A View From Tangier: Inner Dynamics of Moroccan Jewish Modernity
“Having had the affairs of this community, may God protect it, neglected and [since we are] desiring to adopt and imitate the good conditions of the communities of our brethren of Europe, the notables and majority of this community have been invited to attend a general Junta [assembly] ….”1
This is extracted from the opening lines of the “Minute Book of the Governing Junta of the Hebrew Community of Tangier,” a manuscript composed by the emerging leadership of the Jewish community in Tangier in the 1860s. The time was a momentous period of transition, with the founding in 1864 of the newly-established European schools of the Alliance Israélite Universelle in the city, which constituted its second branch in the world. Although restricted in scope and offering a minimal description of the broad historical events, this single manuscript offers a new perspective on the encounter between European and Moroccan Jewries.
At first glance, by declaring their intention to “adopt and imitate” organizational norms from the Jewish communities in Europe, the composers of the minutes seemingly demonstrate a clear internalization of Eurocentric worldviews that fed the European colonial expansion into Africa and Asia in the 19th century. This source attests, at first glance, the assumed inevitability for European intervention in the communities of the East in order to promote progress and renewal. Further examination of the minutes and its compiling process, however, reveal different motivations for the Junta’s declaration, related to their own self-representations among the local community and aspirations for authority and control in the context of changing power relations in Morocco.
New Power Relations
The French invasion of Algeria in 1830 marked a momentous shift in power relations between Morocco and its European neighbors to the north in the 19th century. To some extent, the historical roots of this transition in power relations may be traced back to the last stages of the Spanish Reconquista in the 16th century. In the shadow of growing European expansion into Africa, waging jihad became a principal sign of the sultan’s right to rule. However, a series of Moroccan military defeats convinced the local intellectual and governing elite that Morocco will not succeed against France by launching direct military attacks. Instead, they sought to address these changing circumstances through a set of military, economic, and political reforms, as did reformers in the Ottoman empire and as well as other colonized nations in Asia and Africa. 2
These reforms had broad impact on Moroccan society and often disrupted traditional social mores. Tangier, located just a few miles away from European shores, became one of the main centers of the European expansion and one of the most important centers of commerce in the region, serving at the time as a gateway for European missionaries, merchants, diplomats, and adventurers. However, tensions caused by the European presence and expansion into Morocco occasionally erupted into violence. When a border dispute over the Spanish city Ceuta on the north coast of Africa escalated into the Spanish-Moroccan War (1859–1860), Jews from Tangier sought refuge in the proximate British-dominated enclave of Gibraltar. 3
The cities of Tangiers and Tetuan shared a common cultural background and tightly-knit network, and the Juntas of the two cities corresponded.
By the mid-19th century, there is a visible shift in the way West European and Eastern Jews parties perceived each other. Interactions beforehand were insignificant and were limited mainly to travelers and religious scholars. A burgeoning Jewish bourgeoisie in France and England, working toward their own political and civic emancipation, adopted a paternalistic approach towards their “backward brethren” in the east. The French and English Jewish press constantly fed this notion while contributing to the discourse on the poor conditions of “Jewries in distress.” During the Spanish-Moroccan War, Sir Moses Montefiore sent a circular to the wardens of vestry of the British synagogues in which he noted that “an event so unforeseen and so appalling as this calls for the most liberal demonstrations of our sympathy,” raising more than £40,000. During the same year, a Morocco Relief Fund was founded, and the Board of Deputies of British Jews commissioned Moses H. Picciotto to report on the conditions of Moroccan Jews. In Paris, Jewish benefactors established Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU).4 The first branch of the AIU was established in Tetuan, a city proximate to Tangiers, in 1862. It was in this context that the new communal committee of the Junta was founded in October 1860.
In Search of European Intervention
The Junta Minute Book reveals that such developments were not one-sided; they took shape in the course of a dialogue between the representatives of European Jews (generally in Paris and London) and Moroccan Jews in Tangier, that also fed the ways in which each party perceives the other. Soon after its founding, following a series of internal discussions on the hardships caused by the Spanish-Moroccan war, the Junta sent letters of introduction to the new Jewish philanthropic organizations in Europe, one dispatch to Sir Moses Montefiore and the second to Albert Cohen, a well-known Jewish philanthropist in Paris. When Montefiore’s response arrived, the Junta expressed “great satisfaction.”
