Maghrebi Jews

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See Mizrahi Jews for more information about the Eastern Jews.

The present-day Arab Maghreb Union countries.

Due to proximity, the terms Maghrebi Jews (Moroccan Jews, Algerian Jews, Tunisian Jews, and Libyan Jews) are frequently used in reference to Egyptian Jews as well.

Maghrebi Jews (מַגּרֶבִּים‎ or מַאגרֶבִּים‎, Maghrebim) or North African Jews (יהודי צפון אפריקהYehudei Tzfon Africa) are ethnic Jews who had traditionally lived in the Maghreb region of North Africa (al-Maghrib, Arabic for "the west") under Arab rule during the Middle Ages.[1] Established Jewish communities had existed in North Africa long before the arrival of Sephardi Jews, expelled from Portugal and Spain. The term Musta'arabi was also used by medieval Jewish authors to refer to Jews who had traditionally lived in the Maghreb.[2] Due to proximity, the term 'Maghrebi Jews' (Moroccan Jews, Algerian Jews, Tunisian Jews, and Libyan Jews) sometimes refers to Egyptian Jews as well, even though there are important cultural differences between the history of Egyptian and Maghrebi Jews.[1] These Jews originating from North Africa constitute the second largest Jewish diaspora group.[3]

Primary, secondary, and tertiary Jewish centers in the Maghreb

Maghrebi Jews lived in multiple communities in North Africa for over 2,000 years,[3] with the oldest Jewish communities present during Roman times and possibly as early as within Punic colonies of the Ancient Carthage period. Maghrebi Jews largely mixed with the newly arrived Sephardic Jews, beginning from the 13th century until the 16th century, eventually being overwhelmed by Sephardim and embracing the Sephardic Jewish identity in most cases.

The mixed Maghrebi-Sephardic Jewish communities collapsed in the mid-20th century as part of the Jewish exodus from Arab countries, moving mostly to Israel, France, Canada and Venezuela. Today, descendants of Maghrebi-Sephardic Jews in Israel have largely embraced the modern Israeli Jewish identity and in many cases intermix with Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jewish communities there. Most of the Maghrebi-Sephardic Jews (Western Jews) also consider themselves as part of Mizrahi Jewish community (Eastern, or Babylonian Jews), even though there is no direct link between the two communities. They have similar histories of Arabic-speaking background and a parallel exodus and expulsion from Arab and Muslim countries: the Mizrahim left nations of the Middle East, and the Maghrebi-Sephardics left nations of North Africa in the mid-20th century. Among Arab countries, the largest Jewish community now exists in Morocco with about 2,000 Jews and in Tunisia about 1,000.[4]

Early history[edit]


El Ghriba synagogue on Djerba island, Tunisia

Some Jewish settlements in North Africa date back to pre-Roman times, possibly correlating with the late Punic settlements in the area. Earlier mentions of Jewish presence go back to Cyrenaica, a Greek colony of eastern Libya and home to an early Jewish community. Notable Cyrenaic Jews of that era includes Simon of Cyrene mentioned in the New Testament. After Jewish defeat in the First Jewish-Roman War in 70 CE, Roman General Titus deported many Jews to Mauretania, which roughly corresponds to the modern Maghreb, and many of them settled in what is now Tunisia. These settlers engaged in agriculture, cattle-raising, and trade. They were divided into clans, or tribes, governed by their respective heads, and had to pay the Romans a capitation tax of 2 shekels.

During the Kitos War, Jews must have suffered losses, but they continued to thrive in parts of North Africa under the Late Roman Empire. After 429 CE, with the fairly tolerant Vandals, the Jewish residents of the North African province increased and prospered to such a degree that African Church councils decided to enact restrictive laws against them. Berber lands east of Alexandria were relatively tolerant and were historically very welcoming for Christians and Jews during the Roman Empire notably. After the overthrow of the Vandals by Belisarius in 534 CE, Justinian I issued his edict of persecution, in which the Jews were classed with the Arians and heathens.

A community settled in Djerba island off the coast of southern Tunisia during the Roman period. Mainly composed of Cohanim, they notably built the Ghriba synagogue with stones coming directly from Jerusalem. 'La Ghriba' is still to this day annually visited by many North African Jews.

