Crisis and Community: the People of Tangier and the French Bombardment of 1844 Susan Gilson Miller

Crisis and Community: the People of Tangier and the French Bombardment of 1844 Susan Gilson Miller

Courtesy  and  consent of the author Susan Gilson Miller

Despite their apparent freedom, the Jews of Tangier were nonetheless subject to the prohibitive codes of behavior imposed on them by Muslim law and practice. Jews in traditional Islamic society, along with Christians, were ahl al-dhimma, a 'protected' group enjoying freedom of religious practice while acknowledging the superiority of Islam. This ambivalent situation of acceptance-cum-rejection permeates the Moroccan Jewish experience; indeed, it permeates the millenial experience of Jews in the Islamic world. Testimonies of good interpersonal relations between Jew and Muslim are offset by tales of shocking and gratuitous humiliation. Relations were both good and bad, fruitful and exploitative, friendly and hostile, defying categorization or generalization. The closeness of the two groups in custom, attitude, language and world view belied a vast gulf in matters of religion and social status. Jew and Muslim in Tangier lived in two separate worlds that intersected in the market place and in business associations, and occasionally, in the home. But frequent and easy movement from one world to the other did not remove the fundamental and deep cleavage between them.

Nevertheless, both Jews and Muslims felt themselves to be bound together in the same wider society, tied by mutual relations of economic, political, and social necessity. Throughout Morocco, but in Tangier and the other port cities in particular, Jews filled a vital economic role essential to the proper functioning of trade and commerce. Protection of Jews by the Sultan was a practical obligation as well as a moral responsibility, and it was the Sultan (then and now) who set the tone. In 1844, Tangier Jews, particularly those engaged in relations with Europe, were a key element in the body politic.

 The turmoil unleashed by the bombardment was felt acutely at all levels of Tangier society. For in the course of events, a major breach opened up between the Jews and the Sultan, and within the Jewish community itself – a breach that threatened to upset the delicate balance that years of a finely calibrated coexistence had created. Local versions of the bombard- ment reveal how the event was a watershed in the changing dynamic of relations between the two groups.

Recreating the bombardment from the Moroccan perspective would be difficult, even impossible, if we were confined to the European sources. A minor incident in European history, the event was a major cataclysm on the local level. The trauma it caused was such that it was written about, sung about, and woven into local mythology and lore. Like most Moroccan cities, Tangier has its own body of written and oral tradition that makes up the distinctive cultural apparatus of the community, reinforcing a strong sense of local identity. To be 'Tanjawi', or a person of Tangier, is a mark of pride. This feeling of distinctiveness is bound up with a particular historical consciousness, and is as much a quality of Jewish Tangier as it is of Muslim. Moreover, both groups traditionally shared certain attitudes toward local history, including an obsession with events as signs and symbols, a selective interest in historical 'facts', and an acute awareness of the immanence of God in the affairs of humankind.

Local sources for the bombardment of 1844 demonstrate many of these traits. Indeed, the principal Jewish source – a Purim scroll – is not history in the conventional sense at all, but rather a ritual document retelling events according to a liturgical formula. The Purim scroll tells how the French appeared in the port of Tangier on the 7th day of the Jewish month of Ab, just as the Jews were preparing to mark the tragedy of Tisha B'ab (the 9th of Ab), the day of the destruction of the Holy Temple and the onset of dispersion. Tangier's Jews marked the date each year with deep mourning, dressing in black and walking barefoot in the streets. It was the season of catastrophe, and the appearance of the ships increased the sense of impending doom. As word spread that the consuls were leaving, the Jews flocked to the port in panic: 'Israelite families implored us to let them depart with our nationals,' the French consul reported, but few were allowed on board. The arrival of a British ship set off the wildest frenzy: 'An English ship came into the port and all the Jews with an English passport went down to the port. Other Jews joined them, nearly half the Jews in the town, even those without papers . . . and everyone was shrieking and the port was like the Day of Judgment. Many Jews were allowed to board the British ships, even those 'without papers', and some two hundred or more Tangier Jews were taken away to Gibraltar. About 150 more Jews fled aboard Spanish vessels, leaving with the Spanish consul and his family for the Spanish port of Algeciras. In all, between four and five hundred Jews left Tangier aboard English, French and Spanish ships, about one-fifth of the Jewish population of the town.

