WHO ARE JEWS
Jews are an ethnoreligious group, a tribe, and a nation originating in the Land of Israel, descended from the ancient Hebrews and Israelites. An ethnoreligious group is an ethnic group unified by a common religion. Much like other Indigenous tribes worldwide, Jewish peoplehood, tribal identity, and religion/spirituality (Judaism) are inextricable from each other.
Our history dates back some 4000 years, and, as such, we were one of the oldest tribes in the world. In fact, the word “tribe,” which comes from “tribus” in Latin, was first used to refer to the twelve Israelite tribes.
It’s worth noting that the term “Jews” and “Judaism” do not come from a faith but rather, from a place: specifically, the Kingdom of Judah (930 BCE-587 BCE), one of the two Israelite kingdoms after the split of the United Monarchy of the Kingdom of Israel in 930 BCE.
The fact that modern-day Jews descend from the ancient Israelites should not be up for debate (unfortunately, because of deep-seeded antisemitism and propaganda surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, it is). Archeological evidence, a plethora of genetic studies (“Jewish” DNA is among the most studied in the world), historical record, and the continuity of Jewish culture all conclusively tie the origins — and very identity — of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel.
WHO ARE IMAZIGHEN
Imazighen are an ethnolinguistic group Indigenous to North Africa, primarily modern-day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and parts of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Egypt’s Siwa Oasis. Imazighen are further divided into ethnic sub-groups, including Rifians, Chleuh, Zenega, Tuareg, Chenoua, Kabyles, Shawiya, Nafusi, Zayanes, Amazigh of the Oases, and more. “Amazigh” means “free people” in Tamazight, an Afroasiatic family of languages Indigenous to North Africa. You might unfortunately be more familiar with the pejorative term “B*rber,” which derives from “barbarians” in Arabic.
Imazighen are an ethnolinguistic group Indigenous to North Africa, primarily modern-day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and parts of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Egypt’s Siwa Oasis. Imazighen are further divided into sub-ethnicities and cultures, including Rifians, Chleuh, Zenega, Tuareg, Chenoua, Kabyles, Shawiya, Nafusi, Zayanes, Amazigh of the Oases, and more.
“Amazigh” — the singular form of Imazighen — means “free people” in Tamazight, an Afroasiatic language family Indigenous to North Africa. You might unfortunately be more familiar with the pejorative term “B*rber,” which derives from “barbarians” in Arabic.
The ancestors of today’s Imazighen have lived in North Africa for at least 12,000 years. Amazigh culture is not a monolith, with different traditions and cultures practiced by each of different sub-ethnicities and tribes.
There is some debate as to the first point of contact between Jews and Imazighen. Jews have lived in the region of North Africa since at least the third century BCE; however, the most significant point of contact took place three centuries later, in the aftermath of the First Jewish Revolt against the Romans in Judea (the Land of Israel), when many Jews fled to North Africa.
Like Jews, Imazighen have suffered and survived waves of imperialism and colonialism at the hands of various empires. Jews were one of the only groups to ever come in contact with Imazighen who did not oppress or subjugate them, and vice versa. Instead, a very rich cultural exchange took place, and many Imazighen even adopted Judaism.
Following the First Jewish Revolt between 66-73 CE, many Jews fled Judea and settled across North Africa. Jews acclimated well with the Amazigh cultures, and many Imazighen even adopted Judaism, though most later converted to Christianity and finally Islam. Jews and Imazighen coexisted peacefully, and Jews in the region developed their own dialect of Tamazight, known as Judeo-Tamazight (essentially Tamazight with Hebrew loanwords and written using the Hebrew alphabet).
Because much of Amazigh history was oral, rather than written, the best accounts we have about Amazigh-Jewish life and relations come from foreign travelers.
Jews experienced autonomy within Amazigh society, with their own communal organizations. Jews generally worked in trade and craft, while Imazighen worked in agriculture; there seems to have been an understanding about the occupational structure between both peoples. Amazigh Jews also developed their own special traditions; for example, during Shavout, a Jewish festival that celebrates the harvest of the Land of Israel, the Imazighen of Libya poured water on Jews as one of their customs.
For a long time, there was speculation over whether Amazigh Jews were descendants of the ancient Israelites or Indigenous Imazighen who converted to Judaism. With modern genetics, the mass conversion theory has been discounted, as Amazigh Jews show clear genetic similarity with other Jews, such as Ashkenazi Jews, rather than with the local Amazigh population.
According to a 1936 survey, some 145,000 out of Morocco’s 161,000 Jews spoke a variety of Tamazight, with some 25,000 speaking only Tamazight and nothing else.