Under Muslim domination Jewish communities developed in important urban centers such as Kairouan and coastal cities of Tunisia, in Tlemcen, Béjaïa and Algiers in the Central Maghreb and as far as in the extreme Maghreb (modern Morocco) especially Fes and in the Atlas Mountains among the Berber populations. The relationships between Muslims and Jews in the Maghreb were relatively good thanks to the Al Andalus peaceful era, until the ascension of the Almohades, who persecuted non-Muslims to a large extent during their early reign. Later Jews were relatively well treated by the Berber Muslim dynasties, namely the Merinids, Zianides and Zirides.[5]

In the seventh century, the Jewish population was augmented by Iberian Jewish immigrants, who, fleeing from the persecutions of the Visigothic king Sisebut and his successors, escaped to the Maghreb and settled in the local Byzantine Empire.[6] The much greater immigration of Sephardic Jews took place between 1391 and 1492, due to the Alhambra decree edict of expulsion and persecution in Spain and Portugal.

Fez and Tunis, respectively in Morocco and Tunisia, became important Sephardic rabbinical centers, well until the early 20th century, when most Jewish populations emigrated to Israel, France, Canada and Latin America.

Expulsion from Spain after 1492[edit]

While there has been a presence of Jews in the Maghreb region of North Africa in both Berber and Arabic speaking communities for millennia, many Spanish Jews were driven out of Spain during the Spanish Inquisition of 1492.[7]

The Spanish Inquisition was ultimately a religiously motivated movement that strove to maintain and strengthen the Catholic presence in Spain. The rulers, Ferdinand and Isabella, ordered the expulsion of the Spanish Jews in January 1492, and on 30 July 1492, hundreds of thousands of Spanish Jews were driven out of Spain, relocating primarily to the Maghreb region due to its close proximity to Spain, but also to other places such as Greece, Italy, and Turkey.[8]

Around the time of the Spanish Inquisition the Counter-Reformation was taking place. The Counter-Reformation was the Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation, a movement in Europe that strived to popularize the newer sect of Christianity, Protestantism, throughout Europe. The Counter-Reformation mostly took place in Southern Europe, which is a large reason as to why Southern Europe is, for the most part, far more Catholic and far less Protestant than the majority of Northern Europe.[9] The Counter-Reformation, being a movement to preserve and strengthen the Catholic influence on society, was opposed not only to Protestantism but to any non-Catholic belief that was seen as a threat to the Catholic society.[10] Thus, the Jews of Spain overwhelmingly moved directly south to the Maghreb Region of North Africa and quickly prospered.

Recent history[edit]

World War II and the Holocaust[edit]

On the eve of World War II, 400,000 Jews resided in the Maghreb; throughout this time, each country differed in its treatment of its respective Jewish population.[1]

Algerian Jews (approximately 35,000) had been granted French citizenship by the Cremieux Decree in 1870. France's Vichy Regime, then, oversaw the Jewish community in Algeria during World War II and imposed anti-Semitic measures such as stripping Jews of their civil rights, forcing them to wear identification markers, and putting quotas on their admission to primary schools.[11]

Tunisia was the only country with direct contact with the German army; Germany occupied the country for six months from 1942 to 1943 until it was recaptured by the Allied forces.[1] Under German occupation, the Jewish population, then 89,000, endured the Nazi regime and were subjected to harsh mistreatment.[11]

In Morocco, there were anti-Jewish laws put into effect and at least 2,100 Jews were forcibly interned in work camps.[1]


The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 led to many countries promoting anti-Jewish behavior especially in Muslim-majority areas. This contributed significantly to the emigration of Jews from the countries of the Maghreb. This exodus was a combination of push and pull, augmented with the independence of the Maghreb countries in the 1950s and early 1960s, as Jews were seen as being supportive of the previous colonial French.

