Morocco Takes Steps to Safeguard Its Jewish Memory

CASABLANCA, Morocco — In the economic capital of this North African nation’s bustling medina, a Moroccan flag painted on a wall is divided into two: one half points to the Ould el-Hamra mosque, built by a sultan around 1789. Another half points to the Ettedgui synagogue, erected by a bourgeois Jewish family from the northern city of Tétouan, in the mid-19th century. King Mohammad VI restored it in 2016, after it was destroyed in the Naval Battle of Casablanca during World War II.

At the end of the street stands the San Buenaventura church — a 19th-century Catholic church turned into a cultural center.

For centuries, religious communities have lived together in peace in Morocco, a conservative Muslim state where premarital and gay sex are formally criminalized. Proselytizing any religion other than Islam also is illegal.

A few meters down the winding alleys of Casablanca’s old town, a veiled woman greets visitors as she opens the blue door of the Chaim Pinto house — an essential stop in Jews’ pilgrimage across Morocco, in memory of Chaim Pinto, a leading rabbi in the country during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Myriam takes care of the rabbi’s grandson, a 75-year-old man who was born and lives in the historic building. The Muslim woman buys Kosher meat and runs errands for the Jewish man.

Her mother, too, used to work for the Chaim Pinto family. “We have such close ties with Muslims and I keep discovering more common grounds every day,” says the rabbi’s grandson, named after him.

Just like Myriam’s family, generations of Muslims have safeguarded the traditions of generations of Jews in Morocco.

Hmidou, a Muslim man who has been working for the Amsellem Kosher butcher shop for the past 30 years, explains: “After my father worked for the butcher shop’s Jewish owners for many years, he taught me how to properly butcher Kosher meat. Although we sell Kosher food, most of our clients are Muslims.”

The Country’s Ties With Israel

The Jewish community in Morocco was once vibrant, estimated at 250,000 people in the late 1940s, according to AFP. Today the estimated 3,000 Jews in the country represent the largest Jewish community in the region.

And there have been dark periods in the relationship between Jews and Muslims. A series of suicide bombings perpetrated by a dozen Moroccans on May 16, 2003, targeted the Jewish community. They are believed to be the deadliest terrorist attacks in the country.

Among other places, terrorists bombarded the Israelite Alliance of Casablanca and failed to target a Jewish cemetery. A third bomber attacked a Jewish-owned Italian restaurant.

Morocco’s attitude towards its Jewish community — which has lived in the country for more than 3,000 years — has helped shape ties with Israel, where about 10% of Jews are of Moroccan origin.

Following a U.S.-brokered deal last December, Morocco became the fourth Arab state to resume diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.

Nevertheless, a few hundred Moroccans demonstrated in several cities across the country against the normalization with Israel, waving Palestinian flags, and expressed their support for the Palestinian people. Several local NGOs, including the Moroccan Association of Human Rights — the largest organization in the country — as well as some Islamist associations, denounced the normalization as a “betrayal.”

The two nations have had low-level diplomatic relations before. Shimon Peres, then Israel’s foreign affairs minister, inaugurated an Israeli liaison office in the capital Rabat in 1994.

Most Jews in Morocco have at least one relative who lives in Israel, says Serge Berdugo, the secretary-general of Morocco’s Israelite Community Council in Casablanca and the king’s ambassador-at-large. They often visit the North African country to attend wedding ceremonies and bar mitzvahs.

Before the coronavirus pandemic forced countries to lock down, nearly 45,000 Jews would tour Morocco every year — mostly from Israel but also from the United States and Canada — to gather around the shrines of rabbis buried across the country, as part of the Hiloula ritual, according to Berdugo, who served as Morocco’s tourism minister from 1993 to 1995.

Notwithstanding the rise to power of Morocco’s conservative Islamist Justice and Development Party in 2011, following the Arab Spring, there has not been any form of discrimination against Jews, he says.

“Morocco has never forgotten the Jews and Jews have never forgotten Morocco nor Moroccan Muslims,” says Zhor Rehihil, the curator of the Museum of Moroccan Judaism — the Arab world’s only Jewish museum.

“Despite the exodus (following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948), there is still an attachment and strong ties between Morocco and its Jewish diaspora,” she adds.

“My mother would tell me that you couldn’t tell the difference between a Jewish woman wearing a “djellaba” (the traditional Moroccan outer robe) and a Muslim woman wearing a djellaba,” recalls Joelle Berger, a second-generation Jew of Moroccan origin.

Her family emigrated from Morocco to Israel in 1966.

“We can’t feel racism in Morocco. It’s very beautiful and it should be an example of Judeo-Muslim friendship,” she says, explaining that Morocco is the only Arab country she has ever visited.

A Unique Model in the Region

Morocco has taken steps unique in the Arab world to safeguard Jews’ history and role in society. It is the only country in the Muslim-Arab world where the state funds projects to restore Jewish cemeteries and renovate Jewish neighborhoods and religious sites.

“In Morocco, there are Jewish footprints everywhere: from the ‘mellahs’ (Jewish quarters) to temples, cemeteries, synagogues, butcher shops and even schools,” explains Rehihil. “How do you want to forget your other half?” she asks. “And I say this as a Moroccan Muslim woman.”

Rehihil was the first person to study Judaism at the National Institute of Heritage and Archaeology in Rabat. “I belong to a generation that has been greatly impacted by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” she says. “For me, Palestinians inspired me to discover the Jews at home.”

Morocco launched a major school reform in December 2020 to include Jewish history and culture in the secondary school curriculum — before it rekindled a relationship with Israel.

“Other countries are going to understand that they are amputating a part of their history by not recognizing Judaism’s influence — Arab countries in particular, like Egypt and Iraq, where Judaism’s influence has been greater than in Europe,” adds Berdugo.

“How can we make peace if we don’t know each other and if we don’t know where we come from?”

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