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Berbers and the Jews, a Unique Relationship; The Historical Background
September 15, 2003

By Samuel Kurinsky.
JEWS MOVE WEST

Blocked from escape to the east, many Jews found refuge to the west. The westward movement of the Jews from Egypt and Cyrenaica to the Barbary states was once again swelled by the expulsion of the Jews from Alexandria by Bishop Cyril in 414, and by recurrent Byzantine expulsions through the next few centuries

The effect of each of the expulsions was short-lived. The Jews, uniquely the technologically advanced, literate, and commercially savvy element among the backward indigenous populations, remained crucial for the conduct of African industry and commerce. Economic difficulties resulting from successive expulsions led recurrently to liberalized policies and a new influx of Judaic artisans and traders. That the persecutions proved ineffective in obliterating Judaic presence is evidenced by the account of the subsequent conquering Arab general, 'Amir ibn al-As, who reported that he found 40,000 tax-paying Jews resident in Alexandria alone, inferring the existence of a total Judaic population of several times that figure. The Arab general, stemming from a backward desert society, was likewise staggered to find 4000 "palaces," 4000 baths [!] and other visible evidence of a prosperous community within the city.8

Albeit the figures appear somewhat inflated, two facts are manifest from the Arab general's report: The numbers of the Jewish community, and the high level of civilization encountered by the astonished Arab general. The confrontation of the primitive Arabs with the advanced science and technology of the Alexandrian Jews was repeated as the Arab armies crossed North Africa. Entering the arena as barbaric warriors, they eventually absorbed the attributes of an advanced civilization from the Jews.

Moroccan Muslim traditions relate that as the Arabs advanced, the Greeks evacuated the towns and cities. The Jews, however, stayed on, and their numbers were swelled by an influx of Jews from Syria and Egypt into the vacuum left by the Greeks.9

As a result of the Emperor Justinian's intolerant policies in the sixth century, Jews were driven inland, and again found refuge among the hinterland Berber tribesmen. The Berbers not only welcomed the Jews, but eight of the tribes, impressed with the erudition and technological acumen of the Jews, disavowed their shamanistic, pagan concepts and adopted Judaism

Judaic-Berber Alliance under Queen Kahena: Thus, in the year 694, when the rampaging Arab armies drove relentlessly westward along the Barbary Coast, the Jews found themselves allied with the Berbers against the invasion. The confederacy of Jewish Berber tribes rallied around the Jewish/Berber priestess Kahena. The Berbers crowned Kahena as queen, and accepted her as their military leader.

The story of Dehiyya al-Kahina malkat Afriqah (Queen of Africa) is told by Ibn Khaldun, in a literary biography in Hebrew by N. Sloushz. Khaldun's rendition leans heavily on legendary sources, but Salo Baron notes that "Nevertheless this account is essentially confirmed and amplified in many significant details in the more recently published chronicle of an older Arab writer, 'Ubaud ibn Salih ibn 'Abd al-Halim."10 chronicles about "this medieval version of the prophetess Deborah" hold that the priestess lived 127 years, and governed the tribe of Jeraua with the aid of her three sons for 65 years. Clearly an expansion of the truth, the historical kernel of the legends remains a classic of women's participation in the resistance to tyranny, "as women sooth-sayers and tribal leaders in war and peace had long been known and poetically extolled even among the pre-Islamic Arabs."

Monroe Rosenthal and Isaac Mozeson paid tribute to many noteworthy women warriors in their book, Wars of the Jews, and report about Kahena that "The Berbers of the Aures mountains retain legends of her bravery. She was said to have been born to a poor Jewish family of cave-dwellers. A chieftain of a Judeo-Berber tribe terrorized her Aures mountain settlement and demanded Kahena as a wife. When she rejected him he slaughtered people of her village. She then gave herself to him, but, like the Biblical heroine, slew him with a nail to the skull on the wedding night."11

The Arab armies enriched themselves as they rampaged across Persia, Afghanistan and northern India to the east, and then in Egypt and Libya to the west. "The march of Islam had barely missed a step when, in 694, the Arab forces drove into Africa Minor. Expecting an easy sweep, the Moslems met fierce resistance in Barbary."12

The Berbers rallied around their queen, the Jewess, Kahena, swearing to follow her into battle against the invaders. The Judeo/Berber army was swelled by soldiers of the pagan Berber tribes after their king Kocilla was killed by the Arabs. Queen Kahena became truly the queen and military commander of all the Berbers!

