Exploitation and Abuse Between Moroccan Kings and Jewish Leaders 1511-1792

Exploitation and Abuse Between Moroccan Kings and Jewish Leaders 1511-1792

Marc Eliany © All Rights Reserved

Historical and rabbinical sources tend to stress that Jews lived under difficult economic conditions in Morocco. Both provide ample evidence confirming their assertions; and yet, the underlying text does indicate that Jews managed to accumulate wealth, spend it conspicuously as well as maintain decent levels of learning and creativity. An attempt will be made to reconcile this seeming contradiction.

Historical and rabbinical sources indicate that Jewish leaders occupied significant positions of power in Morocco. They were advisors, ministers, diplomats as well as ‘king’s merchants.’ They were able to influence policy in matters relating to commerce, international relations as well as the status of Jews.

The Case of Samuel and Joseph Palagi Jews under Sa’adian Kings: 1511-1684

Sa’adian tribes rose from the Dra’ Valley to reign over Morocco (1511-1549). They managed to overcome rival tribes, including Oulad Watas as well as free Spanish and Portuguese posts on Moroccan Coasts (1541). Jews suffered during early years of reign consolidation but prospered thereafter. Many Spanish and Portuguese converts were allowed to settle in Morocco and return to Judaism. Jews prospered as weapon makers, doctors, translators and producers of salt, sugar, wax, honey and soap, among many other products. Sa’adian kings did not only protect Jews, they employed them as advisors and diplomats (See for example Hirschberb, 1965 Zafrani, 1983 and Chouraki, 1985 for related historical evidence).

Jews lived in relative peace in quasi-autonomous communities. Synagogues sprung everywhere, but remained modest, so as not to attract the attention of Moslems who did not approve of the resurgence of Judaism in Morocco. Economic conditions improved but wealth accumulation remained modest. Rulers exploited the Jews who spoke Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and Turkish as well as those who lived in the land for many generations and spoke Moroccan Arabic and Berber dialects, i.e., Rifit, Tashelhit or Sahraouite. There were among them merchants and jewelers. They made coins and exchanged them. They had their hand in every trade, they knew how to saw and work leather and die thread and cloth. Some Jews specialized in gold and silver embroidery. They taught their children Hebrew. They also read and wrote Arabic in Hebrew letters. But in spite of the blessings they brought to Morocco, Jews were despised. They wore distinctive cloths, for example. The rich among them traveled to Christian lands and lived there as Christians, although they lived as Jews in Morocco. Some Jews converted to Islam, although some maintained Jewish practices covertly. Jews traveled to Gibraltar and returned to Tangier after thirty days. When they did not return within the prescribed time, they were fined and expelled. Jews built three synagogues in Gibraltar. Some wandered to Amsterdam and Manchester. Some lived as Christians in England (See for example Hirschberg, 1965 Zafrani, 1983 and Chouraki, 1985 for related historical evidence).

South of Marrakech in the High Atlas, in Sousse Al Aksa, Jews rode horses and carried arms although they paid a head tax (dhimma). Some were accepted as full members of local tribes. They were artisans and farmers among them. Some belonged to the karaiim sect that assimilated into the local Jewish community and disappeared (1600 CE) (See for example Hirschberg, 1965 Zafrani, 1983 and Chouraki, 1985 for related historical evidence).

Samuel and Joseph Palagi 1603-1650 served Saadian Kings in the time of Al Manzur and his son Zaidan. Samuel and Joseph held residences in both Marrakech and Amsterdam and represented Morocco in all matters of trade and diplomacy. When Joseph died, his children represented the Saadien kings till the end of their days (See for example Hirschberg, 1965 Zafrani, 1983 and Chouraki, 1985 for related historical evidence).

In spite of the historical context described above, oral accounts as well as rabbinical sources tend to recount hardship and destruction of Jewish communities often. Sometimes tales of hardship appear exaggerated because it is evident that Jews did also experience decent relations with Moslem neighbors. They also held important positions in government, diplomacy and commerce, especially in import and export and wholesale and distribution all across Morocco. Rabbinical rulings calling upon Jews to celebrate life cycle events such as weddings and Bar Mitzvahs with modesty do indicate that Jews accumulated enough resources to spend lavishly. Yet, tales of hardship remain omnipresent in some accounts.

