Judaism: Judaism in the Middle East and North Africa since 1492

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The year 1492 marks a turning point in the history of the Jewish people. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain closes a brilliant and complex chapter in Jewish history, releasing a massive group of talented and despondent refugees upon the shores of the Mediterranean. They were soon followed by other waves of Jewish émigrés from Portugal, France, Provence, and the various Italian states as a result of the forced conversions or expulsions in those countries in the late-fifteenth through mid-sixteenth centuries. Even within the tragic annals of the Jews, rarely had the contemporary scene appeared so bleak. With most of the gates of Europe closed, the refugees of western Europe fled to the world of Islam, injecting new life and much controversy into the Jewish communities there that had been living in a state of decline for at least two centuries. The emergent period was marked by fervent yearnings for redemption, painful attempts at evaluating why the Spanish Jewish experience had ended in such ignominy, a brief but brilliant renaissance of Jewish life in Turkey, the outburst of antinomianism in seventeenth-century Ottoman Jewry, and a final period of increasing intellectual stagnation of Jews in Muslim lands. Beginning in the nineteenth century, winds of change swept the Near East, propelled by the influence of the European powers. Jews were especially receptive to the attempts of western Jews to reform the eastern Jews and their situation, unleashing a chain of events and attempts at modernization whose effects are still being felt.

Jewish Legal Status in Muslim Lands

From its inception, Islam exhibited an ambivalent attitude toward non-Muslims. The prophet Muammad had clearly enunciated his indebtedness to the faith of his monotheistic predecessors in the Qurʾān, tolerating their continued existence with certain provisos. Jews and Christians were to be recognized as possessors of scripture, ahl al-kitāb (people of the Book), were not to be forcibly converted, and were to be afforded a modicum of protection. Implied in the status of protection, dhimma, or of protected peoplesdhimmi swas the right of the Jews to exercise their Judaism provided they accepted a position of subordination.

Over the centuries Muslim jurists worked out elaborate codes of what constituted subordination and "signs of humiliation." Typically, Jewish and Christian houses of worship were to be inconspicuous, Jews and Christians were to wear distinguishing garments, such as special headgear or footwear and clothing of designated colors. They were prohibited from riding horses or engaging in occupations that would place them in a position of authority over Muslims. In addition, they were required to pay special discriminatory taxes on produce of the land and a special head tax (jizyah).

Implementation of the discriminatory decrees was never uniform; the earlier Middle Ages exhibited a far greater degree of tolerance than the later Middle Ages. On the peripheries of the Muslim empire, moreover, in Morocco, Persia, and Yemen, the Muslim regimes tended to enforce discriminatory codes much more rigorously than in the heartland. By the nineteenth century, the entire system of carefully balanced toleration tempered by discrimination had broken down and Jews increasingly turned to the European powers for protection. In general, however, Middle East society was marked by public displays of religiosity, which found particular expression in the family or clan unit. Judaism, too, was a family and communal tradition strengthened by generations of relative economic, social, and political isolation in Muslim lands. Known in Turkish as a millet (nation) in the Ottoman realm (from the mid-fifteenth century), Jews and Judaism enjoyed a relatively self-contained and protected position in the lands of Islam.

Jewish Demography in Muslim Lands: Pre- and Post-1492

Population estimates of Jews in Muslim lands are extremely risky, since even at the height of the Muslim state its records of tax collection are partial and incomplete at best. It is generally accepted by historians that between eighty-five and ninety percent of world Jewry lived in the Muslim world in the period from the eighth through the tenth century. As that world became increasingly anarchic in the twelfth century, and as a result of the pogroms unleashed by the Almohads after 1147, Jewish population migrations to Christian lands increased. By the mid-seventeenth century, there were approximately three-quarters of a million Jews in the world, half of whom lived in the Muslim realm and half in Christian Europe (primarily Poland and Lithuania). During the sixteenth century acme of population growth in the Ottoman empire, the Jewish population in Istanbul alone reached forty thousand. At least as many Jews resided in contemporary Salonika. Perhaps as many as ten thousand Jews resided in Fez in Morocco, fifteen thousand in Iraq, and as many as fifteen thousand in the city of Safed (in Palestine) in the sixteenth century.

The Jewish population in the Ottoman empire began to decline dramatically in the seventeenth century as a result of fires, earthquakes, infant mortality, and increasing political insecurity. By the eve of World War II, Jews from Muslim lands numbered approximately one million out of the global Jewish population of approximately eighteen million. Since the Holocaust, Sephardic Jews (of Spanish origin) and Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin have increased in demographic importance, both absolutely and relatively, since they significant percent of the Jewish population of Israel and a majority of the population of France, the second and third largest Jewish communities in the free world. (The term Sephardic Jews hereafter may include Middle Eastern and North African Jews, when their distinction is not necessary.)

