Morocco’s Jews are fiercly proud of their special status in a kingdom that is thoroughly Moslem.
King Hassan II is regarded by the Jews to be as benign and beneficent a ruler as one could hope for in the Arab world, and they are almost uniformly grateful for the protection he and his father, Mohammed V, have afforded them.
“God bless him. The king is second to God,” said Fortunato Morenu, a leader of the Rabat Jewish community who hosted a party for a delegation of six rabbis and a journalist visiting the country at the invitation of the king.
Morenu has as many pictures of the king in his home as the most fervent of Lubavitchers have of their rebbe.
In his living room, Morenu’s walls boast a plethora of royal photographs. In addition to the requisite large portrait of Hassan in stately repose, Morenu has hung two photographs of himself bowing to kiss the king’s hand, and one of him whispering in the king’s ear.
Large photographs of the king adorn the walls of most every home and Jewish organization. In the most popular version, King Hassan is posed regally in a gilt throne, looking pensively into the distance.
Pictures of his two sons are almost as popular, often shots of them in military uniforms.
Publicly, the Jews adore the king without qualification. They are fond of repeating a story about his father, Mohammed V, who refused to turn lists of his Jewish subjects over to the Nazis, saying that there was no difference between one Moroccan and another.
“We are here together (with Moslems) in love, in peace and in brotherhood,” said Rabbi Aaron Monsonego, the director of Ozar HaTorah schools in Casablanca and the son of the country’s chief rabbi, Yedidiah Monsonego.
KING’S RELATIONSHIP WITH JEWS NOT SIMPLE
Privately, however, some Moroccan Jews indicate that the relationship between the Jews and the government is not as simple or tranquil as it may first appear.
As an Islamic state, Morocco is officially at odds with Israel.
Moroccans are unable to phone out to Israel, though Israelis can phone in to Moroccans. There is no mail service between the two countries at all, and discussion of Israel is tacitly discouraged.
The only way Israelis can visit Morocco is to divest themselves of their passports at a Moroccan embassy in Western Europe and sign a document stating they were born in the North African kingdom.
The Palestine Liberation Organization is recognized by King Hassan as a government-in-exile and has an embassy in Rabat. When PLO chairman Yasir Arafat comes to meet with the King three or four times a year, he is welcomed as a head of state, said sources.
Morocco’s Jews understand that no matter how supportive the government is toward Jews, the Moroccan people’s sympathies, as Arabs, lie with the Palestinians.
The Islamic fundamentalism which has wrought havoc in neighboring Algeria and in Egypt is not a serious concern to the Jews of Morocco, they said.
According to Jacky Kadosh, scion of Marrakech’s most prominent Jewish family, it is because Moroccans are, by their nature, moderate Moslems and because the king is revered not only as a head of state and the head of the military, but as a religious leader.
But when political tensions run high, the Jews feel it, some said. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, for example, “Jews were afraid to leave their houses,” said one insider.
According to Albert Weizman, a native Moroccan Jew who oversees the work of the America Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in the country, “it can be uncomfortable to live in a Moslem country, and that’s why youth don’t want to come back.”
Yet according to Kadosh, leader of Marrakech’s 100-family Jewish community, the Jews have been well-protected from harm.
During the Persian Gulf War “the chief of police in Marrakech told my father ‘you have my phone number and to call if there is any problem at all,'” Kadosh recalled.
CLOSE ATTENTION HAS A FLIP SIDE
But the close attention paid by the government to the Jewish community, which most Jews said is for their own protection, has a flip side.
The Jews of Fez hosted a dinner to welcome the delegation from the New York Board of Rabbis on its second night in Morocco.
The rabbis were accompanied throughout their stay by a government employee, a representative of the Moroccan Tourism Office.
She joined the dinner party in Fez and was translating the New Yorkers’ comments from English into French.
When the conversation turned to talk of Israel and Jewish security in Morocco, Rabbi Sabagh warned his guests from New York in Hebrew that there was a “trap” among them, and to be careful of what they said in front of the government escort.
In Marrakech, Kadosh has a policy of not allowing the government security guards or escorts that generally accompany Jewish delegations visiting Morocco to eat with the guests in the dining room.
It is important, he told the visiting rabbis, to send the government a message that some places in the Jewish community are inviolable.
For the king, a good relationship with his Jewish subjects is valuable political capital to be used in the unfolding drama of the Middle East peace process.
King Hassan is almost unique in his ability to serve as an intermediary who can speak to both the Arab world and the West, who can boast of a good relationship with the Jews while demonstrating his commitment to the Palestinian, and larger Arab agenda.
An oft-discussed question is what will happen to the Jews when King Hassan II, who is now in his early 60s, dies.
Will the son who succeeds him be as beneficent a ruler over the Jews as King Hassan and his father before him?
“It’s a big question,” said the JDC’s Weizman. “The fate of the Middle East and the fate of the Jews here have always been linked.
“The Jews here pray day and night for the good health of the king — because they know that no one can protect them like he does.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.