Tales recount a time of famine, days when many among the children of Israel died from thirst and starvation, those who survived were slaughtered, and women were sold in Moslem markets while mobs defiled Torah Scrolls and houses of prayer. Tales also report that children were assembled around Torah Scrolls and the aged stood around them and pleaded with the Creator to spare the community on account of the toddlers who did not sin. Moroccan kings turned against Jewish citizens, demanding provisions they no longer had. Chaos (dar a’ siba) reigned in the land and law and order (dar al maczen) was reduced to nothing. It was a time when kings had no one to dominate except for Jews. Jews paid kings multiples of the prescribed dues (dhimma), yet no one felt safe and no one could earn a living for fear of the strong-armed that ruled the land. People wondered when would injustice end? And rumors spread that a redeemer was about to save Jews from exile but Shabtay Tsvi brought no redemption (1665) (See for example Hirschberg, 1965 Zafrani, 1983, Chouraki, 1985 and Sar Shalom for related historical evidence).

Yet, Jewish inhabitants as well as Spanish and Portuguese refugees appear to have enjoyed some prosperity under the rule of Saadian kings in Morocco. Saadian kings did not abuse their advisors and intervened on their behalf while abroad, i.e., when Spanish authorities demanded the arrest of one of the Palagi brothers in England (Sar Shalom).

Life may have been difficult during periods of internal wars, i.e., when Oulad Saad battled other tribes to take over the kingdom. But once Saadian kings consolidated their power, normal life resumed and Jews prospered. It is possible that not all Jews did well across Morocco. Some communities may have lived under oppressive conditions in remote places where local Moslem leaders remained less accommodating. It is also possible that oral and rabbinical accounts lack accuracy in terms of time and place and thus tend to tint ‘good period’ in bad light.

The Case of Mimran, Toledano and Ben Atar 1666-1727

According to oral and rabbinical sources, a wealthy Jewish tribe led by Ibn Mishal maintained autonomy in Northern Morocco and had a private army. Rashid Al Alaoui (1666-1672) tamed Ibn Mishal’s tribe and used its wealth to take over the kingdom. Rashid accommodated the Jews at the beginning of his reign but oppressed them later, i.e., he ordered the closing of synagogues and demanded high levies everywhere (Sar Shalom).

Ishmael Al Alaoui inherited his brother’s reign (1672-1727). Relative peace came upon the land under his rule. There are indications that Jews enjoyed relative prosperity during this period. Mimran (Yossef and Abraham), Toledano (Daniel and Yossef) and Ben Attar (Moshe) represented the king in foreign lands and bought him armaments to maintain peace from Tangier in the North to River Nun in the South. But in spite of the blessing they brought to the land, Jews walked bare feet in the street and had to pay their dues in labor (without remuneration), on top of the dhimma levies they paid (Sar Shalom).

According to rabbinical accounts, envious Moslem ministers poisoned Abraham Mimran, his brother Shemouel who was the president of the Jewish community was imprisoned and Shemouel’s son was murdered in his own home. Yossef Mimran was also murdered. Envious Moslem ministers fabricated a plot against Moshe Ben Atar to rob his wealth and get rid of him. Ben Atar died in prison a short while later (See for example Hirschberg, 1965 Zafrani, 1983 and Chouraki, 1985, Sar Shalom for related historical evidence).

According to a folktale associated with Haim BenAtar, the mayor of Sla, who was especially hostile to Jews, spread rumors that Jews killed a Moslem boy. Moslems attacked the Jewish quarter, spreading death and destruction everywhere. Rabbi Haim rushed to King Ishmael and gave him ‘a magic mirror’ which showed Sla’s mayor planning a coup. Although the king was in the midst of his anniversary celebration, he led a company of soldiers to Sla, chopped its mayor’s head and dispersed the mob.

It is known also that Moshe Ben Atar’s influence became too significant to bear, bringing about his dismissal, imprisonment and death. Moshe may have been dismissed following a power struggle between Moslems and Jews in the royal court. Kings dismissed Jewish court advisors to disinherit them too.

Haim Ben Atar returned to Sla after losing his benevolent father in law and learnt gold and silver embroidery to make a living while continuing his rabbinical occupations. According to a second legendary account, the governor of Rabat demanded of Rabbi Haim to embroider a wedding gown, among other matrimonial costumes, within a short delay. Rabbi Haim stated he could not fulfill the governor’s demand because of a vow he made to occupy himself with embroidery only one hour per day while the rest of his time is devoted to learning. As rabbi Haim persisted in his refusal to yield to the governor’s demands, he was thrown into a lions’ den. But Rabbi Haim survived the ordeal, chanting Psalms to sooth the lions’ fury. The governor realized then that rabbi Haim was a holy man, showered gifts upon him and released him (Sar Shalom).

