In a recent article to these pages, I touched on a popular myth: that Ashkenazi Jews are descended from pagan Khazars who converted to Judaism. While this idea is getting a lot of attention, it’s based entirely on layered science. Genetics, linguistics, and onomastics – the study of names – all refute the Khazarian hypothesis.
But the Khazarian hypothesis is not the only Jewish origin story of undesirable science. A similar myth was propagated for a long time about the Jews who lived in the Maghreb – the territory of North Africa that covers countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya – until the middle of the 20th century. This myth is as unfounded as the Khazar theory, though its story is just as baffling.
During the 20th century, a theory began to gain popularity. According to this theory, a large part of the ancestors of the Jews of the Maghreb were pagans who converted to Judaism. These converts would be the Berbers, an indigenous population of North Africa who preceded the Arab conquest of these territories in the 7th century.
But although the myth of Berber ancestry mimics the Khazarian hypothesis in its reliance on conversation and lack of scientific data, the similarities end there.
While the Khazars disappeared as a separate people around 1,000 years ago, millions of Berbers still live in North Africa. As local Arabs, they are Muslims, but they often speak Berber languages âârather than Arabic and practice indigenous customs.
The two theories also differ in their supporters. Although proponents of the Khazar myth are marginal among Ashkenazi Jews – both learned and lay – the Judeo-Berber theory is quite popular in literature dealing with the history of the Jews of the Maghreb. Authors without any particular ideological or political bias speak of them as if they were facts. Many lay Jews with roots in North Africa also adhere to this theory.
But the theory is as baseless as the Khazarian theory. As with the Khazars, if the Berbers were indeed the ancestors of the Jews of the Maghreb, we would find traces of them in historical documents, language, names and / or genetic data.
And the point is, we don’t.
The Judeo-Berber theory first appeared at the beginning of the 20th century. It was promulgated by Nahum Slouschz, orientalist of the Sorbonne. Slouschz led several ethnographic expeditions to North Africa from 1906 to 1912 focused on the study of local Jews.
In his books, Slouschz has advanced two sets of arguments – historical and onomastic (related to names) – and they are equally unconvincing. The historical part of his argument was based exclusively on a single sentence from the multi-volume history of the Berbers written in the 14th century by the Arab historian Ibn KhaldÃ»n, which indicates that in the past, part of the Berbers professed Judaism.
But a close reading of Ibn KhaldÃ»n reveals that he is not describing the period immediately preceding the Arab invasion of the Maghreb (as Slouschz and his followers believe), but rather a period occurring several centuries before these events. Ibn KhaldÃ»n writes that at the time of the Arab invasion, the Berbers were Christians. And if he describes a possible conversion to Judaism of certain Berbers, he links this story to a mythical past during which these peoples lived not in North Africa but in Syria, when David was the king of Judea, that is to say 2,500 years before. . Ibn Khaldoun. This medieval author links the entire genealogy of the Berber tribes to the biblical text.
This is unconvincing historical material.
There are two other references to Jewish tribes in the relevant Arabic writings, discovered by Haim Zeev Hirschberg, who wrote the most scholarly book on the history of the Jews of North Africa. In the 12th century, a writer named Al-IdrÃ®sÃ® mentions the existence in Antiquity of (partially) Jewish tribes in North Africa without offering anything specific. And in the first quarter of the 14th century, a writer named Ibn AbÃ® Zar ‘mentions that when the city of Fez was founded at the end of the 8th century, two Berber tribes lived in the region of Fez; one was made up of Muslims and the other of Christians, Jews and pagans, writes Ibn AbÃ® Zar ‘.
Note that neither of these two authors speaks of proselytes. And no reference to any conversion to Judaism in the Maghreb is mentioned in Jewish sources.
Slouschz’s onomastic argument is just as weak. It evokes the legendary woman leader of the Berber struggle against the Arabs, Al-KÃ¢hina. Slouschz maintains that her name means “daughter of a Jewish priest” in Hebrew – derived from Hebrew “Cohen”. He also takes Al-KÃ¢hina’s Jewishness for granted, for she was the leader of one of the seven tribes that Ibn KhaldÃ»n believed to be Jewish. However, Ibn KhaldÃ»n does not explicitly say that this woman was herself Jewish or even that her tribe was still Jewish at the time in question. The link between the name Al-KÃ¢hina and Cohanim postulated by Slouschz has no basis.
Even his name is not of Hebrew origin; kÃ¢hina means “woman diviner” in Arabic, which corresponds perfectly to another fact provided by Ibn KhaldÃ»n: the real first name of this woman was Dihya, while Al-KÃ¢hina was her nickname. It also precedes the word kÃ¢hina of the Arabic definite article al-. In other words, he describes the story of Dihya “the diviner” and certainly not that of Dihya “the daughter of the Jewish priest”.
Slouschz also claims that the majority of the surnames of Jews in Libya and Tunisia are of Berber origin. He provides a list of 74 surnames and claims that around 20 of them are from place names in the Nafusa Mountains, Libya.
Slouschz doesn’t reveal the source of this information, but when I checked most of the region’s detailed geographic indexes, I found something surprising: the places in question don’t seem to actually exist.
