Until a few years ago, discussion of the Holocaust sometimes felt like the exclusive preserve of the West. Today, in the Middle East and North Africa, a number of civil society actors are introducing initiatives to amplify and refine the general public's knowledge of this tragic episode in contemporary history. This article focuses on how the Holocaust touched Morocco, which was once home to the largest Jewish community in the Arab world, and efforts to raise awareness of the Holocaust in the country today.
“From the village of Oujda, my sincerest condolences.” “God rest an artist who delighted our grandparents and our parents.” “A great man, an eminent physician and so human with patients; he leaves us with indelible memories. We are so sad.”
These are just some of the hundreds of tributes that poured in for the first 12 Jewish Moroccans to die of Covid-19. They were among 198 Moroccan victims of the pandemic to have been declared by March 19. By July 15, the country’s reported death toll had risen to 257.
On social networks, messages of condolence from Muslims, friends of the deceased, civil society actors and government officials have poured in to commemorate these individuals in French, Arabic and Berber. Well-wishers remember the remarkable soul of Rabbi Sholom Eidelman, a well-known emissary of the Orthodox Chabad movement in Casablanca. Mothers mourn Dr. Amram Ruimy, their childhood doctor. Andalusian music lovers post tributes in memory of singer Michel Tordjman of the Kinor David Maroc Choir. A message of thanks to the current Moroccan King Mohammed VI from Jacky Sebbag, another rabbi cured of Covid-19, for the provision he has made for care of the sick is shared hundreds of times on Facebook.
Every Jewish life in the Kingdom of Morocco is precious, and every new death an irreplaceable loss. The Jewish community in Morocco numbered nearly 250,000 people out of a population of 10 million in the mid-1950s. According to the Council of the Israelite Communities of Morocco there are fewer than 2,500 practicing Moroccan Jews in the country today out of a total population of 36 million.
The reasons for the Moroccan Jewish exodus are myriad, from the push of deep-rooted cultural antisemitism, persecution under the French Protectorate and vilification by the Arab nationalist movement to the pull of the ideological and religious attraction of Zionism. Today, a pioneering organization led by young Moroccan Muslims, the Mimouna Association, is striving to keep alive the rich heritage of Morocco’s dwindling Jewish community, through programs that highlight the manifold contributions of Jews to Moroccan culture and the unique historical experience of a people that has suffered serial tragedies over the centuries, including the Holocaust.
As its Secretary-General, Abdou Ladino, says: “We believe in the saying of Georges Santayana: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
2000 Years of Jewish Presence on Moroccan Soil
The first Jews are thought to have arrived in Morocco after the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem by the Roman Emperor Titus in 70 AD. The earliest material evidence of Jewish presence on Moroccan soil dates back to the 4th century and was discovered among the remains of the ancient city of Volubilis: a funerary inscription in Hebrew, and a bronze lamp decorated with a Jewish ceremonial candelabra called a menorah.
In Islamic scriptures in Morocco, the Jew is depicted as "the cousin": the neighbour, friend, colleague or boss in secular life, who shares his mahia (fig-based brandy) and his skhina (beef and cereal stew) on the Sabbath and Mimouna – a traditional North African Jewish celebration dinner in which Jews share their food with neighbors – and recites his prayers as melodically as Muslims chant the Koran. "We have the nostalgia of the Jew who loves good food,” writes the Moroccan historian Raphaël Devico, “who plays it all down with laughter and song, who brings colour to cities, countryside and hearts. We must not forget that many Moroccans, especially in big cities like Fez, have Jewish ancestors. The Jewish gene is rooted in Moroccan DNA.”
At the same time, though, Jews in Morocco suffered for centuries from the same restrictions and penalties as did Jews in many Muslim-majority countries. This began with the Islamization of Morocco in the 8th century, when the Islamic laws of dhimmitude – the status of non-Muslims under Muslim rule – began to be applied to the People of the Book, Jews and Christians. As a price of the protection of Muslim rulers, dhimmis (non-Muslims) paid a heavy monthly head tax and were forbidden to take up certain occupations, to live outside designated areas for religious minorities known in Morocco as mellahs, or to carry arms. They were also required to dress in distinctive clothing, to ride only "non-noble" animals and to remove their shoes when passing a mosque. In court, the testimony of a Muslim always took precedent over that of a Jew.
