and Cultural Relations to the non-specialist. In fact I would consider it required reading for those trying to combat Islamophobia on their campus or in their various social movements.

While acknowledging the decline of Jewish economic conditions in the 19th century, a period that Littman and Fenton dwell on (and which requires further analysis), Goitein describes the golden age under Fatimid rule as one with the “absence of oppressive discriminatory economic legislation” that “can be judged from the great variety of professions and crafts followed by the Jews in Islamic countries as opposed to the few trades available to them in Medieval Europe.”

The Fatimid Caliphate was a Berber Shi’a ruled dynasty that originated in modern day Tunisia in the 10th century and that eventually made Egypt its center. It derived its name from the belief that they were descended from Fatima, Mohammad’s daughter. It extended across the entirety of the Maghreb and through the Middle East and was marked by tolerance toward non-Muslims.

Chapter six of Goitein’s book, which deals with the “economic transformation … of the Jewish people in Islamic times” concludes that Fatimid rule was salutary for the Jews at least on economic grounds:

Our survey of the economic conditions and social institutions of the Jews during the first, creative, five centuries of Islam, has shown that there were many agents which worked toward a revival and a gradual unification of the Jewish people inside the Muslim world: the economic rise and entrance of the Jews into the class of business and professional people; commercial and family relations connecting Jews from many Muslim countries; the new institution of the “Representative of the Merchants”; the allegiance to ecumenical and regional central authorities; travel for “the seeking of wisdom” and for pilgrimage to holy places; the application of the same law to all Jews wherever they lived; and, finally, Jewish charity which, like its Muslim counterpart, was not limited by political boundaries. The new economic and social conditions did not fail to exercise a marked influence also on the cultural life of the Jews inside Islam.4

Goitein’s analysis of the status of Jews in early Islamic history was echoed in Richard Hull’s Jews and Judaism in African History. He emphasizes the network of trade that allowed the Fatimids to function as a vast entrepôt linking the far western reaches of the Maghreb with India and China. Key to its success were the Jewish traders of North Africa who became so instrumental that Ali Kilis—a Jew despite his name—became the first vizier of the Fatimid Empire. Hull writes:

Jewish life flourished under the Fatimids, and as we’ve already discovered, by the eleven century the city of Kairwan in modern Tunisia had become a major center of Jewish learning and economic activity. Jewish scholars traveling between Europe and the Middle East rested, studied, and taught in Kairwan. Robert Seltzer tells us that “academies were established by important talmudists and prosperous Jewish merchant families supported Jewish scientists and philosophers” (Seltzer 1980: 345). Egyptian and Maghrebian Jewry flourished, and Jews from the old Abbasid territories began to migrate to Africa.5

However, as a reminder of the need to avoid romanticizing this period, Hull points out that in Fez, a Moroccan city that had a high concentration of Jews, there was a brutal pogrom in 1033 that left thousands of men killed and their wives, sisters, and daughters sold into slavery. But despite this tragedy, Jews remained in Fez and rebuilt it as a major economic and cultural center.

Neither does Goitein romanticize the period. He refers to “ridiculous laws” that required Jewish women to wear shoes of different colors, one white and one black, as well as the code that prevented Jews from riding horses—a law that he likened to Nazis preventing them from owning a car. While undoubtedly there were similarities between the codes of medieval Morocco and 20th century Germany, as Littman was so determined to point out, there was never an “existential threat” to Jews in early times on the scale of Nazi Germany. That only manifested itself in Europe and particularly in countries that regarded the very economic success alluded to above as a threat to Christian interests. When capitalism began to take root in 15th century France, Spain and Britain, the older Jewish trading and financial networks were seen as rivals and worthy of total elimination with the Spanish Inquisition setting the pace.

Probably nothing militates more against facile attempts to make an amalgam of Maghreb Jewish-Islamic relations with Nazi Germany than the phenomenon of “mellahs” of Morocco, the Jewish quarters that bore a superficial relationship to fascist-imposed ghettos.

In 1438 the Sultan created a mellah near the palace after a number of Jews were killed in the aftermath of a rumor that they had placed wine in the mosques of Fez, a city with a large Jewish population. On first blush, they “made the Jewish communities appear as outcasts, isolated from the wider society” in the words of Daniel J. Schroeter.6

But in fact the Jewish quarters were quite porous. Jews were able to move in and out of the mellah and even settle in other cities where there were none. Schroeter writes:

Finally, and most important, the walls of the mellahs of Morocco hardly constituted impregnable barriers to outside influence. The mellah indeed constituted “Jewish space” but not an isolated part of the city. It was a locale from which the Jewish community interacted with the city as a whole, and with the wider world. Finally, it should be pointed out that the term “mellah,” which became the generic term for the Jewish quarter in Morocco, eventually implied not only the physical space of residence but also the Jewry of a given locale, which was the case throughout the small communities in the Moroccan countryside, especially in the south of the country where often no distinctly physically separated residential Jewish quarter existed.7

In other words, they were not that different from the orthodox Jewish enclaves of Brooklyn, N.Y. today.