The Exiles from Spain to the Maghreb

Jewish flight from Spain began as a mass movement, not in 1492, but in 1391. In that year, waves of violence inundated the Jews of Spain and the Balearic Islands, and while many Jews were martyred, others converted, and still others fled. One of the most important places of refuge of Spanish and Majorcan Jewry in 1391 was Algeria. Sephardic Jews met a mixed reception from the beleaguered indigenous Jews who feared that a large influx of Jews could ignite local anti-Semitism in the Muslim population. But they quickly assumed leadership positions in the community, providing a new élan to North African Jewish life. The scholar-refugee leaders Yitshaq ben Sheshet Perfet (13261408) and Shimʿon ben Tsemah Duran (13611444) have left a voluminous collection of rabbinic decisions and correspondence (responsa ) revealing that Sephardic Jewry was troubled, not simply by the arduous task of communal reconstruction following flight, but also by very difficult questions of ritual and law as a result of the large-scale apostasy that had accompanied the waves of persecution. Questions of marital, ritual, and dietary law could not easily be resolved as demands for compassion clashed with real issues of communal continuity and Jewish identity.

The wave of refugees rose, and the question of secret Jews and forced converts (Marranos and conversos ) grew more complex after 1492, as over 150,000 left Spain in haste. One of the favored refuges was Morocco, where Jews found asylum in the kingdom of Fez after a journey made perilous by unscrupulous captains and pirates. Chroniclers such as Avraham ben Shelomoh of Ardutiel, Avraham Zacuto, and Shelomoh ibn Verga dramatized the hazards of the flight from Spain. In Fez, Meknes, Marrakech, Safi, Arzila, and smaller towns the Sephardic refugees injected new leadership and frequent controversy into the midst of small indigenous communities. In the coastal regions they exploited their connections with the Iberian Peninsula, serving as commercial agents for the Spanish and Portuguese.

Wherever the Spanish refugees came, they brought with them great pride, loyalty, and nostalgia for their cities of origin. Many of their customs were unfamiliar to the local Jews, particularly the halakhic leniencies that they had devised in response to the religious persecution they had endured. But they considered their customs to be sacrosanct, and controversy raged among the Spanish Jews and between the Spaniards (known as megorashim, "expelled ones") and the indigenous Jews (known as toshavim ). In Morocco, these communal divisions were reflected in a duplication of many communal institutions and a protracted communal debate in Fez that required Muslim intercession. Ultimately, Sephardic numerical preponderance and halakhic leadership prevailed and Moroccan Jewry emerged as a place of scholarship after centuries of quiescence.

In Tunisia, divisions between the refugees and the indigenous population were also institutionalized. They were aggravated by the influx of Jews from Livorno, Italy, who reinforced the separatism of the Spaniards. Two communities were established and the divisions between the newcomers (known as the grana ) and the natives (touansa ) persisted until the twentieth century. (This internecine struggle enabled local Turkish governors to exploit the Jews more easily.)

Jewish life in the Maghreb bore a number of distinctive features in the period following the advent of the Jews from Spain. On the one hand, most communities were torn by division as Sephardim attempted to impose their customs upon the local Jews. Given their large numbers, superior educational level, and self-confidence, Spanish Jewry assumed the helms of power in most of the Maghreb. New Jewish intellectual centers emerged in Fez (Morocco) and Tlemcen (Algeria), and the ordinances (taqqanot ) of the Jews of Castile soon became the guide for natives as well as newcomers. In matters of personal status as well as questions of communal leadership, inheritance, and ritual slaughtering, the Sephardic way became the standard mode of behavior for most Maghrebi Jews.

North Africa was not, however, a mere replica of pre-1492 Spain. Local customs, such as worship at the tombs of saints, the special celebration at the end of the festival of Passover known as the Mimouna, and belief in the efficacy of amulets and talismans became part and parcel of Maghrebi Jewry as a whole. The special role of the emissary from Palestine, the hakham kolel, in the intellectual life of the Maghreb was already discernible by the fifteenth century. Through the hakham kolel the mystical movements of sixteenth-century Palestine spread rapidly in North Africa. North African Judaism was characterized by a melding of the study of Talmud with that of the Zohar and the pervasive spread in North Africa of Qabbalah or mysticism. This blending lent a special flavor to the scholarship of a long line of teachers, jurists, judges, and mystics.

The Aftermath of 1492: The Ottoman East

Even before the expulsion of 1492, Jews in the West began to hear that the Ottoman empire was welcoming Jewish immigration. Yitshaq Tsarfati reportedly addressed the Jews of northern Europe under the reign of Murad II (14211451):

Brothers and teachers, friends and acquaintances! I, Isaac Sarfati, though I spring from French stock, yet I was born in Germany, and sat there at the feet of my esteemed teachers. I proclaim to you that Turkey is a land where nothing is lacking and where, if you will, all shall yet be well with you. The way to the Holy Land lies open to you through Turkey.

Indeed, Ottoman might appeared to be invincible for over one hundred years. By the reign of Süleyman I ("the Magnificent," 15201566) the Ottoman borders extended from Morocco in the west to Iran in the east, from Hungary in the north to Yemen in the south.

