ROME (Jan. 30)
In what were the first such meetings 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 Bent Melchior.
Earlier in the month, the king hosted representatives of the Jewish Heritage Council, who went to Morocco to explore the possibilities of renovating and preserving Jewish 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.”
Schiner said his delegation was pleased to learn of Moroccan Jews’ ability to conduct a full and unhampered Jewish communal life. The delegation visited Jews in Casablanca and Marrakech.
Serving as the delegation’s host was Andre Azoulay, an adviser to the king on economic affairs and a leading member of the community.
Israel and Morocco have been working in recent months toward 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 the 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 Yitzhak ben Walid Synagogue in Tetuan.
PRESERVATION PLANS EXCEED EXPECTATIONS
The Jewish Heritage Route would be the first of its kind in a Muslim country, the council said, noting the delegation’s trip came as reports indicated that El Al would shortly begin regular flights between Morocco and Israel.
The delegation included council Chairman Ronald S. Lauder, director of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, and the chairwoman of the World Monuments Fund, Marilyn Perry.
Lauder said in a statement, “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.”
Lauder and Perry met for nearly two hours in the Cabinet room of the Royal Palace in Rabat with Azoulay and Mohamet Benaissa, the current Moroccan ambassador to the United States.
The delegation met with another Jewish official, Tourism Minister Serge Berdugo — he is also the secretary-general of Moroccan Jewish Communities — who pledged his support in both capacities. He told the delegation about several Jewish sites urgently needing restoration
“As head of the community he vowed to assist in all efforts, including matching funds raised abroad,” the council reported.
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 centuries.
The group also visited several Jewish cemeteries and old Jewish quarters, which would form the basis of a Jewish Heritage tourist route.