Moving closer to the present day, there are factors that come into play that partially explain growing tensions between Jew and Muslim in the Maghreb. In the nineteenth century anti-colonial movements took root that drew upon both nationalist and Islamist themes perceived as inimical to the interests of the urban Jew who tended to identify with France, the mother country of Tunisia and Morocco, or Italy as is the case for Libya.

Mark A. Tessler and Linda L. Hawkins point out that France exploited the existing differences between Jew and Muslim, using the time-dishonored technique of divide and conquer. In Algeria France offered citizenship en masse to its Jewish population. Elsewhere, Jews received preferential treatment, including easy access to French schools—a measure that almost guaranteed assimilation into the dominant culture. Tessler and Hawkins write:

Jewish assimilation of French culture was enhanced by the Alliance Israelite Universelle, an independent international educational foundation that operated in North Africa with support from the colonial establishment. Through its extensive network of primary and secondary schools, the AIU spread the French language and culture far more broadly than did elite and settler-oriented French schools. In a few instances, as in Djerba in southern Tunisia, traditionalist elements successfully resisted the incursions of the AIU. In general, however, Jews welcomed the AIU and viewed it as an agent of progress. Together, the AIU and the colonial mission narrowed the cleavage between indigeneous Jews and those of European origin and taught many Jews to accept France as their spiritual home. Thus, they greatly increased the cultural distance between Jews and Arabs. They also produced among many Arabs a view of the Jew as collaborator. Jews were seen as profiting by, and indeed becoming a part of, a political force that most Arabs considered oppressive and humiliating.8

In Algeria where colonial oppression was most extreme, most of the French-oriented Jewish population fled the country after the FLN took power. Not every Jew identified with the imperialists. Henri Alleg, a member of the Communist Party and still living at the age of 92, became a partisan of the FLN and endured torture for his activism. Despite Alleg, some Jews became members of the fascist OAS. This prompted the FLN to issue an appeal to Algerian Jews in 1962:

Some among you have perhaps forgotten that era in order to knowingly involve yourselves in the crimes of the colonialists under the pretext of counter-terrorism in Constantine and Algiers. Recently, in Oran, demonstrations provoked by young hotheads in the Israelite neighborhood took place, followed by fires set in stores belonging to Muslims. These acts are the clearest illustration of how some of you attempt to thoughtlessly align yourselves with the racial policies of the ultras. Will you today make yourselves the accomplices of the backwards colonialists by rising up against your Algerian brothers of Muslim origin? We refuse to believe this, because you know the anti-Semitism of the activists and seditionists of Algeria.

Libya endured the same unfortunate clash between native Muslim aspirations for independence and Jewish identification with the mother country. Maurice Roumani, a Libyan Jew, is the author of The Jews of Libya: Coexistence, Persecution, Resettlement. In a chapter titled Mussolini, Fascism and Libyan Jews, he describes the “warm welcome” the Jewish community in Libya provided to the occupying powers. It includes this startling description of the relationship of Italian Jews to Italian fascism, one that was shared by their brethren in Libya:

When Mussolini first established the nucleus of his Fascist Party Facci di combattimento on March 23, 1919, Jews already made up a significant portion of his support base. In fact, for over one hundred years, Jews stood staunchly behind the Italian Nationalist movement because they traditionally belonged to the bourgeoisie and anti-socialist movements.9

If the contradictions between the Jews of the Maghreb and the less privileged Arab colonial subjects sharpened over such matters, they finally came to a head with the creation of the state of Israel. Like the Mizrahim—the Arab Jews of Syria, Iraq, and Egypt—the Maghrebi Jews poured into Israel out of a sense that conditions would worsen for them through no fault of their own. Despite being thoroughly integrated into their communities in places like Fez that had known a Jewish presence for a thousand years, they left businesses, jobs and friends behind in order to enjoy the “safety” of the heavily armed and racist Israeli state.

The Ashkenazi (European Jews) powers that ruled Israel regarded the newcomers as barely distinguishable from the Palestinians they had just expelled. Israeli journalist Arye Gelbaum wrote:

This is the immigration of a race we have not yet known in the country. We are dealing with people whose primitivism is at a peak, whose level of knowledge is one of virtually absolute ignorance and, worse, who have little talent for understanding anything intellectual. Generally, they are only slightly better than the general level of the Arabs, Negroes, and Berbers in the same regions. In any case, they are at an even lower level than what we know with regard to the former Arabs of Israel. These Jews also lack roots in Judaism, as they are totally subordinated to savage and primitive instincts. As with Africans you will find among them gambling, drunkenness, and prostitution … chronic laziness and hatred for work; there is nothing safe about this asocial element. [Even] the kibbutzim will not hear of their absorption.10

Eventually the Maghrebi Jews were assimilated into Israel like their Mizrahim relatives and now constitute the backbone of the ultra-Zionist Shas Party.