Throughout the sixteenth century, while the empire was reaching its acme, successive boats brought Jewish refugees ashore in the eastern Mediterranean, particularly to its fairest port on the Aegean, Salonika. Some of the refugees came directly from the Iberian Peninsula while others arrived after an initial stop in Italy or North Africa where many succeeded in recouping their assets. They were eagerly welcomed by the sultan Bayezid II (14811512), especially since many were reputed to be skilled munitions-makers who would undoubtedly be helpful allies in the repeated wars against the Habsburgs.

The newcomers to the Ottoman empire displayed a degree of separatism and individualism that surpassed that of their Sephardic coreligionists in the Maghreb. They tended to divide along geographic lines so that before long there were more than forty congregations in Istanbul and Salonika each. The very names of the congregationsCatalan, Castile, Aragon, Barcelona, Portugal, Calabriaevoked identification with their origins. Distinctive identities were reinforced by the separate formations of self-help societies of all sorts. The very mixture of Jews, not only various groups of Sephardim, but also Ashkenazim from Germany and Hungary, Greek-speaking Jews from the Balkans (known as Romaniots), and Italian Jews created strains and tensions. It was not long before the preponderance of Sephardim overwhelmed the smaller native communities and the Castilian language, with an admixture of Hebrew, Turkish, and Slavic words known as Ladino, became the primary language of Ottoman Jewry and it remained such until the twentieth century. Popular Jewish culture was sprinkled with Ladino proverbs and ballads and a veritable treasure trove of Iberian literature entered into the folk culture of Ottoman, especially Balkan Jewry.

The city of Salonika emerged as the preeminent Jewish community of the sixteenth century. The fame of its Talmud Torah (a rabbinic academy) spread far and wide, as did the rabbinic decisions of its rabbis Shemu'el de Medina (15051589) and his contemporary Yosef Taitasaq. The sixteenth-century Jewish historian Samuel Usque called Salonika in 1545 "a true mother in Judaism." Salonika's preeminence as a city of Sephardic culture remained down to its last days when, in 1943, the community was destroyed by the Nazis, its vast library sacked, and its four-hundred-year-old cemetery desecrated and dismantled.

One of the salient characteristics of the generation of exile was its melancholy brooding on the meaning of the tragic history of Israel, and especially of its Sephardic standard-bearers. A series of historians emerged among the Jewish people to record and comment upon the recent events. In his Consolations for the Tribulations of Israel, Samuel Usque, writing in Portuguese, adumbrated a lachrymose view of Jewish existence. His contemporary, Yosef ha-Kohen (d. 1578) in his 'Emeq ha-bakhah compared Jewish history to a journey through a "valley of tears." A third sixteenth-century Sephardic commentator, Shelomoh ibn Verga, also sought to decipher the reasons for Jewish suffering in his Shevet Yehudah (Scepter of Judah). It has been suggested that this unparalleled outpouring of Jewish historical writing during the sixteenth century not only represented an intense intellectual attempt to understand what had happened but was also perceived by the very writers themselves as a novum in Jewish history. Jews were now seeking for the first time to understand the ways of oppressive nations, not only the ways of God. The chronicle Seder Eliyyahu zuta' by Eliyyahu Capsali of Crete is devoted in large part to discussions of Ottoman history. The events of the time also called forth two more enduring reactions in the mystical and messianic meanings ascribed to the Spanish Jewish tragedy.

Spanish Jews brought not only their contentiousness and tragic vision but also their critical intellectual and technological skills to the Ottoman realm. Among the most important of the technological skills was the fine art of printing. Soon after the expulsion, a Hebrew press appeared in Fez, and it was followed soon thereafter by Hebrew printing presses in Salonika (1500), Constantinople (1503), Safad (1563), and Smyrna (1764). Hebrew printing spread from there to Baghdad, Calcutta, and Poona and eventually to Jerba, Sousse, Algiers, and Oran. (Not until more than two hundred years after the establishment of the first Hebrew printing press in Turkey was the first Ottoman Turkish press established.) A large number of the works printed by the Jewish presses were tracts dealing with practical Qabbalah or mysticism. Indeed, the rapid spread of mysticism from sixteenth-century Safed throughout the Mediterranean world, as well as the Zohar' s dissemination as a popular Sephardic text, can be attributed to the introduction of Hebrew printing in the Ottoman empire.

United under the umbrella of one dynamic and expansive empire, the Jews of Muslim lands enjoyed a cultural renaissance and an era of prosperity in the sixteenth century. Jewish physicians emerged in the royal courts of Constantinople to reassert their special role as courtiers and diplomats. Moshe Hamon (14901554), the personal physician to Süleyman I, managed to outlast the intrigues of the harem to excel as a physician, medical scholar, bibliophile, and protector of Jews against the blood libel (false accusation that Jews have committed a ritual murder). Rabbis Moshe Capsali (14531497), Eliyyahu Mizrahi (14981526), and Yosef ben Moshe di Trani (16041639) held considerable sway over the Ottoman Jews through their reputation as scholars rather than through any official position. By the eighteenth century, Izmir, as well, boasted a rabbinic leadership whose influence could be felt in the Near East.