Tunisia was a French protectorate since 1881, and the country fought for independence from 1952 to 1956, after which many of the 105,000 Jews within the community emigrated.[11] In recent decades, the Jewish community has continued to shrink as many emigrated to Israel, France, and other countries.[12]

After Morocco declared independence in 1956, most of the 225,000 Jews in Morocco emigrated to Israel, France and Canada.[11]

In Algeria, the National Liberation Front fought and won independence from France in 1961. After Algeria won independence, the Jewish population of 140,000 began a massive and definitive exodus mainly to France due to increased animosity towards Jews.[11]

Maghrebi Jews in Israel[edit]

The early Zionists were majority Ashkenazi Jews who affiliated themselves strongly with Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism.[13] Maghrebi Jews, along with other Mizrahi Jews and Sephardi Jews, did not begin to arrive in masses, though some of the Maghrebi Jews were already in Israel by the 18th century and onwards, like Aharon Moyal [he] who had laid the foundations to Tel-Aviv; in Israel until after Israel was established as a state.[14] The early Zionists tended to be secular, as Zionism (as Herzl founded it) was a secular nationalist movement that recognized Jews as a whole Nation, and saw the Land of Israel as the ancestral homeland of the Jews.[15]

In the mid 20th Century, the Arab World (in this case North Africa) began to undergo some vast internal changes. The notion of Pan-Arabism came about in the earlier years of the 20th Century, and the cultural, linguistic, and political influences of European colonial powers in the region began to sharply decline. As Arab unity increased, so did the opposition to any form of colonialism. With this new sentiment, the 20th century North African and Arab countries heavily opposed Zionism and many Arab leaders saw the movement as simply a continuation of European colonialism, due to the vast majority of early Zionist migrants coming from Europe.[13]

Maghrebi Jews have an enormous cultural influence in Israel. Falafel is widely known as the National Food of Israel,[16] and due to falafel's origins in the Middle East and North Africa, Maghrebi Jews, along with other Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, played an enormous role in making falafel an Israeli staple. Mizrahi music, one of Israel's most popular genres, carries a lot of influence from Maghrebi Jews. Some popular Mizrahi music singers of Maghrebi descent include: Eyal Golan, Sarit Hadad, Moshe Peretz, Dana International, Zehava Ben, and Kobi Peretz, all of Moroccan descent.

Religiously, Maghrebi Jews (along with Sephardic/Mizrahi Jews as a whole) are heavily classified as Masortim, contrasting Israelis of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, whom are more secular.[17] Politically, Maghrebi Jews tend to vote Likud.[18]



Moroccan Jewish women

Morocco, the North African nation with the largest Jewish population both at the start of the 20th Century and today,[19] had a Jewish population of ~275,000 at its peak around the time of the establishment of Israel.[20] A significant number of Moroccan Jews are descendants of the Berber-speaking Jews who once lived in the Atlas Mountains.[21] Today, the Jewish population in Morocco is estimated to be just about 2,000.[22] Since the expulsion from Spain after 1492, Moroccan Jews shared many customs of everyday life and a common spoken language (Berber or Moroccan Arabic) with their Muslim neighbours, which led to a rich mutual cultural heritage of music, poetry, food and crafts.[23]

After the establishment of Israel, a mass exodus of the Jewish population began and the vast majority of Moroccan Jews emigrated to Israel,[24] as very few Moroccan Jews had left before to Mandatory Palestine.[24] Israel launched a series of operations to bring Jews, who were facing persecution[citation needed], to Israel from various Middle Eastern and North African countries. A famous operation that brought nearly 100,000 Moroccan Jews to Israel from 1961 to 1964 was Operation Yachin.

Today, Jews of Moroccan descent in Israel tend to identify with their background and remain in touch with their traditional culture. A part of Moroccan Jewish culture revolves around Sephardic music and food. Shakshouka, a traditional Maghrebi dish, has become popular in Israel through the influence of Moroccan Jews.


Algerian Jews are quite similar to Moroccan Jews in many regards due to the proximity of Algeria and Morocco. Both communities were intertwined linguistically, culturally, and historically. A Jewish presence in Algeria existed since before the Roman-era,[21] but most Algerian Jews trace a significant amount of their history back to the culture of al-Andalus.