In looking back at the tortured relationship between the Jews of North Africa and their Muslim brothers and sisters, you are left with the conclusion that “progress” is not necessarily tied to the quintessential product of the modern age—the national state. The development of state powers in North Africa and the Middle East have tended to create ethnic tensions that were far less pronounced in the Middle Age when a Fatimid Caliphate had no problem elevating a Jew to one of its most powerful posts.

The spiritual and moral exhaustion of the Zionist state as well as the Baathist dictatorships that exemplified Arab nationalism invite us to consider alternatives that leave the narrow considerations of ethnic and religious exclusivism behind. While the Fatimid Caliphate is obviously no model for our modern world, the 21st century will surely have to evolve in the direction of a polity that evaluates people without regard for their confessional roots. Sectarianism has been a dead-end for most of the 20th century and certainly deserves to be interred for good as we make our way fitfully into the 21st.


  1. http://www.jihadwatch.org/2011/09/review-of-paul-b-fenton-print.html.
  2. Littman’s introduction can be found at http://www.dhimmitude.org/archive/littman_jews_under_muslims_19thcent_wlb_1.pdf. Dhimmitude.org is a repository of articles designed to support the idea that Jews suffered oppression under Islamic rule and maintained by Gisèle Littman, David Littman’s widow.
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Littman_%28historian%29
  4. S.D. Goitein, Jews and Arabs : a concise history of their social and cultural relation, Mineola, N.Y., Dover Publications, 2005, p. 124
  5. Richard Hull, Jews and Judaism in African History, Princeton, N.J., Markus Wiener Publishers, 2009, p. 48
  6. The Shifting Boundaries of Moroccan Jewish Identities, Jewish Social Studies, New Series, Vol. 15, No. 1, Sephardi Identities, Fall 2008, p. 155
  7. ibid
  8. The Political Culture of Jews in Tunisia and Morocco, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 11, No. 1, Feb., 1980, p. 60
  9. Maurice M. Roumani, The Jews of Libya : coexistence, persecution, resettlement, Portland, Or., Sussex Academic Press, 2008, p. 14
  1. Meyrav Wurmser, Post-Zionism and the Sephardi Question, Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2005. The author cites Ha’aretz (Tel Aviv), Apr. 22, 1949.




  1. Have you read Ammiel Alcalay? Very good on the peoples of the Mediterranean and the Levant – http://www.citylights.com/book/?GCOI=87286100135420

    Comment by Fred Murphy — March 14, 2015 @ 1:52 am

  2. In that Counterpunch article I was a little taken aback to see “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (i.e. the positive formulation of the golden rule) and “love your neighbor as yourself” quoted in close proximity and identified as Jewish, which I don’t think they are. Otherwise a good article, as far as I can tell.

    Comment by godoggo — March 14, 2015 @ 2:22 am

  3. Do unto others and love your neighbor are both Rabbinic in origin, from Hillel and Akiva..

    Comment by Brian Prager — March 14, 2015 @ 12:35 pm

  4. Hillel used the negative form.

    Comment by godoggo — March 14, 2015 @ 6:09 pm

  5. I’d heard the Akiva story about explaining Judaism on one foot, but somehow I’d forgotten the punch line.

    Comment by godoggo — March 14, 2015 @ 9:50 pm

  6. sorry, jesus [yeshua] was paraphrasing hebrew scripture: Leviticus 19:18 – Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I [am] the LORD.

    Comment by jp — March 16, 2015 @ 4:47 pm

  7. http://palestinechronicle.com/old/view_article_details.php?id=15627
    I wrote this article in 2001 when the issue of “expulsion and exchange” began to be promoted in response to increased awareness of the true nature of Palestinian expulsion. The term Mizrahim seems to have come to be used for all “Arab Jews” (and Persians), but I realize now that it’s ironic that Maghreb is Arabic for West.
    Thanks for your great overview, Louis. Always lots of propaganda from the Zionist perspective. I also didn’t realize about the Italian fascism angle, but that of course makes sense given Jabotinsky.

    Comment by David Green — March 17, 2015 @ 3:07 am

  8. […] is a topic that I have devoted a fair amount of research to, culminating in an article titled “Jews in the Maghreb”. The whole question of how Jews got treated in the Muslim world is highly politicized with […]

    Pingback by In reply to an Islamophobe | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — July 2, 2015 @ 7:25 pm

  9. Calabria and the DNA called Helocene or Elamite-Dravidian

    Comment by tonywells45 — February 5, 2017 @ 12:59 am

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