The Secret to World Peace, According to a Jewish Utopian From Casablanca in WWII

Moroccan scholar Makhlouf Abettan wrote Hebrew books during World War II describing a new world, and how to achieve it.

At the height of World War II, Makhlouf Abettan sat in his room in Casablanca, following the fate of mankind with great concern. Fragments of great catastrophe struck North Africa in various levels of severity and Moroccan Jewry, as opposed to that of Tunisia, Algeria and Libya, was left almost untouched. But reading the daily newspapers, meeting the refugees from Europe and making contact with the Allies who landed in Morocco in November 1942 gave the Jewish community no rest. Local writers began writing Hebrew and Judaeo-Arabic literature that dealt with the war, the Holocaust and the situation of North Africa’s Jews.

Redesigning the world

Abettan chose to write an unusual work that did not deal with the destruction of the world, but with its redesign. He described Eutopia, “a good place,” in the words of the creator of the concept, Sir Thomas More, and detailed which actions were necessary to make it a reality. Within the genre of intellectual literature and utopian literature in particular, Abettan’s work stands out because it was written at the height of the Second World War, and by a traditional Jew who was also a maskil (an “enlightened” Jew, one who believed in integrating the secular world with the traditional Jewish one). Abettan had a unique style of Hebrew and an unusual viewpoint for his time and place. Yet his writing sheds light on the range of Hebrew works written in Morocco in the first half of the 20th century, very little of which has been available to the Israeli reader.

We know very few details about the author, who, it seems, chose not to leave his footprints behind during the period when he published his work. We definitely know that Abettan lived in Casablanca and was part of a local network of Hebrew maskilim, which had widespread contacts with other maskilim in Morocco, Israel, Europe and the United States. He supported the Zionist movement, and his name appears on the list of donors of the “Shekel,” the annual membership dues of the World Zionist Organization starting in the early 1930s.

Abettan laid out his ideas in two pamphlets he had printed in Hebrew in Casablanca. The first was published in 1945 and titled, “The Happiness of Man” (“Osher Ha’adam”), and the second was published two years later and called “Building the World and Creating a New Man” (“Binyan Ha’olam U’bri’at Adam Hadash”). In neither pamphlet are the publisher or printer named, and it is possible they did not want to be identified with Abettan’s writings and theories. Moreover, the second pamphlet was published without Abettan’s name either, and it seems to have been distributed only to a small group of local maskilim.

Evidence of the distribution of the pamphlets came when they were found in the personal archive of the Hebrew teacher and poet Yehiel Bouskila, who lived in Casablanca; as well as in a letter written by another maskil, Gad Cohen, to the World Association for Hebrew Language and Culture (Brit Ivrit Olamit) in Jerusalem in September 1945, in which he reported on the pamphlet and sent a copy.

As a utopian, Abettan wanted to diagnose the faults in existing society and weave a security, political, economic and social vision to be implemented in his utopia. At the beginning of the works he presents three culprits that he blames for bringing world society to a state of perpetual war, of which the Second World War was the peak: Human selfishness, religion and nationalism. It is possible to see in these three elements a continuum that starts in human nature, through the monotheistic religions at the center of which stands the belief in one God (but which emphasize the differences between their adherents and others), and ending with nationalism, the modern phenomenon that continued to divide the people of Earth into additional subgroups.

Two main solutions stand out in his works: Building a new global society that will be lead by a world government, and the design of the “new man.” Abettan claims that before the world government is established, its location must be decided on – the place where the representatives of the peoples of the world, the intellectuals, will come and lead the entire world without giving any preferential treatment to the nation they come from. So that such a government can act and lead the world’s people, it would be necessary to create a global population registry, to remove all the borders and walls dividing countries, to disarm all nations (some of the weapons would be transferred to the world government and the rest would be destroyed), to set a single currency for the entire world, to do away with all national flags and create a new, single global flag of solid blue (the color of the sky), and to create a single, simple language that all people would use, Abettan wrote.

He also describes the plan to be implemented after the new government is established with the goal of improving life for all. It includes building factories, improving agricultural technology (and in particular desalination and genetic engineering), building new infrastructure and more.

To create the “New Man,” Abettan presents a detailed educational plan, whose success would be in bringing about the utopia. At the center of the plan is compulsory education for the entire population, “without any difference between male and female, black and white.” The schools would use the new language. The syllabus for all the schools would be based on four principles: A healthy lifestyle, physically and mentally; love of one’s fellow man; wisdom and scientific study; and belief in one God.

Where did Abettan get the inspiration for his works? The social agenda for the “New World” and its leadership by intellectuals reminds one of Plato’s just city state in “The Republic.” Ideas from the Social Contract of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which the graduates of the Alliance schools learned, bubble up in Abettan’s socialist worldview. His educational approach reminds one of Naphtali Hirz Wessely’s work “Words of Peace and Truth” (“Divrei Shalom Ve’emet”) from 1782. The idea of establishing a world government, which is at the heart of Abettan’s work, developed between the two world wars, but its roots appeared in 1795 in Immanuel Kant’s essay “Perpetual Peace.”

Abettan’s religious views are similar to those of the Baha’i faith, at the center of which lies the belief in divine unity and the unity of the human race. The humanistic approach and international language remind one of the Homaranismo and Esperanto of Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof. Nonetheless, it is impossible to determine with certainty that Abettan was directly, or indirectly, acquainted with these ideas and works, since like other utopian writers he did not cite his sources of inspiration. His language was modern Hebrew, influenced by traditional Jewish texts and including word games from the Bible with Aramaic amalgamations woven in that show his knowledge of the Talmud.

Despite his use of the Hebrew language, Abettan expected that the Hebrew maskilim in Morocco would find it difficult to accept his work since most of it was traditionally religious. To prepare the reader mentally for his revolutionary ideas he opened one of his works with a call: “Before reading it remove all convention and similitude, and decide with only your intelligence whether it is true or false.” But his ideas were written during a period in which Jewish nationalism flowered in Morocco and Hebrew readers rejected his global ideas, whose fulfillment would bring about the surrender of their religion and land.

Rare copies

The number of copies of Abettan’s works that he printed seems to have been very small, and those that survived were even fewer. Altogether, there are only five copies of the two pamphlets in all of Israel’s libraries. It is possible there are a few more copies spread around in personal archives of those who left Morocco, and who are unaware they even have the rare work in their possession.

So it seems the time has come to publish Makhlouf Abettan’s utopias, including those that were never published. Adding these works to the world shelf of utopian literature in general, and the Hebrew utopian literature in particular, would devotees of utopia and its scholars to be introduced to Abettan’s views. This would also expose the researchers of the Jews of Arab and Islamic lands, and Moroccan Jewry, to these impressive works.