Rabbinical Accounts

Rabbi Haim reported in his preface to ‘Or HaHaim’ that after the death of Moshe BenAtar, Moroccan authorities made claims on the inheritance due to him and his wife. As the claims were exaggerated and could not be met, Haim was imprisoned. The Jewish community collected the funds required to release Haim and he moved to Fez. But it was a time of drought and Jews suffered not only of famine but also of re-occurring attacks. So Rabbi Haim moved north to Tetuan and from there to Jerusalem (see also Sar Shalom).

Shemouel Sumbal and the Kings Merchants 1727-1790

After the death of Ishmael Al Alaoui, each of his ten sons made a claim to the throne and for thirty years there was no peace in the land (1727-1757). And when injustice did not seem to end, a drought came upon Maghreb. Jewish accounts report that those were days when life was not worth living. Many Jews sought refuge in the interior of Morocco. And there was no peace in the land until the reign of Mohamed Ben Abd Allah (1757-1790). In 1765 the king rebuilt the port of Mogador (Essaouira) and modernized the city and appointed ten Jews to be the king merchants and deal with foreign nations in matters of international commerce, among them Samuel Sumbal son of Elisha’, Aaron Af-Lalo of Agadir, Moses Eved-Rahem of Tetouan and Maimon Ben Isaac of Marrakech, the son of Joshua the Castilian, who was the Rabbi of the city of Corcos just before the expulsion. But even then, there was no security even in high ranks, for the most notable among the Children of Israel were but servants in the hands of the kings and from the highest of all positions, they often ended humbled, like the most common man in all the land, for it was a time when fate was determined more by shifting political needs than by reciprocity or any sense of justice. Shemouel Sumbal was poisoned in prison (See for example Hirschberg, 1965 Zafrani, 1983 and Chouraki, 1985 and Sar Shalom for related historical evidence).

The Case of Mordecai Shriki and expulsion of the Jews of Fez 1790

Upon the death of Mohamed Ben Abd Allah (1790), chaos came upon Maghreb again. Road pirates robbed Jews everywhere, defiled women and desecrated synagogues. Yazid the son of Abd Allah demanded levies Jews did not have and when they did not deliver the expected payment, he expelled them from Fez. Jews wandered like nomads and lived in tents in the heat of the summer and robbers raided them and took the little they had left and even serpents, scorpions, insects and rodents came to take their dues. After two years, Yazid went to Marrakech and filled its streets with corps and robbed it of all its wealth and Moulay Hissam could not stop him and escaped. Yazid arrested Mordecai Shriki, who was Mohamed Ben Abd Allah’s advisor, and ordered to burn him alive. After Yazid brought death and ruin to other cities, a bullet spilled his blood (See for example Hirschberg, 1965 Zafrani, 1983 and Chouraki, 1985, Sar Shalom for related historical evidence).

The case of Rabbi Shelomo Ibn Danan 1850

Rabbi Shelomo Ibn Danan was born in Fez (taf resh heth) to an illustrius family that maintain a rabbinical academy for several generations. He died in the year (taf, resh, pe, tet) He is the descendent of Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon Ibn Danan, known as ‘rambam alfassi.’

Rabbi Shelomo Ibn Danan began teaching at age 18, served as rabbinical judge in Fez as of the age of 21 for fifty years. He went to Israel at the age of 27 but stayed there only 33 days. He assumed a community leadership role in Fez upon his return from Israel. He became chief rabbi and chief justice in Fez at the age of 30 and served in this capacity for 50 years. He is the author of several books containing his main rabbinical rulings ‘Asher lishelomo’ (According to Solomon), ‘Bikesh Shelomo’ (Solomon’s Bequest).

Unlike leaders mentioned earlier, Ibn Danan did not serve as a diplomat or kings merchant. He was highly respected in the Moroccan royal court by the king as well as ministers. He maintained a dialogue with Moslem leaders. Several Moslem leaders attended his funeral (Sar Shalom).