The mystery was compounded by another. When I work on my dictionary of the Jewish surnames of the Maghreb, I studied the history of Tunisian Jews by David CazÃ¨s (1888). CazÃ¨s discusses the surnames of Tunisian Jews, and he includes a list of those whose etymology is unclear. To my surprise, CazÃ¨s’ list was almost identical to that of the âBerberâ names suggested by Slouschz!
Apparently, Slouschz simply concluded that the obscure names must be of local Berber origin, and this “corroborated” his theory of conversion. For this reason, he did not hesitate to invent fictitious place names.
Indeed, a large majority of these surnames derive from Arabic words which appear in the dictionaries of the Arabic dialects of the Maghreb, sometimes in a distorted form.
Despite the weakness of his evidence, Slouschz strongly influenced other authors who wrote on North African Jewish surnames, notably Maurice Eisenbeth (1936), Abraham Laredo (1978), Joseph TolÃ©dano (1998) and Jacques. TaÃ¯eb (2004). In these studies, hundreds of surnames are believed to be derived from Berber tribal names, places, words, and first names.
In my own book, I have checked all these etymologies in various Berber dictionaries, and it appears that many of these ideas have no basis. Overall, no Jewish last name in Libya and Tunisia is based on Berber words. In Algeria, only a few surnames have Berber source words (Amray, Atlan, Zemmour). In Morocco, there are a few dozen surnames with Berber roots (Abettan, Aferiat, Amgar, Amlal, Aoudai, Assouline, Azencot, Azoulay, Ifergan, Siksou, Tamsout, Timsit) or having the Berber prefix O / Or ‘son of’ ( Ouanounou, Ohamou, Ohayon, Oussadon, Ouyoussef, Ouhnouna, Ohana, Ouakrich, Ouaknine / Waknin, Ouizgane, Wizman).
However, in no case do these surnames corroborate the Judeo-Berber theory. Indeed, in several regions of Algeria today, Berber idioms are used in the daily discourse of the local Muslim majority (around 10 million speakers), while in Morocco, around half of the population (around 20 million people) have one of the Berber languages ââas their mother tongue.
In fact, the source language of a Jewish surname is never an indication of the “ethnic” origin of its carriers. No one believes that the ancestors of Mark Zuckerberg or Barbra Streisand were Christians or German pagans, nor do we wonder if Simon Dubnov and Haim Nachman Bialik were Eastern European Slavs, or if Moses Montefiore or Amedeo Modigliani were Italians.
For various traditional ethnocultural groups, their first names are generally older than last names, and their analysis often provides much more clue to the past. For example, it is partly thanks to the analysis of the history of traditional Yiddish first names that we can affirm that certain ancestors of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe lived in the Middle Ages in territories where so much majority of gentiles as well as local Jews were German, Speakers of Old French or Old Czech.
Likewise, the body of traditional first names of the Jews of the Maghreb consists of many Hebrew and Arabic names and a small number of Romanesque names. A single name, YeddÃ®r (also pronounced IddÃ®r), whose root means “to live”, is of Berber origin, and it was only used in Morocco. Perhaps the Jews borrowed it from their Muslim neighbors because of its semantic similarity to the Hebrew name “Hayyim”.
Many authors also suggest the Berber origin of many diminutive forms of Jewish first names in the Maghreb, such as á¸¤aqu, á¸¤aqi and Iá¹£u (Isaac), ‘Aqqu and QÃ®qi (Jacob), MÃ»mu (Moses), DÃ»du and DÃ¢di (David), á¸¤ammu (á¸¤ayyim), IÅ¡u (Yehoshua), BÃ®hi and BÃ¢ha (Abraham), LÃ»lu (Elie), NÃ»nu (Aron), SÃ®su and ZÃ»zu (Joseph) and YÃ»yu (Jonah). In the end, such models seem very Berber. Yet in countries with large Berber populations – i.e. Morocco and Algeria – such patterns are also commonly found in the colloquial forms of first names used by local Arabs who most likely borrowed them. to the Berbers.
The Jews may have borrowed these models from the Arabs rather than directly from the Berbers. But if there is a direct Berber origin, there is nothing to suggest that they were inherited – rather than borrowed – from the Berbers.
Whatever the reason that made these Berber names common among Jews, we can be sure that they do not indicate any form of genetic identity.
Finally, if the Jewish communities of the Maghreb were the fruit of a massive conversion of the Berbers, the vernacular language of these Jews would reveal some traces of this past. However, no such trace is found in the most detailed linguistic studies of the Judeo-Arabic dialects spoken in various countries of North Africa. Their grammar is purely Arabic. Their lexicon is also predominantly Arabic. It encompasses several dozen words of Hebrew or Roman origin, but not a single Berber word. No genetic study has ever suggested a proximity between the Berbers and the Jews of North Africa.
The theory according to which a large part of the Jews of the Maghreb descendants of Berbers converted to Judaism is therefore purely speculative. This is just a myth which, for psychological and ideological reasons, is accepted by a number of people, both Jewish and non-Jewish.
Alexander Beider is a linguist and author of reference books on Jewish names and the history of Yiddish. He lives in Paris.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Forward.