Two personalities of sixteenth-century Ottoman Jewish history embody many of the qualities of the Sefardim in this generation. Gracia Nasi (d. 1568?), a Portuguese Marrano (whose converso name was Beatrice Mendès), Jewish banker, entrepreneur, and patron of scholars and schools, arrived in Constantinople amid great splendor. Her many activities in the Ottoman empire included the rescue of Marranos from the Inquisition, the restoration of Jewish learning through enormous charitable donations, and the judicious use of diplomatic levers to assist foreign Jews in distress. Gracia was assisted in her spectacular business undertakings by her nephew Yosef Nasi (15141579; that is, Joseph Mendès). Yosef was also adviser to Selim II, the sultan who awarded him a dukedom over the island of Naxos and a permit to recolonize the city of Tiberias. The awards were apparently made in recognition of the astuteness of Yosef's advice, particularly concerning the conquest of Cyprus in 1571.

Jewish life in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman empire also began to quicken as a result of the Ottoman conquests in the first quarter of the sixteenth century. Egypt produced David ibn Abi Zimra (14791573), one of the most prolific responsa writers of his day. Despite the Ottoman conquest of 1526, Iraq did not succumb to Ottoman control until the seventeenth century. Its small Jewish community, however, emerged from isolation and resumed contact with the outside Jewish world, turning, for example to the rabbis of Aleppo, Syria, for religious guidance. The Ottoman conquest of Arab provinces did not necessarily improve the lot of the Jews. For the Jews of Yemen, Ottoman incursions and conquest in 1546 destabilized an already precarious situation. Caught between warring Muslim forces, the Jews of Sanaa were subjected to severe discriminatory legislation, culminating in the destruction of synagogues and expulsions in the seventeenth century. Literarily, the community underwent a period of cultural flowering, despite these hardships, during the career of the Yemenite poet Shalom Shabbazi (16171680?).

Safed as a Center of Sephardic Search and Jewish Mysticism

The Sephardic refugees of the sixteenth century were a melancholy and restless generation, torn by guilty memories of community apostasy, perplexed by their continuing suffering and exile, and fevered by expectations of imminent salvation. Messianism ran deep in the community, easily aroused by flamboyant pretenders such as David Reubeni who went to Clement VII (14781534) and other Christian leaders with the offer of raising Jewish armies to help them recapture Palestine from the Ottomans. One of his most illustrious followers, a Portuguese secret Jew, Shelomoh Molkho (15011532), heeded Reubeni's call, circumcised himself, and set out for Italy preaching the advent of the Messiah. Ultimately he fell into the hands of the Inquisition and was burned at the stake in Mantua in 1532. His influence, however, spread as far as the settlement of Safed in Palestine.

After the Ottoman conquest of Palestine in 1516, Jewish migration to the Holy Land increased. Soon a remarkable galaxy of scholars and mystics emerged in Safed. Three generations of extraordinary mystics engaged collectively and individually in ascertaining practical means of hastening the redemption of the Jewish people while providing mythic formulations for comprehending the Sephardic catastrophe. These mystics were not recluses but were, rather, legal scholars actively engaged in history. One of their giants, Ya'aqov Berab (d. 1546), arrived in Safed after wanderings in North Africa and Egypt. Believing the time ripe for the messianic redemption of the Jewish people, Berab set out to restore the ancient rite of rabbinical ordination (semikhah ) in 1538 as a prerequisite for the reestablishment of the Sanhedrin which was, in turn, prerequisite to the proper repentance of the Jewish people that would bring redemption. While his disciples eagerly accepted the new charge placed upon them, Berab's movement was ultimately thwarted by the forceful opposition of Levi ibn Habib of Jerusalem.

Another towering intellectual figure of that generation who eventually found his way to Safed after many years of wandering was Yosef Karo (14881575). Karo's halakhic authority was established by his major work Beit Yosef. He is remembered by posterity, however, through the utility of his comprehensive legal handbook Shulhan Arukh. In the Shulhan Arukh Karo presented numerous Sephardic as well as Ashkenazic practices in a readily accessible fashion, rendering his work one of the most useful codes for subsequent generations of Jews. Karo also possessed a mystical bent that emerges in his work Maggid mesharim, a mystical diary of angelic revelations, and he served as mentor to the remarkable cluster of mystics and pietists in sixteenth-century Safed.

With the arrival of Isaac Luria in Safed in the 1560s, Jewish mysticism reached its greatest heights. A charismatic personality with a stirring effect on his followers, Luria decisively influenced the development of Jewish mysticism in the following generations. Lurianic Qabbalah, with its doctrines of a cataclysmic scattering of divine sparks at creation and the unique role of Israel in liberating and reunifying these sparks, together with a belief in metempsychosis and new mystical modes of prayer, deepened the expectation of messianic redemption and altered the way many Jews thought about themselves for at least a century and a half.