The cities of Tangiers and Tetuan shared a common cultural background and tightly-knit network, and the Juntas of the two cities corresponded. The Minute Book records that in August 1863, the Junta of Tangiers read and discussed a dispatch from Tetuan: “Our colleagues … present us with the benefits resulting from the [activity of the] society of the Alianza Isrealit Universal established in Paris …”
The content left a remarkable impression on the Junta, who sought to improve the deteriorating local education system. The protocol of the assembly describes how the Junta nominated two of its members to present the idea to those in the community capable of paying the tuition of the “respectable society.” The Junta also discussed the need to conduct outreach to the lower strata of the community. They corresponded with the Morocco Relief Fund in London for assistance on this matter and in November, the Junta received the MRF’s positive response, agreeing to help fund the school. The communication also contained the agreement of the MRF to include the school and its staff under British diplomatic protection. The Minute Book records: “this Junta left extremely satisfied with and thankful to this consideration of the council [MRF] as one hopes that this honorable venture would have good results and will prosper for many happy years.”
The Junta then contacted the management of the AIU, with the mediation of the Junta of Tetuan, and began searching for a qualified teacher. During the following month, the Junta received a response which demonstrated, as the Minute Book notes, the prospective teacher’s high qualification. According to the Minute Book, the Junta wanted to find out further information. During the same meeting, Junta member Moses Pariente reached out to the community of Gibraltar in search of a female teacher to serve at the girls’ school.
The Junta’s Internal Political Motivations
The internal political system of Jewish communities in North Africa had never been tightly bound by a set of defined rules. It used to be a common practice, however, for the wealthy upper-class notables, called in Hebrew Yeḥide Qehila (the notables of the community), or Anshe haMaʿamad (the men of status), to provide for the community’s necessities. By their patronage, the notables earned the right to govern various communal affairs. The system was based on the religious obligation to give charity to the poor but eventually developed into a political system in which the affluent systematically gained control over communal institutions. The Junta’s members came from the most honorable families in town, and the vast majority of them (nine out of ten) were active employees of the diplomatic corps or were among the outstanding merchants and financiers in Morocco. Aharon Abensur, the first secretary of the Junta, served as the interpreter of the British Consul in town and later was employed as Denmark’s consul. Moshe Pariente, the Junta’s vice president, founded the first bank in Morocco in 1840.5
The formation of the Junta, a new leadership body controlled by the Jewish bourgeoisie of Tangier, created tension with the Nagid, the time-honored, official representative of the community, who was charged with collecting the annual jizya tax along with other community responsibilities. The Nagid was appointed based on his connections with the local Moroccan authorities, most often, though not always, with the blessing of local Jewish notables. Tension revolved around not only official recognition by the authorities, but also around control over communal financial resources. For instance, the Nagid’s responsibility to levy taxes on kosher meat was disputed, as this was a central resource for the livelihood of the Nagid himself. Local Moroccan authorities intervened to end the dispute and sided with the Junta, ultimately subjugating the Nagid to the Junta’s control and simultaneously strengthening the newly-established Junta’s mandate and self-esteem.
This growing self-confidence was visible in the Junta’s early initiatives to amend wrongdoings and promote general well-being in the community under its leadership. During its first weeks, the Junta addressed the unjustified increase in the price of kosher meat in town. They reorganized the price structure by classifying meat according to its quality and supervising its pricing, imposing penalties on noncompliant butchers. In another case, when a member of the elite approached the Junta with a request to raise funds for a poor girl wishing to marry, perhaps a relative of one of his acquaintances and under his patronage, the Junta refused, claiming that no young woman deserves more than another five young brides in the community waiting for funds as well.
Despite their ambitious political aspirations, the Junta’s initiatives and activities primarily sought to promote the welfare of the lower classes of the community. For example, every Rosh haḤodesh (the first day of the month in Jewish tradition), two commissioners would visit the sick at the local hospital. They provided vital services to the community with funding from their own pockets. They donated bedding to the local hospital, publishing each contribution in their Minute Book. Once, during a shortage, the Junta members individually distributed personal funds to charity for the holiday of Sukkot, listing their contributions in the Minute Book. They also personally underwrote the organization’s expenses, including the stenographer and other associated services.