"Lions of Africa and Judah," the queen would shout to her Berber troops, "show these Arabs that we will never be enslaved by Islam. Our beloved Africa will remain free. Let our slogan be the cry of the Zealots of old: Freedom or death."

Under their valiant queen, Northwest Africa was cleansed of Arab mercenaries. Commander Ukba, who had at one point broken through all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, was killed in a Berber ambush. His armies were pushed back in retreat to Kairwan, the new Moslem base in central Tunisia. "The arrogant Ukba had tried to intimidate the proud Berbers with force instead of patiently trying to convert them to Islam with face-saving diplomacy." 13 Queen Kahena's skills were again tested in the second, more massive Arab invasion. A new Arab general, Hassan, had driven across North Africa with a fresh army of 40,000 horseman, and had taken Carthage from the Byzantine Greeks. Queen Kahena did not confront this massive force, but outflanked it by taking the city of Bagia from its Byzantine garrison. She roused the Christian population to join her forces in resistance to the Islamic invaders. When the Arab army laid siege to liberated Bagia, Kahena and her army streamed out of the city by secret passageways. They circled around to assault the enemy from behind a rocky prominence at Wadmini. The queen's cavalries spent the night in the saddle, forcing the Arab horsemen to do likewise. The relentless pressure through the night took a toll on the on the travel-weary Arabs, who were not in their native environment and were disadvantaged by an ignorance of the terrain.

With the break of dawn, "the Berber cavalry attacked - spurred on by their fiery queen. The townspeople of Bagia, Greeks, Copts and Phoenicians, united and inspired by Queen Kahena, simultaneously marched out on foot at the Arabs' rear. The Berbers charged with their rugged mountain ponies, while the Moslems countered with their swifter but more nervous Arabian stallions. A thousand Berber lances clashed with slashing Arab scimitars, as the impassioned Judeo-Berbers threw themselves at the fanatic Moslem Ishmaelites. The Arabs were completely routed. The main body of the army retreated as far as Gabes, while stragglers were driven into the wilderness where they perished."14

Under their triumphant queen's command, the Berber armies liberated Carthage, and swept on across North Africa to free it from both the Byzantines and the Arabs. The local Christians hailed the queen as liberator from the Arabs, and the Judaic communities, who had suffered dreadfully under heavy Roman and Byzantine taxation, hailed her as their deliverer. Kahena's armies swelled with Jewish volunteers from the numerous hill communities that dotted the ridges of the mountains. The Bishop of Bula Regia had flowers strewn along her path

For the next five years, the coalition of the diverse local elements held firm, and the region enjoyed a peaceful period of freedom from foreign domination.

The wily Arab commander, Hassan Ibn Numan, learned through bitter experience that the dedicated armies under queen Kahena's command were a formidable force. He set out on a classic "divide and conquer" diplomatic maneuver in preparation for another invasion. Noting Christian antipathy toward the Jews, he sent emissaries to the Christians, offering a carrot of proposed tolerance while playing on the latent fear and hostility toward the Jews

The North African Christians were fearful of Visigothan conquest. They were susceptible to Hassan's deceptive promises of autonomy, and their latent anti-Semitism proved more powerful than the peace and freedom they enjoyed under Judeo/Berber hegemony.

