How Jewish identity has developed in Morocco

The musicologist and academic Vanessa Paloma Elbaz muses on the fluidity of Jewish identity in Morocco. When the country first became independent,  components of its Berber and Jewish identity were suppressed. Now, however, they are emerging in surprising ways. Read her article, Muslim descendants of Jews in Morocco: identity and practice, published in the Journal of Spanish, Portuguese and Italian Crypto-Jews in 2015.

One day a young Jewish girl from Fez had a fight with her family and ran out of the mellah
and banged on the doors of the mechouar (surrounding
the royal palace) They
opened the doors, she ran in and was never seen again.

They raised her in the
palace, she converted to Islam and was married to a Muslim. In 2014, she told
her adult granddaughter of her story, that she was a Jewish girl from the mellah
of Fez. Her granddaughter is Muslim but is puzzlingly attracted to us [older
Jewish ladies],she looks just like a Jewish woman from Fez, blond with
large green eyes.

 Since 2010 a small group of Moroccan Muslims with Jewish ancestry have been
reintegrating parts of their Jewish identity and practice into their lives. As
with any group that recaptures lost identities, identity reconstruction occurs
on a continuum of practice and engagement. In Morocco, publicly identifying
with Jewish ancestry seems to be emerging from being completely taboo as
recently as ten years ago to some who are maintaining a firm connection to
Muslim practice while recognizing Jewish ancestry.

At the furthest extreme of
this continuum, a small number of young Moroccans (five cases known to me) are
engaging with Jewish ritual practice. This article will address the negotiations
around and development of this continuum of identity and practice in
contemporary Morocco.

These Muslim Moroccans who are exploring the
Jewish component of their ancestry are contemporary examples of the kinds of
negotiations and decisions that Crypto-Jews made 300-400 years ago, only a few
generations after the forced conversions of 1391 and 1492. Their experience is
not an exact parallel but when taking a closer look, one observes many
shared elements of a similar process. Catholic Spain had forced conversions, an
expulsion, an Inquisition, hundreds of years of

terrorized Crypto-Jews.

contrast, Morocco has been a country where the Jewish population felt protected by
the government and only during brief time periods there were waves of forced conversions tied to periods of  political and religious unrest for the general population.

Morocco is the only country in the
world, apart from Israel, where Jewish family law is legally binding as a
national law for Jews in contemporary times.

The origin of this manner of
structuring legal concerns of the Jewish minority started during Cher-ifian
Morocco. Because of the status of Jews in Islam as People of the Book they could be judged by their
own Rabbis. As such, the Jewish community had a contract with the authorities
which provided protection and legal independence after the community payed a
dhimmi, protected non-citizen minority (Amar,

 In contemporary Morocco, Jews use the rabbinical courts  in reference to family law:
marriage, divorce and inheritance. For Moroccans these issues are resolved
according to religious law: for Jews and for Muslims.

During the French and
Spanish protectorates (1912-1956)the religious courts were reorganized by two dahirs from May22, 1918. The first one
addressed the reorganization of the Rabbinical tribunals and the Jewish
notaries and the other one instituted a High Rabbinical Tribunal (Amar, 1980:
226). Moroccan Jews were considered by the French and Spanish Protectorates
as “indigènes” just as Moroccan Muslims. Legally and politically Jews and
Muslims were just Moroccan in the eyes of the Europeans. But, since the Jews had
been dhimmi in the eyes of Moroccan Muslims and of
some Jews, the perception of the (Moroccanness) of the Jews was not clear.This very
“Moroccanness” of Moroccan Jews was questioned by both Jews and Muslims during
the years after Moroccan independence in 1956 from both the French and Spanish protectorates.

The founding of the
State of Israel and the tensions felt in Morocco during and after the wars of
Israel with their Arab neighbors, as well as rising pan-Arabism, a visit
of Nasser to Morocco in 1960 and a push by both a Moroccan Islamic political
party (Istiqlal) and efforts from HIAS and the American Jewish Joint
Distribution Committee to encourage Jewish emigration, pushed thousands of
Jewish Moroccan families to leave in the sixties and early seventies.

those years saying the word Israel was frowned upon in mixed company (Jewish and
non-Jewish), and people said they were going to eretz (the land),  le  pais (the country) or alla (there). In postcolonial Morocco, the Jewish component of Moroccan history
(as well as the Berber portion) was omitted from the educational curriculum in
the desire to build a homogeneous Arabic national Moroccan narrative. In other
words, it was the time to build a Moroccan identity after the years of European
government, and the de facto decision was that Moroccan meant Muslim and Arab.
This definition eliminated the richness of Moroccan’s complex identity and
erased the Jewish component, and more dramatically the Berber element, which is
about 60% of the Moroccan population, from national discourse of identity.

legal independence that the Jewish community has had historically and continues
to have today in relationship to the Muslim majority has been an important
element in the maintaining of a vibrant minority community. The
government’s official respect of Jewish traditions, supported institutionally
by the inclusion and financial support of Jewish courts within the national legal
system is one of the ways that Moroccan society has confirmed the “Moroccanness”
of the Jewish community.

 Considering the various historical waves of Jewish
migration into Morocco, Moroccan Jews have various levels of layered influences
in the formation of their identities as Jews and as Moroccans.

There are Berber
Jews (Amazighen), Arab Jews and Sephardic Jews. They were traditionally based in
different geographical areas, had different languages, dress and culinary
traditions. The most recent influx was the Sephardic Jews who flowed into
Morocco in the years before and after the expulsion. These communities were
discrete from each other but none of the boundaries were impermeable. The
internal migrations of Jewish populations throughout Morocco at different historical periods has brought members from every
one of these communities into the other.

In his monograph “On Identity,”Amin
Maalouf, the Lebanese Christian writer who explores the theme of identity and
belonging, succinctly articulates the complex factors forming and developing
one’s identity. What determines a person’s affiliation to a given group is
essentially the influence of others: The influence of those about him,
relatives, fellow-countrymen, co-religionists, who try to make him one of them;
together with the influence of those on the other side, who do their best to
exclude him […] He is not himself from the outset; nor does he just ‘grow aware’
of what he is; he becomes what he is […] Deliberately or otherwise, those
around him mould him, shape him, instill into him family beliefs, rituals,
attitudes and conventions, together of course with his native language and
also certain fears, aspirations, prejudices and grudges, not forgetting various
feelings of affiliation and non-affiliation, belonging or not belonging
(Maalouf, 2000: 20-21).

In other words, identity is formed by connecting to a
group with which there is an affinity and disconnecting from one where that does
not exist.

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