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Morocco and Gibraltar: Keys To Understanding Cape Verde’s Jewish Heritage

World Monuments Fund is supporting the documentation of the history of Sephardic families and their descendants in Cape Verde, through support from the David Berg Foundation, and in partnership with the Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project. This is the first of two blog posts about the research being conducted by project historian Angela Sofia Benoliel Coutinho, herself a Cape Verdean Jewish descendant, in the UK, Gilbraltar, and Cape Verde, where she is reviewing archival collections and interviewing descendants and other knowledgeable people about the Jews of Cape Verde.

During my research trip to Gibraltar in June 2015, I was warmly received by the Jewish community. I gleaned considerable information about the Jews who departed Gibraltar for Cape Verde in the nineteenth century from both the National Archives and the archives of the Jewish community, which are meticulously maintained by Mr. Mesod Belilo. (By the summer of 2016, the Gibraltar National Archives, which currently are undergoing further classification, should have more documentation available for consultation.) While in Gibraltar, I obtained a unique bibliography on the history of the Jewish Community of Gibraltar, which has contributed to our overall understanding of the Jews of Cape Verde. Data from these sources reveal a strong relationship spanning about three centuries between Gibraltar and southern Portugal, especially in Lisbon and the Algarve region. It appears that many of the Jewish families we are studying, who are linked to Gibraltar, first lived in Lisbon and only afterwards traveled to Cape Verde. We also discovered strong commercial ties in the nineteenth century between Gibraltar and Tétouan in northern Morocco and between Gibraltar and Algiers and Oran, Algeria. This helps explain the presence of Jewish merchants in Cape Verde from both Morocco and the Algerian cities of Algiers and Oran.                  

In Morocco, both in Rabat and Casablanca, I was delighted by the interest shown by historians, professors, artists, journalists, and leaders of the Jewish Community, in our research on the Moroccan origins of the Jews of Cape Verde. Their curiosity was both surprising and deeply gratifying as was the hearty welcome by the Minister of Moroccans Abroad and Migration, H.E. Anis Birrou, who graciously received Carol Castiel, president of the Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project, and me in his office. I was especially moved by our meeting with H.E. André Azoulay, Counselor to his Majesty King Mohammed VI and honorary board member of the Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project. He spent valuable time with us and promised continued support for our efforts to honor the memory of the Jews of Cape Verde who are inextricably linked to Morocco.  I also acquired an extensive bibliography on the rich and diverse history and culture of Moroccan Jews, which will contribute significantly to our study of the Jews of Cape Verde. Accordingly, after a visit to the Museum of Moroccan Judaism in Casablanca, the Director, Zhor Rehihil, told me that the Moroccan Jews who settled in Cape Verde during the nineteenth century probably have diverse origins. She said some are Sephardim, those who fled the Iberian Peninsula during the time of the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 and found safe haven in Muslim Morocco, while others are likely of Berber origin (indigenous tribes with roots in North Africa dating back 2,000 years). Others yet may hail from the Middle East, having settled in Morocco many centuries ago. Heretofore, we thought most were of Sephardic origin but it turns out that many have Berber roots such as the families Wahnon and Brigham (Ohayon).      

On a deeply personal note, as a descendant of the Benoliel family, I was profoundly moved to set foot in Rabat for the first time, the place where my ancestors were born. 

 

Also by this author: Santo Antao and Boa Vista Yield Promising Data on Cape Verde Jews

Image top: Mesod Belilo, archivist of the Jewish Community of Gibraltar, sharing a book of historical records with Angela Sofia Benoliel Countinho, historian for Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project Inc., 2015