Forced Conversion of Aden Jews

1815 (pub. 1847)

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This document tells of collection of the Jizya tax levied on Dhimmi (Jews and Christians) in Muslim countries. Muslim law decrees that Jews and Christians are exempt from the Muslim charity taxes, but must pay the Jizya. While this seems to be a reasonable enactment, the manner of collection of this tax, described below, is anything but reasonable. The Jews were locked in their quarter until they paid and those who still could not pay were thrown in a dungeon until they converted to Islam - and they still had to pay the tax arrears! 

We have no way of knowing if this was the customary method of collection, since there had been a change in government. The local governor Mohamed ben Absedik had been overthrown and had been replaced by a new and less congenial one. It is therefore impossible to know how many Jews were "persuaded" of the truth of Islam in this way.   Nor do we know either whether the same severity was exercised toward Christians. 

The events, which occurred in 1815 or the beginning of 1816, were related by Captain James Riley, an American sailor whose brig had been wrecked on the coast of Africa and who had been taken prisoner and enslaved. He was ransomed by the British consul William Willshire (mentioned in the account) and the two formed a life long friendship. Riley later founded a town in Ohio and named it after Willshire.

By the 19th century, conditions had improved for Jews in Europe, but in Muslim countries they had deteriorated. Some of the changes later in the 19th century were due to penetration of Western Christian anti-Semitism. In Morocco of 1815, there was no such influence. The Ottoman empire was disintegrating into more or less lawless principalities, and the Jews suffered in the ensuing chaos. The Jews still lived in ghettos, and as we shall see, the ghetto or "mellah" could be closed and used as an instrument of coercion. It was not simply a quaint custom of the romantic east. It was an ugly institution of repression.

It is probably inevitable that any group living as a subject minority and not in control of its own destiny would be exposed to these persecutions and to the vicissitudes of common prejudice. The "Dhimmi laws" that supposedly guaranteed fair treatment of non-Muslims, actually guaranteed that they would always be singled out in society as second class citizens, and were an invitation to persecution by unscrupulous rulers.

Ami Isseroff

January 9, 2010

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Collection of the Jizya

The Jews, that were overjoyed at the recent change, soon turned their joy mto mourning, when they received, a day or two after, an order to pay their Gazier or yearly tribute to the Sultan : the order was for about three thousand five hundred dollars, including expenses, (for the Moor who brought the order must be paid,) in a gross sum to be
raised directly : the gates of the Jews' town, or Millah, were immediately closed upon them, nor were any suffered to go out until the money was forthcoming.

The whole number of Jews here does not probably exceed six thousand souls, and they are very poor : the priests andrabbies soon convened them in their synagogues, and apportioned the tax according to their law; they were classed thus : the four Jew merchants, Ben Guidailas, Macnio, Abilbol (Abitbo), and Zagury, formed the first class, and I was told their share was two thousand dollars or more ; the few petty traders the second, the mechanics tlie third, and the lowest order of miserable labourers the fourth class : the priests and rabbies (who are a great proportion of their number) were of course exempted, as the other classes support them at all times : not a Jew, either man, woman, or child, was allowed to go out of their town for three days, except they were wanted by the Moors or Christians to work, and not then without an order from the alcayd.

During this period I visited the Jews' town several times, but never without seeing more or less of these miserable wretches knocked down like bullocks by the gate-keepers, with their large canes, as they attempted to rush past them, when the gates were opened, to procure a little water or food for their hungry and thirsty families. On the fourth day, when the arrangements had been made by the priests and elders, they sent word to the governor, and the three first classes were ordered before him to pay their, apportionment. I knew of it, because I was informed by Mr. Willshire's interpreter and broker, who was a Jew of considerable understanding, named Ben Nahory — he was on of the committee of arrangement to wait on the governor. I wished to see the. operation, and went near the house of the alcayd for that purpose. The Jews soon appeared by classes; as they approached, they put off their slippers, took their money in both their hands, and holding them alongside each other, as high as the breast, came slowly forward to the talb [talib, a scholar] or Mohammedan scrivener, appointed to receive it; he took it from them, hitting each one a smart bow with his fist on his bare forehead, by way of a receipt for his money, at which the Jews said, Nahma Sidi, (thank you, my lord,) and retired to give place to his companion.

Thus they proceeded through the three first classes without much difficulty, when the fourth class was forced up with big sticks: this class was very numerous, as well as miserable: they approached very unwillingly, and were asked, one by one, if they were ready to pay their gazier : when one said, yes, ne approached as the others had dune, paid his money, took a smiilar receipt, and then went about his business ; he that said, no, he could not, or was not ready, was seized instantly by the Moors, who throwing him flat on his face to the ground, gave him about fifty blows with a thick stick upon his back and posteriors, and conducted him away, I was told, into a dungeon, under a bomb proof battery , next the western city wall, facing the ocean : there were many served in this way— the Jews' town was all this time strongly guarded and strictly watched. At the end of three days more, I was informed that those who were confined is the dungeon were brought forth, but I did not see them: the friends of some of these poor creatures had made up the money, and they were dismissed; whilst the others, after receiving more stripes, were remanded and put in irons. Before the next three days had expired, many of them changed their religion, were received by the Moors as brothers, and were taken to the mosque, and highly feasted, but were held responsible for the last tax notwithstanding.

Riley, James, An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce, Wrecked on the Western Coast of Africa, in the Month of August, 1815 (Hartford, 1847) pp 198-200.

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