As a result of this subordinate status, Jews in Morocco (and elsewhere) were frequently targeted for vindictive attacks by the general populace during economic crises or political upheavals. During popular riots against foreign rule in August 1907 and April 1912, the mellahs of Casablanca and Fez were looted by mobs who often accused the Jews of being in league with foreign powers, forcing 12,000 Jews to flee while a total of 50 lost their lives.
Dhimmitude in Morocco was abolished under the French Protectorate in 1912. But in many quarters of the Maghreb – an Arabic term for North Africa -- a disdainful attitude towards Jews persisted, setting the stage for the imposition of Vichy France’s anti-Jewish laws throughout the region when they collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.
The Jews of Morocco Under the Vichy Regime
The Holocaust – perhaps the most appalling example of man’s inhumanity to man in the modern era – claimed the lives of six million Jewish men, women, and children. Millions of others, including Roma, Slavs, and people with disabilities, were also victims of Nazi political and racial ideology. However, it is little known among Moroccans. And even among those who are familiar with the Holocaust, the common view is that this was a European phenomenon, far from the southern shores of the Mediterranean. In fact, Morocco’s Jews – like the Jews of other North African lands under French control – suffered some of the same racist indignities and persecution as the Jews of France did, although they were spared the worst of the violence, deportations, and murder suffered by the Jews of France.
To his credit, the Sultan of Morocco, Mohammed Ben Yousef, declared at the outset of the Second World War that Moroccan Jews would remain defined by their faith and not by their “race.” But under pressure from the French Resident-General of Morocco, Charles Noguès, who was charged with adapting Vichy laws for the Moroccan context, the Sultan was compelled to affix his seal to a number of racist, antisemitic new laws.
The first was published on October 31, 1940, and prohibited Jews from holding any public or representative office. The second, published on June 2 the following year, either barred or placed severe limitations on Jews working in numerous professions, from banking and real estate to journalism, law, medicine and the theatre. Only 7% of the student body of Moroccan French high schools could be Jewish. Soon thereafter, another introduced the census of Jews and the inventory of their property, raising fears that the Vichy regime that controlled the country was poised to confiscate Jewish property.
Abdou Ladino, Secretary-General of the Mimouna Association, notes: “The Vichy regime had a significant impact on Moroccans in general and Moroccan Jews in particular.
“Jews and Muslims were not allowed to enter public swimming pools where Europeans were swimming. Those anti-Jewish laws in Morocco were published in the ‘Bulletin Officiel’ by the Vichy Government and were observed as state law.”
Thankfully, Moroccan Jews generally were spared the worst excesses of Vichy’s anti-Jewish campaign in North Africa – a system of internment, labor and penal camps established throughout the protectorate, mostly in the desert along the Algerian border. These 14 sites, in which the laborers toiled for the benefit of grand French infrastructure projects like the Trans-Sahara Railway, held approximately 4,000 internees of different faiths over the course of the war, about a third of whom were European Jews; only a handful of Moroccan Jews were sent to the camps, for political – not religious -- reasons.
Throughout the Second World War, the Sultan of Morocco condemned the discriminatory measures being enacted in his country against the Jews. According to a telegram by René Touraine, an official of the Residence-General in Rabat, dated May 24, 1941 and tellingly entitled "Dissidence", the Sultan invited representatives of the Jewish community to his grand banquet on Throne Day and placed them in the best seats, telling astonished French officials: "As in the past, the Israelites remain under my protection and I refuse to allow any distinction to be made between my subjects".
Mohammed V also successfully negotiated that Jewish community institutions, schools and charities not be subject to quotas or caps, and bought time by having the new laws enacted by agents of the Makhzen, Morocco's central political authority, in order to control and thus delay their application. By putting these two safeguards in place, he avoided the worst possible outcome – ultimately the mass killing of Jews, as was to happen in Europe – for his Jewish subjects. Because of these efforts to protect Jews from the most extreme aspects of Vichy’s anti-Jewish persecution, members of the Moroccan Jewish community have called on Yad Vashem, Israel’s national memorial to Holocaust victims, to recognize Mohammed V with the honorary distinction as a Righteous Among the Nations.
