Morocco rediscovers its Jewish identity

Lately Morocco seems to have rediscovered its Jewish heritage. Why? Because, according to Le Journal Hebdomadaire,” by looking at our Jewish heritage, we find out who we are.”

In this quest for identity, Moroccan Jews have become a bridge. In May, Paul Dahan put on an exhibition in Brussels of Moroccan Jewish objects – jewellery, costumes and over 6,000 manuscripts. The exhibition went down surprisingly well with the children of North African immigrants.

Surprising – sociologist Hind Taarji explains – ” because the Jewish aspect of recent Moroccan history has been hidden away. It is surprising that it is Jews who are promoting Moroccan culture. Today it is hard to conceive that one can be both Jewish and Moroccan. For young Muslim Moroccans today, the Jew is an Israeli. The fact he belongs and is attached to Morocco comes back at them with a boomerang effect.”

An old man she interviewed in the old medina of Casablanca was reminiscing about the close relationship he had with his Jewish neighbour. The ‘other’, in a sense, was a part of himself. But for the new generation, the ‘other’ is the Israeli you see on TV.

The Jews were once 3 percent of the population in the 1950s. All but 3,000 have left for the US, Canada, France and Israel. According to Joseph Chetrit, a specialist in Moroccan Jewish culture, the issue of the Jews became a taboo: their departure was seen as a kind of betrayal. Another factor was than those who were historically inferior are now a thorn in the side of the Arab world.

“As long as the complex reasons which pushed a community which were settled in Morocco for more than 2,000 years into exile have not been clearly taught in the history books, future generations will never be able to conceive that one can be both Jewish and Moroccan.

“Moroccan Jewish history is not rosy as the official version dictates, nor is it entirely black. The Jewish communities, like Morocco itself, have always been pluralistic, shaped by region, tribe and the shared environment.”

Joseph Chetrit, a professor at Haifa University, views Arab-Jewish relations over 13 centuries as ‘ambivalent’. The Jews were dhimmis – protected but disliked. But the communities were economically interdependent.

In the towns, the Jews were jewellers and silversmiths, a trade forbidden to Muslims because it was associated with usury. In the country the Jews were not landowners but played an important role by financing crop-seeding and harvesting. Relations were based on trust.

Popular culture among Jews and Muslims was almost identical. The Mimouna celebration at the end of the Passover week represents a true symbiosis: The Jews went to their Muslim neighbours for their first cup of sweet tea after the holiday, while Muslim families offered them milk, flour and honey.

From the 9th century onwards, Jewish and Muslim musicians worked together in Andalusia and in Cordoba. The Jewish musician Mansour accompanied the master musician Ziryab on his flight from Baghdad. At the court of Abdurrahman II he created a vast corpus of music, known as Andalusian music, which has been played at weddings and family celebrations through the ages.

Several contemporary Moroccan hits were actually composed in Israel by Jewish musicians such as Botbol, Bensoussan and Karoutchi. They were popularised by Jewish bands who went back and forth between Israel and Morocco. Famous singers included Nissim Anneqab and Zohra El Fassia, but the king of them all was Sami El Maghrebi.

According to the book Deux mille ans de vie juive by Haim Zafrani, the Jews founded ‘Moroccan capitalism’: they did jobs that were banned or despised by Muslims. They were metalworkers, shoemakers and worked with Christians under the direction of a Muslim to mint coins for the Sultan in Fez. They were part of an international network trading with Jews in Hamburg and Manchester. They exported cereal, skins and leather and imported a variety of goods, notably textiles. From the 19th century the Nahon, Pariente and Benchimol families set up the first Moroccan banks with branches in Tangier.

Jews also worked as builders, grain merchants and financiers, producers of salted and dried leathergoods (maroquinerie) and beeswax.

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