The King and Chai

Newsweek - - NEWS - BY YARDENA SCHWARTZ @yarde­nas

Morocco’s Mus­lim monarch is try­ing to pre­serve the coun­try’s Jewish his­tory—be­fore it’s gone

A DECADE AGO, when Elme­hdi Boudra be­gan at­tend­ing col­lege in his na­tive Morocco, he didn’t ex­pect to see swastikas scrawled on his door. Like al­most ev­ery other stu­dent at his school, Boudra is Mus­lim. But grow­ing up, his grand­mother cooked him Jewish food and told him sto­ries about Jewish friends—in­clud­ing the woman who nursed her. “We didn’t care who was Jewish and who was Mus­lim,” Boudra re­calls his grand­mother say­ing. “We were Moroc­cans—and hu­man.”

Yet Boudra’s peers didn’t like his fondness for Jewish cul­ture, and they let him know it, both with the swastikas on his door and with the names they called him: rabbi, Zion­ist, a traitor to the Pales­tinian cause. “They never met Jews be­fore,” says Boudra. “To them, Ju­daism is Is­rael. It’s the Pales­tinian con­flict.”

For the past 10 years, Boudra’s or­ga­ni­za­tion, Mi­mouna, has worked to ed­u­cate young Moroc­cans about the na­tion’s Jewish his­tory. (The group is named af­ter a re­li­gious fes­ti­val that Jews in Morocco used to cel­e­brate with their Mus­lim neigh­bors.) They’ve even con­vinced Morocco’s Al-akhawayn Uni­ver­sity, Boudra’s alma mater, to make He­brew and Jewish stud­ies classes part of the cur­ricu­lum.

Boudra and his 90-mem­ber group are part of a cam­paign to ed­u­cate this ma­jor­ity-mus­lim coun­try about its Jewish past, to re­store its an­cient Jewish sites and to sup­port its dwin­dling Jewish com­mu­nity. These ef­forts are oc­cur­ring at a time when anti-semitism and rad­i­cal­ism are on the rise else­where in the Arab world. Morocco is fac­ing some of the same forces of Is­lamist ex­trem­ism, but Mo­roc­can Mus­lims are hop­ing that their ef­forts to pre­serve their na­tion’s Jewish his­tory will also pro­tect the plu­ral­ism and tol­er­ance that have be­come such a rarity in the re­gion.

Jews have a deep his­tory in what is now Morocco. They were among the first peo­ple to set­tle in the area, ar­riv­ing in the sixth cen­tury B.C. af­ter their first ex­ile from Jerusalem—long be­fore the birth of Is­lam. In 1492, Jews flee­ing the Span­ish In­qui­si­tion found refuge in the North African king­dom just 8 miles south of Spain.

In 1948, af­ter the creation of Is­rael, other Arab na­tions sys­tem­at­i­cally ex­pelled their Jewish pop­u­la­tions. The Mo­roc­can ex­o­dus was dif­fer­ent, says Michael Lask­ier, a pro­fes­sor of Mid­dle Eastern stud­ies at Is­rael’s Bar Ilan Uni­ver­sity— most Jewish Moroc­cans chose to em­i­grate vol­un­tar­ily; more than half set­tled in Is­rael. The rea­sons they left var­ied: Some wanted to live in a Jewish home­land; others were es­cap­ing job­less­ness and grow­ing Arab na­tion­al­ism at a time when France ruled the na­tion. De­spite the long Jewish his­tory in the coun­try, many Mus­lims as­so­ci­ated Jews with Is­rael and Euro­pean colo­nial­ism, says Lask­ier, and ri­ots killed dozens of Mo­roc­can Jews be­tween 1938 and 1954. Yet these bloody in­ci­dents were rare, es­pe­cially

com­pared with else­where in the Mid­dle East and North Africa.

To­day, there are only 3,000 Jews left in Morocco, down from nearly 300,000 in 1948. That still makes the com­mu­nity the largest in the Arab world. But it’s rapidly dis­ap­pear­ing, as most young Mo­roc­can Jews are leav­ing for coun­tries with larger Jewish pop­u­la­tions in hopes of find­ing a spouse. Lead­ers of Morocco’s Jewish com­mu­nity pre­dict that in 10 years there will be few, if any, Jews left.

As Jews con­tinue to leave, a small but grow­ing num­ber of Morocco’s young Mus­lims have been try­ing to draw attention to an ear­lier time in the na­tion’s Jewish his­tory—the Holo­caust— and the heroic role their coun­try played in it. In 2011, Mi­mouna hosted the Arab world’s firstever Holo­caust re­mem­brance con­fer­ence. The topic is con­tro­ver­sial in Mus­lim na­tions, where Ger­many’s Jewish geno­cide is tied up in Is­raeli­Pales­tinian pol­i­tics. In 2014, for ex­am­ple, a Pales­tinian pro­fes­sor re­ceived death threats af­ter bring­ing his stu­dents to Auschwitz. He was ac­cused of be­ing a Zion­ist traitor and ped­dling pro-is­rael pro­pa­ganda. (He later re­signed and now lives in the United States.)

