Watch a report about the Jewish community in Morocco, not as vibrant as it once was.
For many people, Judaism in the Middle East conjures images of discord. But the Islamic nation of Morocco is an exception — it’s a place where Jews are not just tolerated but embraced in some circles as an important part of the country’s history and culture.
Even before the arrival of Islam in Morocco, Jews called this North African coastal nation their home. About 400 years ago, the Moroccan Jewish community forged a strong connection and alliance with the country’s ruling dynasty, the Alaouites.
In the 20th century, persecutions across Europe brought new waves of Jewish immigrants to Morocco seeking safe haven. Their hope was not in vain — in 1940, when the Nazi-controlled French government in Morocco issued anti-Semitic decrees, the Alaouite Sultan Mohammed V rejected the racist laws.
In one oft-repeated story, he refused to ask his Jewish subjects to wear the yellow stars. “There are no Jews in Morocco,” he reportedly said. “There are only subjects.”
Today in Morocco, Jews enjoy equal rights and privileges. One of King Mohammed VI’s senior advisers, André Azoulay, is Jewish. Morocco also has state-funded Jewish schools and Jewish religious courts.
At the Jewish courts, called Bet Din, civil cases are heard and adjudicated by rabbis. Morocco’s Bet Din is the only such Jewish court system outside Israel, officially recognized as an alternative legal body and housed within the same complex as Muslim courts.
Despite the tolerant atmosphere, Morocco’s Jewish population is steadily decreasing. Although Moroccan Jews are largely free from the persecution and animosity that they may face in other Muslim nations, there was a series of suicide bombings on May 16, 2003 in Casablanca that targeted sites of Jewish life and killed three Jews.
Moroccan Jews have been flowing to Israel, Europe and the Americas for religious reasons, fear of persecution and to better their economic situation. At its height in the 1940s, Morocco’s Jewish population exceeded 250,000; today, only about 4,000 remain.
The Jewish community has mostly abandoned its formerly vibrant existence in Moroccan cities like Tangier, Fez, Salé and Tetouan. Only the city of Casablanca maintains a significant population and is now the center of Moroccan Jewish life.
Casablanca boasts 17 active synagogues, three Jewish schools, an extensive Jewish museum, and a community center that cares for the sick and elderly. But the mellahs (Jewish quarters) of other Moroccan cities stand empty or repurposed.
Because of the mass exodus, some in Morocco are racing to preserve the country’s Jewish culture and community. At the Jewish Museum in Casablanca, which is the only one in the Arab world, Muslim curator Zhor Rehihil is passing on the history of Morocco’s Jews to all who visit.
And American scholar Vanessa Paloma has launched KHOYA, an oral archive of Jewish sounds, songs and interviews that she hopes to one day make available to all Moroccans. “Even with all the imperfections that exist here, what Morocco has is amazing. I don’t want the future to lose that. I feel that it is imperative, it is our responsibility,” she said.
For Paloma, preservation is the answer. “In the next 20, 30 or 40 years, will the Jewish community still be here and thriving? I hope so. But we don’t know.”
This article and video were produced through the GlobalBeat program at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Credits: Madeline Gressel, writer/reporter; Zoe Lake, correspondent; Siyi Chen and Kesley Doyle, camera/ editor; Khadija Boukharfane, field producer.