QUEEN DIHYA (KAHINA)
The Arab Caliphate (empire) conquered North Africa in three stages, between 647 and 709 CE. They faced fierce resistance from the Indigenous Imazighen. One of their most legendary military leaders was a queen named Queen Dihya (or “Kahina” in Arabic), who might have been Jewish.
Dihya was likely a member of a small tribe of Imazighen known as the Jerawa, Indigenous to what is present-day Algeria. The Jerawa had previously converted to Judaism.
When the Arab Empire invaded her homeland, Queen Dihya fought valiantly. She was able to defeat the armies of Hasan ibn al Numan, so much so that the Arabs left her region for five years, during which she ruled as queen. Arab sources from the time period describe her as a witch or a sorceress in an attempt to discredit her.
Eventually the Arab Empire invaded her land again, and she died in 703 CE. The likeliest explanation is that she died in battle; however, there are accounts that she swallowed poison in order to avoid being captured by her enemies.
To this day, Amazigh activists see Queen Dihya as a symbol of Amazigh resistance to Arab colonization.
KABYLES & THE NAZIS
Kabylian immigrants in Paris played a large role in saving French Jews during the Holocaust. After Parisian Jews were rounded up on July 16, 1942, Kabyles spread pamphlets to their own community in Tamazight, stating the following:
“Yesterday at dawn, the Jews of Paris were arrested, the old men, the women and the children, in exile like us, workers like us, they are our brothers, their children are like our own children…When you encounter one of their children you must give them shelter and protection as long as the misfortune — or sorrow — lasts. Oh, men of my country, your heart is generous.”
Because few people in Paris read or even recognized Tamazight, the pamphlets were nearly impossible to intercept.
A mosque rector called Si Kaddour Benghabrit was at the heart of the resistance network, sheltering some 500 to 1,700 Jews, who escaped through the city’s sewer system and eventually were transferred to the French countryside. Si Kaddour Benghabrit developed an alert system that allowed Jews and resistance fighters to disappear quickly in case of a raid. He also falsified identity papers, so that Jews would be listed as Muslims.
From the 1940s to the 1960s, the majority of Jews were persecuted out of North Africa. As such, Amazigh Jews — the majority coming from Morocco — fled as well.
Given the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Amazigh activists long remained silent about Israel. In recent years, some Amazigh activists have started challenging the predominant Arab narrative and have begun seeing Israel “as a partner in adversity—a vibrant, anti-pan-Arab force mirroring their own opposition to Arab-Islamic hegemony…”
In 2007, two Amazigh-Jewish friendship associations were announced in Morocco. Though the associations were not explicitly connected to Israel, pan-Arabist and pan-Islamist groups responded with outrage.
In 2009, 19 Amazigh educators and activists visited Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum, Yad Vashem. Longtime Amazigh activist Boubker Outaadit publicly stated that the Arab-Israeli Conflict could have been solved 60 years earlier had “the Arab side not rejected the right of the Jewish People to return to their land and defend it.”
When, in 2009, various prominent Moroccan Jews were accused of “Zionism” and “espionage on Israel’s behalf,” it was Amazigh activist groups that spoke out in support of them.
Similarly, Kabyles (an Amazigh group Indigenous to the Kabylia region of modern-Algeria) have also expressed affinity for Jews and even Israel. According to the leader of the Kabylia independence movement Ferhat Mehenni, “the Kabylians have always had a bit of sympathy for Israel…During the War of 1967, Kabylie applauded the defeat of the Arabs.” In 2012, Mehenni visited the Israeli Knesset (parliament).
In response to Mehenni’s visit, an official at the Israeli embassy in Paris stated: “The Israeli government supports Mehenni in his struggle for granting Amazigh minorities in Algeria their autonomy and the same applies to their counterparts in Morocco and Libya.”
Antisemitism is deeply ingrained and systemic in West Asia and North Africa, so much so that according to the Global Index of Antisemitism, 74% of the population of the region holds predominantly antisemitic attitudes. As such, most of the region, whether Arab/Arabized or not, subscribes to antisemitic tropes and falsehoods about the Jewish People.
For this reason, those in systemic power throughout the region commonly smear Indigenous independence movements as “Zionist.”
Unfortunately, Imazighen have also been targeted with the same accusation. During the outbreak of the 2008-2009 Gaza War, Morocco’s Imazighen were accused of not attending protests in defense of Palestine. When deadly fires broke out in Kabylia in the summer of 2021, Algeria accused not only accused Israel of starting the fires, but also of funding Kabyle “terrorist” groups.
The the popular book “B*rbère de Sion” claims that Indigenous Amazigh identity is a French and Zionist “invention” (as mentioned, the history of Imazighen goes back 12,000 years!).
Similarly, in 2010, Al Jazeera and other local outlets accused Zionists of “manipulating” the Imazighen in Morocco fighting for civil rights, claiming that Zionists aimed to destabilize the Arab regime.
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