At the time, the Spanish Jews were suffering under Visigothan rule in Spain. The Visigoth kings instituted a antisemitic regimen at a succession of ecclesiastical councils at Toledo. They decreed forcible baptism, forbade circumcision and the observance of the Sabbath, festivals and rites. "Jews were flogged, executed and their property confiscated, were subjected to ruinous taxes, forbidden to trade, and, at times, dragged to the baptismal font."15Hassan cunningly played upon the Judaic concern for their co-religionists suffering Visigothan oppression. He held out an olive branch to the Jews and proposed a joint Iberian invasion to rescue the Sephardic Jewish community from Visigothan tyranny. "Hassan's seductive offer was actually first proposed by the Spanish Jews themselves. It was they who requested that the Arabs and the forces of Queen Kahena join to conquer the Iberian peninsula. The Spanish Jews were desperate for help in light of harsh new decrees that appropriated all their property, forbade them from all navigation and trade with Africa, prohibited all business with Christians, and required all converted Jews to eat non-kosher food in the presence of supervising clergy."16

The Judeo/Berbers were lulled into failing to mobilize for defense against the Arab army. Hassan 's new, fresh army of 60,000 troops, swept swiftly across the continent, this time unresisted and even sustained by the Christian communities in their path.

It soon became clear that Hassan had no intention of halting at Barbary's borders. Unprepared, the Berber army was thrown into retreat. The queen, learning too late of the Arab perfidy, hastily mounted a counter-offensive. In desperation, the queen launched a scorched earth campaign in the path of the thundering Arab troops, burning fields, cutting down trees, and destroying dwellings to deny sustenance and booty to the invaders.

The queen's plans were also frustrated by an enemy within her ranks. "Just as King Saul lost his kingdom upon sparing the Amelekite king, Queen Kahena lost hers when she spared the brave and handsome Khalid Ibn Yessid El Kaisi, a srikingly aristocratic youth among the captives."17

Khalid feigned to have become a loyal adopted member of Kahena's own family. Secretly remaining a devoted Muslim, Khalid passed critical information to general Hassan about planned surprise attacks and ambushes. Thus armed, Hassan was able to prevail. Finally, probably concerned that his perfidy was about to be exposed, the trusted spy slipped out of the Berber camp, and was rewarded by Hassan with the position of deputy commander. Khalid's intimate knowledge of Berber encampments, haunts and hideouts was a major factor in sealing the queen's doom

Unable to evade confrontation with the far more numerous forces under Hassan, "the two armies clashed head-on in a decisive battle at the ancient [Roman] amphitheater at Thysdrus, the modern town of El Jern. In the shadow of Rome's former African glory, the fate of Barbary was decided. Arab historian Ibn Nuvairi records that the Berbers and the Jews fought like furies, and only the will of Allah allowed the Moslems to triumph. The remnants of the Berber force fled to the Aures mountains, with the queen's guard at the rear. Her men begged her to flee to the safety of the Moroccan hinterlands, but Kahena preferred to remain with a handful of men holding a mountain pass against the onrushing Arabs. Like a true Zealot, she died with sword in hand.

The ignoble Hassan had her decapitated head sent back to the Arab Caliph, Abd el-Malik."18

The Jews and Berbers were given a choice: convert to Islam or die. Some 50,000 refused to convert and were massacred. The others opted for conversion

Judaic-Berber Participation in the Islamic Conquest of Iberia: The converted Jews and Berbers became a significant part of the Arab forces which invaded Iberia. The commander of the joint Berber/Arab army which crossed the strait between Africa and Europe to conquer Spain in 711 CE was a Judeo/Berber convert said to have been one of the sons of Queen Kahena. His Arab name, Jibral-an-Tarik, became transcribed into the name of the fortress, Gibraltar, and the rock is referred to as Tarik's rock.

Many African Jews entered conversion pragmatically, secretly continuing their faith as did the Marranos of a later period. The Iberian Jews consequently collaborated fully with the invaders. The pragmatism of the converted Jews proved advantageous to both the Arabs and the Iberian Jews. The Arabs were dependant on both the Berber convertees and the Iberian Jews for a successful invasion and thereafter for maintaining their hegemony over the conquered region of Iberia.

