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Berber Jews

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Berber Jews
Udayen Imaziɣen
Berber Jews of the Atlas Mountains, c. 1900.
•Liturgical: Mizrahi Hebrew
•Traditional: Berber; also Judeo-Arabic with Judeo-Berber as a contact language
•Modern: typically the language of whatever country they now reside in, including Modern Hebrew in Israel
Related ethnic groups
Mizrahi Jews
Sephardi Jews
Other Jewish groups

Berber Jews are the Jewish communities of the Maghreb, in North Africa, who historically spoke Berber languages. Between 1950 and 1970 most emigrated to France, the United States, or Israel.[1]



Jews have settled in Maghreb since at least the third century BC.[2] According to one theory, which is based on the fourteenth-century writings of Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun and was influential during the 20th century, Berbers adopted Judaism from these arrived Jews before the Arab conquest of North Africa.[2][3] For example, French historian Eugène Albertini dates the Judaization of certain Berber tribes and their expansion from Tripolitania to the Saharan oases to the end of the 1st century.[4] Marcel Simon for his part, sees the first point of contact between the western Berbers and Judaism in the great Jewish Rebellion of 66–70 CE.[5] Some historians believe, based on the writings of Ibn Khaldoun and other evidence, that some or all of the ancient Judaized Berber tribes later adopted Christianity and afterwards Islam, and it is not clear if they are a part of the ancestry of contemporary Berber-speaking Jews.[6] According to Joseph Chetrit, recent research has shown weaknesses in the evidence supporting Ibn Khaldun's statement, and "seems to support scholars' hypothesis that Jews came to North Africa from ancient Israel after a stay in Egypt and scattered progressively from East to West, from the Middle East to the Atlantic in the Hellenic-Roman Empire".[2]

Islamic period[edit]

It is possible that the Barghawata confederacy had a Judeo-Berber background, though accounts of entire Berber tribes practicing Judaism appear later and are unreliable.[7]: 167 

While most Jewish communities from Ifriqiya westward through the Maghreb, the Sahara, and al-Andalus were primarily urban, the indigenous Judeo-Berbers of the western Maghreb lived in villages.[7]: 167 

After the Arab–Israeli War[edit]

Following the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, the tensions between the Jewish and Muslim communities increased.[8] Today, the indigenous Berber Jewish community no longer exists in Morocco. The Moroccan Jewish population rests at about 2,200 persons with most residing in Casablanca,[9] some of whom might still be Berber speakers.[10]


In the past, it would have been very difficult to decide whether these Jewish Berber clans were originally of Israelite descent and had become assimilated with the Berbers in language and some cultural habits or whether they were indigenous Berbers who in the course of centuries had become Jewish through conversion by Jewish settlers. The second theory was developed mainly in the first half of the 20th century, as part of the quest of French colonial authorities to discover and emphasize pre-Islamic customs among the Berber-Muslim population since such customs and ways of life were believed to be more amenable and assimilable to French rule, legitimizing the policy that the Berbers would be governed by their own "customary" law rather than Islamic law.

Consequently, the main proponents of this theory were scholars such as Nahum Slouschz who worked closely with French authorities.[11] Other scholars such as André Goldenberg and Simon Lévy also favoured it.[12]

Franz Boas wrote in 1923 that a comparison of the Jews of North Africa with those of Western Europe and those of Russia "shows very clearly that in every single instance we have a marked assimilation between the Jews and the people among whom they live" and that "the Jews of North Africa are, in essential traits, North Africans".[13]

Haim Hirschberg, a major historian of North African Jewry, questioned the theory of massive Judaization of the Berbers in an article named "The Problem of the Judaized Berbers". One of the points that Hirschberg raised in his article was that Ibn Khaldoun, the source of the Judaized Berbers theory, wrote only that few tribes "might" have been Judaized in ancient times and stated that in the Roman period the same tribes were Christianized.[6]

The theory of a massive Judaization of the Berber population was further dismissed by a 2008 study on mtDNA (transmitted from mother to children). The study carried out by Behar et al. analysed small samples of North African Jews (Libya (83); Morocco (149); Tunisia (37)) indicates that Jews from North Africa lack typically North African Hg M1 and U6 mtDNAs.[14] Hence, according to the authors, the lack of U6 and M1 haplogroups among the North African Jews renders the possibility of significant admixture, as between the local Arab and Berber populations with Jews, unlikely. The genetic evidence shows them to be distinct from Berber populations, but more similar to Ashkenazi Jewish populations.[14]

Later studies showed that haplogroups M1 and U6 are, in fact, carried on rare occasions by North African Jews. For example, a sample collected by Luisa Pereira et al. for their 2010 paper[15] is labeled a "person of Jewish ancestry" from Tunisia who belongs to haplogroup U6a7[16] and the same study found haplogroup U6a1 in two Jews from Morocco.[17][18] It remains unclear whether their source ancestors were Berber converts as opposed to Spaniards or others.

