Collage, Daniel Zisenwine
Bronze Medal
Medal with woman
Torah Finial

Daniel Zisenwine, collage by Marva Gradwohl

Medal celabrating the 50th anniversary of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, 1910, JMS 557

Medal celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, 1910, JMS 557

Rimon, Torah finial, Mediterranena, 19th century, JMS 784.

Who were the Jews of North Africa?

Four Questions to Daniel Zisenwine

Dani­el Zisen­wi­ne is a Midd­le Eas­tern stu­dies scho­lar and a visi­ting lec­tu­rer at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Basel, tea­ching, among others, about Jewish com­mu­ni­ties in North Afri­ca. Muse­um direc­tor Nao­mi Lubrich spo­ke with him about Jews in Mus­lim-majo­ri­ty socie­ties, about the spi­ce and lea­ther trade and about the con­se­quen­ces of fran­co­pho­ne education.

Nao­mi Lubrich: Dani­el, who were the Jews of North Africa? 

Dani­el Zisen­wi­ne: The Jews of the Maghreb lived in Moroc­co, Alge­ria, Tuni­sia, and parts of Libya. The­se com­mu­ni­ties were regio­nal­ly dif­fe­rent: Urban Jews lived along the coast, rural Jews in the moun­tai­nous are­as of the Atlas. In 1492, the Spa­nish Inqui­si­ti­on brought an influx of Sephar­dic Jews to North Afri­ca, who foun­ded new, sepa­ra­te com­mu­ni­ties, though dif­fe­ren­ces later subs­i­ded. Jews lived in the­se Mus­lim-majo­ri­ty socie­ties in grea­ter and les­ser seclu­si­on, usual­ly in wal­led, but porous, Jewish neigh­bor­hoods, Mel­lahs. They were reco­gni­zed under Mus­lim reli­gious law as Dhim­mis, mem­bers of a mono­the­i­stic reli­gi­on, which rest­ric­ted them but offe­red some degree of pro­tec­tion and rights. The Jews of North Afri­ca had con­sidera­ble auto­no­my, for ins­tance in ques­ti­ons of law and edu­ca­ti­on. Anti-Jewish sen­ti­ment bro­ke out peri­odi­cal­ly, but it was less aggres­si­ve than in Europe.

NL: The­re are various terms to desi­gna­te North Afri­can Jews. Which are correct?

DZ: I use the term «Maghreb,» which means «West» and desi­gna­tes the lar­ger cul­tu­ral and poli­ti­cal regi­on. In Isra­el, the term «Miz­rahi» has beco­me wide­spread for Jews from the Midd­le East, inclu­ding North Afri­ca, but it is inac­cu­ra­te: «Miz­rahi» means «East,» which, from an Israe­li per­spec­ti­ve, is dia­me­tri­cal­ly oppo­sed to the Maghreb. Even less cor­rect, but unfort­u­na­te­ly also wide­spread, is the term «Sephar­dic» which refers spe­ci­fi­cal­ly to the com­mu­ni­ties foun­ded by Spa­nish Jews after their expul­si­on. Some have offe­red the term «Arab Jew,» see­king to unders­core the lin­gu­i­stic and cul­tu­ral back­ground of the­se com­mu­ni­ties. This term is also inac­cu­ra­te, as few Jewish sources from the­se com­mu­ni­ties used that desi­gna­ti­on. 

NL: Was the­re much cont­act bet­ween the Maghre­bi and Euro­pean Jewish communities? 

DZ: The­re was cont­act in the pre-colo­ni­al era, most­ly in trade. The most important cont­act points were Livor­no in Ita­ly, with its port fre­quen­ted by Tuni­si­an mer­chants, and Mar­seil­le in France, with its coun­ter­part port for Alge­ria and Moroc­co. The Maghreb regi­on pro­du­ced spi­ces and lea­ther, from shoes to hand­bags. Sin­ce many of the Maghre­bi Jews were craft­smen and mer­chants, they had cont­act with their Euro­pean customers.

NL: What influence did French colo­niza­ti­on have on the Maghre­bi Jews? 

DZ: The French inva­si­on of Alge­ria in 1830 had a pro­found impact on the regi­on. That inva­si­on was ter­ri­bly vio­lent, lea­ving Alge­ri­an Mus­lims defea­ted and dis­pos­s­es­sed. A half-cen­tu­ry later, in 1881, France colo­ni­zed Tuni­sia. While the Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ty suf­fe­r­ed great­ly under French rule, the Jewish popu­la­ti­on was on fri­end­lier terms with the French. Many Jews embra­ced French cul­tu­re, thanks to the efforts of the Alli­ance Israé­li­te Uni­ver­sel­le, a Paris-based orga­niza­ti­on that offe­red edu­ca­tio­nal and wel­fa­re pro­grams to core­li­gio­nists in North Afri­ca and the Midd­le East, and impar­ted French edu­ca­ti­on and cul­tu­re. The Alli­ance Israé­li­te ope­ned its first school in 1862 in Tétou­an, Moroc­co. In Alge­ria, France went even fur­ther, and gran­ted citi­zen­ship to the enti­re Jewish com­mu­ni­ty in 1870, after efforts made by the French Jewish minis­ter Cre­mieux. The Jews’ accep­tance of French cul­tu­re, howe­ver, was ulti­m­ate­ly a reason many left North Afri­ca. After their count­ries gai­ned inde­pen­dence in the mid-20th cen­tu­ry, and the estab­lish­ment of Isra­el, the Jewish depar­tu­re from North Afri­ca inten­si­fied. In some cases, such as Alge­ria, two-thirds of the Jewish com­mu­ni­ty Jews migra­ted to fran­co­pho­ne Euro­pe, inclu­ding Gen­e­va and Lau­sanne, while the remai­ning third made their new homes in Isra­el and over­se­as, for ins­tance Mont­re­al. The num­bers are stag­ge­ring: In 1948, Alge­ria coun­ted 120 000 Jews; today the­re are none left. In Moroc­co, the­re were 250 000, and only a scant 2500 remain today. The Jews left a vacu­um in some of the­se count­ries, par­ti­cu­lar­ly in Moroc­co. Older Moroc­can Mus­lims have a sen­se of nost­al­gia, con­ten­ding that times were bet­ter pri­or to the Jewish depar­tu­re. They fondly recall Jewish neigh­bors and the exis­tence of the­se for­mer Jewish communities.

NL: Dani­el, Let’s hope the fond memo­ries per­sist. Thank you for a fasci­na­ting insight into a cul­tu­re that has all but disappeared. 

verfasst am 30.11.2023