The Establishment of Israel and a New Wave of Antisemitism
The Alawite dynasty, which has governed Morocco since 1669, has always maintained privileged links with the local Jewish community. Both Mohammed V, who reigned from 1957 to 1961, and his son King Hassan II, who reigned from 1961 until his death in 1999, counted Jews among their close advisers.
When Moroccan independence was declared in 1956, Sultan Mohamed V made several public declarations of goodwill towards the Jewish community during his reign. Jews were eagerly sought in the construction of a new nation envisaged as both united and modern. Young people with “Westernized” outlooks cultivated in the schools of the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU), an international Jewish educational institution, constituted a large proportion of the Moroccan elite and middle class: doctors, engineers, lawyers, senior civil servants and elected decision-makers.
The four years that followed the declaration of independence could thus be considered a golden age for Jews in Morocco. But this was not to last. The first wave of Moroccan Jewish emigration began in the years following the declaration of Israel's independence in May 1948, when local Moroccan Jews were targeted by Moroccan extremists. The killing of 42 Jews in the Moroccan pogroms of Jerada and Oujda on June 7 and 8, 1948, and the murder of seven others in Petit Jean on August 3, 1954, were a catalyst for many to flee.
A January 7, 1961 visit to Rabat by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, a leader of the Arab nationalist movement, also sparked anti-Jewish incidents, including the arrest of Yeshiva students on the pretext that they were plotting an attack on Nasser. This episode, followed by the two Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973, which dramatically increased anti-Israeli sentiment across the Arab world, accelerated the demographic haemorrhage.
In the mid- to late 1900s, many Moroccan Jews had left their homeland of their own free will for economic or ideological reasons, often encouraged by Israeli emissaries. But after the crushing Arab defeat by Israel in 1967, the virulent anti-Zionist propaganda of the pan-Arab partisan press and trade unions forced thousands of Jews into a precipitous exodus. Boycott campaigns against Israel followed the 1967 Six Day War and created a feeling of panic, exacerbated by physical attacks against Jews.
The rhetoric of the Arab nationalist movement was partly inspired by the spread of conspiracy theories such as the dissemination of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an infamous forgery presenting itself as a plan for the conquest of the world by Jews. Little by little, as the Arab-Israeli wars and the radicalization of a fringe of the Palestinian nationalist movement progressed, Jews came to be perceived as greedy, impure and deceitful.
Between 1948 and 1973, a total of 800,000 Jews left the Muslim-majority countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Almost 90 percent of Morocco’s Jews emigrated, with substantial numbers going to Israel and to French-speaking countries like France and Canada. The Jewish presence in Morocco became a shadow of its former self.
According to a 2006 report by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, 800,000 Israelis today claim Moroccan descent. And another 200,000 Jews elsewhere in the world bear a surname of Moroccan origin.
"Visceral antisemitism in Morocco today is found among people who do not know what a Jew is because they have never known one,” writes Raphaël Devico, an historian and member of Casablanca’s Jewish community. “Everything they think they know about Jews and Judaism is related to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Those who have been around Jews, educated or not, are on the contrary very open and even nostalgic about the Jewish presence in Morocco."
Correcting the Historical Wrongs
The last three Kings of Morocco have all been opposed to the departure of Jews, as they understood the loss this would engender for the Kingdom, but they did not block the departure of Jews. Instead, beginning with King Hassan., the palace began to take steps to reinvigorate Jewish institutions to signal the king’s desire to maintain links with the Moroccan Jewish community around the world. In this vein, close to 170 Jewish cemeteries and a dozen synagogues were restored under the supervision of the Judeo-Moroccan Cultural Heritage Foundation.
Moves have also been made to ensure the security of those 2,500 Jews still residing in the country. Since the terrorist attacks of May 16, 2003 in Casablanca, which targeted, among other locations, a Jewish social club and Jewish cemetery, all locations in the country where Jews live and meet have been closely monitored by the authorities. Moroccan citizens have also taken part in mass demonstrations against radical Islam and invited members of the Jewish community to join them.
Moreover, Morocco has put out the welcome mat to tens of thousands of Israelis of Moroccan origin and Jews of other nationalities to return every year to the land of their forefathers for pilgrimages to the tombs of the approximately 600 Jewish saints buried in Morocco.