The mystics of Safed delved into the vast corpus of Jewish literature, frequently using the Zohar as their point of departure. Many unusual personalities in this group were characterized by their frequent walks in the Galilee and fervent embellishment of the Sabbath and daily ritual actions. One of the participants was the poet Shelomoh Alkabets. He is best remembered for the poem Lekhah dodi, a Sabbath invocation welcoming the Sabbath as bride and queen that has been included in the Friday evening Sabbath services in all Jewish communities.

After Luria's death in 1572, his disciple Hayyim Vital (15431620) began to disseminate a version of the teachings of the Lurianic school of Safed. The prominence of the city itself did not last much longer. In 1576 the Ottoman sultan ordered the deportation of one thousand Jews from Safed to repopulate the newly conquered island of Cyprus. The order was rescinded soon thereafter, but many Jews had already left the city. The vitality of Safed's Jewish community was further sapped by the corruption of Ottoman provincial governors, the impact of devastating earthquakes, and the periodic depredations of local Arabs. Additionally, the mystical movement in Safed was severely compromised by the disastrous effects of the disillusionment in the wake of Shabbetai Tsevi's messianic movement. In the seventeenth century Safed reverted to its former role as an inconspicuous settlement in a backwater province while the qabbalistic ideas that had emerged there spread rapidly throughout the Diaspora.

Influence of Shabbetai Tsevi

The decline of the Jewish communities in Muslim lands was a slow process caused by a number of external factors. An especially prominent symptom of this decline is the bizarre and tragic career of Shabbetai Tsevi. Shabbetai Tsevi was born in the city of Smyrna in 1626, began to engage in mystical studies in 1648, and fell under the spell of Natan of Gaza in 1665, pronouncing himself the Messiah in that year. An anarchic outburst of antinomian activity and frenzy ensued as news of Shabbetai's bizarre behavior spread. Even his conversion to Islam in 1666 did not discredit the movement, but rather accelerated the tendency of that generation to perceive the Spanish experience as one with messianic overtones. The fact that Tsevi converted shook Marrano circles everywhere. Scholars in Italy and Amsterdam were agitated; poets in Kurdistan wrote poems on Shabbetean themes; Jewish followers of Tsevi, known as Donmeh, converted to Islam and continued to believe in Tsevi as the Messiah for generations after his death. The energy, confusion, guilt, and false hopes with which the Shabbatean movement had tried to break out of the mold of Jewish suffering left a hyperagitated Jewry deeply depressed.

Ultimately the messianic storm subsided, rabbisespecially in the Ottoman empirebegan to destroy books with references to Shabbetai Tsevi, and concerted efforts were made once again to integrate mystical studies into rabbinics. Ultimately, Near Eastern Jewry repressed Shabbeteanism while retaining traces of it in its particular fondness for an integration of Judaism with such practices as saint worship and visiting holy sites (ziyarah ), and a strengthened belief in the efficacy of practical Qabbalah such as the casting of lots or the interpretation of dreams.

Ottoman Jewish decline accelerated after the debacle of Tsevi. It was temporarily halted in 1730 when the first volume of the multivolume encyclopedia Me'am lo'ez appeared. This popular compendium of Oriental Sephardic lore by Ya'aqov ben Mahir Culi instructed while entertaining the masses with a vast array of legends, anecdotes, customs, and laws. Compositions in Ladino as well as Hebrew continued to be recited in the salons of Salonika, but the once vibrant Jewry of Ottoman lands found itself enfeebled by a series of natural catastrophies and by the mounting anti-Jewish hostility of Ottoman Christians as well as Muslims. While some of this hostility was the product of economic rivalry, some of it can also be traced to the influx of anti-Semitic notions from the West alongside the growing influence of Western, particularly French, power among the Christians.

Near Eastern Jewry on the Eve of the Modern Era

Jewish life in the easternmost part of the Ottoman empire did not share in the renaissance of sixteenth-century Ottoman Jewry. Persian Jews were particularly endangered by the campaign of forced conversion that the Shīʿī Safavid dynasty (15011732) undertook in the seventeenth century. Isolated from Ottoman Jewry, the forty thousand Jews of Persia were subjected to an especially harsh code of discriminatory legislation, known as the Jami Abbasi, which was operative until 1925. Even the increasing influence of the European powers could not spare the Jews of Mashhad from a forced conversion to Islam during the nineteenth century. The newly converted Jews of Mashhad continued to observe Judaism in secret, a fact that did not escape the notice of the surrounding Muslim population. When permitted in the twentieth century to revert to Judaism, new practices had crept into their observance. Foreign travelers to Persia (Iran) were struck by the abject conditions under which Jewish life endured.