The case of Rabbi Yaacov Avi Hatsira 1808 – 1880

Rabbi Yaacov Avi Hatsira (1808-1880) lived in the village of Riyasni in Tafilalet all his life. He was a prolific rabbinical author revered by Jews and Moslems alike anywhere he went.

It goes without saying that Jews sought his advice. But Moslems admired him too and often sought justice in his court. Religious Moslem leaders disapproved of the practice but attempts to dissuade common followers from seeking justice at rabbi Yaacov’s court failed time and again. The Moslem leaders called upon the secular leader of the region to intervene, but he too refused to listen to them due to his deep respect for rabbi Yaacov.

As all failed, the Moslem leaders spread a rumor that Jews buried gold and jewelry in tombs, hoping that common Moslems would defile Jewish cemeteries and thus bring about an open conflict between the two communities. But this conspiracy failed too.

One day the Moslems leaders summoned rabbi Yaacov to a debate during which they claimed the rabbi defiled the Moslem faith. Soon, they rushed a message to the king to demand the arrest and execution of rabbi Yaacov. Raabinical accounts suggest that the king sent his guards to arrest the rabbi but as soon as they arrived to the village, the gate crumbled on their heads and killed them. However, it is more likely that the regional secular leader harmed the guards to protect Jews under his tutelage. In this specific case, the Moslem leaders realized that they could not harm the Jews in the Tafilalet region and thus refrained from harming them.


Rabbinical and oral accounts tend to : 1. disregard historical chronology, 2. glorify heros and 3. transform events into miracles; yet, tales remain anchored in real historical events.

Moroccan kings relied on Jewish advisors from time to time. The palagis achieved prominence without any indication of abuse by Moroccan kings. However, evidence of systematic abuse is prevalent in the case of the Mimrans and the Ben Atars as well as Sumbal and Shriki. In other words, Jews may have enjoyed decent living conditions under the reign of stable kings but suffered a great deal during periods of instability.

Jewish leaders exploited diplomatic and commercial opportunities to settle abroad (i.e., the Palagis), in all likelihood because living conditions in Morocco were unpredictable (i.e., Mimrans and Ben Atars).

Moroccan kings exploited Jews to advance personal objectives and deserted or abused them when they became a liability. Jews enjoyed decent living conditions from time to time when law and order reigned in Morocco under stable kings but suffered a great deal during periods of instability. There are also indications that Jews may have lived in peace in selected areas even during period of instability (i.e., Ibn Mishal). Moroccan kings also showed respect for the learned (i.e., Ibn Danan). Thus, although Jewish suffering has been significant over extended periods, it is not reasonable to suggest that Jews experienced hardship at all times.

It is also possible that Moroccan kings distinguished between Jewish ‘secular’ leaders (i.e., merchants and diplomats) and religious leaders. Moroccan kings may have considered wealth accummulated by Jewish merchants and diplomats in their service as ‘rightfully’ theirs. There may have been conflicts between kings and Jewish ‘secular’ leaders as to accummulated gains, which is not the case in relationships with religious leaders who were not wealthy. It seems that Moroccan kings held higher respect for rabbinical than secular leaders. To the extent that this latter observation is true, it would make sense to suggest that although historical and rabbinical sources tend to stress that Jews lived under difficult economic conditions in Morocco, and although both provide ample evidence confirming their assertions, the underlying text does indicate that Jews managed to accumulate wealth, spend it conspicuously as well as maintain decent levels of learning and creativity, which gained them respect among Moslem neighbors. In some cases, local leaders protected Jews under their tutelage in spite of persisting religious conspiracies to cause them harm (i.e., Tafilalet).


Azoulay, D. (H.I.D.A.) Shem Hagedolim, (Names of the Great). Hebrew

Ben Atar Haim, Or Ha Haim, Jerusalem (Hebrew)

Chouraki, Andre 1985 Histoire des Juifs en Afrique du Nord, Hachette

Hirschberg, J.W. 1965, A History of the Jews in North Africa from Antiquity to our Time, Jerusalem Bialik Institute. (Hebrew)

Sar Shalom Shimon, ???? Moroccan Sages, Jerusalem, Hod Yossef. (Hebrew)

Zafrani Haim, 1983 Mille Ans de Vie Juive au Maroc, Histoire et Culture, Religion et Magie, G.P. Maisonneuve et Larose, Paris

Eliany, M. (2005) Jewish Moroccan Tales, www.artengine.ca/eliany/







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