An illuminating interview with the late Simon Levy

The Beth El synagogue, Casablanca (Photo: Alma Rachel Heckman)

Simon Levy founded the only Jewish museum in the Arab world – in Casablanca. A maverick academic, communist and ‘conscious pariah’, he died in December 2011. Thanks to Diarna website for this illuminating retrospective interview by Alma Rachel Heckman: Levy has some particularly interesting things to say about the Alliance Israelite Universelle and the war years under Vichy rule – including a rare mention of the forced-labour camps of Jews from Europe. The interview concludes with the reasons why Moroccan Jews left Morocco.

Simon Levy pointing out a display at the Jewish Museum

In Response to a Question about the Movement toward Moroccan Independence and Jewish Involvement:
The 1930s was the beginning of the independence movement, and simultaneously the coming of age for the Jewish youth that had grown-up after the establishment of the French protectorate. They had more contact with Europe than the previous generations because of their French education, and had direct contact with European anti-Semitism via French fascists in Morocco. Thus, they heard for the first time “sale juif”, or “dirty Jew”, in the streets of Morocco.

The Jews who supported Moroccan independence also demanded a classical Arabic education. In the traditional Jewish schools, students learned about religion, the Gemara, to read the Torah, cantillation and how to write spoken Moroccan Arabic (darija) using the Hebrew alphabet – Moroccan Judeo-Arabic – but not classical Arabic. Simon sighed that now, no one reads Judeo-Arabic, and that it is a lost body of literature and a lost culture.

And what about the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU)? Simon shouted and beat the table at this juncture: “The AIU only taught French” [not strictly true, AIU schools were predominantly in French with Hebrew lessons and often lessons in local languages]. According to Simon, the AIU was a French charity project that created “little French Jews” in foreign countries by its heavily Gallic education system. Students in the AIU schools “only had one tiny hour of Hebrew per week.” Simon went on to say that the AIU paved the way for French colonization in Morocco and the entrenching of an educational and political system based on “the superiority of Europe.” In this way, the AIU “destroyed Moroccan Judaism.”

In the 1930s, those Moroccan Jews that invested in the nascent independence movement wanted to be “truly Moroccan” alongside their Muslim compatriots, but there were other forces “working over” Moroccan Jews: the AIU, France and its cultural values, and Zionism.

On Morocco under Vichy Rule

The Nazi regime never occupied Morocco, but rather controlled the Vichy French who did. In autumn 1940, Mohammed V signed the “Statute of Jews” into law. The Jews were astonished that the king could sign such a document, and protested.

The “Statute of Jews” stated that Morocco’s Jewish residents were no longer either subjects of king Mohammed V or of France, but that they were now “a separate category.” Jews were forbidden from practicing professions that they had traditionally occupied, including commerce, were barred from many educational opportunities and from other activities that were still allowed to Muslims and French people. Further, the numerous Jews that had moved out of the mellahs long ago and were now living in the Ville Nouvelles were required to move back into the mellahs, resulting in massive over-crowding, sanitation problems, and scarcity of resources. With this law, Jews were now Morocco’s “pariahs” rather than the king’s ahl al-dhimma or protected people.

Simon illustrated this with a personal story, relating that his uncle had built a nice, big house in the Ville Nouvelle of Fez in 1937. With the arrival of the war, he and his family were crammed into a single room in the mellah. This “hyper population” of the mellahs happened in every Moroccan city. Simon mused, “When I was young [during the war years], I remember standing on a balcony in the mellah of Fez. The streets were so over-crowded that the people were obligated to walk very, very slowly, in baby steps.” (Simon got up from his desk and demonstrated a slow, belaboured shuffle.)

On the Vichy Camps

Simon encountered regiments of forced workerswho were sent to the region of Fez to build roads and other infrastructure projects. For all of the cruelty inflicted upon them, they were allowed to attend Synagogue services, where they interacted with the Fassi Moroccan-Jewish population. Simon looked at his hands and said, “I remember throughout the war a certain Mr. Stern, who had led an easy life in France and was sent to work on the roads in Morocco.”

Simon’s father invited many of these forced-labor French Jews to the family’s home for Jewish holidays, where Simon observed the Ashkenazi way of celebrating Chanukah.

In November 1942, the Allies landed in Morocco for Operation Torch of the North Africa campaign. The arrival of the Allies “was the deliverance of Moroccan Jews from the German threat,” sighed Simon, who mentioned that Morocco had been lucky as compared to Tunisia, where the Germans had had a foothold and a prolonged presence. Simon added, “This period of French and European racism fundamentally changed the outlook of Jewish Moroccans. Jews had lost their jobs and their possessions, as well as their rights. After the war, it was different. This explains the wave of emigration from Morocco in 1948.”

