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  • Writer's pictureJewish Examiner

The Jewish Deep Nation XVII— The Mizrahim 2—Battered to Bits by the Golden Age

The project continues its eastward lurch. This episode begins with three rueful remarks. First, when I listed the locales that were once or still tenanted by Mizrahi Jews, I left out Yemen, the place from which the most left-out Jews in history, perhaps, came. Second, in my account of Muslim Spain, I failed to reference Christian Spain before the expulsion. Third, some weeks ago, I referred to “the ghetto and the mellah” without differentiating and without explaining what a mellah was.

Yemen’s turn will come much later in the project. Christian Spain before the expulsion gets three sentences for now, all concerning the fate of Don Isaac Abarbanel (b. 1437). Prolifically wealthy by inheritance and learned by dint of effort, Abarbanel became treasurer to King Afonso V of Portugal until the latter died, forcing Abarbanel to flee to Toledo, in Christian Spain. There he invested huge sums in the kingdom’s war against the Moors and attempted on that account to induce Isabel to rescind the Alhambra edict concerning the expulsion of the Jews. He managed to postpone the eviction by … two whole days, whereafter he trudged hither and yon in Italy, writing rabbinical commentaries and serving Gentiles as hired help until he died in 1508.

Now for the mellah. Its story reflects the badly tarnished business of being Jewish in that “Golden Age.” The term mellah denotes “salt” in Arabic and Hebrew. In Fez, Morocco, there was a precinct called Al-Mallah, meaning the saline area, and in 1438 Jews living in central Fez were forcibly resettled there. About 130 years later, much the same happened in Marrakesh. In both cases, the background was as I described it last week: Warring Muslim factors or dynasties alternately called on the Jews to help or ally with them and then, once having achieved victory, locked them behind gates and walls in order to demonstrate their Muslim bona fides and to protect them from the Muslim population.

Three things distinguish the early mellahs from European ghettos. First, they started out as pleasant places, so much so that some visitors to 16th-century Marrakesh preferred that city’s mellah over the rest of the city as their place of accommodation. Second, the sultans who forced the Jews to move to the mellah initially lacked the intent of humiliating them on religious grounds as was typical in Christian-sponsored ghettos. Third, as noted, the mellahs were created in part to protect the Jews from the Muslim population, which didn’t appreciate the logic of the sultan’s need for the Jews and their talents.

The history of the Jews of Fez captures all of this. Jews first settled there in the eighth century C.E. and propelled the city to commercial and cultural prominence. Still, in the middle of their “Golden Age”:

“Three grave events occurred: a section of the community was deported to Ashir (Algeria) in about 987; 6,000 Jews were massacred in 1035 by Fanatics who conquered Fez; and the town was ruthlessly sacked in 1068 by Almoravides. In about 1127, a Pseudo-Messiah, Moses Dari, brought afflictions upon the community. Some decades later, attempts at forced conversion led to the death of the Dayyan R. Judah Ha-Kohen Ibn Shushan and the emigration of Maimonides and his family. In 1244, the Merinides established themselves in Fez and treated the Jews well, even saving them from an insurrection. However, with the decline of the Merinides and the revival of Fanaticism, the Jews were compelled in 1438 to live in a special Jewish quarter. When the Sultan appointed a Jew, Harun, as Prime Minister in order to straighten out public finances, the town rose in revolt, the Sultan and his Minister were assassinated, and most of the Jews were massacred (1465). The community did not recover from this catastrophe until 1492, with the arrival of the Spanish Refugees” (“The Jewish Community of Fez, Morocco,”

For an account of the formation of the mellah in Marrakech in c. 1560, see Emily Gottreich, “On the Origins of the Mellah of Marrakesh,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 35, No. 2 (May, 2003), pp. 287-305 (Cambridge University Press). The circumstances there were different; the results, not so much.

Two things followed “mellahization” in Fez and Marrakech: (1) amazing recoveries of Jewish communities around Morocco, which sent scholars and community leaders across Islamdom, and (2) the spread of “mellahization” countrywide. It took centuries for the mellah model to solidify, but once it did, all pleasantness in these quarters vanished. Eventually this way of confining the Jews expanded to Tunisia in the form of the hara and to the beleaguered Jewish quarters of Algeria. What happened in Iran deserves separate mention. Here is a generalized assessment of the outcome: “The worst miseries of the European ghetto [were] not comparable to the moral and material degradation that existed in the mellahs of the foothills of the Atlas or of the remote Sahara until they were emptied with the migration of their inhabitants to Israel” (André N. Chouraqui, Between East and West: A History of the Jews of North Africa, translated from the French by Michael M. Bernet, Skokie, IL: Varda, 2001, p. 19).

“The Jews purchased protection […] in certain ways: all, except for the rabbis who were exempt, paid the djezya tax to the sultan; they were subjected to compulsory labor duties; they paid duties and taxes on all their commercial transactions. In addition, they gave generous gifts to the sultans, pashas, caids and lesser notables to assure themselves of their good graces. In wartime they paid special tribute to support their overlords’ armies, and they paid for the guards who provided limited protection for the mellah” (ibid., p. 76).

As the European Enlightenment steadily liberated some Ashkenazi Jews from their ghettos, they began to reach out to these collectives for various objectives, largely benign and often self-serving. These were top-down, we-they enterprises that failed to reach all communities and enjoyed spotty success at beat. When this Mizrahi population flowed into Israel, it was received and treated as an underclass. Thick residues of the resulting shock persist to this day.

If so, did this population retain any accoutrements of nationhood? Can the Jewish deep nation be found back there in the mellah?

I think the answer is yes.

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