Reading the Junta’s Minute Book
While reading about the Junta’s initiatives, it is important to take into account the Junta’s perception of the Minute Book in which it documented these initiatives. The Junta’s charter outlined the need for a Minute Book as follows:
The Junta shall be required to maintain a book for documenting all the minutes that were agreed on in the [meetings of the] Junta … for the sake of our affairs and decisions being conducted in order and by authority.
The Junta sought to define and reinforce its control over the community through circulars distributed throughout the local synagogues, comprising of recent announcements, decisions, and rules. These officially published communiqués were perceived as influential tools of communication. One clear example is the very first announcement regarding its founding, which stated, “for the sake of reinforcing our authority, all the above-written had been declared and published throughout all the synagogues and became acceptable with no resistance.” While the majority of the entries were written in Judeo-Spanish, this was one of the unique cases in which an entry was recorded in Hebrew, aimed at enforcing their authority with an implicit religious-based command. Overall, the book was composed in a formally condensed outline and in high language, promoting an aura of official authority among its readers. The Junta did not hide its aspiration for formality, forbidding its members to publicly discuss the affairs of the Junta outside of its official forums.
Perhaps the most influential event in supporting the Junta’s standing at the time was the Safi Affair. In August 1863, a fourteen-year-old Jewish boy, Jacob Benyuda, was accused by the Spanish vice consul in Safi of murdering the tax collector in a conspiracy with other Jews.
The Junta’s minutes were composed by an employee of the Junta. He was responsible for taking notes of the Junta’s meetings and then summarizing its discussions and decisions, most often in past-tense third person. While the narrative is documented in the form of recollections, the book reflects observations made within days of each of the Junta’s meetings. In this context, the Junta omitted from the summarized narrative elements that were seen as inappropriate for documentation and emphasized others that were deemed worthy and beneficial for promoting its goals, while many aspects remained open for further discussion.
Because of its narrative quality, some might consider the manuscript historiographically weak and incomplete. However, it may provide unique and productive insights for interpretative research on the viewpoints and priorities shaping the common discourse among power elites such as the Junta at this critical time and place during expanding European influence in the region. I propose analyzing the Minute Book while bearing in mind its subjective quality embedded not only in its literal content but also encompassing its changing graphics, its editing styles—including many deviations along the way—as well as the terminology and the circumstances of its writing. All of these elements serve as testimony to the evolving discourse among the Junta, which reflected and sustained its members’ collective notions.
The Motivations behind the pro-European language
Perhaps the most influential event in supporting the Junta’s standing at the time was the Safi Affair. In August 1863, a fourteen-year-old Jewish boy, Jacob Benyuda, was accused by the Spanish vice consul in Safi of murdering the tax collector in a conspiracy with other Jews. The boy was arrested and tortured until he named another Jew, Eliyhahu Lalouche, who was also tortured by stake until he named another two Jews. Spanish diplomats insisted that Benyuda be executed and his body publicly dismembered, and transported Lalouche on a Spanish ship to Tangiers, where he was executed. Two other Jews were still held in custody, awaiting a similar sentence. 6
As documented in the Minute Book, the Junta was outraged: “The Junta decided not to allow this outrage to pass in silence and agreed to address our brethren in Europe,” namely, Sir Montefiore and Albert Cohen. Three weeks later, the Junta published the reaction of Sir Montefiore, in which he declared that he was adamantly working for the release of the two imprisoned Jews, as well as responses from Albert Cohen and Mayer Alphonse James Rothschild from Paris. The relevant article in the Minute Book is one of the few sentences that ends with an exclamation mark, illustrating the impact these responses had on the Junta’s members. As a result of the efforts of the Junta, according to the Minute Book, Montefiore visited Tangier on his way to Marrakesh to meet the Sultan.
