This evening I want to share with you some of my impressions from my recent Rabbinic Action Committee Mission to the Jewish community of Morocco. I traveled to Morocco with 25 other Chicago area rabbis and five of their spouses between January 20 and January 28th. It was for many of us our first trip to Africa and our first visit to a Muslim country. I think all of us felt some anxiety traveling to an Arab land. It did not help any of us that the reading we were given about the history of the Jewish life in Morocco began with recounting the massacre of the Jews of Fez in 1465! I read further. Ah, here’s a name I recognize, Mordecai Chriqui, treasurer of Sultan Mulay Muhammed in the 1780’s. I wonder if he is one of our own Stephan Chriqui’s forebears. I read a bit further. Oh, too bad, he was executed by the Sultan’s successor, Mulay al Yazid, for refusing to convert to Islam. This was my airplane reading!
|Sultan Mulay al Yazid, (reigned 1970-92),the rebellious |
son of Sultan Mulay Muhammed wreaked cruel
vengeance upon the Jews of his kingdom
after they refused an important loan which
he had requested from them.
|Guides Muktar, Rafi and author in Essaouira Medinah|
The government is headed by King Mohammed VI. He is the 23rd king of the Alaouite Dynasty, the reign of which started in the middle of the 17th century. The Jewish community is an ancient one. Legend has it that Jews first appeared in Morocco during the reign of King Solomon in the 9th century BCE. However, the first hard evidence of Jewish settlement in Morocco comes from Hebrew inscriptions on gravestones found in Volubius, a site near Fez, from the second century CE. We were unable to visit that site due to the rain, which made the site difficult to get to. In the mid twentieth century, there were as many as 265,000 Jews living in Morocco. Today, there are at most, 3000. Twenty five hundred live in Casablanca, the remaining five hundred are living in Rabat, Fez, Meknes, and Marakesh. On our final day of our mission we traveled to Essaouira (ess –oh-eer –uh). This port was established in 1764 by the Sultan Abdullah who wanted to turn it into a center of international commerce. He invited Jewish merchants from all over Morocco to the new city to develop international trading. At one point in its history there were more Jews living in this city than there were Muslims.
|Note the Jewish star above the city gate in Essaouira. Jews at one|
point made up over half this port’s population.
As the city declined in importance as a port, so did the Jewish population. Even so, in the 1950s there were 6500 Jews living in Essaouira. We visited the last Jewish person living there, Joseph Sabag, a merchant of about 50 years old who owns an antiques and book shop. His brother is a rabbi in Casablanca, with whom we had dinner the previous night. I asked him why he stays in Essaouira. He replied that he was born here, and was comfortable here. Everyone knows he is Jewish, and they are fine with that.
|Joseph Sabag with author in his shop|
|Sabag Curio Shop Essaouira|
million Jews of Moroccan descent in Israel, making Morocco the country from which the largest number of Jews has emigrated. There are also financial considerations. Morocco is a third world country. There is no Social Security system in Morocco, no health insurance available, and few economic opportunities. Young people leave in order to better themselves.
When Mr. Kadosh was born Marakesh was the home to 27,000 Jews and had 45 active synagogues. This once proud community is down to its last 120 souls, yet they still manage to keep open a few synagogues for prayer on Shabbat. Jackie Kadoch’s father, Henri, was once a leader of the Marakesh The new constitution, passed in 2011, specifically recognizes the Jewish contribution to Moroccan national identity, as well.
“A sovereign Moslem State, committed to the ideals of openness, moderation, tolerance and dialogue to foster mutual understanding among all civilizations; A Nation whose unity is based on the fully endorsed diversity of its constituents: Arabic, Amazigh, Hassani, Sub-Saharan, African, Andalusian, Jewish and Mediterranean components.” Moroccan Constitution, 2011.
|Jackie Kadoch, (R) at|
monument to his father.
Jewish community, and a confidante of the King. When he died in 1999, the family erected a mausoleum in which his remains were interred.
|Kadosh Mausoleum in Marakesh Cemetery|
Mr. Kadoch led us to the mausoleum, which was, indeed, quite grand. Three thousand people attended the funeral, two-thirds of them Muslim. The King himself sent a delegation to the funeral. Through his delegate, the King said that the Jewish community not only lost a great man, but the country of Morocco lost a great leader. This sort of public acknowledgement by the King means a great deal to the Jewish community and reassures them of their important place in Moroccan society.
|Marakesh Synagogue in use today.|
The fact remains that although Jews have lived in Morocco for at least 2000 years and have made important contributions to Moroccan culture and its economy, relatively few Moroccans today have any memory of even knowing a Jewish person. Fez is a large city, with over a million inhabitants. Where once the Jewish population of Fez was counted in the tens of thousands, now there are but 70 people left in the Jewish community. Joining us at dinner in Fez one night were representatives of “Mimouna” a student organization dedicated to the appreciation and celebration of the role of Jew and Jewish culture in Morocco. The group is composed mainly of young, college age Muslims. We
|The Mimouna Club outside of the Jewish Museum|
were curious about how he came to be interested in the Jews in Morocco. He told us that he had been very close to his grandmother, who told him stories about her relationship with Jews. When the grandmother was an infant, she had a Jewish wet-nurse. To have a wet nurse, he said, is to almost be related by blood to the family. His grandmother used to tell him that she had a Jewish “sister” living in Israel. The young man said that he felt it was a great loss to the young people of Morocco that most have never known a Jewish person, and therefore may have misconceptions about Jews. His
|Elmehdi Boudra,(L) with|
member of Mimouna addressing
us in Fez at Jewish Social Club.
organization is dedicated to educating the Moroccan people to the contributions of the Jewish community to Moroccan life. To this end, in 2011 Mimouna, in cooperation with a group from New York City named Kivunim, organized a conference on the Holocaust at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, a city two hours south of Rabat. The conference was convened both to educate Muslims about the Holocaust and to recognize King Muhammad V for refusing to cooperate with the Vichy regime to persecute Jewish Moroccans. (NY Times — Muslims Remember the Holocaust)
|Dr. Ahmed Abbadi met with our group|
at the Cercle de le Alliance, a Jewish
social club, to talk about Jewish-Muslim
relations in Morocco
Moderation and Modernity:Challenges for Moroccan Islam
We heard this message from our guides, Rafi and Muktar, who were both born and raised in Morocco. We heard this message from the principal of the Maimonides School in Casablanca, a Jewish sponsored high school whose enrollment is 75% Muslim and 25% Jewish. We heard this message from our gracious hosts at whose homes we enjoyed kosher lunches and dinners.