When coronavirus-stricken schools in Morocco belatedly opened their doors in November, the royal court had a surprise. The primary-school syllabus for the coming academic year would incorporate Moroccan Jewish history and culture, the first time any Arab country had taken such a step.
But it was no surprise that Morocco was the first. The North African kingdom has long been a regional pioneer in all things Jewish. In the same year that then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was calling the Holocaust a myth, Moroccan King Mohammed VI described the mass murder of 6 million Jews as “one of the most tragic chapters of modern history” and helped launch the UNESCO-backed Aladdin Project promoting Jewish-Muslim relations and tackling Holocaust denial.
In the last four years alone, Casablanca’s Jewish museum, the first of its kind in the Arab world, and the nearby synagogue were renovated, while the authorities also decreed that imams would have to learn about Christianity and Judaism. The royal palace even published a pamphlet for imams' training entitled “Lectures in Jewish Culture.” Earlier this year, Mohammed VI also established a Jewish museum, Bayt Dakira (House of Memory), in the mellah (old Jewish quarter) of the coastal city of Essaouira, where Jews once made up 40 percent of the population.
Amid whisperings mainly from Washington that Morocco could join the normalization agreements with Israel – the country where the vast majority of Moroccan Jews ended up – the timing seems auspicious. Indeed, Moroccan Jews constituted the largest Israeli Jewish community until the mass migration of Russian-speaking Jews in the ‘90s. However, the roots – and politics – of the syllabus decision run much deeper.
Have you heard the one about the Muslim, Coptic Christian and Jew who run a pharmacy together? This was actually a 1954 Egyptian comedy, “Hassan, Marcus and Cohen.” The 2008 remake, however, was less funny: “Hassan and Marcus” ditched the Jewish protagonist.
Abdou Ladino, the General Secretary of the Mimouna Association, a Moroccan nongovernmental organization founded in 2007 by Muslim students looking to promote Jewish heritage and interfaith dialogue around the country, says he expects a grim punchline: just “Hassan,” as Coptic discontent grows in Egypt.
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When the Moroccan authorities announced their landmark decision on the primary-school syllabus, they were met with widespread praise from Jewish groups. The American Sephardi Federation and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations released a statement praising the king’s “enduring commitment to recognizing a pluralist past and assuring continuation in the future.”
In contrast, when Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi announced a $71 million package for restoring Jewish sites in 2017, commentators entertained a variety of cynical motives: a timely boost to U.S.-Egypt relations, a push to present an image of moderation internationally, and even a ploy to get an Egyptian into a senior UNESCO position. Ladino of the Mimouna Association, however, insists that “there is a difference between Morocco and Egypt. There is no political agenda behind this initiative.”
His response is emblematic of Morocco’s fascination with its Jewish history: It’s driven by a sense of the kingdom’s exceptionalism, and a mosaic identity that has come to define how Moroccans view themselves. The state-approved textbooks mainly connect Jewish history and culture – “considered one of the key currents of national identity” – to Moroccan values of “peace, freedom, and openness.”
“Morocco is not rich despite its diversity but because of its diversity,” Ladino told Haaretz. “Judaism is part of our history and culture, and so many things in our day-to-day life – the food we eat, the music we listen to, the expressions we use – come from Moroccan Jews.”
He pointed to a couple of common Darija (Moroccan Arabic) expressions that use Hebrew; for example, Aleik nemshi Kabara (I’d sacrifice myself for you). Moroccan Arabic also uses the Hebrew term of endearment kapara, while the phrase Dhaa layhu il-mazal (He is out of luck) uses the Hebrew mazal for luck.
In one sense, there is good reason for this sense of exceptionalism – including the common belief, shared by both Moroccan Muslims and Jews, that Mohammed V defied the Vichy regime’s anti-Jewish laws during World War II to ensure that no Jews were deported or killed. The country also had the largest population of Jews in the Arabic-speaking world.
Today, however, the community is only around 2,000-strong, representing just over 1 percent of the country’s Jewish population in 1948, and mostly concentrated in Casablanca as opposed to the previous spread across the country. The number remains the highest in the Arabic-speaking world. In fact, the community is honored in the 2011 constitution, which declares that the unity of the Moroccan nation “is forged by the convergence of its Arab-Islamist, Berber and Saharan-Hassanic components, nourished and enriched by its African, Andalusian, Hebraic and Mediterranean influences.”
Saaid Amzazi, the Moroccan education minister, drew on the constitution in his interview with Med Radio on the historic decision. “Judaism and Jewish Moroccan history is enshrined in our constitution, and it needs to be part of the curriculum. We want to include students in all the constitutional reforms and changes happening in their country,” he said.