Since 1848, Algeria had been part of the French motherland, and with the 1870 Crémieux Decree Algerian Jews were granted French citizenship. Meanwhile, the indigenous Muslim Arab and Berber populations remained under second-class status, giving rise to Muslim friction that culminated in the 1934 Constantine riots. After the German invasion of France, Algeria came under Vichy rule: Jews had their French citizens’ rights taken away, were sacked from public service jobs and subject to quotas and restrictions.[25]

The Crémieux Decree and thereby Jewish citizenship were reinstated after World War II, keeping Algerian Jews committed to their French status throughout the Algerian War,[26] in which an estimated 1.5 million Algerians were killed.[27] In the wake of the war, while most Algerian Muslims supported the independence, the majority of the Algerian Jews tied their fate to France with many of them supporting and even joining the OAS.[28] In the last 15 months of the war, over 130 attacks against Jews or Jewish establishments occurred; the two most symbolically significant being the looting of the Great Synagogue of Algiers in December 1960,[28][29] and the assassination of popular singer Cheikh Raymond on a public market in Constantine in June 1961.[28] These two incidents in particular gave the impetus for Jewish immigration from Algeria, albeit subsumed into the great mass of pieds-noirs leaving Algeria for France.[28][30]

At the time of World War II, there were around 130,000 Jews living in Algeria. More recently, their number is estimated by the United States Department of State at less than 200.[31] Algerian Jews are unique in that they are the only community of North African Jews that did not overwhelmingly emigrate to Israel during the Jewish exodus from Arab and Muslim countries; instead, the majority of Algerian Jews chose France as their destination.[32] Their "repatriation" represents a unique case in the history of Jewish migration given that even though they were psychologically uprooted, they "returned" to France as citizens and not as refugees.[32]


The Grand Synagogue of the Hara in 1960.

Like its neighboring Algeria, Tunesia came under Vichy rule in July 1940, subjecting Tunesian Jews to the same antisemitic Statut des Juifs as in mainland France which restricted Jews in the public service, in educational institutions and journalism, and in liberal professions. In May 1941, the worst outbreak of violence against Jews in North Africa during World War II occurred in Gabès in a riot that killed seven Jews and wounding twenty.

After the Allied invasion of North Africa, Tunisia was directly occupied by German forces in November 1942. The Nazis immediately arrested Moise Borgel, the president of the Tunis Jewish community, along with other prominent Jews,[33] before implementing a regime of forced-labor, property confiscation, hostage-taking, mass extortion, deportations, and executions. Thousands of countryside Jews were forced to wear the yellow badge,[34] but none were transported to the extermination camps in Eastern Europe due to the distance from Tunisia as well as the short time span of the German occupation, which ended in May 1943.[33]

The population of Tunisian Jews stood at around 105,000 in 1948. Shortly after independence in 1956, a government decree meant to eliminate all confessional tribunals, including courts based on Sharia law, also abolished rabbinical tribunal and Jewish community councils, which the Jewish community understood as a curtailment of their autonomy.[35] While Habib Bourguiba continuously worked to reassure the Jews of their safe and equal position within Tunisian society, going so far as to include a Jewish nationalist, Albert Bessis, in his first cabinet,[36] he failed to curb the increasing instances of violent anti-Jewish outburst, particularly following the Six-Day War in 1967, when the Grand Synagogue of Tunis was looted and burned to the ground. The number of Tunisian Jews decreased to around 20,000 by 1967. A further 7,000 Jews immigrated to France. As of 2021, the population of Jews in Tunisia is numbered at around 1,000.[22]

In 2018, the first Jewish minister since Bessis, René Trabelsi, was appointed to lead the Ministry of Tourism.[37]


Libyan Jews are the smallest community of all Maghrebi Jews, yet the community is still rich in history, tradition, and culture. The history of Libyan Jews is one that is approximately 2,300 years old, and the population of Jews in Libya peaked at around 40,000 in 1945.[38]

As Libya was occupied by Italy throughout most of the first half of the 20th century, the racial laws that targeted Jews and minimized their freedoms were enacted in Libya. As the Italians enacted laws that directly exploited and suppressed Jews, the Jews of Libya were more welcoming to the arrival of the Allies of World War II's entering Libya. Italy saw the Jews as enemies, and Mussolini sought to cleanse Libya of its Jewish population, a movement called Sfollamento. Through the movement of Sfollamento, Libyan Jews were sent to concentration camps; the location of those camps depended on if they had British, French, or Libyan-Italian citizenship.[39]