Montefiore’s visit in 1863 reinforced the Junta’s ability to represent itself as an ultimate mediating factor, even though the meeting with the Junta of Tangier was a minor event in Montefiore’s schedule. The series of correspondence with Jewish communities in inland Morocco leading up to and following Montefiore’s visit were crucial in supporting and sustaining this notion. They referred to his visit to Morocco as their own success story. In this context, it is no wonder that European-oriented terminology appears in the Junta’s records. For instance, the Junta described in great detail the reasons the Jewish community of Fez originally contacted them for assistance, stating:
[The Fez Community] had known about the arrival of the venerable gentleman Sir Moshe Montefiore to this [town of Tangier], and they presented succinctly the lamentable situation of that community and the horrible galut (exile) that our brethren suffer in the interior of the Maghreb (Morocco) and they earnestly beg this Junta [of Tangier] to turn to the gentleman and provide the necessary explanations so that he would lobby [for achieving] some relief to the yoke of the Galut under which they suffer today.
During their meeting in August 1863, the Junta discussed the responses it received from philanthropic Jewish bodies in Europe in reply to its own requests regarding the Safi Affair. They discussed, for the first time, the possibility of approaching the local diplomatic corps in Tangier to obtain their intervention on behalf of the well-being of Moroccan Jewry as a whole. Following a letter from the representatives in Mazagan regarding the imprisonment of two local Jews, the Junta decided to approach the local British consul in Tangier. The Junta phrased its intentions as follows: “[T]hat this gentleman would favor us writing his honorable words to the British vice-consul in Mazagan for the sake of obtaining the liberty of the two boys in prison…”
The particular phrasing of the protocol suggests an important message beyond simply the facilitation of benevolent European intervention. The protocol clearly states that three respectable members of the Junta suggested addressing the British consul—once again, marking their crucial role in European intervention. The next item described the Junta’s intention to write to the community of Tetuan about the “good news aforementioned,” referring to its ability to recruit Montefiore and Albert Cohen to intervene in the Safi Affair. It seems that the Junta’s changing self-perception as crucial mediator following the Safi Affair altered to some extent its self-esteem and thereby its actual ability to communicate freely with representatives of Europe in Tangier.
During its handling of the Safi affair, the Junta strengthened its relationship with these global bodies, European philanthropists and diplomats, in an unprecedented way. Since then, there is a shift in the focus and activities of the Junta from domestic matters to foreign affairs. Beginning with the first letter sent to Montefiore in September 1863 and continuing with correspondence through the end of 1864, the Minute Book documents an increased number of direct contacts with Europe, comprising almost half of all matters documented. The shift is even marked in an administrative remark. During May 1864, the Junta’s clerk demanded a raise in his salary owing to the increase in correspondence, and the Junta subsequently agreed. Even before it had become clear that Montefiore had succeeded in his mission to acquire equality for non-Muslims in Morocco, the Junta foresaw a great advantage in thanking all the world Jewish bodies involved in finding a solution to the affair. The unfolding events obviously inflated the Junta’s self-perception, supporting the self-esteem and self-representing narrative found in the Minute Book. As their success stories accumulated, the Junta gained additional prestige, further sustaining pro-European discourses.
At the beginning of its activity in the years 1861-1863, the Junta was more hesitant to disturb the delicate balance of local power relations. A week after their report on the successful meeting with the European consuls in May 1964, the Junta members dealt with a letter from Tetuan detailing violations of the Sultan’s decree granted to Montefiore under the local Basha. The Junta addressed the British consul in Tangier, asking him to contact his representative in Tetuan to warn the Basha. The Minute Book also records a response received from the Tetuan community, describing the Basha’s apology and promise to guarantee their safety. The Junta clearly wished to display its ability to manipulate the local authorities by addressing the European elements in Tangier. The unfolding events were all described in the same protocol retroactively. The Junta’s narrative in its book further fed the discourse on the need for benevolent European intervention, and, most importantly, the Junta’s imperative role within that process.
Following this event, the Junta recorded a series of other successful meetings with local consuls from Spain and the United States, during which the American consul promised that representatives along the coastal towns of Morocco will lobby for the well-being of local Jews. The Junta proved both to itself and to the readers of the book that this promise indeed came through. Moshe Pariente, a Junta member and an interpreter at the American Consulate of Tangier, reported that indeed such a request had been sent and that “one cannot expect better results.”
It was in this context and at this point that the Junta decided to reinforce its contacts with the community under its leadership to make its documented achievements more accessible. At the peak of its attained political success as worthy communal leadership in this time of European hegemony, and after reinforcing its ties with such elements, the Junta recruited two additional members and published their names in local synagogues, along with the entire list of Junta members. In addition, it publicized its records, allowing the public to approach the Junta with suggestions for discussions at upcoming meetings.
