There is evidence of a Jewish presence in Morocco dating back to 587BCE. Jewish settlement in Morocco continued during the Roman Empire and in the 7th century CE the population was further boosted by Jews escaping the Visigoth Empire in Europe. From the 9th to 11th centuries, the Jewish community of Fez in particular enjoyed a ‘golden age’ and yeshivot (Jewish religious schools) flourished. In 1035 this period ended and a fanatical new ruling dynasty massacred at least 6,000 Jews, forcing the rest to convert to Islam. By the 12th century Jews were barred from living in both Fez and the new capital city of Marrakesh, and all Jewish converts were forced to wear yellow hats and suffered further humiliations and violence.
In the 13th century the Berber Marinid dynasty removed most of the legislation against Jews, allowing them to once again practice their religion openly. But this also meant that Jews were now liable to pay extortionate taxes on all their trade. In 1465, sparked by the promotion of several Jews in the Royal Court, a revolt amongst the Muslim population broke out, in which the entire Jewish community of Fez was massacred. Despite this, many Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 settled in Morocco. Whilst these new refugees introduced an educated mercantile element to the Jewish community, as well as new organisational structures, they were largely unwelcomed by the local Muslim population and many struggled to survive amongst famine, violence and extreme poverty.
Throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries the Jews of Morocco continued to be subjected to high taxation and were forced to live in designated Jewish quarters of towns, known as mellahs. Because the community was continually forced to pay for its survival, famine often broke out, killing thousands of Jews throughout the years. In addition to this, periodic outbreaks of violence would lead to state sanctioned riots, murders, rapes and forced resettling of whole Jewish communities.
Economic development in the 19th century brought prosperity to many Jewish merchants in Northern coastal towns. However, the remainder of the Jewish population were forced into poverty as their traditional modes of livelihood were replaced by industrialisation, and many were forced to move into overpopulated urban mellahs. Here they were once again made scapegoats, subjected to violence and looting each time the Muslim population became economically poorer. During this time around 1000 Moroccan Jewish families left the country for Brazil, which was experiencing a boom due to rubber production. This continued persecution of Moroccan Jews led to the foundation in Morocco of the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU), a French-Jewish organisation that worked towards Jewish social and political equality across the world. It was instrumental in establishing several French-based schools for Jewish children all over the Middle East.
In 1863 the British Jew Sir Moses Montefiore intervened on behalf of Moroccan Jews and, backed by the British government, persuaded the Sultan to afford equal rights of justice to Jews. In 1912 the French Protectorate was established in Morocco and Jews were not afforded French citizenship. This meant that they lost the brief protection that they had formerly enjoyed and over fifty Jews in Fez were murdered in a pogrom led by rebelling Moroccan soldiers.
By the 1930s over 250,000 Jews lived in Morocco, the largest number in the whole of the Middle East and North Africa. In 1940 when the Nazi-driven Vichy decrees came into force, the Sultan Mohammad V refused to enforce them and protected the country’s Jewish population. However, in 1948 when the State of Israel was established, antisemitic riots against Jews in Morocco broke out, resulting in the deaths of 44 Jewish people. 18,000 Jews decided to leave Morocco in this year and Jewish emigration, encouraged by Zionist organisations, continued slowly but steadily until 1956.
In 1956 Morocco gained independence from France and several political positions in the new country were held by Jews. In the same year, emigration to Israel was prohibited, although it continued illegally. In 1961 this law was revoked, on the condition that Israel would pay Morocco for each Jew that left the country. By 1967 only 60,000 Jews were left in Morocco. The Six-Day War reignited tensions and by 1971 the Jewish population of Morocco had halved again.
Today about 2,500 Jews live in Morocco. Although it is an ageing population, there are functioning synagogues and a communal Jewish life.