In what were the first such meeting since the signing of the Palestinian self- rule accord in September, King Hassan II of Morocco has met with two delegations of Jewish leaders.
The king met over the weekend with an 11-member delegation from B’nai B’rith International that included the organization’s president, Kent Schiner, and the president of B’nai B’rith Europe, Rabbi Melchior.
Earlier in the month, the king hosted representatives of the Jewish Heritage Council, who came to Morocco to explore the possibilities of renovating and preserving some of the country’s Jewish institutions and sites.
The King told the B’nai B’rith delegation that peace in the Middle East is possible “because the problem is political, not religious. We have to put our heads together in the cause of peace.”
Schinier said after meeting with Jewish leaders in Morocco that his delegation was pleased to learn ability to conduct a full Jewish communal life without government interference.
The delegation had visited with Jewish leaders in Casablanca and Marrakech.
Serving as the delegation’s host was Andre Azoulay, an advisor to the King on economic affairs and a leading member of the Moroccan Jewish community.
Israel and Morocco have been working in recent months towards closer cooperation. After the signing of the Palestinian self-rule accord last fall, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin visited King Hassan before returning to Israel.
In the spring, Morocco will serve as host for Jewish and Muslim businessmen, who will discuss economic strategies for the Middle East in the wake of the Rabin government’s peace initiatives.
The delegation from the Jewish Heritage Council, which is a division of the World Monuments Fund, toured historic Jewish sites in Morocco in mid-January, when they met with local Jewish community representatives and senior government officials.
The trip was planned to test feasibility of creating a “Jewish Heritage Route” in Morocco for tourists.
They also met with local leaders to discuss renovation plans for synagogues such as the 17th century Rabbi Ibn Danan Synagogue in Fez and the Rabbi Yitzak ben Walid Synagogue in Tetuan.
The Jewish Heritage Route would be the first of its kind in a Muslim country, the JHC said, noting the delegation’s trip came as reports indicate that E1 A1 would shortly begin regular flights between Morocco and Israel.
The delegation included Jewish Heritage Council Chairman Ronald Lauder, a former U.S. ambassador to Austria and director of the Ronald Lauder Foundation, and the chair of the World Monuments Fund, Marilyn Perry.
Lauder said in a statement issued by the JHC, “The interest in pursuing preservation plans, among both the Jewish community and Moroccan officials, exceeded our expectations. It was in marked contrast to the situation we found five years ago. We are heartened and optimistic.”
The JHC is dedicated to documenting and preserving Jewish sites worldwide.
Lauder and Perry held a nearly two-hour meeting in the cabinet room of the Royal Palace in Rabat with royal adviser Azoulay and with Ambassador Mohamet Benaissa, former minister of culture and currently Moroccan ambassador to the United States.
The delegation met with another Jewish official, Tourist Minister Serge Berdugo – who is also the secretary general of Moroccan Jewish Communities – who pledged his support in both his capacities. He told the delegation about a number of Jewish heritage sites urgently in need of restoration and preservation work.
“He made it clear that he thought the preservation of historic Jewish sites in Morocco was first a responsibility of the Moroccan Jewish community,” the JHC statement said. “As head of the community he vowed to assist in all effort, including matching funds raised abroad.”
The delegation’s itinerary – which included Casablanca, Rabat, Tangier, Tetuan, Fez, Meknes and Marrakech – took in more than 20 active or former synagogues, some dating back countries.
The group also visited several Jewish cemeteries and old Jewish quarter, or mellahs, which would form the basis of a Jewish Heritage tourist route.
The delegation met with Jewish community leader in various cities, sampling typical Moroccan-Jewish cuisine at Jewish community centers or clubs.
“It was often pointed out to the group that it is easier to get kosher food in Moroccan cities than it is in many American metropolitan areas,” the JHC statement said.
In Casablanca – home to more than 60 percent of Morocco’s 6,000 to 7,000 Jews – the group visited the site of what will be Morroco’s first Jewish Museum, and they also discussed plans to establish a Jewish museum in Fez.
The Casablanca Museum, which exhibits a small collection of Judaica, will be housed in a building that served as a yeshiva until three years ago. The Fez museum is planned to be established in the 20th century Habanim Synagogue, which is currently under restoration.
In addition to touring Jewish sites, the group visited a number of historic Islamic sites and Moroccan museums.
Morocco had about 225,000 Jews before World War II. The community survived the war, but mass emigrations, mainly to Israel, France and Canada, reduced the number to 35,000 by 1970. Today, only 6,000 to 7,000 Jews remain, most of them in Casablanca, and the population is steadily dwindling. Nonetheless, more than 30 synagogues are still functioning in Casablanca alone, and the community remains dynamic despite its size, with almost all the school aged children, about 1,400 pupils, enrolled in Jewish day schools.