Last week, I was honoured to attend a preview of the Morocco exhibition at the Jewish Museum in London. In addition to leading lights of the Jewish community, Moroccan Jews living in London, and the British-Moroccan Association, it seemed like the entire staff of the Moroccan embassy had turned up, swarming around Her Excellency the genteel Princess Lalla in her Chanel suit, grand-daughter of the wartime king, Mohammed V.
Several dignitaries had flown in specially from Morocco for the occasion, including Andre Azoulay, Jewish royal adviser, who read a message from King Mohammed Vl. The message was about Morocco’s Jewish roots, Muslim-Jewish coexistence, Morocco as a beacon of ‘democracy, justice and human rights’.
Jews living in the High Atlas mountains in a photo by Elias Harrus, taken in the 1950s
One spokesman from the Association of Jews from Morocco said that 800,000 Moroccan Jews in exile still considered themselves loyal subjects of King Mohammed Vl.
Moroccan money had gone towards financing the Jewish Museum’s exhibition, a collection of photographs taken of Jews living in the High Atlas mountains by Elias Harrus, a senior official at theAlliance Israelite Universellein the 1950s.
The exhibition had come from the Jewish museum in Amsterdam, and other Moroccan events would be held in Paris and New York in the months to come.
The Jews in the photographs were dirt-poor, primitive folk who eked out a meagre existence, travelled around by donkey, inhabited hovels and married off their daughters aged 12. The Alliance had done its best to introduce education to their children. These had to be taught how to sit on a chair, so used were they to sitting on the floor. Harrus witnessed the mass emigration of these Jews to Israel.
Vintage film showed a procession of people leaving their villages under the watchful gaze of the men from the Jewish Agency, donkeys carrying their meagre possessions, the old men clutching precious Sifrei Torah.
A recent set of pictures by the Dutch photographer Pauline Prior brought the story up-to-date – ruined homes, crumbling synagogues, decrepit cemeteries. No Jews to be seen (except tourists visiting the shrines of holy men).
In fact there is one Jew left in the High Atlas mountains. He tends to graves and any synagogues that are still standing.
The captions alongside the pictures did say that these Jews were dhimmis, inferior to Muslims, but the dominating impression was that the Jews and Berbers of this region lived together in harmony – all the more so since the various Berber tribes were busy fighting each other, and looked to the Jews as ‘honest brokers’. Berber women wore jewellery made by local Jews.
The exhibition seemed to suggest that Muslims were banned from practising Jewish crafts. In reality, it was the Jews who were restricted to certain trades.
The exhibition also seemed to give the impression that the Jewish Agency came to wrench the Jews from their romantic interfaith idyll in order for them to face discrimination in Israel.
One panel carried a quotation from a letter which a rabbi who had left for Israel had written to a Muslim friend in his village. He was homesick; life was nowhere as restful as in Morocco, he wrote.
I spotted one of the guests at the preview studying that quotation intently. On closer inspection, it turned out to be the controversial historian Avi Shlaim.
Among the champagne and canapes we seemed to be in a parallel universe. We were extolling Morocco for its tolerance and democracy when newspapers were being shut down and dissidents jailed. We were talking about happy Berbers in the Atlas mountains when they were complaining of oppression by the dominant Arab-Muslim culture and banned from speaking their language.
We were celebrating the rich diversity of life in southern Morocco when all but one Jew had left. We were rejoicing at a distant memory of Jewish-Muslim coexistence instead of commiserating with its demise.
A truly Orwellian experience.