Ottoman rule in Yemen (15461629) was succeeded by a harsh succession of independent imāms of the Zaydī sect. Despite the frequent expulsions from villages and towns and the implementation of the policy of kidnapping Jewish orphans to raise them within Islam, Yemenite Jews continued to produce a significant poetic and qabbalistic tradition during this period. Males were largely literate, the printed prayer books of the period attesting to the spread of Lurianic Qabbalah into the remote corners of the ijāz. By the nineteenth century, even some of the tenets of HaskalahEuropean Jewish Enlightenmenthad reached such communities as Sanaa. Change brought with it conflict and the Jews of Yemen were internally split. It was the worsening status of the Jews in Yemen, however, and not the ideological conflicts, that precipitated their mass migration from Yemen to Palestine in the 1880s. By the early twentieth century, Yemenite Jews formed a significant community in the city of Jerusalem.

Jews in the East had never ceased their close contact with other Jews even in the age of Ottoman military and political decline. Jews in the Ottoman realm (especially Sephardic Jews) continued to serve as merchants, diplomats, commercial agents, and interpreters throughout the period of Ottoman ascendancy and decline, reinforcing their ties with coreligionists. But by the nineteenth century, the Jewish position in Arab and Turkish lands was one of abject poverty, extreme vulnerability, humiliation, and insecurity. Pressures on the Ottomans to reform were brought to bear by the European powers, not so much to assist the Jews as primarily to assist the Ottoman Christians. Under these pressures the Ottoman reform movement, Tanzimat, ended special discriminatory taxation, agreed to protect the legal rights of non-Muslims, and granted civil equality to them. Reforming legislation, however, could not restore the Ottoman empire to good health. Jewish well-being came increasingly to depend upon the intervention of Western powers and Western Jews.

No incident highlighted this vulnerability and dependency more clearly than the Damascus blood libel in 1840. When the Jews of Damascus were falsely accused of murdering a Christian for ritual purposes, the community of Damascus, as well as other Syrian communities, faced grave danger. Through the intervention of Moses Montefiore of London (17841885) and Adolphe Crémieux (17961880) of Paris, the Jews of Damascus were rescued and the Sublime Porte was forced to publicly repudiate the blood libel accusation. During the course of their visit to the East, these European champions of Near Eastern Jewry became advocates of the introduction of modern schooling in the area and the importance of learning the languages of Europe and the local population. Soon after their successful intercession, tentative steps to introduce Western schooling began in Istanbul as well as Egypt. Despite this intervention, Near Eastern Jewry was subjected to a host of unfortunate blood libel accusations at the hands of the Greeks, Arabs, and Armenians in the nineteenth century. More than once the indefatigable Montefiore went to the Near East and the Maghreb to intercede personally on behalf of Jews.

Jewry in France

In 1860 the Alliance Israélite Universelle was founded in France. Among its guiding principles was the goal of protecting the Jewish communities of Muslim lands and modernizing and uplifting them from their abject state of poverty and ignorance. The altruistic goals of French Jewry dovetailed well with the political and imperial goals of the French government. The Jews of France set out with almost missionary zeal to transform the face of Near Eastern Jewry and to forge a community that would embody some of the cherished ideals of the French Revolution. Beginning with the establishment of their first school in Morocco in 1860, the Alliance Israélite Universelle proceeded to introduce modern, secular notions and technical skills to a new generation of Jews throughout the Near East. By World War I, over one hundred Alliance schools teaching the French language and secular subjects had been set up in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Iran, Turkey, and the Balkans. The Alliance schools succeeded in undercutting poverty and Jewish female illiteracy and, introducing secular studies to all Jews, prepared a new generation of Jews for entry into modernity. Its thoroughgoing insistence on modernization also dealt a near fatal blow to the preponderance of Ladino and its folk culture as Alliance schools insisted that their pupils discard the language in favor of French.

The introduction of Western-style education among Near Eastern Jews did not result in a parallel movement of religious reformulation and the building of a new, modern Jewish identity there. This was partially because Near Eastern Jews, unlike the Jews of Europe, were not presented with the option of entering their majority society provided they refashioned themselves since religion remained a fundamental basis of social and political organization in the Middle East. Many Jewish autonomous institutions ceased to exist as a direct result of European colonial legislation. For example, early in their administration, the French authorities in Algeria abolished the independent Jewish system of courts. While Jews were granted French citizenship in Algeria in 1870, elsewhere they adopted European culture without attaining the benefits of European citizenship. Their cultural identity with the European powers, especially in North Africa, ushered in a period of confusion of identities as local Arab nationalism began to flower. In some parts of the Arab world, such as Iraq, the Jewish minority became one of the segments of the population most active in creating modern Arabic literature. Yet, at the same time that they pioneered in the language, press, and modernization of the economy of the Arab states, Jews were increasingly isolated from the pan-Arab and pan-Islamic culture then capturing the hearts of the masses. For Middle Eastern Jews, however, the modern period of Western encroachment did not result in indigenous Jewish attempts to form new self-identifying modes of expression. Even the Zionist movement of national self-determination, a late nineteenth-century European Jewish response to emancipation and modernity, echoed only faintly in Muslim lands.

