SUGAR & SALT: JEWISH MOROCCO
By the 1st century AD, Jewish Berber communities already well established in Morocco included
farmers, metalworkers, dyers, glassblowers, bookbinders and cowboys. Jewish entrepreneurs
excluded from trades and guilds in medieval Europe also took up crucial roles as dealers of the
hottest Moroccan commodities of the time: salt and sugar. Jewish Moroccans were taxed when
business went well for the ruling dynasty and sometimes blamed when it didn’t, yet they managed
to flourish even while European Jews faced escalating persecution.
Inquisition, forced conversions and summary executions were all the rage in Europe in the 14th to 16th centuries, and not surprisingly many European Jews fled to Morocco. Unlike European rulers, the comparatively tolerant Merenid and Saadian dynasties provided Jewish communities with some security, setting aside sections of Fez and Marrakesh as the first Jewish quarters, or mellahs – a name derived from the Arabic word for salt. This protection was repaid many times over in taxes levied on Jewish and Christian businesses, and the royally flush Saadians clearly got the sweet end of the deal. Yet several Jewish Moroccans rose to prominence as royal advisors, and in the Saadian Tombs of Marrakesh, trusted Jewish confidantes are buried even closer to the kings than royal wives.
By day, Jewish merchants traded alongside Christian and Muslim merchants, and were entrusted with precious salt, sugar and gold brought across the Sahara; by night they were under official guard in their quarters. Once the mellahs of Fez and Marrakesh became overcrowded with European arrivals, other notable mellahs were founded in Essaouira, Safi, Rabat and Meknčs, and the traditions of skilled handicrafts that flourished there continue to this day. The influence of the mellahs spread throughout Morocco, especially in tangy dishes with the signature salted, pickled ingredients of Moroccan Jewish cuisine.
Under Alawite rule in the 17th to 19th centuries, the official policy toward Jewish Moroccans was one of give and take: on the one hand were opportunities as tradespeople, business leaders and ambassadors to England, Holland and Denmark in the 19th century; on the other were taxes, surveillance and periodic scapegoating. But in good times and bad, Jewish Moroccans remained a continuous presence. By 1948, some 250,000 to 300,000 Jewish Moroccans lived in Morocco. Many left after the founding of the states of Morocco and Israel, and today only an estimated 8000 to 10,000 remain, mostly in Casablanca. A Jewish community centre in Casablanca was a bombing target in 2003, and though no one was harmed at the community centre, the trade-centre blasts killed 33 and wounded 100. Yet the community remains intact, with a modest renaissance under the current king. Jewish schools now receive state funding; a few Jewish expatriates have responded to a royal invitation to return and are contributing to the revival of Essaouira’s mellah; and like his Alawite predecessors, King Mohammed VI counts Jewish advisors among his confidantes.