Highest Jewish population: c.260,000 in 1940s
There has been a continuous Jewish presence in Morocco for at least 2,500 years. Throughout the early Middle Ages Jews in Morocco, particularly in Fez, flourished. Morocco was a place of extensive Jewish learning and kabbalist import. Jews in this period lived in relative peace, however in return for this, they were required to pay extremely high taxes that resulted in periodic periods of famine amongst poorer members of the community. In the 14th and 15th centuries these Jewish communities were joined by a significant number of Spanish and Portuguese Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. The 16th century saw the introduction of the Mellah in most Moroccan cities. The Mellah was an area of a Moroccan city, usually walled and gated near the seat of the governorship, in which Jews were at times required, and at times encouraged, to live. Conditions within each Mellah varied from city to city.
In 1631 the Alaouite Dynasty came to power, whose descendants rule to this day. The country was unified, and Morocco became the only country in the region to never experience Ottoman rule. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries Jewish life in Morocco continued. As the two Jewish communities of local and Spanish Jews came together, distinctly Moroccan Jewish traditions were formed. High rates of taxation ensured the community’s security, although pogroms remained relatively frequent.
From the early 19th century Morocco came under increasing pressure from growing European empires, and by 1840 was under an informal French protectorate. Throughout the 19th century, economic development, driven by European trade at northern city ports meant a distinct divide in the fortunes of the population of Morocco. Whilst those in Northern towns like Essaouira and Casablanca thrived, those living in rural areas were forced into poverty as industrialisation took hold. As Jews in these areas moved into urban centres, the Mellahs became overcrowded and extreme poverty was rife. Riots and looting by similarly disaffected Muslim residents of the cities grew in frequency throughout this period.
The plight of the Moroccan Jews drew the attention of Jews in Europe and in 1863 Sir Moses Montefiore, backed by the British government, persuaded the Sultan-King to afford equal rights of justice to Jews. The situation simultaneously led to the establishment of the Alliance Israélite Universelle schools. Established by a group of French Jews, the Alliance Israélite Universelle sought to equip Jews in North Africa, the Middle East and beyond with a formal French education, and thus provide the tools for economic development. The Alliance schools played a significant role in changing the culture of Moroccan Jewry, not least through the adoption of French as their primary language.
In 1912 Morocco was forced to formally accept its position as a French protectorate. In Fes, where the treaty formalising the Protectorate was signed, a riot headed by mutinous Moroccan soldiers broke out. The Mellah was destroyed and 66 Europeans, 45 Jews, and nearly 600 Muslims were murdered. Under the French protectorate, Jews were permitted religious freedoms and the same rights as their Muslim counterparts (although these were both less than those of French citizens).
Throughout the 1930s antisemitism began to rise and a number of riots that resulted in the assault of Jews or the destruction of Jewish property broke out around Morocco. In 1940 the French Vichy government introduced a series of antisemitic, Nazi-inspired laws. These were also applied to the French Protectorates and decrees were passed removing Jews from public schools, service, the law, medicine, and journalism. Although the Sultan-King Mohammad V was sympathetic to the Jewish plight and delayed as much as he was able, there was little he could do against the French ruling administration and in 1941 he was forced to ratify more laws, barring Jews from banking, finance, insurance, business and labour associations, and real-estate. Jews were also forced to move back into the Mellah of their cities. During the war 2,100 Jews were sent to North African labour camps. At the end of the war, the Vichy laws were repealed.
In 1948 after the State of Israel was established, riots broke out all over Morocco, resulting in the deaths of 44 Jews. Over the course of the next year at least 30,000 Jews left Morocco for Israel. This level of immigration continued over the following years and by 1956 over 100,000 Jews had left Morocco. In 1956 Morocco gained independence and five Jews were appointed to government. Later in the same year, emigration to Israel was banned, however at least 30,000 Jews made the journey illegally. In 1961 one of the boats carrying out this illegal emigration sunk, resulting in the deaths of 43 people. This prompted the Moroccan government to permit Jews to emigrate to Israel, provided the Israeli government would pay compensation for each Jew leaving the country. Nearly 90,000 Jews were airlifted to Israel, at the cost of $20 million US dollars.
In 1967 when the Six Day War broke out, antisemitism spiked. By this point, many of the Jews living in Morocco were French nationals and 40,000 of these left Morocco for France. By the 1970s about 20,000 Jews remained in Morocco, predominantly holding Moroccan citizenship. Today there is a small but active community of around 2,500 Jews in Morocco.