• Issue: January 1973
  • Designer: D. Ben Dov & A. Kalderon
  • Plate no.: 374
  • Method of printing: Photogravure

The early history of the Jews of North Africa is still obscure. Due to the absence of epigraphic and other documents, historians studying this ethnic group have not yet succeeded in finding a satisfactory explanation of the beginnings of Jewish settlement in this region. There is, however, no lack of legends concerning the founding of Jewish communities in this part of the world, and tradition has it that the settlements date back to the days of Yoav ben Zeruya, the commander of David's army, who reached these parts when pursuing the Philistines, otherwise known as the Berbers. The study of the traditions and customs of the Jews of North Africa is unusually fascinating because of the existence of a set of conditions peculiar to that part of Jewry. The antiquities of this diaspora, their ties with other Jewish congregations, the Arab and Berber influences, their absorption of the Jews expelled from Spain and other countries, their dispersion over a wide geographical area, all combined to give North African Jewry a special appeal. Mention must be made of the movement towards conversion among the Berbers during the first few centuries of the Common Era - a movement which helped augment the Jewish population. We have evidence of Jewish settlement in various cities of North Africa during this period of Roman rule. In the 5th century, the area was conquered by the Germanic Vandals who remained for about 100 years. In the 6th century, the region passed under the rule of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian who imposed severe restrictions on the Jewish population.

The Arab conquest in the 7th century was destined to have a decisive influence on the whole region and its peoples. The resistance of the earliest known inhabitants under the leadership of the "Kahina" who, it is presumed, was a Berber woman who converted to Judaism, delayed this conquest for 25 years. In the Middle Ages, important Jewish communities flourished in places such as Fez, Sijilmasa, Tincen, and particularly Kairouan, which was visited by Eldad Hadani in the year 880. Among those who settled in that town were Ukba, the exiled head of the Jewish community of Baghdad, and Rabbi Hushiel who founded a Yeshiva (Talmudical College) there.

Fez is famous due to Rabbi Yehuda ben Koraish, the linguist, known for his essay on the importance of Aramaic and Arabic in researching the Hebrew language. He was followed by other scholars - Rabbi Dunash ben Lebrat and Rabbi David ben Avraham Hafasi. One of the greatest grammarians of that period was Rabbi Yehuda ibn Hayudi who was the first to establish the triliteral root of the Hebrew verb. Thanks to these scholars, North Africa became the home of Hebrew grammar. The greatest and most famous of the savants was, without a doubt, Rabbi Yitzhaq Alfasi ("Rif").

The cultural and religious ties between the Jewish communities of North Africa and other Jewish communities is reflected in the rich collection of literature concerning religious problems put to the Gaonim (supreme religious leaders) and in their replies (Responsa).

The rise of the Almohads to power at the end of the 1lth century dealt a heavy blow to Jewish settlement in the area and resulted in the annihilation of several communities. Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra gave expression to this destruction in one of his elegies.

In the year 1165, Maimonides passed through Fez and wrote his Epistle of Doom after viewing the suffering of the Jews and the distress of the Marranos (Jews forcibly converted to Islam). Many Jews emigrated, among them Maimonides' disciple, Rabbi Yosef ibn Agnin (a native of Ceuta) to whom Maimonides dedicated his famous work A Guide to the Perplexed.

It was only in the second half of the 13th century that the situation of the Jews improved and many of them rose to prominent positions at Court, but the deep-seated hatred of the Almohads continued unabated.

The arrival of the Jews from Spain (1391 and 1492) and Portugal (1497) was a blessing for the Jews of North Africa and for their host countries. The appearance of the great powers (Spain, Portugal, Turkey, and France) on the North African scene brought about radical changes. Jews played an important role in cementing the ties between the powers and the local rulers, whether in the role of merchants or diplomats, or in other fields of activity.

In spite of occasional persecution, the Jews maintained their position and were able to lead normal private and public lives. Their wealth, which they were unable to display in public due to the jealousy of the Moslem population, found expression in their family lives. They created for themselves a solid, happy family life with numerous and prolonged celebrations (wedding festivities would last for a month or more) and different customs associated with the Jewish Festivals and other occasions.

The connection of these Jews with the land of Israel was never severed. Love of the homeland was always one of the outstanding attributes of the Jew and found expression in the gifts of money sent to the Holy Land, in emigration to the Land of Israel throughout the ages, and in the warm reception accorded to emissaries coming from there.

It is no wonder, therefore, that with the establishment of the State of Israel, the vast majority of North African Jewry left their homes and emigrated to their ancient homeland.

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Immigration of North African Jews