The desert at sunset in Rissani, Morocco. (SUE BARNETT)
The desert at sunset in Rissani, Morocco. (SUE BARNETT)

After mass exodus, Morocco celebrates its Jewish heritage

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Morocco, once home to the largest number of Jews in the Arab world, is doing some serious Jewish outreach these days.

Ten years ago, King Mohammed VI began allocating funds to restore Morocco’s historically significant Jewish sites and open them to visitors, part of an ongoing project to recognize the Islamic country’s rich Jewish past. Last fall, J. was invited on an American Jewish heritage press trip arranged by the Moroccan National Tourist Office to show how Morocco is elevating its Jewish legacy and investing in its preservation. It is safe to say that no other Arab nation embraces its Jewish history to this extent or grounds it in its national narrative.

Being the object of such affection, especially in a Muslim country, can be a novel experience for Jews, who often find themselves thrust into the role of proxy for Israeli policy. While Morocco is a member of the Arab League, which does not recognize Israel, it is considered the friendliest Arab state by far, with informal, back-channel relations established with Israel decades ago by the king’s late father, Hassan II.

The relationship between the two countries is based on their unique history. The Jewish population of Morocco at its peak in the 1930s and ’40s exceeded 250,000 people, most with roots going back generations. A mass exodus triggered by the aftermath of World War II and the founding of Israel brought about precipitous change, and today no more than 3,000 Jews live in the entire country.

In a matter of two decades, almost all of the Jews were gone from this land in North Africa where they had lived continuously for more than 2,000 years. But their legacy remains.

A berber camel handler who has spent his entire life in the Sahara Desert and learned to speak English by working with tourists. (SUE BARNETT)
A berber camel handler who has spent his entire life in the Sahara Desert and learned to speak English by working with tourists. (SUE BARNETT)

“Judaism is part of Moroccan identity,” said Zhor Rehihil, Muslim conservator at the Museum of Moroccan Judaism in Casablanca, the first of its kind in the Arab world. “We still have a Jewish memory, even though the Jews left.”

Visiting Morocco is an acutely sensory experience: the fragrant spices in the souk, the mazelike medinas (or historic Muslim quarters), where belching motorbikes compete with shoppers on foot, the crumbling ochre buildings that line narrow alleyways in Marrakech, the colorful painted tiles and mosaics, the rolling sand dunes of the Sahara Desert, and the Arab culture of hospitality that means sipping mint tea and eating little cookies multiple times a day.

Heritage tours are a popular way to travel, combining adventure and learning — “visit the glorious Jewish world of the past,” as one company promises — but in many countries there’s no escaping the grim history behind the slogans. Jewish tours of Poland face haunted ghosts at every tragic turn. In Morocco, however, the past has plenty of bright spots, and the Jewish ghosts are a friendlier sort, still eager to be part of the story.

“Let me put it this way,” said multilingual Tangier guide Mohamed Harrak. “Jews never left this country.”

The lamps and chandeliers at Synagogue Roben Bensadoun in Fez are relics from old synagogues in the city's Jewish quarter, or mellah. (SUE BARNETT)
The lamps and chandeliers at Synagogue Roben Bensadoun in Fez are relics from old synagogues in the city’s Jewish quarter, or mellah. (SUE BARNETT)

He is referring not to the few thousand who remain, but to the tens of thousands of Jews with Moroccan heritage who return for regular visits, especially around Passover and Rosh Hashanah, filling up synagogues that are virtually empty the rest of the time. A smaller number come to celebrate weddings and b’nai mitzvah. Together, they contribute financial and cultural richness to the Jewish landscape.

Serge Berdugo
Serge Berdugo

Meanwhile, the permanent Jewish residents go about their daily lives. Most live in Casablanca, a city of 3 million, where the Council of Jewish Communities is based. Serge Berdugo, 82, heads the umbrella organization and is a de facto political figure, serving as an ambassador-at-large to the king since 2007 and holding other Jewish leadership positions over the years.

“The Jewish community is small but vibrant,” he told our group of visiting writers at a high-rise lunch overlooking the city. There are kosher butchers, slaughterers and bakeries, he said, as well as 16 traditional synagogues still in operation, including Temple Beth-El, a beautifully refurbished edifice open to tourists and other outsiders who come to worship and study. There is even a Jewish-sponsored school, Ozar HaTorah, that is held up as a model of coexistence, although the makeup has shifted and most of its current 350 students are Muslim.

While “the life of Jews hasn’t always been wine and roses,” Berdugo conceded, “I never think for one moment to leave Morocco. It’s comfortable to live here as Jews. Things are completely stable.”

