The Divergence of Judaism and Islam. Interdependence, Modernity, and Political Turmoil

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In Search of Jewish Farmers

Jews, Agriculture, and the Land in Rural Morocco

Daniel J. Schroeter

It is commonly assumed that once exiled from the ancient land of Israel,
Jews were transformed from being a society of primarily rural farmers to
urban dwellers engaged in other occupations: commerce, peddling, and
well-defined crafts. Farming pursuits by Jews were mainly confined to
urban and suburban cultivation of vineyards, orchards, and other forms
of intensive agricultural production. Apart from these limited domains,
both in the Christian and Islamic worlds, Jews had abandoned the land
and agriculture.
Historians have offered a number of explanations for this fundamental
transformation. The abandonment of agriculture and the alienation of
Jews from the land have been explained in part by heavy taxation, expro-
priation of Jewish landholdings, and general restrictions on Jewish land
tenure, although there is little evidence that there were any important
legal restrictions on Jewish economic activities in the period of Muslim
expansion.^1 A somewhat different explanation offered is that in contrast
to non-Jews, a significant number of Jewish farmers were literate, giv-
ing them advantages in skilled professions needed in the new cities that
developed with expanding urban settlements in the Abbasid period and
later with the development of urban life in Western Europe.^2 Even if Jews
may have voluntarily moved away from agricultural pursuits for other,
more lucrative occupations, it could also be argued that social structure
inhibited Jewish landownership and farming. In Europe, Jews were out-
side the feudal system of land tenure, while in the Middle East and North

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