Behind the Headlines: in Casablanca, Jews Live Protected and in Harmony with Muslim Neighbors

MUSLIM NEIGHBORS As they congregate openly outside their synagogues and kosher restaurants, the Jews here clearly feel at home in this sprawling city of five million Arabs.

On Shabbat morning, hundreds of Jewish worshipers gather outside Cabablanca’s five or six synagogues at the conclusion of services.

Dressed fashionably, men and women, girls and boys, fill the little forecourts and spill into the narrow streets.

No sense of disquiet or apprehensiveness appears to disturb their cheerful socializing in the sun. While policemen unobtrusively stand about, security here seems more relaxed than at many synagogues and Jewish institutions in Western European countries.

Later in the evening when Shabbat ends, a crowd of customers mills around outside a downtown Casablanca restaurant, with the word “cacher” (kosher), emblazoned on its neon sign. But it is not just Jews patronizing the establishment. Many of the customers are, in fact, young, fairly well-heeled Arab residents of this sprawling Moroccan city.

Similar scenes at Casablanca’s half dozen other rabbinically supervised eateries attest to the high demand for kosher cuisine. It is a remarkable phenomenon, considering there are barely 5,000 Jews left in this community, which once numbered in the tens of thousands.

The Muslim-Jewish mingling at the restaurants is only one piece of evidence to indicate that this is a Jewish community living in harmony with the broader community.

It is also a community proud of its heritage, a well-organized community that in its heyday, prior to a mass emigration in the 1950s and 1960s, was home to an ancient and firmly rooted Diaspora of more than 200,000 Jews.

Morocco, an emerging economy of vast potential, is plainly a paradise today for those entrepreneurial spirits prepared to battle the bureaucracy as Moroccan King Hassan II’s still-absolutist monarchy slowly introduces the reforms that are vital to catapult the country into the 21st century.

Some of the Jews who have remained are enjoying the wave of prosperity affecting the upper crust of Moroccan society.

Albert T. drives a Volvo; his brother, who is a partner in their men’s clothing-for-export factory, drives a Mercedes; their cousin prefers a Jaguar.

The bill for another brother’s recent wedding, held in a downtown hotel, topped $70,000, members of the family proudly announce.

For yet another brother, just married in Jerusalem to a woman from Brooklyn, his Israeli-style wedding must have seemed modest indeed by comparison.

But not everyone in the community subscribes to the “don’t worry, be happy” atmosphere.

One young businessman, holding a French passport, sent his wife and children to France during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when he was suddenly conscious of chilly winds of hostility coming from his Muslim colleagues and subordinates.

Well-placed Muslims, both businessmen and journalists, say the man overreacted.

They cannot conceive of a situation in which centuries of tolerance and coexistence could give way to nationalist friction – especially with the Middle East conflict now seemingly well set on the path to a comprehensive peace.

They insist that the long history of Jewish well-being in Morocco is an integral part of the country’s culture and of its national heritage.

Morocco’s Jews, moreover, after centuries of strong numerical presence but generally low profile, seem in certain ways to be growing more prominent even as their numbers decline.

The king’s best known and possibly most influential adviser is Andre Azoulay, a locally raised Jewish economist and intellectual who lived for years in semi- exile in France until summoned back personally by Hassan to take charge of the country’s economic modernization.

On a slightly lower level, Serge Berdugo, a wealthy businessman who is the head of the Jewish community, has been serving as the government’s minister of tourism, to the intense pride of the Jewish community.

Indeed, the Jews here have become the king’s protected minority.

Everyone in Morocco is aware of this fact, according to a newspaper executive who identified himself only as Khalid B. No official or policemen wants to enter into a confrontation with a Jewish citizen for fear of being accused of anti-Semitism and of the accusation finding its way to the palace, he said.

Looking ahead, the central question for Jewish life here is the effect of warming relations with Israel.

Last week, two months after Morocco and Israel agreed to begin low-level diplomatic relations. Israel opened an official interests office in Rabat, to be headed by David Dadon, a senior Israeli diplomat and former Moroccan Jew.

This first step is expected to be followed by the early establishment of a direct air link between Tel Aviv and Casablanca.

The process set in motion by last week’s Casablanca economic conference, moreover, could quickly lead to the expansion of business contacts between the two countries.

Could all this herald the return of some Moroccan Jews to the country of their birth?

It would be rash to rule out such a prospect, according to observers. Indeed, even today an Israeli visitor can easily find some of his Israeli compatriots already installed here with their families, “for a year or two – to make a bit of money.”

To Jewish New Yorkers, Londoners, Parisians or Cape Towners, that is a familiar refrain, so why not Casablanca?

Says the manager of one of the kosher restaurants, which boasts a Moroccan floorshow at midnight: “After 22 years in Eilat and divorce, I planned a few years in the U.S. I just dropped off here, my birthplace, for a week or two. But I liked it, so I stayed.”

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