European colonialism is embedded in new sets of power relations and their representations during the period of European expansion. Yet one should not perceive the Junta’s aspirations for European intervention as an internalization of such power relations and imported colonial discourse generated in the West, nor should the essence of the process be understood as a dialogue between two fixed cultural entities. An in-depth reading of the Minute Book reveals that the ongoing pro-European discourse, as well as its maintenance, was no less a creation and an aspiration of power elements among the “receptive” East.
While the Minute Book provides an incomplete picture of historical developments, it does allow an in-depth insight into essential historical fragments not only depicting but generating the broad historical change during this period. The Junta’s aspiration to imitate and adopt the customs and stature of European communities in October 1860 was one component in the lengthy and reciprocal process of evolutionary epistemological and ontological change that laid the foundations for European intervention in the context of changing interests and reality as understood by the powerful elite. As the encounter evolved, it altered the way influential elements, such as the Junta, thought and wrote about reality, further sustaining the encounter, and so forth.
This local history changes the focal viewpoint from the relationship between West and East to the smaller resolutions of the historical process generating these categories throughout the evolving relationship between Moroccans and Europeans. The local Junta came to play an active role in developing a pro-European discourse that promoted European intervention in the community, as an offshoot of the Junta’s own aspirations toward political authority. Therefore, in retrospect, their minutes do not constitute a historical source that reflects a process of European modernization. Rather, they appear a practical tool, enabling European modernization to emerge, as they shaped the image of Europe on Moroccan soil. 7
Due to the variable nature of our posts and the wide spectrum of ideas exchanged, we feel it is important to clarify that the thoughts and opinions shared in posts and articles reflect the opinions of the author and are not representative of our contributors as a whole.
- Retrieved from the initial protocol in the Minute Book [hereinafter MB] depicting the Junta’s inauguration; MB 1.1
- Amira K. Bennison, Jihad and Its Interpretations in Pre-Colonial Morocco, Taylor & Francis, London, 2002, pp. 9-11; Daniel J. Schroeter, “Royal Power and the Economy in Precolonial Morocco: Jews and the Legitimation of Foreign Trade”, in In the Shadow of the Sultan: Culture, power and Politics in Morocco, Rahma Bourqia and Susan Gilson Miller (eds.), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1999, pp. 74-102
- Khalid Bin al-Saghir, “Al-Kharaka al-Tijariyya bi-Marsa Tanja fi-al-Nisf al-Thani min al-Qarn al-Tis’a ʿAshar”, in Tanja fi al-tarikh al-mu’asir: 1800-1956, Jamiat Muhammad al-Khamis. Kulliyat al- Adab wa-al-Ulum al-Insaniya and Jamiat Abd al- Malik al-Sadi Madrasat al-Malik Fahd al-Ulya lil- Tarjama (eds.), al-Nashr al-ʿArabi al- Ifriqi, Cairo 1991, p. 91; Joseph Bengio and J. L. Miege, “La Communauté Juive de Tangier dans les années 1860, ‘Les Actas’”, Maroc Europe 6 (1994), pp. 152-54, 157; Susan Gilson-Miller, “Apportioning Sacred Space in a Moroccan City: The Case of Tangier, 1860-1912”, City & Society 13, no.1 (2001), p. 64
- Tudor Parfitt, “Dhimma Versus Protection in Nineteenth-Century Morocco”, in Tudor Parfitt (ed.), Israel and Ishmael: Studies in Muslim-Jewish Relations, Curzon, Richmond 2000, pp. 142-43
- Joseph Toledano, La saga des familles: les juifs du Maroc et leurs noms, Editions Stavit, Tel Aviv, 1983, pp. 14, 184, 265, 328;
- M. Mitchell Serels, A history of the Jews of Tangier in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Sepher-Hermon Press, New York 1991, pp. 28-29
- See further Moreno, Aviad (2015). אירופה ממרוקו: הפרוטוקולים של הנהגת קהילת יהודי טנגי’ר (החונטה),1864-1860 [Europe from Morocco: the Minutes of the Leadership of Tangier’s Jewish Community (the Junta), 1860-1864]. Jerusalem. Ben Zvi Institute: 124p. (Hebrew).