A vigorous movement of religious reform and its attendant strident denominationalism never took place in the Near East as occurred in Western Europe and America. Nevertheless, it would be incorrect to conclude that Judaism in the Near East was untouched by the currents of modernity. The traditional school declined as modern schools of the Alliance Israélite Universelle were founded from Morocco to Iran. From the beginning, the modernizing schools tried to stress the reforming, rather than revolutionary, nature of their innovations. Hebrew studies were relegated to a minor part of the curriculum and girls as well as boys were provided with vocational and linguistic skills. To smooth the path of its innovative schools, the Alliance received the endorsement of local traditional authorities by including them on their faculties as instructors of Judaica. Local rabbis were not simply co-opted, but sometimes eagerly endorsed the schools for their own children as it became increasingly evident that modern education would be the route out of poverty for their communities. Additionally, these schools provided the only alternative to the increasingly attractive option of the mission schools which the European powers were introducing in the area. Thus Rabbi Israel Moses Hazzan, chief rabbi of Alexandria from 1857 to 1863, endorsed the new curriculum and the learning of foreign languages. Rabbis Eliyyahu Bekhor Hazzan (18471908) and Raphael Ben Simeon (18471928) exhibited a gradualist approach to modernization in Egypt and Morocco respectively. For Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uzziel (18801953), chief Sephardic rabbi in Israel, Jewish law had the inherent capacity to respond to the challenge of modernity

At the same time that many prominent nineteenth and twentieth century Sephardic rabbis adopted a moderate path with regard to modernization, the Near Eastern states continued to regard the rabbinical authorities as the final arbiters in family and personal law. Paradoxically, the actual power of the rabbinical courts increased. This scenario represented a sharp contrast to the increasing secularization of society characteristic of modern Europe and the sharp polarizations within Ashkenazic society. Respect for Near Eastern Jewish traditional leadership was undiminished even as Jewish traditional mores declined. Judaism as an expression of family solidarity remained as the bedrock of Sephardic and Near Eastern Jewry. Jewish life became increasingly secularized on a day to day basis.


Arab nationalism reached a crescendo in the postWorld War II period. In the wake of the creation of the State of Israel and the emergence of Arab independent states in the postWorld War II period, Jewish life became precarious in the extreme. Riots, forced incarcerations of Jews, panic and flight spread throughout the Near East and North Africa. The millennial communities of Jews in Muslim lands came to an abrupt and almost total end. By the year 2000 less than 10,000 of the former 250,000 Moroccan Jews remain in Morocco. All other Jewish communities have virtually disappeared except a small remnant in Turkey and Iran. The Judaism of the more than one million Jews who fled their ancestral homes for Israel or the West is a Judaism still in flux. Middle Eastern Jewish religiosity was always anchored in familial and communal action, especially in the post-1492 period. In the Muslim world, people had stayed in their communities for generations, passing on hereditary communal offices from father to son. Although these lines of tradition have been irrevocably cut with the great migration to Western, technological, modern societies, the Judaism of the Middle Eastern Jew has retained some remnants of former times. Among those remnants must be included the fervent love of the Land of Israel with its messianic and mystical overtones, the expression of religiosity within a familial context, and the special pride and quality imparted by a specific link with the Sephardic tradition.

Just as 1789 set in motion a crucial reorientation of Jewish identities and Judaism in western Europe, and just as 1881 set in motion a process of change that eventually led to a permanent transformation in the structure of Jewish politics among Ashkenazim, especially in eastern Europe, so too, one suspects, 1948 will be found to have marked a transforming date in the lives of Middle Eastern Jews. With the end of living on the fringes of Muslim society, the Jewish communities from the world of Islam have embarked upon a new path in Jewish history.

See Also

Anti-Semitism; Folk Religion, article on Folk Judaism; Karo, Yosef; Luria, Isaac; Marranos; Messianism, article on Jewish Messianism; Pilgrimage, article on Contemporary Jewish Pilgrimage; Polemics, article on Muslim-Jewish Polemics; Qabbalah; Shabbetai Tsevi; Zionism.


