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The first Jew elected to the United States Senate was of Moroccan descent

David Levy Yulee is known in the United States as the first Jew to serve as senator. But in Morocco, he is the descendent of a renowned Jewish family that gained respect within the Moroccan Jewish community and served the royal court during the 18th century.

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David Levy Yulee, the first Jew elected to the United States Senate. / DR

David Levy Yulee was the first American senator of Jewish descent. Born in the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean, the story of this American politician has exciting details to it that cross the Atlantic Ocean all the way to Morocco.

David Levy Yulee is the descendent of the Ibn Yulis, a Sephardi family that had a prosperous life in Morocco, serving the royal palace during the 18th century. While he was known in the United States and in Florida in particular as a congressman and attorney, David Levy Yulee’s career is just another chapter of his family’s history.

Indeed, the Yulee’s history stretches back to the 15th century, when Jewish families expelled by Spain during the Reconquista were forced to head south, finding refuge in Morocco. And just like other Jews, David Levy Yulee’s ancestors left the peninsula in 1492 to settle down in the North African Kingdom.

A renowned Jewish Moroccan family

Joining the Jewish community in Morocco, the Yulees succeeded in «moving up the socioeconomic ladder, eventually serving the sultanate as emissaries and merchants to foreign lands», wrote American writer Kurt F. Stone in his book «The Jews of Capitol Hill: A Compendium of Jewish Congressional Members» (Scarecrow Press, Dec 29, 2010).

Indeed, Stone recalls that David Levy Yulee’s great-grandfather, Judah, was an «upwardly mobile Jew». The man was a successful international merchant and a «financial consultant of the sultan» of Morocco.

Furthermore, Judah’s brother, Rabbi Samuel Ha-Levy ibn Yuli was also close to the palace. According to the same book, the rabbi served «as both counselor to Sultan Moulay Abdallah and political leader of the Moroccan Jewish community».

David Levy Yulee’s grandfather was also a respected man within the Moroccan Jewish community and the royal court in Salé. According to Stone, Eliahu Ha-Levy ibn Yuli «served as one of seven Jewish undersecretaries of the treasury to Sultan Sidi Mohammed ibn Abdallah», who ruled Morocco from 1757 to 1790.

David’s grandfather was one of the people who helped sign the United States’ first treaty with a foreign country, namely Morocco. Stone recalls that Eliahu «played a major role in the first Barbary treaty signed with the United States in 1786», referring to the Moroccan–American Treaty of Friendship.

A grandmother captured by Moroccan pirates

The heritage of David Levy Yulee’s Moroccan family has another interesting side story to it. According to a 1955 book by Allen Morris «The Florida Handbook», David Yulee’s paternal grandmother was a British woman who was captured by Moroccan pirates. «[She] was the beautiful daughter of a Jewish physician living in England (…) she was on an English ship bound for the West Indies when captured by Barbary pirates», Morris claimed.

The latter wrote in his book that as «a young virgin», David’s grandmother, Rachel, «was a prize for the slave market in Fez where she was bought for Jaboub ben Youli, grand vizier to the sultan of Morocco».

However, this account was too improbable to be true and was later debunked by Stone. The latter stated in his book that contrary to what was believed, the account of Rachel is «patently untrue».

He explained that «according to eighteenth century adventurer and poet Samuel Romanelli’s firsthand account, Rachel actually hailed from Tangier and spoke excellent Spanish».

Eliahu and Rachel gave birth to their son Moses in Essaouira, who grew up to become the father of the first Jewish American Senator. Moses was forced to flee Morocco as a child with his mother after Sultan Mohammed died suddenly in 1790.

«Moses grew up and took his mother and a younger sister to the Virgin Islands, where he married Hannah Abendanone and became a prosperous merchant», recalled Orlando Sentinel. «In 1811, Hannah gave birth to David and a second son, Elias, and two daughters», wrote the same platform, quoting Charlton W. Tebeau's A History of Florida.

In the United States, where his father bought 50,000 acres of land near Jacksonville, Florida, David served in the Florida legislature and as a delegate to the Florida constitutional convention of 1838.

In the 1840s, he became the first Jewish man elected to the United States Senate. But during the Civil War, he joined the Confederate Congress and supported slavery.

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