Attacks rock Moroccan Jews, but king promises safety

NEW YORK — When the Moroccan Jewish community was contacted after the weekend's deadly terror attacks in Casablanca that targeted Jewish institutions, they were asked if they wanted to leave for Israel.

"Is Tel Aviv safer?" they reportedly responded.

On Sunday, King Mohammed VI reassured Moroccan Jews that he would protect them.

Joined by Jewish and Muslim leaders, he toured the Casablanca sites hit by suicide bombers late Friday night.

He told the Jewish community that the state would repair the damage quickly and would guarantee the community's safety.

Security at Jewish sites, which is provided by the state, was doubled or tripled after the attacks, sources in the community told American Jewish groups.

U.S.-based Jewish groups contacted the Moroccan community, asking if they needed help.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which helps Moroccan Jewish institutions such as schools, medical services and old-age homes, "will consult closely with the leaders of the Jewish community to assess what should be further steps to maintain the rich fabric of Jewish communal life in Morocco," said JDC's executive vice president, Steven Schwager.

But the community assured JDC officials that it feels safe and doesn't need immediate financial assistance.

Of the five sites hit by bombers, four were Jewish or had strong Jewish connections: a Jewish club known as Cirque L'Alliance; a Jewish cemetery; the Jewish-owned Positano restaurant; and the Hotel Safir, a hotel popular with Israeli tourists.

Initial reports cited two Jewish sites as having been attacked. One source said "it took a while until people connected the dots and realized that the common denominator was that all the targets are across from Jewish locations" — with the exception of the Casa de Espana restaurant, the fifth site bombed.

Indeed, the Safir Hotel had nine Israeli guests at the time of the bombing and was expecting 200 more. The Israelis were in Morocco for a Lag B'Omer holiday pilgrimage to the grave of a tzaddik, or wise man.

These "were classic terrorist targets: Jews" and "tourists and foreigners," Serge Berdugo, president of the Council of the Jewish Community in Morocco, told the Moroccan news agency MAP. "The goal is put us in the spiral of international terrorism."

The attacks killed 28 bystanders and wounded 100 people. Thirteen suicide bombers died in the attacks, which are believed to be the work of al-Qaida or a Moroccan group linked to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.

If the idea was to kill Jews, the bombers seem to have miscalculated: After attending Friday night synagogue services, most members of Morocco's Jewish community spend Shabbat at home. No Jews were killed or injured in the attack.

The bombings are being seen as an attack on a pro-Western, moderate Arab regime — albeit one that is a police state — that has relatively decent relations with Israel and has declared its commitment to protecting its Jewish citizens.

"The bombings of the Alliance Jewish club and a Jewish cemetery" in Casablanca, "two of the targets in a series of deadly terrorist attacks, were an assault on Morocco's Jewish community, on a country friendly to the United States, and on tolerance itself," said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

The king's pledge to rebuild the damaged buildings is part of the Moroccan government's stated support for the country's Jews.

The community, which stood at a robust 250,000 in 1948, has dwindled to 4,000 or 5,000 today, most of them older than 50. Young Jews often attend college abroad — as French speakers, they are comfortable in Paris or Montreal — and most do not return.

Once-flourishing communities in Fez, Rabat and Marrakech, all of which once boasted thousands of Jews living intimately in walled medieval markets, now have only a few hundred members.

Only Casablanca, which still supports more than a dozen synagogues, has enough Jewish students to keep a Jewish day school system alive.

Moroccan government officials like to boast of what they call the country's "2,000 years of peaceful Arab-Jewish coexistence.''

The number of Israeli tourists has fallen dramatically since the start of the Initifada: Moroccan officials say 40,000 Israelis visited the country annually in 1995 and 1996 in the euphoria that followed the Oslo accords, but only 10,000 came last year. Still, tourism by Israelis, many of whom have Moroccan roots, is picking up again after an initial plunge when the Palestinian intifada began two and a half years ago.

Despite the attacks, Moroccan synagogues held services over the weekend, though only a few people attended.