Behind the Headlines the Jews of Morocco

The Jews of Morocco are steadfast and strong, yet inwardly troubled by peril to their unity and numbers. This situation was gleaned in heart-warming and stimulating meetings this reporter had with the heads of Jewish communities in the half dozen urban centers late last month.

The cause of the inner anxiety was expressed succinctly by the leader of the Jewish community in Tangiers, A. Azancot, a young and dynamic certified public accountant. “In one generation, our Moroccan Jewish community will be halved because of the exodus of our Jewish youth, and I foresee no way in which we can stem the tide,” he said.”

Azancot’s prediction was underlined by other Jewish leaders throughout the country, as well as by a 26-year-old dental surgeon, Dr. Jacques Assouline, who spoke to me at length during the 3,000-mile flight from New York to Casablanca, of his own experience so typical of other young Moroccan Jews who have left their comfortable homes to study abroad and to discover another kind of life contrasting sharply with traditional Moroccan values.

“We long for a Middle East peace, because then, we Moroccan Jews will feel more secure than we do today,” Azancot declared. “Not that we don’t feel reasonably secure, but we don’t actively engage in politics to any great degree and no one tries to bother us. King Hassan’s politics are most benevolent and we enjoy good relations with our Moslem neighbors, who often visit and eat with us. They may not approve of Zionism, but have nothing against Jews per se. They respect our religious beliefs in accordance with the dictates of the Koran.”

He noted that the Moslems also “envy our business know-how, for many Jews here live well, travel and a small number of us are well-to-do. And yet, many Jews of my generation, who leave to attend universities abroad, decide to practice their professions in other countries, especially in the United States or in Canada or France, returning only to visit their parents for the Jewish holidays. And our parents, who miss their children and grand-children, sometimes decide to join us abroad to preserve the family unit.”

What is extraordinary is the mobility of the Moroccan Jew, who is free to come and go exactly as any other citizen, Moslem or Christian. There are some who are still making aliya to Israel and there is a constant flow of Jews visiting relatives who have settled in Israel, and the latter returning to visit their friends and relations in their native land.

In a world where Arab and Jews are in deadly conflict, and where in near-by lands the tension is so thick as to be tangible, it is surprising and comforting to observe, at first hand, the co-existence of Jew and Moslem in amity and harmony. Indeed, the Moroccan Jewish experience may well serve as a model for hard-pressed Arab nations to emulate.

Estimates provided by various Moroccan Jewish leaders of the number of Jews in Morocco only 25 years ago varied from 250,000 to 300,000. Now only some 20,000 remain. Most of the difference is accounted for by the waves of aliya to Israel in the 1950′s and 1960′s, with an appreciable number residing in Montreal and Toronto, in Caracas, France, Spain and the U.S.

Of the 20,000 Jews still in Morocco, about 16,000 reside in Casablanca and the remainder in Marakesh, Fez, Meknes, Tangiers, Tetuan and Rabat. Presiding over the destinies of the Jewish people is David Amar of Casablanca, the richest Jew, and a close friend and confidant of the king. He rules the Council of Moroccan Communities with a firm and flexible hand, and is highly regarded by Jew and Moslem alike.

The Council is a powerful and all-encompassing instrumentality for providing aid and welfare to the less fortunate Moroccan Jew, almost literally from the cradle to the grave; it is almost a state within a state. For example, the homes of the aged in each city are notable for their facilities and amenities, and above all, for the compassion and tender care provided by the directors and staff.

The rapport between the synagogue and state is so close that, according to the exuberant head of the Marakesh Jewish community, Henri Cadoch, the provincial governors attend services each Yom Kippur at the behest of the king, who is included in the Sabbath prayers. Cadoch was happy to note that at every government reception, the head of the Jewish community was always invited and accorded a place of honor.

JUSTLY PROUD OF HIS HERITAGE

Cadoch was justly proud of his heritage. He observed that the first Jews dated back 23 centuries, converting the Berbers in the south of the country to Judaism. There was another influx after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem, but the Jewish ranks multiplied radically after their expulsion from Spain in the 14th century.

Even within the 10 percent of the 1958 population that now remains, it is striking to notice the differences between the northern, relatively sophisticated groups, and those of Berber origin, darkened by the desert sun, who are poorer, yet hard working.

But an occasional shadow flickers on the sunlit landscape. Some Jews fear that, should something happen to the king, the Jewish position might deteriorate. Yet, Hassan seems to have a firm grip on his kingdom and is universally admired, indeed loved. He also has to his credit the fact that he played a significant role in urging President Anwar Sadat of Egypt to make his historic visit to Jerusalem, and above all, he is the son of the great Mohammed V, who is a hero figure to Moroccan Jews.

When the Vichy regime during the Nazi occupation of France asked the king to deliver for deportation and certain death, his Jewish subjects, the king declared that Vichy would have to take all his Moroccan subjects before he would surrender the Jews of his nation.

MOROCCO AND AMERICAN JEWS

Relations between Hassan and the U.S. Ambassador, Joseph Verner Reed, are extremely close and friendly. The envoy, in a recent discussion with this reporter in Rabat, avowed his deep interest in the Jewish life of the country, expressing the hope that American Jewry would overcome apparent misconceptions about the social and religious nature of the state and would begin to visit its Jewish brethren in Morocco in significant numbers.

Reed’s statements were echoed by Moroccan Minister of Commerce, Industry and Tourism, Azeddine Guessous, who informed this writer that the Moroccan Tourist Office was substantially increasing its budget in addition to developing new and dynamic policies to attract Jewish tourism to this country.

Indeed, the American Jew will discover a beautiful country replete with ancient cities, sandy Atlantic beaches, snow-capped mountains, a myriad of fruit orchards and flowering trees. But above all, he will have the unique opportunity to clasp the hand of a Moroccan Jew, spend Shabbat with him in his home and his synagogue, to wander through the “mellahs” (Jewish quarters), and visit the shrines of revered rabbis.

The extraordinary Jewish community in this African land awaits eagerly and impatiently a transient “aliya” for a week or two of the Jews of the United States. One can, after a rewarding and stimulating visit, only conclude that the construction of a bridge of support and friendship between the American and Moroccan Jew is an urgent compelling need and long overdue.

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