But radical Islam and terrorism are not the only threat to Moroccan Judaism and its legacy. There is a hidden, perhaps more insidious danger: forgetfulness. What will remain of the two millennia of Judeo-Moroccan history when the last Jews of the Kingdom have left? Who will tell future generations of the centuries of coexistence, their joys as well as their dark hours? What to do with this priceless cultural heritage?
The long struggle in civil society for Morocco's pluralistic identity to be recognized has recently begun to bear fruit. In 2011, during the Arab Spring, the Moroccan Constitution was reformed and in its preamble recognized the "Hebrew tributary” as having contributed to forging and enriching Moroccan identity. The amendment has given new hope that the history of Moroccan Jews will someday be integrated into the textbooks of the Kingdom's schools.
The Mimouna Association was established by a group of Muslim students in 2007 to preserve and promote Judeo-Moroccan culture. Its co-founder and president, Elmehdi Boudra, was just 20 at the time and had previously interned at the Moroccan foreign ministry and the Moroccan Jewish Museum in Casablanca. Despite growing up long after much of Morocco’s Jewish population had moved away, he had heard stories from his grandmother about her childhood in the Jewish quarter of Casablanca, and a grandfather still had Jewish neighbours residing in his apartment building.
Combating Holocaust denial in Morocco is a central strand of Mimouna’s mission. “What upsets me about this subject,” Boudra wrote in 2011, “is some people’s claims that the Holocaust never took place. It is simply absurd to hear such claims in the light of the historical evidence the world has today.”
Awareness-raising and deconstruction of stereotypes have been at the heart of Mimouna’s approach for 13 years, during which time it has organized more than 100 events in Morocco and abroad that have opened the door for Holocaust memorialization and discussion. In 2018, Boudra was listed among the global “top 100 people positively influencing Jewish life” by The Algemeiner, a Jewish newspaper based in New York.
“Mimouna was the first NGO in the region to speak about the Holocaust in 2011,” says Ladino. “Nine years later, many people are interested in learning more about it as they are conducting research within their universities.
“The Vichy regime is a very important part of the history of the Moroccan Jews. However, we can't discuss it without discussing the Holocaust in Europe which we consider as one of the darkest chapters of history. By discussing the Holocaust, we also shed the light on the other atrocities and genocides in the history of mankind.”
One of the most successful events to date has been the Moroccan Jewish University, an annual three-day event held inside the country. “During this annual event,” says Ladino, “Muslim Moroccan students and young professionals get invited to a Moroccan city to learn about the history of Moroccan Jews, their presence as well as their contribution in the Moroccan culture from Jewish Moroccan experts, Rabbis and historians.”
On September 21, 2011, Mimouna co-hosted the first ever conference in the Arab world with an exclusive focus on the Holocaust and since 2017, has also run an Arabic-language Holocaust education programme to teach young Moroccans about this period and the history of antisemitism, as well as Mohammed V’s efforts to protect the Moroccan Jewish population.
In 2014, it organized a forum in Tangier about European Jews who fled Nazi persecution and found refuge in the city while waiting to enter the United States. Three years later, on January 27, 2018, it commemorated International Holocaust Remembrance Day with a conference on the role of Muslims who helped save Jews during the Holocaust, in partnership with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and sponsored by the UN Information Centre in Rabat. That same year, Mimouna also launched the first ever Arabic-language guide to the Holocaust in Morocco.
Mimouna’s mission is to protect and preserve Moroccan Jewish culture and heritage through education – and, in its own words, “to reclaim the cultural diversity of Morocco through its history” in the face of “rampant” intolerance and extremism.
This approach has been endorsed at the very highest level of Moroccan society. In 2018, the current ruler of Morocco, King Mohammed VI, issued an address to the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly on the importance of education in combating racism and discrimination in the country.
“Racism in general,” he said, “and antisemitism in particular, are by no means just a way of thinking. Antisemitism is the antithesis of freedom of expression. It implies a denial of the other and is an admission of failure, inadequacy and an inability to coexist.
“There should be no improvisation in the battle against these scourges. That battle is neither military nor financial. It is, above all, educational and cultural. And that battle has a name: education. Our children must be taught history, shedding light not only on humanity’s glorious moments but also its darkest hours.”