“It is time. We’ve turned our back on this chapter for years. We started with Amazigh culture and history, and now we’ve moved to the other components of Moroccan history,” he added, using another name for Berber culture.
Orit Ouaknine-Yekutieli, a specialist on Morocco at the Middle East Studies Department at Ben-Gurion University, says this was a long time coming. She also notes that in the Mimouna Association’s lobbying, interfaith matters are very much a “top-down initiative” interlaced with “bottom-up” feelings, and that “very senior figures are involved.”
She also connects some of the NGO’s Jewish patrons to the syllabus decision, including the late Simon Levy (Ladino, who is Muslim, uttered the Hebrew honorific for the dead, zichrono livrocho, when mentioning Levy’s name). Ouaknine-Yekutieli also notes the king’s senior adviser, André Azoulay, as another person who has pushed for such projects for nearly two decades.
It’s little surprise, then, that Amzazi, the education minister, said “he faced no obstacles” to the initiative, while Ladino says “there was no pushback” from ordinary Moroccans.
Sure enough, these ideas have been pushed by grassroots groups. The Mimouna Association, with the help of Moroccan historians and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, designed an Arabic-language syllabus on the Holocaust in 2017, which was taken on by several public and private institutions.
Meanwhile, in recent years, many conferences have been held in Morocco discussing Jewish and Hebrew culture, while in 2013, the participants at a symposium in Fes had already called for Hebrew studies to be taught at universities. At private universities, with independent and international research centers, it’s easier to discuss these subjects.
‘Well respected, non-Zionist Judaism’
Although Morocco’s diverse culture has become a key part of national identity, spikes of activity related to multiculturalism as policy and discourse “often coincide with political strategy,” Ouaknine-Yekutieli said. In post-independence Morocco, the nation-building process allowed little space to express religious identities. But this soon subsided.
She traces Morocco’s pluralistic self-image to King Hassan II’s fanciful call for Moroccan Jews to return to the country following the failed coup d’états of the ‘70s; Hassan was king from 1961 to 1999. This rhetoric “invoked an imagined idealized past and created legitimacy for the kingdom,” Ouaknine-Yekutieli said.
After a series of terror attacks in Morocco post-9/11, including the Casablanca attack in 2003 aimed at Jewish targets, “Multiculturalism was also seen as part of the fight against phenomena of Islamic extremism, which threatened the regime,” she said. A further example is Morocco’s 2011 constitution, which arose as a palliative amid the simmering demands of the Arab Spring. The clauses ensured the co-opting of moderate minorities and projected an image of tolerance and progress.
What lies behind the latest efforts, however, is unclear given the opacity of the Moroccan royal court. The proclivity to connect recent trends to Israel’s normalization agreements with Arab countries is tempting but remains speculative: The rift between Rabat and Tehran over Iran’s support for the separatist Polisario Front and its recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic is another factor that could bring Morocco and Israel closer together. The website Axios, meanwhile, has reported that Israel has pushed the Trump administration to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.
Western Sahara was occupied by Spain until 1976. Morocco then claimed most of the territory but faced guerrilla resistance from the local population. The United Nations maintains that the Sahrawi people have a legitimate right to self-determination, but the status of the desert region remains under dispute. Still, even the Mimouna Association’s Facebook page posted #SAHARA_IS_MOROCCAN last month. The picture was embellished with many languages, and included “thanks” in Hebrew.
Among the precursors to Israel’s deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain were the proliferating interfaith initiatives in the Gulf. While these shifts could have the unintended effect of helping Moroccans accept normalization with the country where most of its Jews ended up, Ouaknine-Yekutieli says most of the intelligentsia and common people still criticize Zionism. She points to a conclusion of her academic paper. The resurgent interest, she wrote, is “not a tribute to Zionism but an example for the existence of an alternative, well respected, non-Zionist Judaism.”
However, for the time being, Morocco is normalizing something else: a respect for diversity and difference that draws on the country’s often tangled history. Like all national histories, this self-image and the syllabus add a certain gloss.
When asked about the 1912 pillaging of Fes’ Jewish quarter by Moroccan soldiers, killing over 50 Jews, or about anti-Jewish riots in 1948 in Oujda and Jerada, killing 43 Jews and one Frenchman, Ladino doesn’t hold back.
“We cannot deny the fact that there were dark chapters in the history of Moroccan Jews,” he said, adding that many discussions have taken place at his Mimouna Association. “But it’s good to emphasize multiculturalism as a model for how we want to society to look today and in the future.”