In Morocco, Amazigh Jews Confront Their Long-Held Ties to Israel

Much of the indigenous community long sought allies against Arabization, but many now struggle to accept atrocities in Gaza

In Morocco, Amazigh Jews Confront Their Long-Held Ties to Israel
Celebrating the Amazigh New Year in Morocco in 2024. Most of the country’s 2,000 remaining Jews are Amazigh. (AFP via Getty Images)

In his living room in Casablanca, Mellul, 66, sat in his striped “djellaba” (long robe) and black hat, taking long sips from a small glass of sweet mint tea. From a nearby speaker, the warm voice of Mbarek Oulaarbi, a renowned Amazigh singer, cut through the sound of the old man’s slurps, before he lowered his cup from his lips and joined in, singing, “They want to cut us from the Palestinian cause” in Tamazight, one of the indigenous languages of Morocco.

Mellul, who asked to be identified only by his first name for safety reasons, belongs to a unique community in Morocco. He is Amazigh, part of the indigenous minority in Morocco that has fought for greater recognition and autonomy for centuries. But he is also Jewish, as many Amazigh were before the arrival of Islam in the seventh century CE.

Today, the Amazigh Jews are a small community — most of Morocco’s remaining 2,000 Jewish inhabitants are Amazigh — but one that sits at the intersection of complex historical, political and religious allegiances when it comes to Israel, Palestine and Morocco. Now, with the war in Gaza raging, those tensions have reached a fever pitch, and Amazigh Jews like Mellul are confronting head-on the conflicts wrought by their complex identities.

In his home library, a copy of Edward Said’s memoir “Out of Place” is stacked next to a biography of the Rif militant Abd el-Krim al-Khattabi — two figures Mellul says he forged a special connection with, despite their differences. For half a century, he has been searching for a voice that expresses his identity, that captures the joys, burdens and contradictions of the two cultures that live simultaneously within him. Even after decades, he cannot quite express what it means to be moved by both traditional Amazigh “ahwach” dances and Jewish “piyyut,” a form of poetry that carries hints of the Moroccan lyrical verse known as “malhoun.”

It is a Sisyphean ordeal, Mellul told me, in which what you carry is not a rock but the weight of the gaze of your ancestors. “Am I a good enough Jew? Am I a good enough Amazigh? I wonder all the time.”

“I am too scared to disappoint my ancestors, especially my father,” he added jokingly, whispering as if the blurry picture of his father — a librarian firmly dedicated to the Amazigh homeland — that hangs in the living room might hear his words.

But he is sure about one thing: “It’s not all right what Israel is doing to Palestinians in Gaza. As an Amazigh Jew, I am the child of two genocides,” he said, referring to the Holocaust and also using the deeply contested term for the systematic oppression of Amazigh people across North Africa over centuries. “Supporting another one is against everything we stand for as a community.”

In what some outsiders might see as a surprising alliance, many within Morocco’s Amazigh community — which includes Muslims and Jews of varying religiosity as well as agnostics and those who practice other religious beliefs — aligned themselves with Israel, long before the kingdom normalized ties with the country in 2020. The connection transcends religious affiliation, instead stemming from a shared historical aversion to Arabization and Islamization, which the Amazigh see as working to erase their culture.

There are different theories about the origins and history of Judaism among the Amazigh in North Africa, with some going back as far as the sixth century BCE. In “Jews of the Sous Region,” author Abdullah Laghmaid argues that the arrival of Jews in southern Morocco coincided with the development of Phoenician colonization, between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE. Their settlement in the Amazigh regions spanned various historical periods.

“They merged with the Amazigh people. They retained their religion, but their culture and language became Amazigh,” explained Moroccan Amazigh activist Adil Adaskou. Over time, the two communities merged, with many Amazigh adopting Judaism as their faith.

When ambitious military leaders from the Arabian Peninsula, seeking new trading markets and vowing to spread Islam, arrived in North Africa in the seventh century CE, the Amazigh resisted vigorously. Despite their efforts, the Arabs conquered the area, setting up trade routes and settlements. They also proclaimed their new religion, though reportedly only those who did not profess a monotheistic faith were forced to convert. Jews and Christians, considered “People of the Book,” were left to practice their existing faiths. In the centuries that followed, converted Muslim Amazighs held key roles in the various caliphates that ruled Morocco, but their indigenous identity, and that of their people, was suppressed as the state embraced Islam.

However, when Morocco fell under the French protectorate, both Arabs and Amazighs became victims of the new colonizing system, which sought to divide and rule. One way this happened, argues the Moroccan writer Mohamed Mounib, was through a change in the legal code that ostensibly preserved Amazigh tribes’ traditions, but in reality facilitated the seizure and exploitation of Amazigh lands by French settlers.