The Jews who stayed behind in Tangier were terrified. The Purim scroll describes how they sat quaking in their houses 'weeping like a flock of sheep being led to slaughter'. Suddenly, the bombs began to fall 'like stones from the furnaces of iron'. Through the hours of the bombardment, they huddled 'like beasts', running from courtyard to courtyard. Some fled with their Muslim neighbors to the countryside, but this was no escape, for outside the safety of the town, they were at the mercy of unruly mountain tribes. Whether they remained or fled, each course of action had its dangers.

 Meanwhile, the Sultan, keeping abreast of events via his local correspondents, became furious when he heard of the flight of the Jews. He wrote in great anger to the Governor of Tangier:


The reason for the fright in Tangier was the people of the dhimma, God         make them repulsive, who incited and increased the commotion of the         Muslims. A group of them went to Gibraltar, about 150 of them who           are not employees (muta'aliq) of the Christians, and that is why Tangier       is completely empty of them . . . Tell the inspector of the port only to           allow those who are employed by the Christians and no others to leave,       and that is my order … as for the others who are not employees, when           they return they should be settled elsewhere, some in Fes, the rest in             Meknes, in order to cleanse the port and get some rest from them … for      whatever commotion took place only suits the purpose of the Jews, may   God curse their sect     


  Many Muslim inhabitants of Tangier also fled the town, but it was the flight of the Jews that became the focus of the Sultan's wrath. Their departure on European vessels and their escape into the arms of the enemy was seen as a flagrant and impious act of disloyalty worthy of severe punishment. But despite the dire threats, the Sultan's anger quickly abated, and soon he was actively promoting their return by offering guarantees of their safety. His motives are not difficult to discern; he was anxious to restore commercial activity to the port, for which the presence of the rich Jewish merchants was essential. By early October, affairs apparently were restored to normal: 'The fears of the people have been calmed, the Jewish merchants who fled have come back to renew their commerce, and goods are flowing as usual,' it was reported.

The immediate crisis was over, but its memory was deeply implanted in the collective consciousness of the community. Some years later, a British visitor to Tangier noted that the excesses committed … on the occasion of the French bombardment … are still vividly impressed on the memory of the living generation. Hence the Jewish inhabitants live in constant terror of the bare possibility of foreign war.

 The trauma of the event was such that it soon became enshrined in literature, ritual and the popular imagination. Not long after the bom- bardment, someone in the Jewish community composed a special 'Purim' to commemorate the event and to celebrate their 'miraculous' delivery. This scroll offers insight into the Jewish experience at the deeper psychic level, suggesting how the crisis elicited a complex communal response having far-reaching social implications.

 The Purim scroll is part of the communal liturgy of Tangier and is read in the synagogues on the anniversary of the bombardment. It belongs to the genre of 'special Purims', modelled after the original Purim story in the Bible, which tells how the Jewish community of Persia was saved from destruction by Esther, Jewish wife of the Persian King. Certain archetypal elements of the first Purim are often repeated in special Purim such as:

the threat to the community, the villain who plots against the Jews, the leaders who protect the flock, and finally, the deliverance, where God, the real master of events, intercedes and saves the Jews.

The first Purim is celebrated each year with merrymaking. But beneath the ribaldry and fun is a message of extreme seriousness; namely, that the redemption of the community comes only through the will of God. Special Purims are reminders of the same message and take place throughout the year. The Encyclopedia Judaica lists more than a hundred of them celebrated from Ancona (Italy) to Zborow (Poland), with the majority associated with the Sephardic ritual. The stories of rescue are varied, but they contain many of the elements of the original Purim, which served as their paradigm.

 The 'Purim of the Bombs' recasts the events of 1844 as a miracle of deliverance and tells how, through the intervention of God, the Jewish community of Tangier is saved from annihilation. It recounts that the dispute between the 'King of the French' and the Sultan (the Great One, Our Lord and Master) threw them into disarray. 'Our terror mounted, our senses were unhinged . ..' When the bombardment begins, the language becomes apocalyptic: 'we thought we would perish … everyone saw . . . the flashing of lights and the fire that fell on our country.' But then God intervenes: 'He got up from the seat of judgment and sat down on the seat of kindness . . . and the stones falling like meteors stopped . . . and not one person was lost from among us.' The scroll ends by reminding each generation to celebrate the event with rejoicing and happiness- even though it falls in the month of Ab, a time of lamentation.

