Ibn Warraq on the Jews of the Maghreb 

A review of Paul B. Fenton & David G.Littman

L’exil Au Maghreb. La Condition Juive Sous L’islam 1148-1912.

[Presses De L’université Paris-Sorbonne] Paris, 2010. 792pp. Illustrated [Black and White Photos and Color Plates].Maps. List of  Illustrations. Bibliography. Glossary [of Hebrew and Arabic Terms], Index of Names, Index of Places, Analytical Table of Contents. [In French]


 Abraham Ibn Ezra, Hebrew scholar and polymath, left Andalusia in 1140 C.E. just before  the invasion of the Almohads, a particularly violent and bigotted Islamic dynasty of North Africa and Spain [reigned 1130-1269] which destroyed so many Jewish communities, and towns. He wrote a lament on this destruction of North African and Hispanic settlements:

          “I weep like an ostrich for Lucena [cf. Lam.4:3 and Mic. 1:8]. 

            Her remnant dwelt innocent and secure…

           Alas, the city of Cordoba is forsaken, her ruin as vast as the sea!

           Her sages and learned men perished from hunger and thirst.

           Not a single Jew was left in Jaen or Almeria;

           Majorca and Málaga struggle to survive…

           I cry out like a woman in labor for the congregation of Sjilmasa—

           A city where genius and wisdom flourished; their brilliance

                  obscured the darkness….

           Woe, the congregation of Fez is no more; this day they are

                    given to the plunderer;

            Where is the protection for the congregation of Tlemsan?

                   Its glory is melted away.

             A bitter voice I raise over the fate of Ceuta and Meknes;

             I rend my garments for Dar‘ī   already vanquished…[1]

Ibn Ezra’s elegy serves as a sad but fitting motto to Paul Fenton and David Littman’s scholarly and indispensable survey of the plight of Jews in North West Africa [Maghreb] under Islam between 1148-1912. No two scholars could be better qualified than Fenton and Littman for such an immense task. Paul Fenton is Assistant Director of the Department of Arabic and Hebrew Studies at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he is also Professor of Hebrew Language and Literature. He is a world authority on Jewish Civilization under Islam, and author of Moïse ibn Ezra, philosophe et poète andalou du XIIeme  siècle (1997); and Juda ibn Malka. La Consolation de l’expatrié spirituel.

David Littman, with a B.A. and an M.A. degree in Modern History and Political Science from Trinity College, Dublin, began his research on this subject in 1970, first in the archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Ministère des Affaires Étrangères Français), more informally known as le Quai d’Orsay, and secondly, in the extraordinary archives of The Alliance Israélite Universelle [AIU ; a Paris-based international Jewish organization created in 1860 by the French statesman Adolphe Crémieux to defend the human rights of Jews around the world; it promotes the ideals of Jewish self-defense and self-sufficiency. The motto of the organization is Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh,  -“All Jews bear responsibility for one another” The AIU wished to advance the Jews of  the Middle East through education and culture, and to that end established schools so that by 1900 it was running 100 schools with a combined student population of 26000. The bulk of the schools were in Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey). [2] Nor did David Littman forget the archives of the Foreign Office in London, U.K. Littman has published numerous articles on the Jews of North West Africa and the Orient. Of particular relevance is Littman’s pioneering monograph on Sir Moses Montefiore’s mission to Morocco between 1863-1864 which appeared in 1985 in a volume commemorating the centenary of Sir Moses. Since 1986, he has dedicated himself to defending Human Rights at the United Nations in Geneva in his capacity as representative of several non-governmental organisations.

The book is dedicated to the memory of Hayyim Zeev Hirschberg [1903-1976], the eminent historian of North West African Judaism. Littman began a collaboration with Hirschberg in the 1970s which was unfortunately cut short by the latter’s premature death in 1976. Nonetheless, Hirschberg instilled in Littman the importance of the archives of the AIU which were to provide irrefutable proof of the abject condition of the Jews in the Maghreb in the Nineteenth Century, destroying along the way a number of myths that were current upto that time.

This work will surely become the definitive source book on its subject- supplemented perhaps with some details, but unlikely ever to be completely superseded. All further research on North African Jewry surely must begin here. It is organized along principles established by such scholars as Jacob Landau in his Jews in Nineteenth-Century Egypt [1969], and Bat Ye’or in her Le Dhimmi: Profil de l’opprimé en Orient et en Afrique du Nord [1980]; that is to say, each work begins with an historical introduction that summarises and surveys the entire period in question. It is then followed by the original documents from the various archives. While Jacob Landau is content to provide the doucments in their original languages (Hebrew, Arabic, Italian, and French), Fenton and Littman (and for that matter Bat Ye’or) have translated all the documents into French, have carefully noted and annotated each source. In a series of scholarly footnotes each contributor – traveller, historian, diplomat, poet- is identified and his biographical details  which are quite substantial in some cases, are given. Obscure terms, and characters that flit through the extracts are explained, and brought to light. The book is a pleasure to handle physically- a feast for the intellect as well as the eyes, and other senses since it is printed on glossy paper (accounting for the book’s weight of over three pounds). It is illustrated with ten colour plates of paintings by Delacroix, Alfred Dehodencq, Du Nouÿ, and others, and sixty three black and white pictures of places, events, and copies of documents.