Outside of Casablanca, Jews make up tiny communities in Fez, Marrakech, Tétouan, Essaouira, Tangier and a few other cities. They comprise a welcoming committee of sorts for Jewish visitors who come to explore historical sites or make religious pilgrimages to the tombs of holy sages. The circuit includes faithfully restored synagogues, cemeteries where hundreds of thousands are buried, and the former walled Jewish quarters known as mellahs.

High school students between classes at Casablanca's Jewish-sponsored Ozar HaTorah school, where most of the students are Muslim. (SUE BARNETT)
High school students between classes at Casablanca’s Jewish-sponsored Ozar HaTorah school, where most of the students are Muslim. (SUE BARNETT)

The sites are protected, and often locked. In Tétouan, our group needed help tracking down Leon Bentollila, age 80, one of the last Jews in the city and holder of the keys. Wearing a white kippah and speaking in Spanish and Arabic, he showed us around the early 19th-century Isaac Bengualid Synagogue, pointing out the bones of the past — a mikvah used for kashering dishes, a communal oven, a lonely Torah. Of the 7,000 Jews who once lived in this northern port city, he said, just 10 are left, and no regular religious services have been held since 1968.

In Fez, we visited Synagogue Roben Bensadoun, an unmarked building in the “new” part of the city from the 15th century. We waited outside until word reached Shalom Tordjman, who showed up to greet us. At age 60, he is the youngest of eight regular worshippers. He oversees the community center and kosher kitchen and said many tourists come on Shabbat and holidays and fill out the pews.

In Marrakech, the 16th-century Slat al-Azama synagogue was open, but the person we came to meet, British expat Kati Roumani, was not present. She lives onsite, on an upper floor away from the prayer space, and security guards cheerfully called out her name until she appeared — from the outside, where she had been food shopping. Roumani, 49, is a journalist and observant Jew who homeschools her 10-year-old daughter. She said fewer than 100 Jews live full time in the “Red City” that once boasted a Jewish population of 25,000.

“There is a very deep presence of Jews in Morocco,” she said. “They are embedded in the culture, then and now.”

Two views of the renovated Temple Beth-El in Casablanca, the city's flagship synagogue and the only one open to outside visitors. (SUE BARNETT)
Two views of the renovated Temple Beth-El in Casablanca, the city’s flagship synagogue and the only one open to outside visitors. (SUE BARNETT)

The history of the Jews in Morocco by some accounts began in 586 BCE, when they came with Phoenician traders after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. They settled among the local Berber tribes in the Anti-Atlas region, where they brought a worldly view and introduced Judaism to a populace that previously had worshipped the natural world.

Jews and Muslims largely coexisted as a succession of Islamic dynasties ruled Morocco beginning in the eighth century. The two groups were never considered equals: As non-Muslims under Islamic rule, Jews were classified as second-class dhimmis. While this afforded them certain legal protections, they paid steep taxes for that privilege. The mellah typically was situated close to the ruling sultan, presumably so he could better protect his Jewish subjects. This tolerance dictated by Islamic law, however, did not prevent persecution, forced conversions and other periods of violence.

Still, there were a few golden ages when Jews flourished economically and culturally. Famously, in the 12th century the scholar and physician Maimonides studied at the university in Fez. The house where he lived is immortalized today by “Chez Maimonides,” a Chinese-Moroccan restaurant — proprietors reportedly must agree to include him in their business name (and, one presumes, Jews must eat there on Christmas?).

The most significant demographic shift in the Jewish community came after the Spanish Expulsion of 1492 ordered Jews to convert, be exiled or face death. Tens of thousands of Sephardim fled from the Iberian Peninsula to Morocco. They had little to their names, but they did bring valuable commodities — education, culture and craftsmanship — that ultimately benefited their new communities. Even more substantial was their natural position as trade intermediaries between Europe and Morocco, lending them economic, social and political cache.

Chefchaouen, the "blue city" founded in 1491, is in the Rif mountains south of Tangier and one of Morroco's top tourist destinations. (SUE BARNETT)
Chefchaouen, the “blue city” founded in 1491, is in the Rif mountains south of Tangier and one of Morroco’s top tourist destinations. (SUE BARNETT)

“After the expulsion from Spain, Jews used their skills in trading gold and salt. The mellah was created, and the Jewish spice market expanded out to the Jewish square, then out of the neighborhood,” guide Aziz El Makdouni told us in Marrakech. “Jews were needed, especially in ports to deal with the merchants and traders.”

By the 20th century, however, any sense of purpose and rootedness was upended by the establishment of Israel and the imminent end of the 44-year French colonial presence in Morocco. With the political and economic forecast dire and the future uncertain, Jews began leaving in several clandestine waves.