 Another special Purim associated with Tangier is the 'Purim Edom', or the 'Purim of Europe', which commemorates the defeat of an invading Portuguese army at the Battle of the Three Kings near Qasr al-Kabir in 1578. An analysis of the text of this Purim indicates it is true to form, containing many elements of the original Purim story; the villain (the Portuguese King Don Sebastian); the threat (forced conversion of the Jews to Christianity); the Jewish communal leaders who try to save their flock (the community head of Fes, Abraham Rute, and his Marrakesh counterpart, Rabbi Joseph al-Mosni); the fear and trembling; and the final rescue.37 Comparing the two Tangier Purims shows that the 1844 scroll is both exceptional and problematic. The following elements, striking in their anomaly, offer clues to its underlying meaning:

(1)There is no villain in the piece. The French are mentioned merely in passing, without any of the phrases of vilification usually reserved for the enemy of the Jews. We know that some Jews fled the bombardment aboard French vessels, including David Azancot and his family.38 It seems that the Jews of Tangier were divided in their attitudes toward the French, some regarding them as rescuers and others as oppressors; therefore, the vague definition of the French role in the drama purposefully spares certain key members of the community of the embarrassment of having identified with the enemy.

(2)There is no mention of Jewish community leaders who strive mightily to rescue their flock. Perhaps the rabbis and other leaders who normally guide and counsel in moments of communal anguish were here divided in their response, creating yet another sore point best left unmentioned.

 (3) The use of language in the scroll is revealing. The exhalted words used to denote the Sultan (Adonaynu hu malkaynu – Our Lord, our King) are usually reserved for the Almighty. The Purim calls Morocco 'our country' (artzenu), in another fervent statement of patriotism. These respectful references to King and country had to be intentional. Such allusions are absent from the 1578 Purim, although not from other special Purims. Declarations of loyalty to the temporal power were often required of the Jewish people in exile. It may be that one of the underlying purposes of these rituals is overtly to articulate sentiments of loyalty and obedience to the temporal authority that Jewish behavior – from the non-Jewish perspective – may seem to contradict.

(4) Missing is any mention of events beyond the immediate vicinity, such as the devastating attack on Mogador. It is as if the bombardment had taken place in a vacuum, disconnected from its larger historical milieu. This feature may reflect the 'localism' of Moroccan Jewish historiography. But it also may express a need to eliminate all vestiges of the historicity of the event, transforming it to a different level of meaning. By purifying the event of its historical specificity, it quickly takes on the quality of ritual, fixing it in the collective memory as yet another example of the suffering and the redemption that, in the Jewish view, bind together the human and the Divine. Thus the Purim has the effect of reminding the Jews of Tangier of the omnipresence of God in the affairs of this world, and of their primal role in revealing His purposes to the rest of humankind.

The Purim also conveys messages about what it meant to be a Jew in Muslim society, by reminding the Jews of Tangier how to mold their behavior to the contours of long-standing paradigms of minority-majority relations. The first message in the Purim is about Jewish community. The non- Jewish sources revealed that the Jews of Tangier did not respond to crisis as a unit, but rather split into factions, the 'leavers' and the 'stayers'. The former group was made up of mobile, wealthy Jews being drawn into a new set of relations with a European-centered world. When crisis came, they activated those relations and fled. The latter group was composed of the majority of Tangier Jews, still bound in submission to the Muslim authority. When crisis came, they had no choice but to put their faith in God and hope for mercy from their Muslim protectors. The Purim text makes no allusion to a breach we know existed. Why? Because one of the scroll's express purposes was to eradicate the split from memory. Silence about the departed Jews implies that the danger threatened all, thereby reintegrating those who opted out of the collective experience. Rich and poor, Europeanized and traditional, 'leavers' and 'stayers', are reunited into the larger category of kullanu, 'all of us', who are equal before the will of the Almighty.