The con­fer­ence al­most didn’t hap­pen be­cause Al-akhawayn Uni­ver­sity ad­min­is­tra­tors op­posed it. Boudra and other or­ga­niz­ers even­tu­ally con­vinced the uni­ver­sity to hold the event. For many young Moroc­cans, the con­fer­ence was their first time learn­ing about the Holo­caust. Dur­ing World War II, Morocco was con­trolled by the Nazi-aligned Vichy gov­ern­ment in France. Yet or­dered by French of­fi­cials to send Jews to con­cen­tra­tion camps, Sul­tan Mo­hammed V re­fused. As a result, Mo­roc­can Jews weren’t sent away, forced to wear yel­low stars or give up their prop­erty. The sul­tan’s de­ci­sion stood in sharp con­trast to the ac­tions of other Mus­lim lead­ers who sup­ported the Nazi cause. Among them: Haj Amin Hus­seini, the

for­mer grand mufti of Jerusalem, who re­cruited Euro­pean Mus­lims to fight for the Nazis.

To­day, many Moroc­cans con­tinue to view Jews through the lens of the Is­raeli-pales­tinian con­flict. But those who are try­ing to re­vive the coun­try’s his­tory of tol­er­ance are turn­ing to their leader for in­spi­ra­tion. King Mo­hammed VI, Mo­hammed V’s grand­son—a di­rect de­scen­dant of the Prophet Muham­mad—was among the first Mus­lim heads of state to pub­licly ac­knowl­edge Jewish suf­fer­ing dur­ing the Holo­caust. In a 2009 speech in Paris, read on his be­half by his ad­viser An­dré Azoulay, who is Jewish, the king called it “one of the most tragic chap­ters of mod­ern his­tory.” In 2010, King Mo­hammed VI ini­ti­ated a pro­gram to re­pair hun­dreds of an­cient syn­a­gogues and ceme­ter­ies scat­tered through­out Morocco. Since then, the king­dom has spent mil­lions of dol­lars to re­pair nearly 200 of these sites. In 2011, in the wake of the Arab spring, Ju­daism be­came en­shrined in the coun­try’s new con­sti­tu­tion as a key part of Mo­roc­can iden­tity. “Ju­daism in Morocco is more than 3,000 years old,” says Azoulay. “It is deeply, deeply rooted in our his­tory. The king is com­mit­ted to keep­ing this his­tory alive.”

Morocco has pushed for plu­ral­ism and re­li­gious tol­er­ance with­out much blow­back. But like his grand­fa­ther be­fore him, King Mo­hammed VI is tak­ing a risk. In 2003, an Al-qaeda-in­spired at­tack in Casablanca killed 45 peo­ple in five syn­chro­nized bomb­ings, some tar­get­ing Jewish sites. A smaller at­tack shook Casablanca in 2007. In 2015, a pro-pales­tinian demon­stra­tion in Casablanca fea­tured men dressed as Ortho­dox Jews de­stroy­ing a model of Jerusalem’s Al-aqsa Mosque be­fore be­ing led to a mock ex­e­cu­tion.

Com­pared with other coun­tries in the Mid­dle East and North Africa, how­ever, Is­lamist ex­trem­ists haven’t had much suc­cess in Morocco. That’s largely due to the coun­try’s mod­er­ate tra­di­tions of Ma­liki and Sufi Is­lam—as well as its se­cu­rity ser­vices, which hu­man rights groups say have treated sus­pected rad­i­cals harshly, im­pris­on­ing some with­out trial and tor­tur­ing others.

The coun­try’s Jews, how­ever, say the tol­er­ance and ac­cep­tance they’ve ex­pe­ri­enced here are un­par­al­leled in the Arab world. On a swel­ter­ing day in June, Hafid Nua­man was wip­ing sweat from his face as he cleaned the graves of Casablanca’s Jewish ceme­tery and greeted the lo­cal Chabad rabbi. The Mus­lim groundskeeper has been work­ing here for 25 years, and said there’s never been any van­dal­ism at the Jewish burial ground. That same week, at a Jewish ceme­tery in Mar­rakech that dates back to 1537— one of sev­eral that have been re­stored in re­cent years—another Mus­lim groundskeeper even spoke some He­brew. The ceme­tery sits next to the king’s palace, in­side the Jewish quar­ter, whose streets still bear their He­brew names.

Jewish or­ga­ni­za­tions such as Chabad, a global Ortho­dox Jewish move­ment, are also heav­ily in­volved in the preser­va­tion of Jewish his­tory and cul­ture here. At a food dis­tri­bu­tion in Mar­rakech in late June, 350 Mus­lims gath­ered at a 500-year-old syn­a­gogue built by Jews who fled the Span­ish In­qui­si­tion. This is part of a three­year pro­gram by Mi­mouna and Chabad to feed Mus­lims in need dur­ing Ra­madan. The groups dis­trib­ute the meals in­side syn­a­gogues, said Chabad Rabbi Levi Banon, to show Mus­lims that they have the sup­port of Mo­roc­can Jews. “Jews were here first, so of course we have good re­la­tions with them,” says Khadija Bnidan, a Mus­lim woman who came to the Slat Laazama syn­a­gogue for her meal package.

For Boudra, com­ments like Bnidan’s ex­em­plify the kind of coun­try he hopes Morocco will re­main—even as the Mid­dle East and North Africa con­tinue to reckon with rad­i­cal­ism.

“I love my coun­try, and I want to keep it as it was be­fore,” he tells Newsweek. “A place where Mus­lims and Jews and any­one from any place can live to­gether.”


LOVE IN THE TIME OF HANUKKAH: A Jewish wed­ding in Mar­rakech in 1980. To­day, the Jewish com­mu­nity in Morocco is so small, many are mov­ing abroad to get mar­ried.

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