France introduced the Berber Dahir, a decree that established a separate legal code for the Amazigh community — a Frankenstein-like amalgamation of pre-Islamic indigenous law combined with parts of the Islamic legal code, as it was locally practiced. But the decree was subject to multiple layers of overt and unspoken interpretation, and gave limited control to the Amazigh. Local courts, for example, were only granted the authority to adjudicate disputes when all parties belonged to Amazigh tribes, while French courts retained exclusive jurisdiction in cases of property disputes involving French nationals.

The oppression of Morocco’s Jewish population increased dramatically when Paris fell to the Germans in June 1940. Morocco was still under the French protectorate at the time, and was instructed to impose antisemitic laws against its quarter of a million Jews. Preparation for the Aryanization of the land began with a census that counted individuals, their occupations and their property. Economic, educational and administrative limitations were placed on the community.

During this time, King Mohammed V — who took his role as defender of the faithful to include all “People of the Book” and was bristling at the diktats coming from abroad that challenged his sovereignty — worked to delay even harsher elements of the Aryanization of his country, refusing to deport Jews to the killing factories in Europe and winning their undying support in the process. Nevertheless, Jews were moved out of European neighborhoods and into tightly packed ghettos, known locally as “mellahs,” where typhoid and other diseases ran rampant because of poor living conditions. The mortality rate in the Jewish community jumped dramatically.

Some managed to avoid the horror of the mellahs.

“The legislation did not have an acute effect upon Jews who lived in Morocco’s rural margins,” explained Adaskou, “as Amazigh tribal leaders were rarely instructed to enforce Vichy law against their own communities” and their isolation made verification difficult. The Vichy laws would remain in place until Morocco’s independence in 1956, when Mohammed V abolished them and appointed several Jews to ministerial positions.

Following independence, Morocco sought a rebrand — a slogan to unify the decolonized state, blur differences and shape a society that would share the same language, pray to the same God and obey the same king. Influenced by the rising pan-Arab movement, Moroccan nationalists envisioned an Arab-Islamic Moroccan state under the reign of the Alawi dynasty.

Consequently, the Amazigh identity had to take a back seat. Local authorities forbade the use of Amazigh names for newborns, and historical Amazigh figures and battles were either omitted from the country’s school curriculum or vilified for rejecting Islam.

One of the key symbols of the pan-Arab movement was the violence and injustice suffered by the people displaced from homes and villages in Palestine upon the creation of the state of Israel.

“Palestine is the pan-Arab cause” was the refrain of many a charismatic Arab leader — from Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser to Syria’s Hafez al-Assad — and it echoed loudly in Morocco as well. The unification of Arab identity over the liberation of Palestine became a core tenet of the new vision for the region.

But Morocco’s pan-Arab dream had no place for communities who did not identify as Arabs, like the Amazigh. “I think the pan-Arab movement has caused more harm than good to the Palestinian cause. Many Amazigh grew to perceive Palestine as a cause of extremist Arabs who want the region only for themselves,” said David, 56, who has Amazigh Jewish roots and who asked not to use his last name for fear of repercussions.

We met at the Bayt Dakira, or the House of Memory Museum, in Essaouira, a coastal city more than half of whose population was Jewish in the mid-20th century. There, surrounded by artifacts and photographs that evoke his family’s past, he recounted their complicated history in the years following independence.

Both of David’s parents were Amazigh Jews — his mother with Moroccan and Algerian heritage, his father from the High Atlas Mountains. They lived through the end of the Vichy era and saw the country’s Jewish community diminish in its wake. In the spring of 1948, riots erupted in the eastern towns of Oujda and Jerada, after the declaration of the establishment of the Israeli state. At least 40 Jews died in the violence.

“My mother told me that the family decided to leave for France after the Oujda and Jerada riots. Jewish people were terrified after that,” David said. By the time his family left, the migration of Morocco’s Jewish community, estimated to exceed 300,000 at the time, to various points abroad was already underway. Some left for France, but many others, lured by assurances of improved job prospects and safer lives in the “promised land,” left for Israel.

Even after Morocco gained independence, the activities of the Jewish Agency, a Zionist organization that worked to resettle Jews in Palestine, were tacitly tolerated, although the organization was outwardly prohibited from working in the country. As a result, an underground network of emigration developed, and between 1955 and 1956, approximately 60,000 Jews left Morocco for Israel. These departures continued until 1961, when King Hassan II allowed Jews to emigrate legally to the newly established Jewish state. Some 80,000 more Moroccan Jews would relocate there as a result.

David’s family opted to relocate to France instead, where Algerian relatives of his mother had already built a life away from the ongoing conflict in the recently established Jewish state. In this new environment, racism from European Jews directed toward North African and Arab Jews introduced an additional layer of challenges for the Amazigh Jewish community. After the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, in an increasingly hostile climate, 40,000 Jews from Morocco settled in France.

The Amazigh connection to Israel would deepen throughout the last decades of the 20th century and grow fervent during the Second Intifada in the early 2000s. At the time, the newly crowned king, Mohammed VI, cut the diplomatic ties his father established with Israel as he tried to build a new political system, different from his father’s “years of lead” — an era marked by state violence and repression against political dissidents.