The importance of community in weathering crisis is one of the principal values that the scroll projects. It is only through collective action and collective identity that the Jew can withstand the pressures for assimilation exercised by the gentile majority. The scroll affirms that the ideal context for Jewish life in exile is the community, where the duties and pleasures of life are knitted naturally into the fabric of daily existence.

 The second message in the scroll is about relations with the wider Muslim society. The annual repetition of the Purim scroll is a tool for instructing the next generation, through ritual, how to survive as a minority. The Jews had misbehaved in the eyes of the Sultan; through the Purim text, they expiate their sin and restore their relationship with authority. The Sultan is the all- powerful master; the Jews are the weak and indecisive flock, confused and disarmed by events. This is the traditional relationship between Jews and the Muslim authority, between the submissive minority and the dominant majority. In 1844, most of Tangier's Jews were not yet ready to question that relationship. Through the Purim text, they are reaffirming their loyalty to the state and their acquiescence to a particular variety of social adaptation.

A third message is the assertion of the bilateral nature of the dhimma contract. When we speak of the notion of dhimma, often we neglect to mention the Jewish view of the pact. Did Jews feel powerless in their subordinate status, or did they feel capable of manipulating it? The Purim shows that Jews were able to act on their own behalf, mainly by reassuring their Muslim masters that the ties that bound them were firmly in place. Far from being a cynical act aimed at removing the Sultan's anger, the Purim is a subtle supplication for forgiveness, a positive and conscious effort to be restored to their special niche in society. The relationship of subordination, for all its negatives, was still a certainty in an unsure world, a claim to membership in the wider body politic.

For the Muslims too, the relationship with the Jews was valued, for the latter filled a vital economic role that made their return essential. In 1844, Jews and Muslims still believed that they existed in conditions of mutual interdependence, that the survival of one group was intimately connected to the presence of the other. Neither was yet consciously aware that the underpinnings of their longstanding pact were now in jeopardy. After 1844, the bilateral relationship inevitably became a trilateral one, as Jew, Muslim, and European became locked in a three-way struggle over power and authority. The innovation of 1844 was that thereafter, Jews would become actors in the Moroccan confrontation with the West, rather than passive observers of it.

The bombardment of 1844 shocked Jews and Muslims alike into recog- nizing they stood at threshold of an era of violent change. Patterns of behavior emerging from the crisis were repeated later in the century, as disaster in one form or another became an accepted feature of life. In 1859, Spain invaded Morocco, and the Jews of the North, including those of Tangier, were once again caught up in war. This time, the entire community left en masse for Gibraltar, in a 'rescue' aided by European Jewry. Again in 1907, during the Casablanca riots, many Jews departed for European shores. The pattern of crisis and flight was to become familiar, especially for the Jews of the port towns, loosening their ties to the larger Muslim polity. The bombardment of 1844 was the first in a series of harsh blows that would drive a wedge between Moroccan Jewry and the rest of Moroccan society.

Divisions within the Tangier Jewish community exposed by the French attack did not end with the return of the exiles. Soon the community itself became the setting for ongoing social conflict, often masked as squabbles over religious practice. In the 1860s, the 1880s, and again in the 1890s, major confrontations are documented in the community archives.42 The intra-communal strife was symptomatic of the rapid yet uneven transition Tangier's Jews were making to modernity under the influence of a growing European presence.

The role of Tangier elites in leading the exodus of 1844 was also an intimation of the future. A small yet powerful group would soon take the lead in stimulating ties with Europe and encouraging the growth of a European Jewish presence in Morocco. The first schools of the Alliance Israelite Universelle were established in the 1860s in the north of Morocco, and new ideas travelled inland to the rest of Moroccan Jewry through the avenue of Tangier. Its Westernized Jewish elite campaigned actively for the Alliance, thereby accelerating the implantation of modern ideas among a younger generation of men and women who soon numbered in the thousands.

 The primary identification of this new generation was not with Moroccan society, but rather with a world totally external to it. They saw themselves as an extension of European Jewry, where 'Jewish' was one among several categories of identity, not the ultimate definition of one's place in society. Tangier's Jews became the vanguard of a Moroccan Jewish bourgeoisie that by century's end were almost completely unhinged from the 'old' Morocco. Their preferred settings were the plush salons of the 'belle epoque', which they recreated in commodious villas situated outside of town on the plateau of the Marshan overlooking the sea. Their westward orientation set them apart – not only from most Muslims, but also from the majority of their co-religionists in the interior.

