Arab-Jewish events can’t mask bleak Jewish future

Cantor Haïm Louk and the Hadj Abdelkrim Raiss Orchestra performed on 28 October on the Essaouira stage (Photo: Al-Magharebia)

An Arab-Jewish music festival music held in Essaouira last week was an occasion for nostalgia, but also for some surprising plain-speaking about antisemitism in Morocco. One Jew was so bold as to tell the Moroccan medium Al-Magharebia that such festivals look to a glorious past without focusing on the much bleaker future.

“It’s very rare to have a festival like this, that rediscovers things that were covered in a pot,” said Hannah Hainounou, a Jewish attendee from Fez. She said that her community has dwindled and become increasingly isolated, as many of her Jewish compatriots have left the country. She said she only recently started learning Hebrew, and events like these allow her to rediscover a heritage she hadn’t known. “Before, only intellectuals knew of this history, but here it’s open to everyone,” she said.

“These exercises that reunite us help us to understand, to continue to look for what we don’t want to be taken from us, whatever it may be from our memories: the happy, the sad, the complex,” said Azoulay.

The king’s advisor presided over discussion forums that allowed people a space to talk about their experiences. Many participants were joyous, talking about Jewish-Muslim co-existence and exalting Morocco for being the only country in North Africa where they felt they could have such a festival.

But juxtaposed with the elation was an awareness that everything was not as peaceful as it could be. As singers intertwined Muslim and Jewish melodies in large tent in the old medina, the grandiose gates were manned by a plethora of police and security guards behind barricades, as though to prevent an attack similar to the bombings of Jewish targets in Casablanca in 2003.

At the forums, Rachid Benmokhtar Benabdellah, President of the National Observatory for Human Development, said that much of the reason some Moroccans speak badly about Jews is that they don’t know the history of Jews in Morocco, who had been in the region for thousands of years before Muslims came.

“There’s an orchestrated ignorance in education,” Benabdellah said, adding that Jews are purposefully not included in textbooks. “There are people who think that Jews came in the luggage of the French.”

Part of the misinformation about Jews in Morocco is because there are so few remaining in the country – about 250,000 Jews left after the founding of Israel and only about 4,000 remain. This fact isn’t lost on the city of Essaouira, where Jews once comprised about half of the population.

Now, only two Moroccan Jews are left, and the mellah, or Jewish quarter, lies in ruins.

Only two Moroccan Jews remain in Mellah, the ruined Jewish quarter of Essaouira.

Joseph Sebag, one of the two, tends to a small bookstore right off the main square of the city. While he said he is not observant, he does try to keep kosher and pray, and goes to Casablanca for the high Jewish holidays. Sebag said he didn’t attend much of the festival – he said it focused too much on the glorious past, and ignored a future that was much bleaker.

“Judaism is alive and well in Morocco, but there is much anti-Semitism,” he said, adding that current developments with Israel were making things harder, as many Moroccans don’t distinguish between Israelis and Jews. For example, this year, after the Gaza flotilla raid in May, many Essaouirans protested outside a Jewish-owned hotel in the Essaouira medina.

Even at the festival, discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict repeatedly arose, although Azoulay said that the event was not the place to open such a debate.

Sebag said that while he does not feel in danger, he would prefer to be somewhere else, and is here due to circumstances, not nostalgia.

“Even when I’m here, I’m not here,” he said. “Too many Jews here live in the past, looking at what was.”

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