Rabbinic Action Committee Mission 2015 to Morocco

Rabbinic Action Committee Mission to Morocco                                                  January 20-28, 2015

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. 
 We traveled with our two guides, Muktar, a Muslim from Marakesh who served as our general guide to Morocco, and Rafi, a Jewish man from Casablanca who guided us through the Jewish sites and the Jewish communities that we were to visit. Along with our guides there were always three of four security men who accompanied us as we made our way through the streets and alleyways of the mellahs, medinah’s and casbahs. Despite our anxiety, we encountered no problems, no tense moments, during our eight day trip in Morocco. 
Guides Muktar, Rafi and author in Essaouira Medinah
Our goal for the trip was to learn about the history of the Moroccan Jewish community and the challenges that they were currently facing.  Morocco is a country of 33 million people. Sixty percent of the people are Berbers, and 40 percent are Arabs. They are all Muslim. Morocco is the size of California. It lies on the farthest northwestern part of the continent of Africa, separated from Spain by the narrow Strait of Gibraltar. The Mediterranean Sea lays to the North, and the Atlantic Ocean to its west. The Atlas mountains, whose highest peak is 14,000 feet, runs down the center of the country and divides its north from south. Morocco is also known as The Maghreb, or “the place where the sun sets.” 

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
The story of the decline of the Jewish population in Morocco was the same in each city we visited. Tens of thousands of Jews had lived in Fez, Rabat, Marakesh, Meknes and Casablanca in 1948 – today, with the exception of Casablanca, which still has functioning Jewish institutions, there are not more than a hundred or so Jews in any of these cities. Moreover, virtually all of the adult children of members of the Jewish community we met were living abroad in France, in Canada, in the United States and in Israel. Our hosts consistently held that Jews felt safe in Morocco and did not feel threatened by their Muslim neighbors. The King, Mohammed VI, is a friend of the Jews, they maintain, protects them, and wants them to stay. Morocco, they say, represents a model for Jews and Muslims living together. The exodus from Morocco can be explained, in part, by the desire of Moroccan Jews to return to their homeland of Israel. It is a traditional community that believes that the establishment of the State of Israel heralds the beginning of Messianic times, and that this is where they belong. There are one

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.

The story of Moroccan Jewry in the late 20th century can perhaps best be summed up by our visit to the Jewish cemetery in Marakesh.  There we were met by Jackie Kadosh, the President of the Jewish Community of that city. The Jewish cemetery there is at least 500 hundred years old. Scattered throughout the cemetery are shrines to some of the great rabbis of Marakesh, often rabbis who are reputed to have performed miracles in their lifetimes – for example, curing the sick or making a barren woman give birth through their prayers and amulets.

Rabbi Shlomo Mausoleum in Marakesh Cemetery. Legend has it that he was murdered and his body secretly buried. He came to his wife in a dream and told her the circumstances of his death and where she could find his body. People come to his grave to ask for his intercession on their behalf. 

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
of Casablanca.

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)

What seemed to us, at least, the tenuous nature of the lives of the remaining Jews in Morocco can also be seen from the following:  Thousands of Israelis come to Morocco every year to visit and to vacation. In fact, our charming guide on our visit to the Hassan ll mosque in Casablanca, a Muslim woman, greeted us in Hebrew and spoke with us occasionally in Hebrew phrases that she had picked up guiding Israeli tourists.  Yet, Morocco’s Islamic Justice and Development Party, the largest party in Parliament, sponsored a bill that would make it illegal to trade with Israel or allow Israeli tourists into the country. As Rabbi Jackie Sabaag of Neve Shalom school in Casablanca told us, “The King very much protects the Jewish community,” but that there were elements in  society that would seek to marginalize the remaining Jews.  
 Yet, the consistent messages we heard was that Morocco represents a model where Jews and Muslims have live together in peace and mutual security. We heard this message from Dr. Ahmed Abbadi, secretary-general of the League of Mohammedan Scholars and adviser to King Mohammed VI of Morocco.

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.

Despite its precipitous decline in population, Moroccan Jews continue to live in communities with functioning synagogues, Jewish hospitals, kosher butchers, ritual slaughterers, mohels, rabbis, Jewish schools, social services, and homes for the elderly. There is a pervasive love and loyalty for their country and their king. By and large, they feel safe and secure. They are proud of their history and their contributions to Morocco. Some even feel optimistic about the future of the Jewish community in Morocco, despite the emigration of young people to Israel, France, Canada and the United States.