December 18, 2020

There were 20 years of silence. And then, last week, Trump announced that Morocco and Israel would be resuming diplomatic relations. In a tweet afterwards, the President reminded the world that Morocco was the first country to recognise the United States as a nation, in 1777 and, simultaneously, urged for an international recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Good news is flowing from the region: the Jewish state, also at the behest of Trump has established ties with Bahrain, the UAE and Sudan. Of course, the most recent news did not please everyone. Some frowned upon the fact that the US released the information before Morocco or Israel; others criticised the power imbalance between Morocco and Israel on one hand, and Palestine and Western Sahara on the other. The latter has been waging a war of independence against Morocco for several decades, led by a socialist separatist group with Islamist ties.

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Hamas, naturally, is outraged and denounced the Moroccan treachery; while in its customary partiality against the Moroccan monarchy, the French media — both mainstream, such as Le Monde, and more independent sites such as Mediapart — quickly attacked both Trump and King Mohammed VI of Morocco for an agreement in which both Palestinian and Sahraoui self-determination was jeopardised.

This grumbling contrasts with the elation and relief felt by many Jewish families around the world as the first candle of the Menorah was lit, and by many Muslims in Morocco who can recall what things were like before the 1960s. Having grown up in Morocco, and with a father who remembers those happier times of coexistence, I was moved to tears by the sight of Israelis dancing in the street to traditional Moroccan song, waving flags of both countries and pictures of the King Mohammed.

Almost a million people in the Jewish state are of Moroccan descent, from families who were exiled six decades ago, a mere blip in time compared to the thousands of years they’d spent in the Maghreb. For them, as well as Jewish North African communities in France and increasingly in London, the deal is a hugely welcome Hanukkah gift during a difficult year.

The first Jews in Morocco were Berber, converted via commercial bonds as early as the 2nd Century BC. One of the most ancient synagogues is in Zagora; a funerary stone in the Roman ruins of Volubilis mentions Caecilianos, a member of the Jewish community, and some Jewish cemeteries have been in use for two millennia.

This original Jewish population was joined in the seventh Century AD by refugees from Spain escaping the persecution of the Christian Visigoth kings. By that stage the Maghreb had fallen to Arab invaders and provided a springboard for the conquest of Spain in 711, which would subsequently prove a more welcoming home to Jews for centuries. Yet Islamic rulers in Morocco had fits of intolerance, too: in 1033, Muslim chief Tamim Ibn Izri massacred 6,000 Jews in Fez and forced the surviving women and children into slavery.

The arrival of Spanish Jews after the Reconquista coincided with more peaceful relations, with this part of north Africa ruled by a succession of dynasties. Jews were dhimmis — forced to pay the jizya in order to be under the Sultan’s protection — but this status by no means excluded them from Moroccan commercial and political life. Paradoxically, because Jews worked in professions Muslims recoiled from for religious reasons, they found themselves in charge of essential diplomatic and commercial duties, at such a high level that they were called tejjar as-Soltan, the Sultan’s merchants.

Moroccan Jews were not just moneylenders, but also extremely skillful craftsmen and artists. Their contribution to music, architecture and literature was enormous and their relations with Muslim neighbours were often more than friendly. Depending on the area, Jews in Morocco received their religious education in Berber or in Moroccan Arabic — a language quite different from classical or literary Arabic — and wrote in Yehudia, a variant of Hebrew transliterated in the Arabic alphabet.

The unconditional respect of Hebraic customary law was inscribed in the Moroccan Constitution in the 1920s by which point, after centuries of rule by various Berber dynasties, the country was effectively under the control of France under a protectorate.

Yet things would deteriorate, and sharply, following independence and the establishment of Israel, and over two hundred thousand would flee, leaving behind them deserted mountain villages and empty shops and townhouses, so much so that only 3,000 Jews are now still living in Morocco.

The initial anxieties of the Moroccan Jewish community had much more to do with the rampant hostility against Jews in Europe than with Morocco, although Nazi Germany’s attempts to spread its ideology had little success in this part of the world. Morocco’s king Mohammed V — grandfather of the present monarch — protected the country’s Jews during the Second World War, and when the Vichy-allied government attempted to impose ghettos in the country, Mohammed replied: “I entirely disapprove the new laws … and repeat what I have already said in the past, that the Jews are under my protection and that I reject any distinction that should be made among my people.” Morocco’s Jews survived, and in recent years there has been talk of making Mohammed V a Righteous of the Nations.

Following the war, the first Jews to leave the country did so in order to follow the dream of an independent Israel, but conditions at home were to drive many more away in the following decades.