The best introductory volume on the subject is Solomon Dob Fritz Goitein's survey Jews and Arabs: Their Contacts through the Ages, 3d rev. ed. (New York, 1974). Norman A. Stillman's The Jews of Arab Lands: A History and Source Book (Philadelphia, 1979) provides a fine introductory essay and a large collection of documents translated from Arabic and Hebrew and a variety of Western languages. More recently, Bernard Lewis's The Jews of Islam (Princeton, 1984) has offered a fresh interpretation of the broad sweep of Middle Eastern Jewish history. André N. Chouraqui's Between East and West: A History of the Jews of North Africa, translated by Michael M. Bernet (Philadelphia, 1968), gives a balanced survey of the Jews of the Maghreb and is particularly informative for the modern period. For a more detailed examination of the Maghreb, see H. Z. Hirschberg's Toledot ha-Yehudim be-Afriqah ha-Tsefonit, 2 vols. (Jerusalem, 1965), translated by M. Eichelberg as A History of the Jews in North Africa, vol. 1, From Antiquity to the Sixteenth Century (Leiden, 1974) and vol. 2, From the Ottoman Conquests to the Present Time (Leiden, 1981). Hirschberg analyzes the political history of the Jews in Arab lands and the Maghreb extensively in his article "The Oriental Jewish Communities," in Religion in the Middle East: Three Religions in Concord and Conflict, edited by A. J. Arberry (Cambridge, 1969), pp. 119225. Older multivolume studies of Ottoman Jewry such as Solomon A. Rosanes' Divrei yemei Yisra'el be-Togarma, 6 vols. (Jerusalem, 19301945) and Moïse Franco's Essai sur l'histoire des Israelites de l'Empire Ottoman depuis les origines jusqu'à nos jours (Paris, 1897) still contain valuable material culled from rabbinic sources. Volume 18 of Salo W. Baron's exceptionally important A Social and Religious History of the Jews, 2d ed., rev. & enl. (New York, 1983), updates these earlier studies, extending the geographic scope to include the Jews of Persia, China, India and Ethiopia as well as the Ottoman empire. Especially useful is Baron's discussion of demography. The problem of the general question of the legal status of the Jews under Islam has been treated by A. S. Tritton in The Caliphs and Their Non-Muslim Subjects (London, 1930). While Tritton is still the standard reference work on Muslim theories regarding the dhimmi s, a methodical discussion can be found in Antoine Fattal's Le statut légal des non-Musulmans en pays d'Islam (Beirut, 1958). Four monographs of varying value treat the specific problems of individual Jewries based on rabbinic responsa. These studies are still useful as the sole English source on significant rabbinic figures and their age. Isidore Epstein's The Responsa of Rabbi Simon B. Zemah Duran as a Source of the History of the Jews in North Africa (1930; reprint New York, 1968), Israel Goldman's The Life and Times of Rabbi David Ibn Abi Zimra (New York, 1970), Morris S. Goodblatt's Jewish Life in Turkey in the Sixteenth Century as Reflected in the Legal Writings of Samuel de Medina (New York, 1952), and Abraham M. Hershman's Rabbi Isaac ben Sheshet Perfet and His Times (New York, 1943) explore the major problems of an age of transition and the response of a leading rabbinic luminary. A delightful account of the city of Safed and its Qabbalistic circles is Solomon Schechter's essay "Safad in the Sixteenth Century," which can be found in his Studies in Judaism (1908; reprint, Cleveland, 1958) and in The Jewish Expression, edited by Judah Goldin (New York, 1970). The Qabbalistic movement of Safed also can be seen in the excellent biography Joseph Karo: Lawyer and Mystic by R. J. Zwi Werblowsky (London, 1962). For an exhaustive and monumental treatment of the life and times of Shabbetai Tsevi, see Gershom Scholem's Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 16261676 (Princeton, 1973). More recent studies of the Shabbatean movement have enlarged the discussion to take into account parallel messianic and mystical movements in Christian and Muslim circles. See Matt Goldish's discussion of spirit possession and the intense religious contacts among Jews and Christians in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in The Sabbatean Prophets (Cambridge, 2004) and Lawrence Fine's Safed Spirituality (New York, 1982). Moshe Idel's ongoing scholarship has injected new scholarship and lively controversy in the growing literature on Qabbalah and the qabbalistic tradition. A one-volume introductory overview of Near Eastern Jewry with essays by leading scholars in the field can be found in The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times, edited by Reeva S. Simon, Michael M. Laskier, and Sara Reguer (New York, 2003). Norman Stillman's Sephardic Religious Responses to Modernity (Luxembourg, 1995) and Zvi Zohar's Tradition and Change: Halakhic Responses of Middle Eastern Rabbis to Legal and Technological Change Syria and Egypt 18801920 (Jerusalem, 1993) [in Hebrew] offer extended discussions on how Near Eastern rabbinic authorities handled the challenges of modernity. The single best treatment of the Alliance Israelite Universelle can be found in Aron Rodrigue, French Jews, Turkish Jews (Bloomington, Ind., 1990). Esther Benbassa and Aron Rodrigue offer a comprehensive overview of Turkish and Balkan Jewry in The Jews of the Balkans: The Judeo-Spanish Community, 15th to 20th Centuries (Oxford, 1995), providing an essential one-volume text on the history of the Jews of the area from 15002000. For an exhaustive study of the Damascus Blood Libel see Jonathan Frankel, The Damascus Affair (Oxford, 1995). The latest studies on Jews in the Middle East can be found in such Israeli publications as Sefunot (Jerusalem, 19561966), Pe'amin (Jerusalem, 1979), and Mizrah u-ma'arav (Jerusalem, 19191932). Interdisciplinary approaches can be fruitfully employed in this field, and the works of contemporary anthropologists such as Moshe Shokeid, Harvey Goldberg, Shlomo Deshen, and the late Walter Zenner have been especially illuminating in analyzing Middle Eastern Jewish communities in Israel. These studies frequently begin with considerations of individual Near Eastern Jewish communities in their traditional milieu and historical structure.

Jane S. Gerber (1987 and 2005)

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Judaism: Judaism in the Middle East and North Africa since 1492

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