the Crypto-Jews of Asia & North Africa


Crypto-Jews are Jews who, in order to protect themselves from antisemitic persecution, had to practice Judaism in secret while publicly practicing a different faith, usually Christianity or Islam. Crypto-Judaism is most often associated with the Jews who fled the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, but there have been Crypto-Jewish communities nearly everywhere across the globe.

To read a post about the Crypto-Jews of Latin America, please read my previous post AN INTRO INTO CRYPTO-JEWISH IDENTITY.



Jews have lived in what is now Iran since the Assyrian (722 BCE) and Babylonian (586 BCE) exiles, when Jews were forcibly displaced from the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

In 1839, in a violent pogrom (anti-Jewish massacre) known as the Allahdad, the Jews living in the city of Mashhad, Iran, were attacked by mobs, murdered, and forced to convert to Islam with knives held to their throats.

2400 survivors publicly pledged allegiance to Islam, but secretly, they continued practicing Judaism. Some migrated to Herat, Afghanistan, while others later migrated to Turkmenistan. Over the decades, Mashhadi Jews migrated at least 5 times for safety. In 1890, Muslim Iranians threatened to expose Mashhadi Crypto-Jews, almost resulting in another pogrom. In 1901, the first Mashhadi synagogue was built in Jerusalem. During the Russian Revolution in 1918, many Mashhadi Jews finally felt safe enough to return to Mashhad. Finally, in 1925, Reza Shah permitted religious freedom in Iran, meaning that Mashhadi Jews were able to practice openly for the first time in nearly 90 years. Nevertheless, in 1946, another violent pogrom prompted Mashhadi Jews to flee to Mandatory Palestine. Today, there are over 20,000 Mashhadi Jews around the globe but as far as is known, none remain in Iran.



Jews have lived in what is now Uzbekistan since 539 BCE, when they were permitted to leave Babylon, though there is evidence alluding to the fact that Jews were in Uzbekistan as early as the 10th century BCE.

In the 18th century, many Bukharian Jews were forcibly converted to Islam. While they professed adherence to Islam in public, they continued practicing Judaism in secret, as leaving Islam was punishable by death. These Jews were known as “Chala,” meaning “neither this nor that” in Uzbek.

Chala Jews intermarried among themselves for up to three generations, thus continuing to secretly practice Judaism as a community. However, after three generations, some began marrying outside the community and left their Judaism behind.

When Russia conquered Central Asia in 1867, some Chala Jews were finally able to practice Judaism openly, as they no longer had to fear death for leaving Islam. However, the Bukhara Khanate remained an autonomous region until 1920, meaning that until then, Chala Jews still had to practice secretly. Many crossed over into Russian territory; however, the official policy was to deport them back. Nevertheless, others were able to stay in Russia.



In the seventh century, Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan ibn al-Hakam ascended to the Umayyad throne and conquered North Africa as far as Morocco. He forcibly imposed Islam on the people of south-central Algeria. Because the Jews resisted, he banished them to the Algerian Sahara. These Jews are known as the Daggatun. The caliph also banished an Indigenous Amazigh tribe known as the Tuaregs, as they also resisted forced conversion to Islam.

The Daggatun lived a nomadic lifestyle in the Sahara, ruled by the Tuaregs. Over time the Daggatun Jews outwardly accepted Islam, but as of the late 1800s, they still remained conscious of their origins and heritage. Over time, the Daggatun Jews assimilated into Islamic society.



In the 17th century, the Ottoman sultan Mehmed IV forced Sabbatai Zevi, a Sephardic rabbi who claimed to be the Jewish Messiah, to convert to Islam upon threat of death. In response, Zevi’s followers also pretended to convert to Islam while continuing to practice Judaism in secret. These Jews became known as Dönmeh Jews.

“Dönmeh” was a derogatory term, meaning “untrustworthy converts” or someone who pretends to be somebody they are not; it is also used as an insult to trans folks.

The Dönmeh Jews were targeted with a multitude of antisemitic conspiracies about supposed Crypto-Jewish political control and social influence. As such, the term “secret Jews” gained a double meaning: (1) Muslims who were secretly Jewish, and (2) Jews who secretly control world governments, etc.

In 1924, a man claiming to belong to the Dönmeh accused the Dönmeh of lacking patriotism and petitioned the Grand National Assembly of Turkey to force them to submit to turkification and to intermarry with other Turks.

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