Just a month after Israel became a state in 1948, anti-Jewish riots broke out in two towns near Morocco’s northern border with Algeria, leaving 44 dead and many more wounded. Thousands of Jews left the country, a pattern that continued amid political turbulence after Morocco gained independence from France in 1956, and in 1961-64 through a covert mission that spirited more than 100,000 to Israel. By 1975, just 20,000 Jews were left.

Most emigrated to Israel, which since 1947 had been offering incentives to populate the new state. (Today a half-million Mizrachi Jews of Moroccan descent call Israel home, comprising the second-largest community after Russians.) Many more went to France, Spain and the Americas, while others headed for Montreal and Quebec, which offered a “bridge” for educated, French-speaking Jewish immigrants.

Despite the circumstances that led to such a dramatic exodus, it is not uncommon today for everyone, from the carpet seller in the medina to the king in his palace, to express how they wish their Jewish brethren had stayed. They pine for the days when Jews helped the economy hum and enriched the culture.

Working on a menorah at a ceramics factory in Fez. (SUE BARNETT)
Working on a menorah at a ceramics factory in Fez. (SUE BARNETT)

During the press tour, we heard the same refrain from city to city. The Jews were our neighbors, they were our colleagues, they were like family. They emigrated to seek opportunity elsewhere, not because things were bad. “Nobody left for political reasons, only for work,” one man insisted. They went “to join their brothers in Israel,” a tour guide said — which is, technically, true.

The Moroccan people, at least officially, talk about the relationship with nostalgia and pride. They point to the examples set by King Mohammed V, who protected the Jews from Vichy France, and King Hassan II, in power from 1961 to 1999, who fostered the secret relationship with Israel. In 1967, at the urging of the local Jewish community, he agreed to restore the original names of Jewish streets in Marrakech, which after 1947 had been changed to Arabic. Hassan II also played a role in the Israel-Egypt peace agreement, and he hosted Israeli prime ministers Shimon Peres in 1986 and Yitzhak Rabin in 1993.

The son who succeeded him, Mohammed VI, 56, has continued in his father’s footsteps, publicly denouncing anti-Semitic incidents and even updating the constitution in 2011 to acknowledge the country’s “diverse, indivisible national identity” that is “nurtured and enriched by Andalusian, Hebraic and Mediterranean constituents.” (Not coincidentally, this change was made around the time of the Arab Spring, and the king was seeking to unify the country and stave off unrest.) He also allocated money for the restoration of Jewish sites, including 20 synagogues and more than 160 cemeteries in the last few years.

The cultural appreciation goes both ways. In Erfoud, a desert town at the edge of the Sahara, our group met Reuven Elharrar, who was wearing tzitzit and tefillin as he entered a prayer space at a Jewish cemetery. Originally from Casablanca, Elharrar, 62, moved to Montreal in 1976 and said he comes back twice a year on religious pilgrimages.

Reuven Elharrar emigrated to Montreal in 1976 and returns to his native Morocco twice a year. (SUE BARNETT)
Reuven Elharrar emigrated to Montreal in 1976 and returns to his native Morocco twice a year. (SUE BARNETT)

“Generally Muslims are very welcoming, nice to us,” he offered, adding, “You have to walk with your eyes on your back, but we are not sleeping with fear. Thank God we have a very nice king. God bless him, may he have a long life.”

In Marrakech, a just-opened cooking school has an entire room dedicated to Moroccan Jewish culture and cuisine. Elsewhere in the city, there are plans to build a synagogue and community center to accommodate visitors. Earlier this year in Essaouira, a port city that once was 40 percent Jewish, the king attended the inauguration of a $1.5 million center dedicated to Jewish culture.

“For 3,000 years [Judaism] was here. It’s still here,” said Rehihil, who notes that among the visitors to Casablanca’s Jewish museum each year are many Arab tourists, including from Egypt, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. “The Jews who left for Israel are still Moroccan Jews. The king said, ‘If you are born Moroccan, you are always Moroccan.’”

While that sentiment may be heartening, it is also true that the Jews who left carried the weight of collective sorrow.

Carlos de Nesry was a lawyer and writer in Tangier whose 1956 book “Le Juif de Tanger et le Maroc” recounted the difficult choices Jews faced starting in 1948 (from “Jewish Culture and Society in North Africa,” co-edited by Emily Benichou Gottreich and Daniel J. Schroeter, 2011): “They are reluctantly leaving a country that is made for them, that remains a part of them, and that they will never forget. They are torn as they abandon this land, a land where they have lived, struggled and prayed, a land where their generations built an earthly residence, a land where their dead lie at rest.”

J. Managing Editor Sue Barnett visited Morocco in Nov. 2019 as a guest of the Moroccan National Tourist Office.

Sue Barnett

Sue Barnett is managing editor of J. She can be reached at [email protected].