Berber Jews

Berber Jews are the Jewish communities of Maghreb which historically spoke Berber languages. Between 1950 and 1970 most emigrated to France, the United States, or Israel.[1]

Berber Jews
Udayen Imaziɣen
•Liturgical: Mizrahi Hebrew
•Traditional: Berber; also Judeo-Arabic with Judeo-Berber as a contact language
•Modern: typically the language of whatever country they now reside in, including Modern Hebrew in Israel
Related ethnic groups
Mizrahi Jews
Sephardi Jews
Other Jewish groups



Jews have settled in North Africa since 6th century BC and a Jewish community existed in the Roman province of Africa, which is modern Tunisia. Ifriqia was the name chosen for what we know today as Tunisia.[2] The acceptance by the Berbers of Judaism as a religion, and its embrace by a number of tribes, may have occurred over time.[3] French historian, Eugène Albertini dates the judaization of certain Berber tribes and their expansion from Tripolitania to the Saharan oases, to the end of the 1st century.[4] Marcel Simon for his part, sees the first point of contact between the western Berbers and Judaism in the great Jewish Rebellion of 66-70.[5] Historians believe, based on the writings of Ibn Khaldoun and other evidences, that some or all of the ancient Judaized Berber tribes later adopted Christianity and afterwards Islam, and it is not clear if they are a part of the ancestry of contemporary Berber-speaking Jews.[6]

Islamic period

Besides old settlements of Jews in the Atlas mountains and the interior Berber lands of Morocco, strong periodic persecutions by the Almohades most probably augmented the Jewish presence there. This hypothesis is reinforced by the pogroms which happened in Fes, Meknes and Taza in the late 15th century and which would have brought another wave of Jews, including amongst them Spanish Jewish-descended families such as the Peretz, and this wave would have even reach the Sahara with Figuig and Errachidia.

Some claim the female Berber military leader, Dihya, was a Berber Jew, though she is remembered in the oral tradition of some North-African communities as oppressive leader for the Jews, and other sources claim her to be Christian. She is said to have aroused the Berbers in the Aures (Chaoui territory) in the eastern spurs of the Atlas Mountains in modern-day Algeria to a last, although fruitless, resistance to the Arab general Hasan ibn Nu'man.

After the Arab–Israeli War

Following the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, the tensions between the Jewish and Muslim communities increased.[7] Jews in the Maghreb were compelled to leave due to these increased tensions. Today, the indigenous Berber Jewish community no longer exists in Morocco. The Moroccan Jewish population rests at about 2,200 persons with most residing in Casablanca,[8] some of whom might still be Berber speakers.[9]


In the past, it would have been very difficult to decide whether these Jewish Berber clans were originally of Israelite descent and had become assimilated with the Berbers in language and some cultural habits or whether they were indigenous Berbers who in the course of centuries had become Jewish through conversion by Jewish settlers. The second theory was developed mainly in the first half of the 20th century, as part of the quest of French colonial authorities to discover and emphasize pre-Islamic customs among the Berber-Muslim population since such customs and ways of life were believed to be more amenable and assimilable to French rule, legitimizing the policy that the Berbers would be governed by their own "customary" law rather than Islamic law.

Consequently, the main proponents of this theory were scholars such as Nahum Slouschz who worked closely with French authorities.[10] Other scholars such as André Goldenberg and Simon Lévy also favoured it.[11]

Franz Boas wrote in 1923 that a comparison of the Jews of North Africa with those of Western Europe and those of Russia "shows very clearly that in every single instance we have a marked assimilation between the Jews and the people among whom they live" and that "the Jews of North Africa are, in essential traits, North Africans".[12]

Haim Hirshberg, a major historian of North-African Jewry, questioned the theory of massive Judaization of the Berbers in an article named "The Problem of the Judaized Berbers". One of the points that Hirshberg raised in his article was that Ibn Khaldoun, the source of the Judaized Berbers theory, wrote only that few tribes "might" have been Judaized in ancient times and stated that in the Roman period the same tribes were Christianized.[6]

The theory of a massive Judaization of the Berber population was further dismissed by a recent study on the mtDNA (transmitted from mother to children). The study carried out by Behar et al. that analysed small samples of North African Jews (Libya (83); Morocco (149); Tunisia (37)) indicates that Jews from North Africa lack typically North African Hg M1 and U6 mtDNAs.[13] Hence, according to the authors, the lack of U6 and M1 haplogroups among the North Africans renders the possibility of significant admixture, as between the local Arab and Berber populations with Jews, unlikely. The genetic evidence shows them to be distinct from Berber populations, but more similar to Ashkenazi Jewish populations.[13]