For the Jews of Tangier, and indeed for Jewish Morocco in general, nineteenth-century crises did not accelerate their integration into Moroccan society, but rather accentuated their alienation from it, as one critical event after another increased the distance between Muslim and Jew. For many of Morocco's Jews, and especially for the Jews of Tangier, the old social contract based on inherent inequality was no longer acceptable, leading them to opt out of Moroccan society by emigration and self-imposed segregation. At the same time, Moroccan Muslim society, paralyzed by its own unfortunate encounter with the West, could not muster the means to renegotiate the relationship. For Muslims and Jews alike, the crisis of 1844 was the beginning of the end of more than a thousand years of common destiny.

APPENDIX: TEXT OF THE PURIM OF THE BOMBS (translated and edited by the author)

A great miracle was made for us by our Lord, our help and our shield on the 21st of the month of Ab, in the year 5604. I will recall for you the power of a miracle. For in those days… the Kings gathered, the King of France together with the Great One Our Lord, he is our Master, and they were in a dispute.

 And it was the 7th day of the month of Ab. And we were quiet and peaceful, each one under his vine, when all of a sudden, large ships came and surrounded us off our coast, sent from the King of France to pour fire on our camp.

And on the ninth day of Ab, a day I will call a day of wrath and anger, we heard rumors saying that on that very day, war would be made on us. And when we heard it, our hearts were heavy, like a pregnant woman who approaches the time of birth. We trembled and shouted Alas! to the Lord our Father, God of Judgment, with the same sorrow as the sorrow for our destroyed temple, our splendor

 . . And our strength left us. We were frightened and a trance fell upon us. We sat there and cried. We were like a fish caught in a net, not knowing what to do. To run away and hide, or to return to our homes? We were like something floating on the sea, a stick on the surface of the water …. Our spirits were at an end, and there was no life in us.

What the ships would do was not clear to us until the 21st day of the month, when we opened our eyes and Behold! there they were, ready to make war on us. Our terror mounted, our senses were unhinged, we were weeping like a flock of sheep being led to slaughter. And we cried out that our hope is gone. We are condemned.

Barely was this said when all of a sudden a great noise reached us, shaking and breaking. A sound of fear in our ears. We heard huge stones from the furnaces of iron, called bombas falling in front of our walls like sparks from a mad boiler, like sharp arrows of death. We were all together, our wives and children, we felt like beasts. And there were those who wanted to run away and hide themselves, but they were escaping the snare only to fall into the pit, into the hands of the Ishmaelites who were sitting in our town. And those who stayed behind were running from courtyard to courtyard, from one corner to the other. Everyone was crying and their cries were great before God our Master . . . They were like grasshoppers jumping before the great noise. In one minute, forty fell. And if it had continued, it would have been like Sodom and Gomorrah … The people saw the sounds and flashing lights that came to earth on our country. We were crying out and sighing from distress in our camp, because they said that we would all die.

 In the afternoon, his mercy grew stronger and he blessed us, and our cries for help went up to God, and he got up from the seat of judgment and sat down on the seat of kindness and pity, he had mercy on our

remnant, and the rain of anger and the stones falling like meteors ceased … and the roaring stopped as if it had never been….

 And we prayed to God our Redeemer, who granted us his goodness, who makes miracles. How many bombs flew over our heads, and how many fell in front of us, and thanks to our prayers to God, not one of us was lost. The trap was sprung, we were safe, and God gave us favor and grace in the eyes of the Ishmaelites who were all around us, and they did not seize us.

 And this generation witnessed the miracle and what he did. And for this reason, the Lord made this day for rejoicing, happiness and good fortune. In a month which is sorrowful we turn to joy, to praise and exhalt God who has made these miracles for us, and to remember this day from year to year, and to celebrate it as a day of joy for us and our children, giving gifts to the poor, each according to this means….

הירשם לבלוג באמצעות המייל

הזן את כתובת המייל שלך כדי להירשם לאתר ולקבל הודעות על פוסטים חדשים במייל.

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