Musings of an alienated Moroccan-Jewish poet

Mois BenArroch is a Moroccan-born poet now living in Israel. In this interview on the Reading Morocco blog his view of Israel is somewhat jaundiced, possibly because the Yom Kippur claimed the life of his younger brother only 18 months after the family arrived in the country. His alienation from Israel chimes with the views of some (far-left) intellectuals. They are music to the ears of many Moroccan non-Jews because they confirm the Arab view that Moroccan Jews were happier in Morocco than they are in Israel. Sadly, BenArroch is not asked this basic question. (With thanks: Sylvia)

Moving from Morocco to Israel at the age of 13 was like moving from one planet to another. Israel was not only a different country, it was a different culture and these were completely different Jews and it was a completely different Judaism. It was September 1972 and within a year and a half of my arrival there was a war, the Yom Kippur war, and my little brother died; all this happened before the end of 1973. These traumas are the source of my writing, and perhaps the reason I started to write. I missed out completely on adolescence and was also very isolated from the Israeli community.

Can you tell me about your childhood in Morocco, your parents, your education?

We went to a Jewish school, called El Ittihad Maroc. That was the official name of the school but everybody called it La Alianza, in Spanish; it was the first school opened by the Alliance Israelite Universelle in 1862 and became the first of an international Jewish network of schools called the Alliance Française (Alliance Israelite Universelle – ed) that spread all through the Muslim world and beyond. The level of education was very high and we were prepared for the French baccalauréat. We were also taught many languages and had classes in English, Hebrew and Arabic. Curiously, we were not taught Spanish, although this was the mother tongue of all the pupils and most teachers. So, when the bell rang everybody switched to Spanish. I find this miraculous. Back in class it was forbidden to say a word in Spanish.

My childhood was very Jewish and I still lived in a city that respected the fact that Jews did not work on the Sabbath [Saturday]; business was built around it since many Jews had businesses in my home town Tetouan. The school, as I said, was also a Jewish school. Although there were also some Christians and Muslims, the immediate surroundings were also very Jewish.

We were a family of four children; I was the second, after my sister. I remember very well that we were always on the point of emigrating. The feeling was that we were not staying in Morocco. There was talk of emigrating to Spain, to Venezuela, to Canada. And of course, Israel where we finally settled in 1972, when I was 13.

Have your views about Israel changed in the time you have been living there?

My views about Israel have changed a lot. Despite so many years here I think I see Israel from the outside, I live on the outside. Of course I didn’t have a complete concept or point of view when I was 13. I thought I was coming to a spiritual and religious country where Jews loved each other. This was the naive point of view of a Jewish boy.(…)

How do you reflect on your linguistic identity and how do you perceive your cultural identity?

I see myself as some kind of disappearing species. I see myself as a Karaite in the 18th or 19th century, like a member of a sect; the Karaites were the mainstream of Judaism in the 12th century and now there are may be 1000 of them left. Since the 16th century Ashkenazíc Judaism has dominated the Jewish world. Israel was an anomaly during the 1980s when there was a majority of Sephardic Jews, but now they are maybe 40% (since the big Russian emigration) and most are trying to be like the image of the new Jew that was imposed on them by Zionism. I think that the Sephardic Jew is disappearing from the world. Ruth Knafo-Setton sent a few stories to a Jewish magazine in the US and they told her that her stories were nice but that she should write about “real Jews”. Moroccan Jews are not “real” Jews; they are some kind of folklore. Since most of my novels are about Moroccan Jews, I guess they are not “real” Israeli or Jewish novels. The Moroccan Jew has become fiction in the Jewish consciousness.

How do you envisage the future of your children in terms of culture? Do you feel they fit into society in Israel?

I don’t really know. Israel is a country in a state of change. It’s very dynamic and it is hard to say where it will be in a year. I have tried to pass on part of my history and heritage to my children, although this is not very simple, since school texts contradict all that I say to them. I am only one against a big system, and it’s a battle I cannot win. Maybe I can lose it with some dignity and save something from my past that will go on in future generations. As it is, my descendants will probably think that I came to Israel from a cave in Africa. That’s more or less the concept of the Sephardic Jew.

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