On World Tour (But Not in Israel): Treasures of Moroccan Jewry

'Obsessed' collector Paul Dahan undertook research and acquisition trips in Morocco, Israel and other parts of the Moroccan Jewish diaspora before compiling his exhibition, but says it was too complicated to organize a tour in Israel.

Why hasn’t the largest collection of artifacts belonging to Moroccan Jewry ever been exhibited in Israel?

Over 70 years ago the building in which it is housed was used by the Nazis in occupied Brussels. Narrow steps descend to the cellar, a long corridor passes what were once dark and suffocating solitary confinement cells with heavy metal doors, which did not block out the screams of the tortured. A few more steps and we arrive in underground halls illuminated by strong fluorescent lights. This is now the temporary kingdom of Paul Dahan, the man who owns the largest collection in the world of remnants of the culture and history of the Moroccan Jewish community in past centuries.

This is an unusual story about an obsession – maybe Dahan, a famous Belgian psychoanalyst, could find another definition – which has continued for almost 30 years. Three decades of search missions, historical research, connections with dealers and private sellers, massive acquisitions and fascinating finds. All these led in the end to a gathering of the rich and varied treasure, parts of which have already been displayed in several exhibitions worldwide, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors. Not in Israel, incidentally. Why? We’ll get to that.

In the collection are about 11,000 books by and about Moroccan Jews, including very rare books, from the 16th century on, in Hebrew, Mugrabi, French and other languages. There are tens of thousands of manuscripts and documents, poetry, ketubot, letters and halakhic rulings by rabbis, including 19th-century Rabbi Yaakov Abuhatzeira, aka “Abir Yaakov,” father of the Abuhatzeira rabbinical dynasty and grandfather of the Baba Sali.

There are about 8,000 photographs, including many from the early days of photography in the 19th century, which record the lives of the Jews of Morocco, and dozens of films shot there. There are about 4,000 items – jewelry, works of art and paintings, sacred and everyday objects, traditional costumes, postcards and more. A large collection that perhaps does the best job possible of telling the story of an ancient community, and which demonstrates the existence, already in the third century, of a community that absorbed many of the refugees from the 15th-century Spanish expulsion, and which on the eve of the establishment of the State of Israel numbered over 250,000 Jews.

Dahan was born in Fez, Morocco in 1947. His father was a wine merchant whose family came from Tafilalet, a district in the northern edge of the Sahara, and an oasis. Tafilalet is the original home of the royal family that rules Morocco to this day, and of the greatest Moroccan teachers of kabbala – “which has become big business in Israel,” says Dahan with an embarrassed smile.

His childhood and educational experiences sound like an intriguing story of cultures and fragrances. “It was an inquisitive, open society with Spanish, Arab and Berber roots and European influences. My parents spoke Arabic between themselves and French to the children. There was a direct connection among Jews, Muslim and Christians. You could taste couscous, paella or beef Bourguignon, listen to Arab music, piyyutim (liturgical poems often sung) in Hebrew, and then go over to Mozart. The education I received was a traditional Jewish one with great openness to accepting the other, those who were different.”

The winds changed direction and the horizon began to narrow for Dahan in the mid-1960s. He took a trip to Spain, France and Scandinavia. There, in a Danish pub, he met Israelis for the first time in his life. “They looked at me as if I were strange, and that’s how I looked at them.” He arrived in Israel after another attempt to build a future for himself in Morocco. He lived on Kibbutz Palmahim, served in the Israel Defense Forces in the Nahal Brigade and the Paratroops as a lone soldier. After his discharge he decided to study the archaeology of Egypt and the ancient Middle East.

“I heard that in the university in Brussels there were excellent professors in the subject, who had already excavated all over the region, and I went there.” Later he changed direction, studied psychology and became a successful psychoanalyst. Brussels became his permanent place of residence. “Here I found the cosmopolitanism and coexistence characteristic of my home town of Fez in the 1950s and 1960s,” he says. Turning introspective in the late 1980s, he journeyed to Morocco, which changed his life for good.

“The click,” he says, came when he entered a small antique shop in the city of Rissani and was drawn to a wedding bracelet, a gift from the groom to the bride. “I found it beautiful, decorated with small roofs, a good luck charm for building a family home. I wanted it very much and I got into a long bargaining session with the seller. After an hour we reached an agreement, and then the man asked me, where are you from? I told him.

“He laughed and told me, ’That’s impossible. You’re from here, from this place, in a radius of two kilometers at most. The way you conducted the bargaining is our way.’ I was amazed. I’m a psychoanalyst. I understood how this thing passed to me from my father the merchant, from my ancestors. That was also a decisive moment in my internal debate about my identity. My professional training gives me the ability to understand how important a role is played by history and memory, which is something people need. Through my own personal therapy I amassed a collection that provides answers to everything related to the identity of the Moroccan Jew.”

Dahan undertook research and acquisition trips in Morocco, Israel and other parts of the Moroccan Jewish diaspora. He established an intelligence network of acquaintances who gave him information on the subject. “I also bought a lot of Judaica of other communities and sold it for a large profit, and used the money to expand the Moroccan Jewry collection.”

In 2001 Dahan’s work received recognition in his country, when the Royal Library of Belgium held an exhibition for him that attracted both Jews and Muslims living in Brussels. “Various groups here demonstrate great interest in the subject, because it’s seen as a cultural bridge between the communities.” Non-Jewish Moroccans and their descendants constitute the largest group of naturalized citizens in Belgium in recent decades, about 450,000 people.

In the years since then the collection has also been displayed in special exhibitions curated by Dahan in Amsterdam, Paris, Limoges, New York and Barcelona. The most recent one, last October in Lisbon, attracted 97,000 visitors. Preparations are now underway for another exhibition in Madrid.

And in Israel?

He hesitates for a moment. “In the past I loaned several items to various displays. But an exhibition – that’s problematic. There were negotiations and I made plans with the Association of North African Immigrants in Israel, but there’s so much politics there. It was too complicated. I even had Arab donors who were willing to finance part of the exhibition, but it didn’t work out. I’m now talking with a cultural center in Mishkenot Shaananim [in Jerusalem], maybe something will come of that.”

Until then, Dahan is waiting for the completion of the major renovation of the Brussels Jewish Museum. For about a decade the collection was in the Jewish Moroccan Heritage Museum that Dahan established in a Brussels suburb with his own money, and which was recently closed. The Jewish Museum, which was a target of a murderous terror attack last May, recently received generous public assistance, and as part of the expansion and changes in the building, a special place will be allocated for the display of the Moroccan Jewry collection. In a soft voice, Dahan says, “If I only had 5 million euros, I would build a museum for this collection in Israel.”

In the past seven years Dahan was one of 30 members of the Council of Moroccan Community Abroad, which is financed by the king of Morocco. “This council has a budget that surpasses that of several government ministries. It’s important to Morocco to maintain multiculturalism, including helping to fund exhibitions like mine. It’s part of the government’s battle against radical Islam, and the collection exemplifies coexistence and shows how involved the Jews were in the history of the kingdom.”

He was also asked by the council to write a book to be distributed to all the schoolchildren in Morocco, one that describes outstanding Jews in Moroccan history and their contribution to Moroccan culture. “This book will try to educate young people who tend to be attracted to Islamic extremists and to slogans heard in the wake of events in the Middle East that reach centers of anti-Semitism,” says Dahan, adding that the book will be out next year.