The Secret Stories of the 3,200 Jews of Africa’s Mediterranean Region

8 months ago The Connections Staff 0

Ethan Benenson// Hunterdon County, NJ

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The Mediterranean region of Africa was once home to some of the largest Jewish communities in the world. However, within just the past eighty years, there has been a ‘second’ mass exodus of Jews from Africa, and many North African countries do not have a single known Jew living within their borders.

How did this happen? Where did all the Jews go?

To find out the answers to these complicated questions, read on.

Algeria: A winding Jewish story

An Algerian Jew in the 1800s.

The oldest Jewish communities in Algeria date back to the 1st century CE, though the population truly began to flourish in the 7th century when many European Jews immigrated, fleeing persecution by the harsh Visigothic kings. Jews continued to flood in after they were expelled from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century.

The Great Synagogue of Oran, once the largest synagogue in Africa, until it was turned into a mosque.

The French Occupation also brought many French Jews to Algeria, and by 1830, the total Jewish population of Algeria was between 15,000 and 17,000. The city of Algiers was at this point 20% Jewish. However, life was not completely peaceful; clashes between Sephardic Algerian Jews and Ashkenazi French Jews created conflict between the two groups.

Conditions for the Jewish people dramatically worsened after Algeria declared independence in 1962 and stripped all non-Muslims of citizenship rights. These new antisemitic policies prompted many Algerian Jews to immigrate to Israel, but most went to France, where they continue to live today.

The Jewish communities of Algeria, once bustling with prosperity and commerce, have now been virtually abandoned. In 1955, there were about 140,000 Jews in Algeria. Today, under 200 remain.


Egypt: Only three Jews left

Marriage document of Jewish Egyptian couple, written July 3, 449 BCE.

Following the story of Passover, there has been a rich history of the Jewish people in Egypt. From the founding of Alexandria by Alexander the Great through the Roman Empire, the city was a hub of Judaism. Jewish people living in Alexandria were given a certain degree of religious freedom, including their own section of the city. This made Alexandria an attractive place for Jews fleeing during the Diaspora.

Jews continued to immigrate to Egypt through the Arab rule and the subsequent Mamluks, a social class of ‘slave soldiers’ who forced the Jews to identify themselves with yellow headgear. Still, the large Jewish communities in Egypt continued to attract Jewish people across the Mediterranean.

The Alex-Eliyahu-Hanavi Synagogue in Alexandria: Opened in 1354, destroyed in 1798, and rebuilt in 1850.

During the British Occupation and after the building of the Suez Canal, the increased commerce and business led many Jews to settle in Cairo, but after the rise of Hitler and World War II, anti-Jewish sentiments began rising. Eventually, the antisemitism erupted into violent pogroms, especially during Egypt’s wars with Israel shortly after its founding. A large stream of Egyptian Jews began immigrating to Israel so that as of 2021, according to the president of Cairo’s Jewish community, there are only three known Jews in all of Egypt.


Libya: When everything disappears in an instant

The Slat Abn Shaif Synagogue in Zilten, Libya, before World War II. It was destroyed and rebuilt many times, but was never rebuilt again after 1980.

Jews have lived in Libya since the 3rd century BCE when the territory was under Greek control. However, some archaeological sites like ancient synagogues suggest settlement in the 10th century BCE. Libyan Jews prospered through the ancient world, and after the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans, many Jews sought refuge in the province.

During the Arab and Ottoman rule, Jews continued to thrive. Unlike in Europe, they were not forced to live in separate communities and got along fairly well with the local Muslims. The ideas of Zionism reached Libya early, and Libyan Jews enjoyed comfortable lives (at least compared to many other places) through the Italian occupation… until the Fascist Italian regime came to power.

When the Germans invaded, they deported thousands of Jews to concentration camps in the desert, and the atrocities committed in these camps were no less horrifying than those in Europe.

A Libyan concentration camp in El Agheila.

Even after the Allies liberated Libyan Jews from the camps they continued to suffer, and hundreds of Jews were killed in riots and pogroms upon their return. Antisemitism and hostility only grew under the rule of the independent Libyan kingdom and Gadaffi. In the 1940s, Jews made up 25% of the population of Tripoli, the Libyan capital, and around 40 thousand total Jews lived in Libya. Though Libya was once home to a robust Jewish community of scholars and artists, the last known Jew in Libya moved to Rome in 2002.


Morocco: A refuge for the scholars

A Jewish cemetery in Fes, Morocco.

The oldest evidence of Judaism in Morocco dates back to the 4th century BCE. As Jews were persecuted in other parts of the Mediterranean, the Moroccan Jewish population steadily grew, but it truly began to flourish after the Arab conquests. Jews were welcomed as they brought commercial opportunities, and the Yeshivot of the city of Fez, in Northern inland Morocco, attracted many great scholars and writers.

Almohad warriors.

This began to change under the rule of a Berber Muslim dynasty called the Almoravids. They forbade Jews from living in the capital Marrakesh and enacted many other antisemitic laws.

The Jewish people of Morocco were further persecuted when a militant dynasty called the Almohads came to power. They gave Jews two choices: Islam or death. Those who converted still faced persecution and pogroms, and were forced to wear yellow head-coverings.

A painting of a Jewish wedding in Morocco.

Conditions became better when the Marinids, another Berber empire, conquered Morocco. Under their rule, Jews were appointed to many high government positions, which angered Muslims. This anger culminated in the 1465 Moroccan Revolt, one of the deadliest pogroms in Moroccan history. This revolt also resulted in the toppling of the Marinid Dynasty, which had ruled Morocco for the past two hundred years.

The numbers of Moroccan Jews were further strengthened by refugees from the Spanish Inquisition. These immigrants faced many challenges, such as poverty, famine, and antisemitism, and Jews who did not possess top government or business positions continued to suffer through the next few centuries.

Mohammed V in 1934.

During World War II, when the Nazis took over France (which controlled Morocco), the regime tried to deport Moroccan Jews to European concentration camps, but the sultan, Mohammed V, refused to carry the plan out. After Moroccan independence, tens of thousands of Jews immigrated to the newly created Israel, especially after antisemitic riots erupted in Morocco. In 1948, there were around 265,000 Jews in Morocco; today, there are just over 2,000 left, while in Israel 5% of the Jewish population is of Moroccan descent. The story of Jews in Morocco is long and complex, and the country was home to many great Jewish sages, such as Maimonides (the Rambam).

Research and sources came from Wikipedia articles.