Death knell sounding for Moroccos Jews

MARRAKESH — Like a Sabbath candle whose wick has burned to the end, the Jewish community in Morocco is flickering and ready to go out forever.

It is unlikely to survive, except perhaps in the city of Casablanca, longer than one more generation.

The country's Jewish population has dropped a couple of zeroes from mid-century, from an estimated high of nearly 400,000 to a current low figure of 4,000 — virtually all with bags packed.

The stragglers regard the emigres (with their kids and grandkids) as a Moroccan Jewry in exile, scattered through France, Israel, Canada and, to a much lesser degree, the United States.

"It's very sad to have people go, and go, and go," says Jacky Kadoch, head of the Beth El Henri Kadoch synagogue his late father had built here.

Ya'acov Melloul, rabbi for Rabat, Morocco's capital, agrees. But he admits there's "no future here. There's no rabbis, no infrastructure for the community. Children leave for studies; parents follow them to protect them from marrying out of the faith.

"We have great sorrow. There won't be a Jewish community for long because there's no birth and people are dying."

Edward Gabriel, U.S. ambassador to Morocco, contends that Arab Moroccans "view the loss of Jews gravely, seeing it as a loss of part of the national fabric."

As the exodus speeds up, community leaders use what little time remains in their death watch to prepare for posterity. In a Kafkaesque scenario, they refurbish synagogues as fast as money will flow, not to hold services but to prove to future tourists that a Jewish community once existed in this Islamic country.

"We want to maintain the flame of Judaism," says Serge Berdugo, a Casablanca contractor, former minister of tourism and secretary-general of Morocco Jewry. "We want to maintain living testimony."

Accurate information is hard to obtain, although loose statistics pour from officials' lips as freely as excuses from Slobodan Milosevic. One expert, for example, says Morocco's unemployment rate is 18 percent; a short time later, another says it's 27 percent in the cities, even higher in rural areas.

How many Jews attend a given synagogue? How many youngsters in a Jewish class? The figures depend on who's talking at any moment.

The numbers are almost irrelevant. They are so few in a country of 26 million Muslims, the Jews (virtually 100 percent of whom are Sephardic) are almost invisible — despite their many historic synagogues and cemeteries, their vanishing classrooms and clinics, and their old-age homes.

According to Albert Sasson, special adviser to the director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which helps underwrite restoration projects, "today there are millions of Moroccans who have never seen a Jew except on the TV screen, through the Israeli-Palestinian crisis."

Those images make the remnants of the Jewish community in this northern African country uneasy. For them, television validates their conviction that neither synagogues nor Jewish sports clubs for the rich should put up any exterior signs or decorations indicating what they house.

Most Jewish Moroccans can't afford private clubs; they are middle-class merchants, tailors, barbers. But some, according to Meloul, don't come close to fitting the global stereotype of the hard-working Jew. "They don't leave Morocco only because they're lazy," he says. "They work five hours a day and like it that way."

Industrious or not, Moroccan Jews have always lived together in peace with Moroccan Arabs — that's the mythology. In truth, the coexistence has long been precarious. Its shakiness was most obvious at the time of Israel's 1967 war.

Thousands upon thousands fled.

"Jews here were afraid and went to Israel and Canada," says Mohammed B. Marrakshi, Tourism Ministry aide who recently led 11 Jewish journalists across the constitutional monarchy of Morocco.

Yet "Jews were deeply rooted here, before the Arabs even," he quickly adds.

Andre Azoulay has been an adviser to King Hassan II on economics and finance for nine years. The only Jew in such a position in the Arab world, he talks of two historic waves of immigration to Morocco, the first at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, the second from the Spanish Inquisition.

Jacques Zafrani, president of the Marrakesh Jewish community, addresses more modern times. A cheerleader for assimilation, he speaks in French and hyperbole:

"We experience as Jews in Muslim Morocco total freedom. When the Nazis came here and [wanted to play] the same role as they did in Europe — namely, build concentration camps — his majesty, Muhammed V, King Hassan's father, told the Vichy government, 'Don't touch my Jewish people.'"

Although the Nazis weren't able to dismantle the Jewish community, the Jews were.

Vera Assouline, Jewish purchasing manager for Marrakesh's LeMamounia, the Moroccan hotel, says: "In Morocco, you don't find a Jewish family that is together. Each family has one or two children abroad."

When they hit 15, youngsters go elsewhere — mainly to France, which kept Morocco under its protectorate wing for nearly half a century, until 1956. The students leave in part because they haven't learned to speak Arabic and can't adjust to Morocco's system of higher education. They do parlay français.

The main reason for the student exodus, however, is that their parents think they'll find a better life outside Morocco. Here, Gabriel notes sorrowfully, "unemployment is high, the illiteracy rate is 50 percent (80 to 90 percent among rural women), there is no compulsory education after age 14, and democracy is an experiment."

Moses Haliuna is a walking, talking anomaly. He lives in the Marrakesh Jewish Quarter, the mellah where 10,000 Jews lived 200 years ago. Today, Haliuna and his family reside above his fabric shop, one of merely a handful of Jewish families still in what was once a Jewish ghetto.