The source material is divided geographically, (North West Africa generally, then Algeria and Morocco) and into two parts, First, we have the historical and literary sources [part A,of which there are 135 extracts], and then the truly archival material [Part B, of whch there are 185 extracts]. The greatest amount of material comes from the nineteenth century though we have startling eyewitness accounts from the twelfth century onwards. Unlike Algeria, we possess much contemporary Jewish accounts of  their situation under Islam in Morocco, particularly from the 1850s onwards. It is unfortunately a story of pillage, the torching of synagogues, the burning of Hebrew sacred texts, the rape and abduction of Jewish women and murders.

To give an example, I shall quote from the original eighteenth century English source that is translated into French in Fenton and Littman’s book:

       “It has been observed in squabbles among them, or when a poor Man falls out with his ass, that the first name is carran (i.e.) cuckold, then he calls him son of a Jew….[p.45]

        “In the middle of the City live the Jews, having a Place to themselves, the Gates of which are locked at Night, which Privilege they also have in most of the Cities of this Emperor’s Dominions. They have an Alcayde to guard their Gates, and protect them against the Common-People, who otherwise would plunder them ; for they live in great Subjection, it being Death for them to curse, or lift up a Hand against the meanest Moor, so that the Boys kick them about at their Pleasure, against which they have no other Remedy but to run away, away, they are obliged to pull off their Shoes whenever they pass by a Mosque, and to wear black Cloaths and Caps; nor are they allowed the use of Horses; for Ben Hattar himself (tho’ he had Power over Life and Death) was always forced to ride a Mule…” [p.185]

The source is  John H. Windus. A Journey to Mequinez, the Residence of the Present Emperor of Fez and Morocco, On the Occasion of Commodore Stewart’s Embassy thither for the Redemption of the British Captives in the Year 1721. London, Jacob Tonson, 1725. Fenton and Littman’s footnote explains that Ben Hattar  [died 1724] was a Jewish merchant from Meknès, often employed by the Emperor Mawlay Isma‘il as financial advisor in his diplomatic negociations. In 1721, he negociated notably a commercial treaty with the British Commodore Stewart. A further footnote tells us all that we would wish to know about John H.Windus.

The latter [fl. 1725] was a historian who accompanied Commodore Charles Stewart, who had been sent to negotiate the release of three hundred English captives. Windus gathered much material on the country in the four months he spent there. Windus’ account was the second ever published in English on Morocco (after that of Addison). His book went through several editions and generated a great deal of interest, particularly Windus’s recitation of the daily life in the Moroccan countryside.

 Even a cursory glance at the analytical table of contents gives a grim picture of the situation of Jews in the Maghreb.  Confining ourselves to Nineteenth Century Morocco, here is a rapid tour d’horizon:


A 70: The inequality of Jews in front of the Law ( Fez, c.1800)

A 71: The Jews of Morocco live in a state of slavery of the most horrible kind.(1803)

A.72: The Sultan exempts a Jewish interpreter from wearing disntinctive clothing.(Marrakech. c.1806)

A.73: Jews cannot leave Morocco without  imperial authorisation.(1808)

A.74:  The payment of Jizya described by an American navigator.(Mogador, 1815)

A.75: Constraint imposed on Jews (c.1820)

A.76: The sack of the Jewish Quarter of Fez as seen by a Muslim chronicler (1820)

Now some examples from the archives:


B.3 Persecutions at Chechaouan (1864)

B.4 Persecutions of Jews of Demnate (1864)

B.5 The presecutions continue despite the protection of France (1864)

B.6. Disastrous consequences of the events of Safi (1864)

B.7 In the footsteps of Moses Montefiore.

 I hope I have been able to give an idea of the riches of material gathered in this remarkable collection. I trust that eventually an English translation will appear since the contents deserve the widest possible dissemination.

Abraham Ibn Ezra : Twilight of a Golden Age: Selected Poems of Abraham Ibn Ezra

edited and translated by  Leon J. Weinberger. Tuscaloosa (Alabama): University of Alabama Press, 1997, pp.3-.4

[2] Notes from the excellent article from Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alliance_Israélite_Universelle