CASABLANCA, Morocco (Mar. 24)
On a recent sunny day outside the Jewish elementary school here, Boris Azran watches as his two oldest children join hundreds of others colorfully celebrating Purim festivities.
After a group of younger students perform a few Hebrew songs, older students, decked out in costumes ranging from Superman to Cleopatra, strut across the stage.
A clothes manufacturer, the 35-year-old Azran, his youngest child sitting in his lap, says he is content with the education his daughters Melissa, 10, and Jordanna, 8 are receiving at the Narcisse-Leven elementary school.
But as soon as they are older, he expects that they, like other young Moroccan Jews, will move abroad for their education — most likely to the United States. He and his wife, he says, will follow them.
The reason he expects his family to leave is simple: “There are not a lot of Jews here.”
Azran’s assessment is undeniably true: Morocco’s Jewish community, which stood at a robust 250,000 in 1948, has dwindled to approximately 5,000 today; most of its members are older than 50.
As Moroccan Jewry becomes a remnant of what it once was, the Jews who are still there have a new goal: crafting a tribute to the 2,000 years of Jewish life in this country just south of Spain. Judging by the words of top government officials and their participation in recent Jewish events, Morocco’s leadership shares that goal.
The slow death of Morocco’s Jewish community is nothing new. The exodus that began soon after Morocco gained its independence from France in 1956 and accelerated during the 1960s has continued unabated since.
The once-flourishing communities of Fez, Rabat and Marrakech, all of which once boasted thousands of Jews living intimately in walled medieval markets, now have only a few hundred members. Only Casablanca, which still supports more than 20 synagogues, has enough Jewish students to keep a Jewish day school system alive.
“I used to work a lot with children. Now I work a lot with older people,” says the soft-spoken David Dayan, a longtime school principal at the now-closed Jewish high school in Marrakech, who with coaxing, shows off a card in his wallet with the photos of the Jewish basketball team he coached in the late 1940s.
Moroccan government officials boast of what they call the “2,000 years of peaceful Arab-Jewish coexistence” — and it is true that Jews have been treated better have than in many other parts of North Africa or Europe.
But the historical record is more complex. As is true elsewhere around the globe, the Jewish experience in Morocco has been cyclical, with favorable times followed by periods of anti-Semitism.
This cycle has not changed in modern times. During World War II, for example, then-King Mohammed V refused a request by the pro-Nazi Vichy France regime to round up the country’s Jews for deportation.
But several years later, Moroccan Jews, like others in the Arab world, were attacked by the local population during the period surrounding the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel. But, say Jewish historians, there were no uprisings during the 1967 Six-Day War, as there were in neighboring Tunisia.
In more recent times, Moroccan King Hassan II, Mohammed V’s son, attempted to steer a King Hussein-like heterodox course between Israel and the Palestinians. Indeed, after the famous 1993 handshake on the White House lawn between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, Israel was allowed to open up a consular office in Rabat.
Hassan, upset with the policies of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has frozen relations with Israel. And the number of Israeli tourists — Moroccan officials say 40,000 visited the country annually in 1995 and 1996 in the euphoria that followed the Oslo accords — has been cut at least in half.
“It is no secret that the king does not feel comfortable with the current leadership in Israel,” Nabil Khoury, the U.S. consul general in Rabat, said during a recent interview with reporters.
Despite the freeze, Israel still sells Morocco a host of agricultural products, said Gadi Golan, Israel’s consul general in Morocco, who is allowed to stay in the country but is prevented from meeting officially with government ministers.
Moroccan officials say they hope that once peace is reached in the Middle East, Jews will return to this North African country, a land where just a few minutes’ walk takes one from city streets featuring sleek professionals dressed in Parisian black fashions to medieval marketplaces filled with labyrinthine alleyways where donkeys tread.
But when pressed, government officials speak mainly of the importance of Moroccan Jewry in the development of their country, a nostalgia for a time when Jewish and Muslim children played side by side — and of a desire for economic benefits through tourism and through increased trade with Israel.
Indeed, Moroccan officials, once unwilling to mention the State of Israel, now speak of their readiness to establish a direct Tel Aviv-Casablanca flight if peace is achieved.
“What is important is to share business, joint ventures, large cooperation together,” said Andre Azoulay, a former banker and the chief economic adviser to Hassan.
Azoulay is believed to be the only Jewish minister in the Arab world.
For their part, Moroccan Jews are proud of their tradition, and at a session with American reporters on a recent trip to the country, members of Fez’s Jewish community bristled when asked why they, too, hadn’t joined their ex- compatriots in Israel, France, Canada or the United States.
“Why should a people deeply rooted for 2,000 years not coexist with others in the land where he is living?” said Dr. Armand Guigui, the president of the Jewish community of Fez.
In private, however, members of Morocco’s Jewish community admit that the history of Jews in Morocco will soon, for all intents and purposes, be over.
“The community of Moroccan Jews is good in France, is good in the United States, is good in Canada and is good in Israel. They have a future there,” said one older Moroccan Jew, whose six children now live abroad, including two who teach at a yeshiva in the Israeli town of Bnei Brak.
In the meantime, much of what remains of Morocco’s Jewish past is nostalgia – – including the celebrations of holidays, when the community, in the words of Jacques Zafrani, the leader of the Jewish community of Marrakech, used to go from house to house at the end of Passover to eat cake.
There are also physical memories.
In addition to cemeteries filled with tombstones, there are synagogues — some run-down and defunct, others, replete with chandeliers and cedar wood Torah arks, still holding daily minyans — and a host of Jewish artifacts that like the prayer books, kipot and wedding dresses at one museum in Fez, are scattered in disarray.
To its credit, the Moroccan Jewish community appears to be successful as it attempts to create a legacy of monuments.
It has formed the Foundation for the Preservation of Morocco’s Jewish Heritage. One of the group’s current projects is a yet-to-be-filled museum in a residential section of Casablanca — what Jewish leaders call the “first formal Jewish museum in the Arab world.”
In late February, several hundred people crammed into a Fez synagogue to attend a synagogue rededication, which was attended by government officials and given extensive positive coverage by Morocco’s official government newspaper.
Funded mainly by a Jewish family whose members mostly live elsewhere, the renovation of the 300-year-old Danan synagogue, which will now serve as a museum, was sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
The night of the ceremony, hundreds of Jews, most of them born in Morocco and now living abroad, gathered for a gala dinner in Fez to celebrate the rededication.
As the 450-odd people in attendance ate the traditional Moroccan dish of chicken and couscous, one older Jew looked around with a wistful look on his face.
“There are more Jews at this dinner than live in Fez,” he said.
Another guest, a Moroccan-born Jewish singer who now is based in France, is addressing the issue more proactively: She sings melodies that blend the traditions of both Muslims and Jews in the region.
“I see the emergency,” said Francoise Atlan. “This community is very fragile. I wanted to make something as a testament to it.”
JTA News Editor Peter Ephross recently visited Morocco as a guest of the country’s Tourist Ministry.