Notable people of Berber Jewish ancestry[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Shokeid, Moshe. The Dual Heritage: Immigrants from the Atlas Mountains in an Israeli Village.
  2. ^ a b c Patai, Raphael & Bar-Itzhak, Haya (eds.): Encyclopedia of Jewish Folklore and Traditions, p. 389. M.E. Sharpe, 2013.
  3. ^ Berber tribes converted to Judaism:
    • "many Berber tribes converted to Judaism". Reuven Firestone, Children of Abraham: an introduction to Judaism for Muslims , Ktav Publishing House, April 2001, p. 138.
    • "In addition, a number of Berber tribes converted to Judaism." Taru Bahl, M.H. Syed. Encyclopaedia of the Muslim World, Anmol Publications PVT. LTD., 2003, p. 50.
    • "...entire Berber tribes converted to Judaism." Marvine Howe. Morocco: the Islamist awakening and other challenges, Oxford University Press US, 2005, p. 184.
    • "...they had mounting influence among the Berber tribes of North Africa, some of which were converted to Judaism." Michael Maas. The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 411.
    • "a significant number of North African Jews descend from Berber tribes who converted to Judaism in late antiquity." Daniel J. Schroeter, Vivian B. Mann. Morocco: Jews and art in a Muslim land, Merrell, 2000, p. 27.
    • "It was in response to this violent repression that many Cyrenaican Jews fled deep into the Sahara and lived there among the Berber tribes, some of whom they later converted to Judaism". Martin Gilbert. In Ishmael's House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands, McClelland & Stewart, 2010, p. 4.
    • "Their influence spread among the pagan Berber population so that by the sixth century many Berber tribes had converted to Judaism. In some cases entire Berber tribes in the Atlas Mountains became Judaized." Ken Blady. Jewish communities in exotic places, Jason Aronson, 2000, p. 294.
  4. ^ Eugène Albertini, L'empire romain, 1929, p.165
  5. ^ Marcel Simon, « Le judaïsme berbère dans l'Afrique ancienne », in Revue d'histoire et de philosophie religieuse, XXVI, 1946, p.69
  6. ^ a b Hirschberg, H. Z. (1963). "The Problem of the Judaized Berbers". The Journal of African History. 4 (3). Cambridge University Press: 313–339. doi:10.1017/s0021853700004278. JSTOR 180026. S2CID 162261998.
  7. ^ a b Bennison, Amira K. (2016). The Almoravid and Almohad Empires. Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 978-0-7486-4681-4. JSTOR 10.3366/j.ctvhrczbp.
  8. ^ "Return to Morocco". www.aljazeera.com. Archived from the original on 2017-09-24. Retrieved 2016-08-19.
  9. ^ "Jews in Islamic Countries: Morocco". Jewish Virtual Library. Retrieved 2020-08-22.
  10. ^ "Return to Morocco". www.aljazeera.com. Archived from the original on 2017-09-24. Retrieved 2016-04-13.
  11. ^ Schroeter, Daniel J. (2008). "The Shifting Boundaries of Moroccan Jewish Identities" (PDF). Jewish Social Studies. 15 (1): 148.
  12. ^ Goldenberg, André (1992). Les juifs du Maroc. Paris: Editions du Scribe. ISBN 2-86765-013-5.
  13. ^ Franz Boas, Are the Jews a Race?, The World of Tomorrow, 1923, reprinted in Race and Democratic Society, New York, Augustin, 1945, pp. 39–41
  14. ^ a b Behar, Doron M.; et al. (2008). "Counting the Founders. The Matrilineal Genetic Ancestry of the Jewish Diaspora". PLoS ONE. 3 (4): e2062. Bibcode:2008PLoSO...3.2062B. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002062. PMC 2323359. PMID 18446216.
  15. ^ Pereira, Luisa; et al. (December 21, 2010). "Population expansion in the North African Late Pleistocene signalled by mitochondrial DNA haplogroup U6". BMC Evolutionary Biology. 10 (1). BioMed Central: 390. Bibcode:2010BMCEE..10..390P. doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-390. PMC 3016289. PMID 21176127.
  16. ^ GenBank Accession number: HQ651709.1
  17. ^ GenBank Accession number: HQ651705.1
  18. ^ GenBank Accession number: HQ651708.1

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