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Berber Jews

Berber Jews
Udayen Imazighen
Berber Jews of the Atlas Mountains, c. 1900.
Total population
3,000 ~ 9,000
Regions with significant populations
 Israel 3000
 United States ?
 European Union ?
 Algeria ?
 Morocco ?
•Liturgical: Mizrahi Hebrew
•Traditional: Judeo-Berber
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

Berber Jews are the Berber-speaking Jewish communities of the Atlas mountains in Morocco. Their origins are not clear as one theory builds the case for "Judeo-cized Berbers" while another defends the "Berber-ized Jews" thesis. Between 1950 and 1970 most emigrated to France, The U.S., or Israel.


  • History 1
  • Origin 2
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5


Jews settled in the North Africa since Roman times and a Jewish community existed in the Roman province of Africa .[1] The acceptance by the Berbers of Judaism as a religion, and its embrace by a number of tribes, occurred over time.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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's not clear if they are a part of the ancestry of contemporary Berber-speaking Jews.[5]

The most likely explanation is that Jewish communities settled in the Atlas mountain descend from Jews fleeing the persecutions during the Almohades. This hypothesis is reinforcing 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.

Following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the tensions between the indigenous Jewish communities and the indigenous Muslim communities increased. 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 8,000 persons with most residing in Casablanca, some of whom might still be Berber speakers.


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 assilimable 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.[6] Other scholars such as André Goldenberg and Simon Lévy also favoured it.[7]

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".[8]

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 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. [9]

The theory of a massive Judaization of the Berber population was also called into question 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))[10] indicates that Jews from north Africa lack typically North African Hg M1 and U6 mtDNAs. Hence, according to the authors, the lack of U6 and M1 chromosomes among the North Africans renders the possibility of significant admixture, as between the local Arab and Berber populations with Jews, unlikely. However these conclusions must be strongly moderated by the fact that Hg M1 and U6 are not found in every Berber ethnic groups. For example a study by Fadhlaoui-Zid et al. (2004) found no M1 and U6 in Tunisian Berbers from Chenini-Douiret,[11] and another one by Loueslati et al. 2006 found no M1 and U6 in Tunisian Berbers from Jerba.[12] Moreover according to this same study by Behar et al. "in view of the historical records claiming the establishment of the North African Jewish communities from the Near Eastern Jewish communities, it is noteworthy that the communities do not share their respective major founding lineages".

See also


  1. ^ Hildegard Temporini, Wolfgang Haase, Rise and Decline of the Roman World, Walter de Gruyter, 1983, p. 512.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Eugène Albertini, L'empire romain, 1929, p.165
  4. ^ Marcel Simon, « Le judaïsme berbère dans l'Afrique ancienne », in Revue d'histoire et de philosophie religieuse, XXVI, 1946, p.69
  5. ^ H. Z. Hirschberg, The Problem of the Judaized Berbers. Cambridge University Press: The Journal of African History , Vol. 4, No. 3 (1963), pp. 313-339. URL:
  6. ^ Daniel J. Schroeter, The Shifting Boundaries of Moroccan Jewish Identities, Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 15:1, Fall 2008, p. 148.
  7. ^ André Goldenberg, Les juifs du Maroc (Editions du Scribe, Paris, 1992)
  8. ^ 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
  9. ^ H. Z. Hirschberg, The Problem of the Judaized Berbers. Cambridge University Press: The Journal of African History , Vol. 4, No. 3 (1963), pp. 313-339. URL:
  10. ^ (English) , 3(4) e2062, 30 avril 2008PLoS ONEDoron M. Behar et al., « Counting the Founders. The Matrilineal Genetic Ancestry of the Jewish Diaspora »,
  11. ^ Fadhlaoui-Zid, K.; Plaza, S.; Calafell, F.; Ben Amor, M.; Comas, D.; Bennamar El gaaied, A. (2004). "Mitochondrial DNA heterogeneity in Tunisian Berbers".  
  12. ^ Loueslati, B. Y.; Cherni, L.; Khodjet El Khil, H.; Ennafaa, H.; Pereira, L.; Amorim, A.; Ben Ayed, F.; Ben Ammar Elgaaied, A. (2006). "Islands inside an island: reproductive isolates on Jerba island".  

External links

  • (English) The Berbers and the Jews
  • (English) The Amazigh Jews
  • (French) La découverte des Juifs Berbères
  • Diana Muir Appelbaum "The Last Berber Jews", Jewish Ideas Daily, Aug. 10, 2011, [1]
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