In the aftermath of Moroccan independence in 1956, the leading party Al Istiqlal (“The Independence”) — still a major force in the country — emphasised national identity by making Islam the official religion of the state, and Arabic its primary official language. Not Moroccan Arabic, mind you, but literary or standard Arabic, which is to Moroccan Arabic what Latin is to French and is barely understood, let alone spoken, by most Moroccans.

It led to de facto estrangement of Berber, French and Spanish-speaking Jewish Moroccans. If this was still of little or no consequence to the inhabitants of once-heavily Jewish small towns such as Erfoud in the Sahara, it definitely felt painful to Jewish inhabitants of Casablanca or Rabat, who were in charge of important commercial or administrative duties.

Then, in 1961, Egyptian president Gamal Abd-El-Nasser’s visit to Morocco triggered the first wave of open hostility against Jews. As the Arab League tried to define itself in opposition to both western capitalism and Russian communism, Jews were stigmatised as non-Arabs, and erroneously perceived as too western to be Moroccan.

By this stage many Jews were trying to escape Morocco illegally, but as the tensions increased, it was getting harder to get official travel documents. Even phone calls and postal service was gradually restricted, not so much through legal enforcement as boycotts by Moroccan socialist organisations. Cornered by the Arab-promoting Istiqlal on the Right, and by the USFP (Socialist Union of the Popular Forces, founded in 1959) on the Left, the Jews quickly found themselves deprived of any strong political ally.

For many people it was a clear example of double-think. Muslim Moroccans would call for a boycott of Israel but at the same time maintain close connections with their Jewish neighbours as individuals. A militia, the Misgeret, was established to provide self-defence for Moroccan Jews, but it soon turned its activities towards helping them to secretly escape the country through the Mossad-backed Operation Yachin.

Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and King Hassan II — Mohammed VI’s father — would eventually negotiate a formalisation of this departure, Morocco asking for financial compensation given the loss in financial and human capital. Entire villages were encouraged to depart at once, torn from centuries of shared memories with little to no preparation. Within just three months in the summer of 1967 half of the remaining Jews left Morocco, and it was by no means a happy story. Once in Israel, Moroccan Jews had to take on new jobs, settling in towns that seemed to have sprouted up overnight in the desert, in tiny two-bedroom flats that looked nothing like what they had been promised. For many, the dream of the Promised Land turned to disappointment as they discovered something they never expected — European Ashkenazi racism against the Sephardic newcomers. A song sarcastically recalled “They asked me where I come from, I said I am from Morocco, they said ‘Leave’; they asked me where I come from, I said I am from Romania, they said ‘Welcome’.”

Today, one million Israelis are Moroccan by descent, including 12 current government ministers. Israeli Jews from Morocco are, on many levels, more Moroccan than the majority of Moroccans, who have since undergone 30 years of Arabisation and increasingly Islamisation that belies their Berber and multicultural identity. But it is through Morocco’s religious diversity that the kingdom can, with luck, fight religious fundamentalism imported from the Arabian Gulf.

Last year, in spite of the travel difficulties, 100,000 Jews visited Morocco, of whom 30,000 came from Israel. They came to visit shrines, pray in synagogues and recite the Torah near their ancestors’ graves; they came back to the land of their forefathers, and to keep alive something that might otherwise disappear. Moroccan Judaism has a lot to teach to religious scholars and Biblical specialists; but it also has a lot to teach about a lost civilisation of poetry recited to the tunes of the ‘oud, of Andalusian arts and crafts forgotten in years of wandering, of memories of shared jokes and shared tales. Moroccan culture and history would not be the same without its Jewish elements — including the philosopher Maïmonides, singers Sami Al Maghribi and Zohra el Fassia, or politician André Azoulay, current adviser to the king.

Although most still oppose ties with Israel, Moroccans on the whole appreciate the historical place of Jews in their society. When the position of Hebraic law was submitted to public vote in 2011, Moroccans chose to keep all the articles that ensure Jewish freedom of private and public religious practice, despite strong pressure from radical Islamists within the kingdom and abroad.

My father still remembers fondly how Muslim kids used to spend Jewish feasts with their Jewish friends, and hosting them in return during Muslim festivals. I’m moved whenever I hear the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra play traditional Moroccan music — tunes celebrating beauty, love, wine and merrymaking, that are truly, authentically Moroccan, but which Moroccan youth have forgotten, and that fundamentalist Muslims frown upon.

And when I hear Sephardi grandmothers talking in Moroccan Arabic with that distinctive Jewish accent, either in Paris’s Sentier or on Brent Street in north-west London, I feel a kinship that is hard to put into words but that can move me to tears. And so in these troubled times, when anti-Semitism takes a new face, it warms my heart to see my native country welcoming back its most genuinely Moroccan citizens.