Behind the Headlines: Moroccan Israelis Join Their Former Countrymen in Mourning King Hassan

The death of Morocco’s King Hassan II made tens of thousands of Israelis mourn for the man they consider “their” king — and homesick for the land their families left.

Young Israelis of Moroccan origin placed the Moroccan flag on top of their cars, while others displayed huge posters in their homes of the late king, who died last Friday of a heart attack at the age of 70.

The Moroccan Jewish community in Israel declared a seven-day period of mourning for the king.

While reaction from Israel’s leadership was perhaps less dramatic, it was just as heartfelt — as a delegation led by Israeli President Ezer Weizman and Prime Minister Ehud Barak joined 30 world leaders, including President Clinton and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, in remembering a man who played a vital role in bridging the gap between the Jewish state and the Arab world.

In a condolence message, Weizman called Hassan a “true partner in the peace process.”

Attending the funeral, Barak called Hassan a “great leader,” adding that the late monarch was a “farsighted man, a friend to the governments of Israel in their voyage toward peace with the Arab people.”

In Israel, Moroccan Jews have traditionally supported parties, such as Likud or Shas, that espouse hard-line policies toward the Arab countries. This is partly to compensate for the fact that they felt “Ashkenazi Jews regarded them as Jewish Arabs,” according to Haim Shiran, 64, director of Inbal, an ethnic center in Tel Aviv. He said anti-Arab political views were a kind of self- defense mechanism, a way to distinguish themselves from the Arabs.

But when it came to the king’s death, the reaction of Israel’s estimated 300,000 Moroccan Jews appeared similar to Morocco’s Arab residents, many of whom consider the king to be a direct descendent of the Muslim prophet Mohammad.

“I know that it may sound ridiculous,” said Shiran, “but when on Friday, I saw the Moroccan announcer on television announcing the death of the king, I broke out in tears.”

Actor Ze’ev Revah added: “I feel as if I have lost a member of the family.”

When King Hassan II took power in 1961 after the death of his father Mohammed V, he was an unknown quantity with a reputation as a playboy. But ruling with a deft mixture of pro-Western democracy and traditional autocracy, he earned the respect of his people. He also survived several coup attempts, including one in which he reportedly pacified an attacker by reciting the opening verses of the Koran.

Hassan is being succeeded by his son Mohammed, 36.

Like his father was when he ascended the throne, Mohammed VI is an unknown quantity. But most observers, citing the new monarch’s knowledge of four languages and his degree from a French university, believe he will continue, and perhaps even accelerate, his father’s pro-Western and pro-peace policies.

Mohammed V is widely credited with having saved Morocco’s Jews from deportation during World War II, and Hassan continued the philo-Semitic policies of his father. Although there was an outbreak of anti-Jewish incidents following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the Jewish community was generally safe under the protection of both Mohammed and Hassan, who proudly considered the Jews “Moroccans of Jewish origin.”

When tens of thousands of Jews left Morocco in a massive aliyah that began after Morocco gained its independence in 1956 — and accelerated after Hassan II gained power — it was due as much to Zionism and a desire for economic opportunity as it was to a fear of anti-Semitism.

And as absorption difficulties mounted, Moroccan Jews missed the country of their birth even more.

“Even the death of your own premier you haven’t mourned as deeply,” Pinhas Suissa, 44, a building contractor from Jerusalem said to his friends.

The response was simple: “Rabin was a prime minister, elected for only four years. The king was king for life.”

Along with the recently deceased King Hussein of Jordan, Hassan was considered a moderate in the Middle East. During his 38-year reign, he discreetly, and later openly, promoted ties with Israel at a time when most of the rest of the Arab world rejected such contact.

In the 1967 and 1973 wars, he contributed only a nominal number of troops to support the Arab world.

His mediation efforts, including secret meetings with Israeli intelligence officials and political leaders, helped pave the way for the 1978 Camp David accord between Israel and Egypt.

King Hassan also played a role in preparing for the 1991 Madrid peace conference and welcomed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in September 1993, making Morocco the first Arab nation outside of Egypt to officially welcome an Israeli leader. In 1994, Hassan hosted the first Middle East regional economic conference, which included Israel, in the Moroccan city of Casablanca.

After the euphoria of the 1993 Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel was allowed to establish a consular office in Rabat, and an estimated 40,000 Israeli tourists visited Morocco in 1995 and 1996. But after the peace process stalled following the election of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, relations cooled considerably. Moroccan ministers were not allowed to meet with Israel’s consul general in their offices.

But there were indications that relations were set to improve once again with the renewed optimism in the peace process spurred by Barak’s election in May. Before Hassan’s death last Friday, Morocco’s trade office in Israel commemorated its move from Tel Aviv to new offices in an ornate replica of one of King Hassan’s palaces built in the southern port city of Ashdod.

Speculation before the funeral focused on the possibility of a meeting between Barak and Syrian President Hafez Assad.

But Assad did not attend the funeral, reportedly because of American efforts to set up such a meeting. Assad, who sent a deputy in his place, was slated to visit Morocco on Tuesday to pay his respects to Mohammed, according to Israeli press reports.

Separate meetings between Barak and Arafat and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak slated for Saturday evening and Sunday, respectively, were postponed because of Hassan’s death and rescheduled for Tuesday evening and Thursday.

But even in death Hassan provided an opportunity for Israeli and Arab officials to meet — in this case, an unprecedented exchange between Barak, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy and Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Speaking in French, Bouteflika asked Levy whether Israel was serious about peace, to which the Moroccan-born minister responded, “Yes,” adding that it was in Israel’s interest to do so, and it was ready to work hard to achieve it.

Turning to Barak, Bouteflika said his country was willing to help in any way it could.

Israeli Moroccans must have felt a surge of pride as they watched Levy, one of their own, talk to Bouteflika.

(JTA correspondent Naomi Segal in Jerusalem also contributed to this report.)

NEXT STORY