See also

  • Jewish ethnic divisions
  • Judeo-Berber language
  • Mizrahi Jews
  • History of the Jews in Morocco
  • History of the Jews in Algeria
  • History of the Jews in Tunisia
  • History of the Jews of Bilad el-Sudan
  • Berbers
  • Berber beliefs
  • Muslim conquest of North Africa
  • Berbers and Islam
  • Arab-Berber
  • Arabized Berber
  • Kabylism, Algerianism, Berberism
  • Udayn n Acur
  • Helene Grimaud
  • David Bensoussan, Il était une fois le Maroc : témoignages du passé judéo-marocain, éd. du Lys,, Montréal, 2010 (ISBN 2-922505-14-6); Deuxième édition :, ISBN 978-1-4759-2608-8, 620p. ebook ISBN 978-1-4759-2609-5, Prix Haïm Zafrani de l'Institut universitaire Élie Wiesel, Paris 2012.
  • Moroccan citron, an old heritage of growing the genetically pure citron type, native to Assads, Morocco on the Anti Atlas canyon, for the Jewish ritual of etrog during the holiday of Sukkot.


  1. Shokeid, Moshe. The Dual Heritage: Immigrants from the Atlas Mountains in an Israeli Village.
  2. Hildegard Temporini, Wolfgang Haase, Rise and Decline of the Roman World, Walter de Gruyter, 1983, p. 512.
  3. Berber tribes converted to Judaism:
    • "many Berber tribes converted to Judaism". Reuven Firestone, Children of Abraham: an introduction to Judaism for Muslims , Ktav Publishing House, April 2001, p. 138.
    • "In addition, a number of Berber tribes converted to Judaism." Taru Bahl, M.H. Syed. Encyclopaedia of the Muslim World, Anmol Publications PVT. LTD., 2003, p. 50.
    • "...entire Berber tribes converted to Judaism." Marvine Howe. Morocco: the Islamist awakening and other challenges, Oxford University Press US, 2005, p. 184.
    • "...they had mounting influence among the Berber tribes of North Africa, some of which were converted to Judaism." Michael Maas. The Cambridge companion to the Age of Justinian, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 411.
    • "a significant number of North African Jews descend from Berber tribes who converted to Judaism in late antiquity." Daniel J. Schroeter, Vivian B. Mann. Morocco: Jews and art in a Muslim land, Merrell, 2000, p. 27.
    • "It was in response to this violent repression that many Cyrenaican Jews fled deep into the Sahara and lived there among the Berber tribes, some of whom they later converted to Judaism". Martin Gilbert. In Ishmael's House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands, McClelland & Stewart, 2010, p. 4.
    • "Their influence spread among the pagan Berber population so that by the sixth century many Berber tribes had converted to Judaism. In some cases entire Berber tribes in the Atlas Mountains became Judaized." Ken Blady. Jewish communities in exotic places, Jason Aronson, 2000, p. 294.
  4. Eugène Albertini, L'empire romain, 1929, p.165
  5. Marcel Simon, « Le judaïsme berbère dans l'Afrique ancienne », in Revue d'histoire et de philosophie religieuse, XXVI, 1946, p.69
  6. Hirschberg, H. Z. (1963). "The Problem of the Judaized Berbers". The Journal of African History. Cambridge University Press. 4 (3): 313–339. doi:10.1017/s0021853700004278. JSTOR 180026.
  7. "Return to Morocco". Retrieved 2016-08-19.
  8. "Jews in Islamic Countries: Morocco". Jewish Virtual Library. Retrieved 2020-08-22.
  9. "Return to Morocco". Retrieved 2016-04-13.
  10. Schroeter, Daniel J. (2008). "The Shifting Boundaries of Moroccan Jewish Identities" (PDF). Jewish Social Studies. 15 (1): 148.
  11. Goldenberg, André (1992). Les juifs du Maroc. Paris: Editions du Scribe. ISBN 2-86765-013-5.
  12. Franz Boas, Are the Jews a Race?, The World of Tomorrow, 1923, reprinted in Race and Democratic Society, New York, Augustin, 1945, pp. 39–41
  13. Behar, Doron M.; et al. (2008). "Counting the Founders. The Matrilineal Genetic Ancestry of the Jewish Diaspora". PLoS ONE. 3 (4): e2062. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002062. PMC 2323359. PMID 18446216.
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