The King of Morocco was virtually the sole funder of the restored Cape Verde Jewish cemetery (photo: AFP)
What lies behind the King of Morocco’s drive to restore synagogues and Jewish cemeteries? Are his motives pure, or is he just trying to attract Jewish tourism and improve Morocco’s standing with the US? The Times of Israel investigates:
With virtually no practising Jews on Cape
Verde today, the cemeteries had fallen into neglect. Now a
Washington-based nonprofit is spearheading their restoration.
The Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Projecthas a
board stuffed with prominent Jewish Washingtonians, but its funding
comes almost entirely from one man — King Mohammed VI of Morocco.
According to the group’s US tax filings, the king was the organization’s
sole donor in 2011 and 2012, giving $100,000 each year.
Andre Azoulay, a senior Jewish adviser to the
king and a member of the project’s advisory board, told JTA that the
effort is reflective of the king’s “deep commitment” to preserving
Jewish heritage in Morocco and elsewhere. But even if, as some
speculate, it is motivated by a desire to attract tourists and curry
favor with American Jews, the king’s drive clearly sets Morocco apart
from other Middle Eastern countries where Jewish sites have faced
increasing threats under new Islamist governments.
“This is all part of a strong push from His
Majesty the King that started three, four years ago, when we saw
cemeteries have become vulnerable because of lacking care by all of us,”
Azoulay told JTA.
Approximately 3,000 Jews are living in
Morocco, a North African monarchy about the size of Texas that had been
home to a large and thriving Jewish community for centuries. In the 19th
century, a number of Moroccan-Jewish families resettled in Cape Verde,
attracted by the financial potential of this transatlantic hub.
Over time the families totally assimilated,
though their Creole-speaking, Christian descendants include some of Cape
Verde’s most prominent businessmen and politicians, including the
country’s first democratically elected prime minister, Carlos Alberto
Wahnon de Carvalho Veiga.
Unlike many Arab countries with once sizable
Jewish communities, Morocco has taken wide-ranging steps to preserve its
Jewish history. The Casablanca Jewish museum was restored, the small
but colorful 17th century synagogue in Fez was renovated, and dozens of
former Jewish schools and more than 100 synagogues were rehabilitated
with funding from the crown.
In 2011, in a move that Azoulay calls
unprecedented in the modern Middle East, the Moroccan constitution was
changed to note that the country has been “nourished and enriched … [by]
Hebraic influences,” among others. The Moroccan parliament adopted the
new language along with amendments that transferred some powers from the
king to elected parties.
“I am not trying to paint a one-sided rosy
picture. There are some difficult and maybe black pages in the book of
Moroccan Jewry,” Azoulay told JTA. “But there are many, many more
The king’s restoration activity already has
brought benefits in the form of increased Jewish tourism. More than
19,000 Israelis entered Morocco in 2010, a 42 percent leap from the
previous year, according to Israel’s Tourism Ministry. The World
Federation of Moroccan Jewry says the kingdom receives another 30,000
non-Israeli Jews annually.
Among them was Joel Rubinfeld, the
Brussels-based co-chair of the European Jewish Parliament, who spent 12
days in Morocco in March meeting with government officials and visiting
his mother’s hometown. Rubinfeld believes the government’s intention to
honor the country’s Jewish past is sincere, but he said other
considerations are at work as well.
“There may certainly be pragmatic incentives:
attracting tourism and investments down the line,” Rubinfeld said. “For
some, it is a political calculation to improve Morocco’s international
A Moroccan diplomat, who spoke to JTA on
condition of anonymity, said the restoration project could bring
political dividends for Morocco, which has been accused of human rights
abuses in Western Sahara, a disputed territory to which the kingdom lays
“To Morocco’s great consternation, the US last
month proposed the UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara help
monitor human rights,” the diplomat said. “It’s very useful for us to
have someone — a strong lobby group, perhaps — to help talk the State
Department out of this idea. The Jewish lobby is a very strong one.”
The board of the Cape Verde Jewish Heritage
Project includes Howard Berman, a former California congressman who
chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee until his defeat last year;
Daniel Mariaschin, the executive director of B’nai B’rith International;
Herman Cohen, a former US assistant secretary of state; and Toby
Dershowitz, who heads a Washington public affairs consultancy.
But Azoulay grows indignant at any suggestion the king has his eye on the economic or political benefits of his largesse.
“This effort is the concrete manifestation of a
consensus in Moroccan society, that our society is partly built on
Jewish culture, a culture deeply rooted in three millennia of history,”
“You have to understand the purity of it,” Azoulay added. “Those who think it is to attract tourists are just out of order.”
As popular revolutions have swept the Arab
world since late 2010, Jewish heritage has suffered under newly
empowered Islamist governments. TwoJewish cemeteries were desecrated
earlier this year in Tunisia, prompting Israel to express concerns for
the safety of the country’s Jews, the daily Maariv reported.
In Egypt, the government prevented several
dozen Israelis from making the annual Passover pilgrimage to
Alexandria’s main synagogue, one of the few properly maintained and
functioning Jewish sites in the country. Egypt also briefly censored a film about the flight of its Jews following Israel’s establishment.
But in Morocco, a similar film, titled
“Tinghir-Jerusalem: Echoes from the Mellah,”won a prize last month at
the Tangier Film Festival. It also triggered protests from a few hundred
Islamists and left-wing activists saying the film promoted
“normalization” of ties with Israel, The Associated Press reported.