NY Times: the Moroccan exception

Writing in the New York Times, Anouar Maji and Yaelle Azagury have produced a nuanced view of Morocco’s relationship with its Jews. The King is rightly  applauded for preserving and promoting Jewish heritage. The writers blame ‘European colonialism, the creation of Israel and the
emergence of Arab nationalism, imbued with elements of anti-Semitism,
for dividing the Jewish and Muslim communities’. But the causes of the mass exodus predate the 20th century.   European colonialism was in the main good for the Jews, as it liberated them from centuries of
‘dhimmitude’  and forced conversions.There were a few
privileged financiers and courtiers, but popular feeling was very
often anti-Jewish, leading the Jews being locked into ghettoes for
their own safety, and  to more pogroms than in other parts of the
Arab world. (With thanks: Gina, Boruch)

Celebrating Succot in Marrakesh, 2017

The 2011 Constitution acknowledges that
Morocco’s identity has been “nourished and enriched”
in part by “Hebraic” components. Around that same
time, King Mohammed VI embarked on a wide-ranging
rehabilitation project that reflects his “the cultural and spiritual heritage of the Moroccan
Jewish community.

More than 160 Jewish cemeteries with
thousands of gravestones have been uncovered, cleaned
up and inventoried with funding from the kingdom. In
addition to synagogues, former Jewish schools have
been renovated with the king’s support. The original
names of the Jewish neighborhoods where many of these
synagogues have stood for centuries have also been reinstated. In 2013,
Abdelilah Benkirane, then the prime minister of
Morocco’s Islamist-led government, 
read a message by the king at
the reopening of the newly restored Slat al Fassiyine
synagogue in Fez in which he pledged to protect the
Jewish community.

Other
houses of worship, like
the splendid 19th-century Nahon synagogue in
Tangier, are now museums. The Ettedgui synagogue in
Casablanca and the adjacent El Mellah Jewish Museum,
founded in 1997 by Moroccan Jews who believe in a
shared future between Jews and Muslims, were restored
and rededicated by the king in 2016.
El Mellah is the only comprehensive Jewish
museum in the Arab world
. There are
plans for three more in Morocco. (…)

Much still remains to be done, but these are promising developments. The question is, why now?

With
a mere 2,500 Jews left in the kingdom, compared with some 240,000 in
the 1940s, this endeavor may indeed appear purely symbolic, or even designed to bolster Morocco’s image in the world.
It will not bring Moroccan Jews back in any great numbers. But the
kingdom’s embrace of Jewish heritage is a strong reminder of the Jews’
rightful place in Morocco’s history, despite some strained chapters.

In
the 20th century, European colonialism, the creation of Israel and the
emergence of Arab nationalism, imbued with elements of anti-Semitism,
divided the Jewish and Muslim communities and set them on different
paths. Fearing violence and persecution, Jews left the kingdom for
Israel and elsewhere. But the Moroccan Jewish diaspora in Canada, France, Israel and Venezuela have retained strong ties with their old homeland, often helping to fund renovations.

In
the popular imagination, Jews and Muslims are seen as locked in an
eternal struggle, but this wasn’t always so. From Morocco to Iran, Jews
have lived in Muslim lands for centuries, with the two communities
developing complex linguistic, cultural and commercial ties. Their
coexistence was far from perfect, but as the historian Michel Abitbol
and others have shown, Jews fared significantly better in Arab lands
than their brethren in the shtetls of Central and Eastern Europe. From
the Middle Ages throughout the Early Modern period, Sephardic Jews often
prospered as merchants, translators, administrators and agents for the
sultan. 

Nowadays, the global media —
which tends to dwell on what separates, rather than unites, Jews and
Muslims — and the spread of Islamic fundamentalism on the internet has
left Morocco’s youth largely unaware that a sizable Jewish community
lived among them only 60 or 70 years ago. As the Moroccan anthropologist
Aomar Boum has argued, Muslims have only “memories of absence” of their Jewish neighbors.
Morocco’s gestures of openness help remind its citizens, and the world,
that the country’s Jewish history matters and is worth honoring.

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This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

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