Libya was liberated by the Allies in January 1943, but even with the eradication of the racial laws, the conditions for Jews did not improve a whole lot. Anti-semitism was widespread amongst a Libyan culture that had just been heavily influenced by fascism; as a result, the vast majority of Libyan Jews emigrated, primarily to Israel once it was established as a state.[39] The 1945 Anti-Jewish riots in Tripolitania sparked a pogrom that killed 140 Jews. Riots and anti-semitic violence did not subside, leaving the Jews of Libya with very little choice but to leave.[40] Today, there are no more Jews living in Libya.[38]


In 2012, a study by Campbel et al.[41] found that North African Jews were more closely related to each other and to European and Middle Eastern Jews than to their non-Jewish host populations.The genome-wide ancestry of North African Jewish groups was compared with respect to European (Basque), Maghrebi (Tunisian non-Jewish), and Middle Eastern (Levant) origins. The Middle Eastern component was found to be comparable across all North African Jewish and non-Jewish groups (around 40%), while North African Jewish groups showed increased European (35-40%) and decreased level of North African (Maghrebi) ancestry (20%)[41][42] with Moroccan and Algerian Jews tending to be genetically closer to Europeans than Djerban Jews, the latter being a highly endogamous group.[41]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e "The Jews of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia". Retrieved 9 May 2020.
  2. ^ Landman, Isaak (2009). Volume 2, The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia. Varda Books. p. 81.
  3. ^ a b Campbell, C. L.; Palamara, P. F.; Dubrovsky, M.; Botigue, L. R.; Fellous, M.; Atzmon, G.; Oddoux, C.; Pearlman, A.; Hao, L. (6 August 2012). "North African Jewish and non-Jewish populations form distinctive, orthogonal clusters". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 109 (34): 13865–13870. Bibcode:2012PNAS..10913865C. doi:10.1073/pnas.1204840109. ISSN 0027-8424. PMC 3427049. PMID 22869716.
  4. ^ Rosenberg, Jerry M. (28 September 2009). The Rebirth of the Middle East. Hamilton Books. ISBN 978-0-7618-4846-2.
  5. ^ Taïeb, J. (1 May 2004). "Juifs du Maghreb". Encyclopédie berbère (in French) (26): 3952–3962. doi:10.4000/encyclopedieberbere.949. ISSN 1015-7344.
  6. ^  Singer, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "Algeria". The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.
  7. ^ "The Spanish Inquisition". Retrieved 16 December 2019.
  8. ^ "Jews expelled from Spain mark 527 years in Turkey". DailySabah. 31 July 2019. Retrieved 16 December 2019.
  9. ^ "History of Europe – Reformation and Counter-Reformation". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 16 December 2019.
  10. ^ Mott, M. (1 January 1998). "The Rule of Faith over Reason: The Role of the Inquisition in Iberia and New Spain". Journal of Church and State. 40 (1): 57–81. doi:10.1093/jcs/40.1.57. ISSN 0021-969X.
  11. ^ a b c d e "9. The Jews in the Levant and the Maghreb". Musée d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaïsme. 3 April 2017. Retrieved 4 December 2018.
  12. ^ "El Ghriba Synagogue, Djerba, Tunisia | Beit Hatfutsot". Retrieved 4 December 2018.
  13. ^ a b "Zionism". HISTORY. 21 August 2018. Retrieved 16 December 2019.
  14. ^ "Mizrahi Jews in Israel". My Jewish Learning. Retrieved 16 December 2019.
  15. ^ "Books & Authors – 96.11". The Atlantic. Retrieved 16 December 2019.
  16. ^ "No Matter Where It Originated, Falafel Is Still Israel's National Food". Haaretz. 24 April 2012. Retrieved 17 December 2019.