Arab chroniclers record that the conquerors entrusted the garrisoning of such important cities as Elvira, Seville, and Cordoba to the Jews while the invaders pressed on in hot pursuit of the fleeing Christian forces. One chronicler informs us that Malaga, which had no Jews, could not be garrisoned because no Jews resided in the city and the Christians had all fled!

The gates to the strategic city of Toledo were opened by Jews on a Palm Sunday when the Christians were attending church services. The imminence of the Arab attack had been anticipated, for the Visigothan grandees had already fled the city, and the archbishop had made tracks all the way to Rome.

The Berber/Arab successes in Iberia were made possible only by the assistance and collaboration of both the Sephardim and the formerly Berber Jews. Once empowered, the primitive Berbers and Arabs, dependant on the industrial and commercial sagacity of the Jews for the continuation and growth of their societies and economies, instituted a period of tolerance. The Arabs absorbed the scholarly attributes of an advanced civilization. Many of the "Arab" philosophers, poets, mathematicians and scientists were converted Jews, or descendants of converted Jews. A new enlightened era for both Arabs and Jews was born.

Jews regained the right to practice their faith and the Jewish populations of North African towns soon burgeoned with new, vibrant Jewish communities.

"In Kairuwan and the province of Ifriqiya, the famous heir of the ancient Carthagenians-Semitic civilization, the Jews, reinforced by numerous arrivals from Egypt and Palestine, had a fully developed life at the time of the Fatimid rise to power (909). In fact... the enemies of the new dynasty asserted that it had much Jewish blood in its veins... During the tenth century the city of Kairuwan, glorified by the Arabs as one of the four gates to Paradise, embraced a large and prosperous Jewish community. The latter soon felt strong enough to throw off the tutelage of the eastern academies.... Fez.... became from its inception (808) a major center of Jewish culture."19

Likewise, the liberal policies of the new Berber rulers of Spain laid the foundation for "The Golden Age" of Sephardic Judaism.


1. George Gilbert, Jews in Photography; a Social History, 1996, p. 23.

2. Solomon Grayzel, A History of the Jews, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1969, p. 180 .

3. Monroe Rosenthal and Isaac Mozeson, Wars of the Jews, Hippocrene Books, NY, 1990, p. 117.

4. Rosenthal and Mozeson, Ibid. P. 117-8

5. Solomon Grayzel, A History of the Jews, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1959, p. 180.

6. Translation of Cassius by Galbraith Welch in, North African Prelude, The First Seven Thousand Years, William Morrow and Company, pp. 141-2.

7. S.S.Safrai, "he Lands of the Diaspora, in A History of the Jewish People, ed. by H.H.Ben-Sasson, Harvard Un., 1976, p. 372.

8. Salo Wittmayer Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, Vol. III, The Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, 1957, p. 71, quoting Eutichius, "Annales," in Petrologiae Cursus Completus, series Greca, CXI, 1107 ed. by Cheiko, II. 26; John of Nikiu, Chronique, CXVII, CXX,trans. by Zotenberg, pp. 449, 455.

9. Baron, Ibid., p. 90.

10. Baron, Ibid., p. 271, note 24. Baron also cites two other works by Slouschz, Travels in North Africa and Sefer ha-Massa'ot (Travelogue) and works by other authors too numerous to repeat here. Notable is a work by J. J. Williams, Hebrewisms of West Africa, documenting the ancient intrusion of Hebrew words and expressions into the Berber languages.

11. Monroe Rosenthal and Isaac Mozeson, Ibid., p.193.

12. Rosenberg and Mozeson, Ibid. P. 192.

13. Rosenberg and Mozeson, Ibid. P. 192.

14. Rosenberg and Mozeson, Ibid. P. 193-4.

15. Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, Harper & Row, 1988, p. 177.

16. Rosenberg and Mozeson, Ibid. P. 195.

17. Rosenberg and Mozeson, Ibid. P. 195.

18. Rosenberg and Mozeson, Ibid. P. 196.

19. Baron, Ibid., p. 107-8.


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