The move angered many inside the Amazigh community, and several activist groups sought to rekindle relationships with Israel, using Facebook and WhatsApp to communicate and arrange meetings. In 2016, a group of Amazigh activists traveled to Tel Aviv, where they met publicly with members of the Moroccan diaspora and representatives from the Knesset. The meeting stirred up immense controversy at home, where the debate about normalization leaned more toward criminalizing contact with Israel rather than normalizing it.

Outside the museum, David walked in small steps, nodding “as-salamu alaikum” (“peace be upon you”) to the military guard near the gates. The guard responded with “shalom,” a word he picked up from the scores of Moroccan Jews who visit the museum daily. Both men seemed pleased with the successful attempt at cultural connection.

Similar guards are posted in front of all Jewish and foreign institutions in the city — a precaution the Moroccan state has taken for years to curtail hate crimes in the kingdom. However, amid the ongoing war in Gaza, the number of guards has multiplied, and caution is at its peak.

“It’s nothing like Israel, though,” David commented on the military presence.

In his 30s, David decided to travel to Tel Aviv, after being persuaded by his friends’ descriptions of how magnificent the city was following Birthright or family trips. “It is magnificent when you are in touristic places. But it’s not that magnificent when you look at the bigger picture,” he said as we walked past the Salam-Shalom Literary Cafe, which was recently shuttered for unknown reasons.

On his trip, David also went to Jerusalem, a place he described as “the intersection where one can witness how Jews and Palestinians are treated differently.” That experience made him question his previously held beliefs. Upon his return, David embarked on a journey of reading about the Israel-Palestine conflict, and he discovered that Israel is “just another patriarchal political dream where there’s no place for peace and coexistence.”

Sitting in a local cafe in Essaouira, a hushed voice interrupted David’s story about all of Israel’s wrongdoings, as all eyes turned to a small TV, where a live broadcast of a speech by Abu Obaida, the spokesperson of Hamas’ al-Qassam Brigades, was about to begin. David scanned the room to try to get a read on people’s reactions to the speech, from a figure who had grown in popularity among Moroccans since Oct. 7.

After the speech, a heated debate started at the cafe about Hamas, Palestine and Israel, as men set up their chess boards and argued over adequate military strategies and diplomatic talks. David moved uncomfortably in his chair, knowing that Abu Obaida’s surprise appearance precipitated the long-delayed question: “What do you think about Hamas and their attack on October 7?”

“As someone whose family lost so much because of violence, I don’t agree with the attacks. But as someone whose family suffered several forms of colonization and discrimination, I can’t blame them for being angry,” he said after a long pause. He said Hamas’ rejection of a two-state solution was frustrating, but he refrained from discussing it further.

“All I wish is for those kids to be spared the atrocities, children in Israel and Palestine. And that one day, they can live in peace in one land,” he added as he made his way swiftly out of the cafe, where the crowd was still passionately discussing the speech.

In the capital Rabat, Sion Assidon, another Amazigh Moroccan of Jewish descent, does not tiptoe around discussing the unraveling war in Gaza. Sporting his signature outfit, a keffiyeh tucked in his shirt like an ascot and a traditional red fez, Assidon stood confidently holding a sign in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement in front of several journalists at a large anti-normalization rally in Rabat in November.

In a blend of classical Arabic and Moroccan dialect, Assidon remained calm even during his frequent arguments with the police. He answered journalists’ questions about the importance of boycotting Israeli products while deflecting inquiries about his identity.

Assidon, who leads Morocco’s BDS movement, has long been guarded whenever he was asked about his Jewishness. “Thank you for your interest in me, but let’s talk about what’s important: the Palestinian cause,” he said.

Born in 1948 to an Amazigh Jewish family in Agadir, Assidon came to activism during the war in 1967, which persuaded him of the anti-Zionist and anti-normalization case. He later became one of the well-known figures opposing Israel and advocating for the Palestinian cause through Morocco’s BDS movement.

Despite leading the nonviolent boycott movement, Assidon does not hide his support for the Palestinian armed liberation movements, including Hamas. “Operation Aqsa [Flood]” — Hamas’ name for the attacks on Oct. 7 — “is a significant victory for Palestinian resistance. It has clearly demonstrated that the theory of an invincible army is nothing more than a myth,” he told journalists at the rally.

Assidon predicts that normalization and international support for what he calls “the Israeli genocide” will likely diminish as people worldwide learn more about the truth of Israel’s occupation. “However, despite that, we do not know what will happen; we can’t be certain about anything,” he concluded. It was a statement steeped not in ambivalence but in his own knowledge as an Amazigh Jew of how messy and complicated issues of identity and patriotism are when it comes to the struggle to be seen, recognized and free.

Assidon left the huddle of reporters and rejoined the raging crowd of pro-Palestine protesters gathered in front of the Parliament. Above the rest, his recognizable voice echoed the chant: “The people want to decolonize Palestine.”

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