Haliuna, who keeps kosher, prays each Shabbat and is in charge of checking out two closed synagogues in the area, didn't leave for Israel with all his friends, he explains, "because business is good" and because his parents still live here.

He may be one of the few who will choose to die in their native land.

Not far away is a 500-year-old Jewish cemetery. Tombs celebrate grand rabbis from centuries past. In addition, rows upon rows of small white cement mounds contain the remains of Jewish children. Epidemics in 1935 and 1957 killed them so fast there wasn't time for names to be inscribed on the outside of the monuments.

Aside from Casablanca, the story is similar in each Moroccan city.

In Fez, Jews arrived during the ninth century; its ghetto emerged 500 years later. Today the community is dying faster than you can say the name of Abraham Sabbagh, a rabbi/shochet/mohel/community recorder who wears a Nike baseball cap even while conducting Shabbat services.

In the 18th century, he says, 40,000 Jews lived there. Today, "there are only 350, although the government guide wants me to say there are more than there really are," he whispers in Hebrew.

The city's last Jewish wedding, he notes, was three years ago — his son's. The last brit milah was "four or five years ago."

Dr. Armand Guigui, president of the Fez, Qujda and Sefrou Jewish communities, tells why the Jews are obsessed with restoring synagogues: "We want to commemorate the lives of the people who prayed there."

Everyone, it seems, is looking toward a time when no Jews live in Morocco, which sits just south of Spain. "Whenever we Jews want to buy something," says David Toledano, general secretary of the Fez community, "the fathers say, 'No, maybe we'll leave Morocco next year — or in six months.'"

Some visitors have difficulty with the community's emphasis on yesterday and tomorrow instead of today. There is also a surreal quality to Jews repeatedly talking about the million-member Moroccan Jewish community "around the world." UNESCO's Sasson, a Jew, admits he's worried "what will happen with my grandchildren. There is a dissolution, of course."

Exiles in France, he says, "have become French citizens and behave like French citizens yet have kept close ties to the Moroccan community and return for holidays. Some will tell you that Morocco is a hell. They may have been treated badly by an Arab partner. But as a whole, the community has good memories."

Nevertheless, he adds, Jews in France would never consider returning on a permanent basis. "It is out of the question. Put yourself in their shoes. They have a good life there."

That good life certainly involves better economic conditions than in Morocco, where the average Muslim family earns from $100 to $150 per month — and where polygamy is still legal but too expensive.

Gadi Golan is bureau chief for the Israeli Liaison Office. "I don't think a third-generation Russian or Lithuanian in the United States is looking to go back to the old country, so Moroccans in Israel or France aren't looking to go back to Morocco," he says.

And despite the wishful thinking that's often expressed, only a small percentage of emigres return for visits. And few of those ever stop at refurbished miniature synagogues or tucked-away museums or ostentatious tombs for revered rabbis.

Jean Liberato, a Jewish accountant who now lives in Paris, left Morocco in 1964. He visited the next year, and came back for a second visit this past February. He admits that his "grandkids will be Jews and have a connection to Torah but will not have a connection to my childhood or country."

Asked if anything would make him consider returning to Morocco, he says, "No, it's finished. Israel's the place now. My wife and I hope to buy a little place there. We wouldn't buy again in an Arab country, even if we had a lot of money."

The Jewish community, whether it likes it or not, is linked to Israel — and its politics; Moroccans especially react to sensationalized media tales about Israel subjugating the Palestinian population.

Morocco and Israel do not have full diplomatic relations, and therefore no ambassadors. Golan, the highest-ranking Israeli official in Morocco, openly talks about Hassan's distaste for the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, noting that "relations are now frozen" because of those feelings.

Feelings of paranoia are also a Jewish tradition. Golan tells of his father, a merchant, regularly "reading a Jewish newspaper. But when a non-Jew came in, he shoved it under the counter, out of sight. It's like that in Morocco now. There is fear."

He has felt no anti-Semitism personally, he says, "but in the press, articles say Jews control the world. Some of the extremist Islamic newspapers say things like the fact that sheriffs in the United States have six-pointed stars is proof the Jews are controlling the world."

Every now and then a Jew will take the position that there still is hope for the Moroccan community to survive — that tourism or trade or better relations with Israel will make a difference.

Still, in Casablanca in particular, there can be an illusion that the Jewish community is still thriving.

It has 30 synagogues and a $250,000 annual budget. This year's Purimspiel found countless youngsters in costumes ranging from the traditional Queen Esther to post-modern American comic superheroes. The biggest synagogue, Beth El, includes an ark that is like a walk-in closet, a chapel that seats 200, and claims 500 members (only 100 of them women). At the S.D. Levy Home for the Aged, 85 poor people are warehoused free (albeit in conditions the community glorifies but visiting Americans find appalling).

As the Moroccan Jewish population shrinks, so do the number of schools, old-age facilities and other communal institutions. Assistance from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee also gets thinner each year.

Boris Toledano, president of its Jewish community, predicts that Casablanca will probably become a way-station for the rapidly dwindling community of Jews.

"It is very likely the remaining Jews will come to Casablanca before leaving the country," he says. "Our biggest task now is to preserve our history, our legacy."