  17. ^ Miller, Stephan. "Traditional Jews vote Likud-Beytenu, while the Orthodox choose Bennett". The Times of Israel. Retrieved 17 December 2019.
  18. ^ "Ethnic tensions between Israeli Jews fuel Netanyahu victory". Associated Press News. Retrieved 17 December 2019.
  19. ^ "Morocco Virtual Jewish History Tour". Retrieved 16 December 2019.
  20. ^ "Morocco is a trove of Jewish history if you know where to go". Associated Press News. 18 April 2019. Retrieved 16 December 2019.
  21. ^ a b Congress, World Jewish. "World Jewish Congress". Retrieved 17 December 2019.
  22. ^ a b "Jewish Population Rises to 15.2 million Worldwide". Jewish agency. 15 September 2021.
  23. ^ Tahar Ben Jelloun and Edmond A. El Maleh (18 February 1980). "Quand juifs et musulmans chantaient ensemble". Le Monde (in French). Retrieved 23 November 2021.
  24. ^ a b Chtatou, Dr Mohamed (5 March 2018). "Emigration of Jews of Morocco To Israel in 20th Century – Analysis". Eurasia Review. Retrieved 16 December 2019.
  25. ^ "Finally Recognized as Holocaust Survivors, Algerian Jews Recount Their Persecution by the Nazis". Haaretz. 25 February 2018. Retrieved 17 December 2019.
  26. ^ Choi, Sung (2012). "Complex compatriots: Jews in post-Vichy French Algeria". Journal of North African Studies. 17 (5): 863–880. doi:10.1080/13629387.2012.723433. S2CID 144701723.
  27. ^ "France admits torture during Algeria's war of independence". Al Jazeera. 13 September 2018. Retrieved 23 November 2023.
  28. ^ a b c d Katz, Ethan B. (2015). The Burdens of Brotherhood : Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France. Harvard University Press. p. 203. ISBN 978-0-674-08868-9 – via Google Books.
  29. ^ "Moslems Loot Synagogue". New York Times. 13 December 1960.
  30. ^ Wood, Nancy (2003). "Remembering the Jews of Algeria". French Civilization and Its Discontents: Nationalism, Colonialism, Race. Lanham: Lexington Books. pp. 251–269. ISBN 978-0-7391-0646-4.
  31. ^ "Algeria: United States Department of State". United States Department of State. 20 March 2023. Retrieved 22 July 2023.
  32. ^ a b S. Ilan Troen, Benjamin Pinkus (2020). Organizing Rescue Jewish National Solidarity in the Modern Period. Routledge. p. 322. ISBN 978-10-0004361-7.
  33. ^ a b Silverman, Julian (2010). "Jewish Communities in Tunisia during WWII: Impacts of Intergenerational Trauma on Coexistence". International Journal of Diversity in Organizations, Communities, and Nations. 9 (6): 201–210. doi:10.18848/1447-9532/CGP/v09i06/39497.
  34. ^ "Jews of Tunisia". Retrieved 20 May 2020.
  35. ^ Laskier, Michael M. (1987). "From Hafsia to Bizerte: Tunisia's National Struggle and Tunisian History 1952–1961". Mediterranean Historical Review. 2 (2): 188–222. doi:10.1080/09518968708569527.
  36. ^ Masri, Safwan M. (2017). Tunisia : An Arab Anomaly.
  37. ^ "Tunisia's Next Tourism Minister Will be Jewish". Retrieved 17 December 2019.
  38. ^ a b "The Diaspora: Egyptian and Libyan Jews During WWII". Retrieved 17 December 2019.
  39. ^ a b "The Jews of Libya |". the-jews-of-libya.html. Retrieved 17 December 2019.
  40. ^ "Jews of Libya". Retrieved 17 December 2019.
  41. ^ a b c Campbell CL, Palamara PF, Dubrovsky M, Botigué LR, Fellous M, Atzmon G, Oddoux C, Pearlman A, Hao L, Henn BM, Burns E, Bustamante CD, Comas D, Friedman E, Pe'er I, Ostrer H (August 2012). "North African Jewish and non-Jewish populations form distinctive, orthogonal clusters". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 109 (34): 13865–70. Bibcode:2012PNAS..10913865C. doi:10.1073/pnas.1204840109. PMC 3427049. PMID 22869716.
  42. ^ Campbel et al. 2012. Fig. 5. Fraction of genome with ancestry labeled as reference population

Further reading[edit]