Restoring synagogues is no substitute for live Jews

Two years ago Joseph W spent a year in Melilla, a Spanish enclave adjoining Morocco. He took some magnificent pictures and learned about the Jews who used to live in the region. In this post for Harry’s Place he tries to tackle some of the issues raised by Rachel Shabi’s Comment is Free post (with thanks: Avril):

The city is brimming with the modernist architecture of Enrique Nieto, who famously designed key parts of Melilla’s main synagogue, mosque and cathedral. Melilla prides itself not only on its vibrant religious communities, but also on the quirky beauty of its religious architecture.

Here is Melilla’s Central Mosque that Nieto designed:

And here is the Or Zaruah synagogue, also designed by Nieto:

The curator told me that this was the most beautiful synagogue in all of Africa. It felt almost as if Nieto’s creativity was holding the city together. Throughout the past five centuries, Melilla has been a safe-haven for Jews escaping persecution in Iberia and Morocco.

However, over the past century, not all north-African Jews have enjoyed the relative peace and security that Melilla provides. Some, tragically, were the victims of pogroms.

A couple of years ago, I travelled from Melilla to nearby-Oujda, wandering around its majestic medina:

On 7-8 June 1948, a pogrom took place in Oujda, a Moroccan town close to Melilla in which four Jews were killed. Another pogrom took place in nearby mining town Jerada on the same day, where thirty-eight were killed, triggering a mass-exodus of Jews from Morocco, as 18,000 of the 265,000 Jews left for Israel soon after. This was a great shame as Morocco’s king had proved a great friend to the Jews by defying Hitler, and to this day Morocco encourages its citizens to understand the Holocaust.

Similar pogroms occurred in Syria, Bahrain and Libya from 1945-48, fuelled by tension and confusion surrounding the conflict in Palestine. In Palestine, reciprocal Jewish and Arab violence tragically led to the exodus of 700,000 Arabs from their homes in 1948. That same year, thousands of Jews had to flee the West Bank after Jordan annexed the zone.

I would imagine that the Jews of Morocco (and other countries) felt very much like the Arabs of Palestine. No home, exiled from their land and not of their choosing. Like their forefather Abraham, they would have to journey to places they had never known before – like their prophet Moses feeling like strangers in strange lands.

Above: Arab refugees 1948/ Jewish refugees 1948

Naturally, the Palestinian-Arab and the Arab-Jewish refugees regularly come up in political debates about Israel and Palestine.

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  • It is unbelievable. The title says it all. Thanks Betaween.

    I have been battling for quite sometimes now in some French and English blogs the same issue. That of some incredible claims of grandiose Islamic civilization and its understanding and respect it has towards Judaism in some small instances Christianity just because they have been restoring (finally, it took them so long) old synagogues (Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia) and basilicas (Algeria lately). I have always claimed that architectural structures, especially religious ones, will serve no purpose if one cannot pray and use them for the purpose of religious introspection. I have been harshly criticized by questioning and putting in doubt the connection between restoring past religious structures and respect of other religions in Islam. I think it is the only thing they (muslim bloggers) believe prove their respect and understanding and exonerate them from prejudices towards Judaism and Christianity.

    In fact, architectural restoration projects all spring from the idea of preserving (snapshot) history as a remembrance of time past, not of making changes in the present to attitudes, opinions and pre-conceptions. All museums relics are indications of time past, of time buried in history and simply forgotten in memory. Therefore it seems to me that restoring synagogues and basilicas is not entirely a sign of respect and understanding but quite the opposite. It is a sign of forgetting who the people who first built these structures were. What were the communities that sustained them in time of happiness and in time of grief? What happen to these people? It is as if the structures are fixated in time motionless there for all to see without any souls that gave them life and purpose previously. The fact that they will be become museums to attract tourist hard currency attest to the idea that muslims do not really want to come to terms of what happened in their backwards in recent times as well as times immemorial. The presence of structures does not prove that life was good. There are just things build by humans. It is the people who brushed aside in the sideline of history as if they did not exist. “Evidence of absence does not mean absence of evidence” once said Carl Sagan.

    This is the sadness about these restorations projects. The dilemma is that nobody can be against restoring structures, but to use it as proof of understanding between religions is at best naive and arrogant. Unless I see the communities that are truly associated with these religious structures living, working, raising children and burying the dead close of these relics, these structures mean nothing.


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