On post-1948 Waves of Jewish Migration from Morocco

In 1956, the year Morocco won its independence, life for Jewish Moroccans seemed quite good. There was Dr. Benzaquen, a Jewish minister in government, for example. However, more and more Jews were leaving Morocco for French educational opportunities, and were not coming back. During the war in Israel in 1956, Jewish community leaders adopted an anti-war stance “against the invaders.”

In 1964, the justice system of Morocco was “Arabized,” meaning that from then on, lawyers would have to work in Arabic. For the Jews who had graduated through a thoroughly Francophone educational system, this meant they were out of work. As a result, almost all Jewish lawyers left Morocco for elsewhere, including Simon’s own brother.

In 1967, Morocco’s Jewish community took no official position on the Six-Day War. When the Arab coalition suffered what was perceived as a humiliating loss on the military, political and international levels, Moroccan Muslims announced a boycott against Moroccan Jewish businesses in a “simplistic mind set” that equated all Jews with Israel’s military and political powers. The boycott lasted between 2-3 months, but the long-term effects were irreversible: the social and political climate in Morocco made Jews no longer feel safe. Many Jews left Morocco as a result, including Simon’s nephew, a doctor whose patients boycotted his practice. Even after this “ignorant boycott”, Simon estimates that about 30,000 or 40,000 Jews remained in Morocco.

The post-1967 steady drain of Moroccan Jews to France, Canada, Israel or the United States, was also on account of desires to attain a French education and upward mobility, as well as to reunite with family members who had already left.

On Moroccan Muslim Awareness of Jewish History

“In 2004 and 2005, [the museum] commemorated the Casablanca bombings of May 16, 2003. We visited schools in order to explain that Morocco is not a country in which we kill each other. In one school, it was clear that all of the students but a small selected group had been excused for the day. These students had been groomed by their teachers with the proper answers to a variety of questions. As soon as I asked them to respond on their own, to deviate from the script, they said things along the lines that they approved of the terrorists, that they were now in heaven having worked for God. We brought them to the museum, and hopefully we opened their minds a little.”

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  • Just a clarification: when he speaks of "studying" Arabic, he is evidently referring to the standard, or as they used to call it, the classical Arabic – the language of the Koran, books, speeches and newspapers.

    It is evident that most Jews in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Morocco knew those countries' respective dialects, which are also called "arabic". Those arabic dialeects are still widely spoken in Israel.

  • I have a lot of respect for Simon Levy z"l, there are just a few points of the interview I would like to address.

    When he said "Hebrew" he meant Hebrew language of course. It is true that Hebrew was not taught as a living language in the Alliance schools, but rather as means to understand Hebrew texts, and for reasons that should have been obvious to him: The AIU has never prepared its students to be Israelis, has never discussed modern Israel or preached Aliya. That point should be clear.
    Having said that, when I went to school we had – girls – 2 hours a week of Hebrew and boys many more (perhaps 6 or 8) hrs a week, outside of religious instruction.

    Arabic was probably not taught in his day in Jewish schools yet- for the simple reason that Arabic was taught only in the ecoles coraniques and the madrassas well into the period of the French Protectorate. Even Muslims didn't study Arabic as a living language, but rather in a theological context. The AIU started teaching Arabic to its students when it became permitted. He should have known all that.
    Another point is that Muslim governments didn't generally finance education of Jews, and it was the business of the communities according to their means. So when you have two famines, a French war of conquest, and a WWII back to back, Simon Levy should have thanked God for the AIU, growing up as he did under Vichy France.

    Another thing that puzzles me is the jump from 1948 to 1956, skipping over the dramatic events of 1953-55 in all of North Africa and in Morocco in particular, that sent hundred of thousands of Jews packing. I have noticed the same phenomenon in a program on radio Israel for the State's sixtieth Birthday. I have also noticed the same omission in Martin Gilbert's book.

    I am going to say something controversial here – for a change – but for all those inaccuracies, as I look around me today and I read some of the antisemitic venom spewed by Jewish radical leftists and anti-zionists of the Ashkenazi persuasion, with their insinuations of dual loyalty and their total indifference to the fate of the Jewish people, I must say that I am proud of people like Simon Levy, Amram Elmaleh, Abraham Serfaty and others, who, for all their radical anti-Zionism and socialism, remained true to themselves, kept their feet where their heart was, and never ever attempted to harm their fellow Jews.

    May he rest in peace.


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