‘Morocco has never persecuted the Jews’. This revisionist bombshell was dropped by the Moroccan UN ambassador to his Israeli counterpart at a joint candle-lighting ceremony. Lyn Julius sets the record straight in JNS News.
Moroccan Jews at prayer (Photo courtesy Paul Dahan)
The news that Israel and Morocco are about to ‘normalise’
their relations has been met with jubilation in Israel – and
in the Moroccan diaspora. The first direct flight has taken
off for Rabat from Tel Aviv; and liaison offices will be
opened in both countries, to be upgraded to embassies in
A wave of nostalgic affection has swept over Jews born in
Morocco. ‘Morocco has a special place in my heart’ gushes
Casablanca-born columnist David Suissa, who now lives in
On the diplomatic front, the UN ambassadors from Morocco
and Israel marked the beginning of their new era with a
Hanucah candle-lighting ceremony. Then Rabat’s ambassador
Omar Hilale dropped a bombshell: he said that Morocco had
never persecuted its Jews.
As far as we know, Israel’s ambassador, not wishing to
spoil the love-in, said nothing in response.
Morocco is the first of the four countries which have
agreed to a peace deal to have had a substantial Jewish
population – its 300,000-member community was the largest
in the Arab world. But this community is now one percent of
its previous size. If Morocco was such a hospitable place
for its Jews, why did almost all leave?
One can point to the Oujda and Djerrada riots of 1948,in
which 48 Jews died.
Spasmodic violence in the 1950s was directed against the
wedge group caught betweenthe French colonials and the
Muslims – the Jews.
One can point to the fact that Morocco forbade her Jews from emigrating for five years, provoking increasingly desperate attempts to flee.
Zionism became a crime and a pretext for imprisonment once
Morocco became a member of the Arab League. Jews in mixed areas were frequently harassed and threatened.
Mob violence erupted so frequently that the troubles were
hardly worth recording. One Jewish woman asked her
neighbours for assurance that an anti-Jewish riot was not being planned for the date of her daughter’s wedding.
Then there was the ever-present threat of abduction of
Jewish girls and forced conversion.
But Moroccan Jews themselves often deny that they left
through persecution. The main reason – their loyalty to the
king. ‘The king loves us,’ David Suissa declares. Jews
believe that the wartime sultan saved the Jews from the
Nazis and even wore the yellow star.
But historians have debunked this myth.
Deportation was never a realistic possibility. The king may
have prevaricated, but he rubber-stamped every single
anti-Jewish decree promulgated by the Vichy authorities, the
real ‘power behind the throne’.
Morocco’s record has been muddied by a decades-long
campaign, spearheaded by the king’s Jewish royal adviser,
André Azoulay, to project an idealised image through the
preservation of Jewish heritage, music festivals and other
demonstrations of interfaith coexistence.
Historically, the Moroccan monarchy generally did show
benign tolerance towards its Jewish subjects, who lived in
a quarter, or mellah, adjoining the royal palace. An
attack on minorities was seen as an attack on the sultan’s
Dhimmi Jews, routinely subject to restrictions and
humiliations, paid for his protection with hard cash. After
the post-Inquisition influx of Jews from Spain, sultans
appointed Jews to be their advisers and imtermediaries with
the European powers.
But not all sultans were benevolent. At the end of the 18th
century Moulay Lyazid ordered Jews in Oujda who dared to dress like Muslim to have
one ear cut off. He planned to exterminate the Jews of his
kingdom and incited a pogrom against the Jews of
No persecution there.
The Jews were left without protection at times of
instablility or in the interregnum between rulers. Take the
Fez pogrom of 1033, where 6,000 Jews Jews were reputedly
murdered. At other times, fanatical preachers whipped the mob into
anti-Jewish frenzy, as happened inTouat in 1492,when the
entire Jewish population was massacred.
In contrast, a well-intentioned sultan might have wished to
protect his Jews but could be powerless to do so. In 1863
Sir Moses Montefiore persuaded the sultan to issue an edict
granting equal rights for Jews, but local governors failed
to apply it.
The nineteenth century was replete with riots against the
usual scapegoats – the Jews – as Morocco became a cauldron
of tribal and international conflict.
As a new era dawns between Morocco and Israel, let honesty
and transparency prevail. Morocco broke new ground recently,
promising to teach Jewish history and culture in schools. Let’s hope that the children are not taught that Morocco
never persecuted its Jews.