Morocco, despite anti-Israel proposals, seen as rare warm environment for Jews in Arab world

By Sean Savage/JNS.org

Click photo to download. Caption: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel meet with King Mohammed VI of Morocco at the Moroccan Ambassador to the United States' residence in Washington, D.C., on November 20, 2013. Credit: U.S. Department of State.

Tucked quietly away on the far-western edge of North Africa, Morocco has largely avoided the upheaval of the so-called “Arab Spring” that has plunged many Middle Eastern countries into chaos. It has a vibrant economy, stable government, and growing tourism industry.

Nevertheless, Morocco is not immune to the problems of the Arab world, including corruption, unemployment, and Islamic extremism. Additionally, a proposed bill in the Moroccan legislature that would criminalize any contacts with Israel threatens to undermine the warm relations Morocco has with its Jewish community at home and abroad, as well as its growing international reputation as a rare model for success in the Arab world. 

“Overall, Morocco remains stable and open for business and remains a mecca for tourists, but the gaps between rich and poor, endemic corruption and unresponsiveness of state institutions to people’s needs, high youth unemployment—all things that characterize the entire region—means that Morocco is not immune to challenges,” Professor Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, principal research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, told JNS.org

Isolated by the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Atlas mountains to the east, Morocco has one of the Arab world’s oldest and most stable monarchies under the leadership of King Mohammed VI. Founded in 1631, the Alaouite dynasty, which claims descent from the Prophet Mohammed, has given Morocco a firm sense of identity and stability over the centuries. 

Taking over as king in 1999 after the passing of his father, King Hassan II, Mohammed VI is a young and progressive pro-Western leader who immediately instituted social reforms and economic liberalization in an attempt modernize to Morocco. The king is also an adept businessman, and the royal family has a fortune worth more than $2.5 billion.

As the so-called “Arab Spring” swept through the region in 2010, King Mohammed faced unprecedented challenges to his regime. Allegations of corruption and the slow pace of reforms damaged his reputation.

“There were substantial protests, calling for reform, not revolution,” Maddy-Weitzman said.

“The king seized the initiative? from protestors demanding reform, promoting a new constitution that was to give more power to the government and parliament, the devolution of power to local and regional authorities, to effectively fight corruption and the recognition of the Berber (Amazigh) language and culture as a core component of Moroccan national identity. He also expanded public spending—salaries, job hiring, subsidies on basic goods,” he said.

Maddy-Weitzman said the reform movement is now out of steam.

“The monarchy retains legitimacy, the king was proactive, and the example of the instability that has shaken other countries serves as a deterrent for many Moroccans,” he said.

One of the most unique and profound aspects of the dynamism of modern Morocco and its leadership is the country’s deep interest in preserving and promoting its Jewish heritage. Under King Mohammed VI, Morocco has recognized Jewish contributions to Moroccan national identity as part of the 2011 constitutional reforms and has restored an ancient synagogue in Fez.

Home to one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities, Jews first settled in Morocco when it was part of the Roman Empire, and the country later became a haven for Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.

By the mid-20th century, the Moroccan Jewish community stood at around 250,000-300,000, one of the largest in the Middle East. But like every other Arab state, Morocco lost most of its ancient Jewish community amid the upheaval over the creation of Israel and the subsequent Arab-Israeli wars.

Yet Morocco’s story is much more complex than that of the rest of the Arab world, where  rabid anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment has raged during this period of time. 

“Let me make one basic statement—there has not been any widespread persecution of Jews in Morocco, neither during World War II nor in the following decades,” Ambassador Serge Berdugo, secretary-general of the Moroccan Jewish community and ambassador-at-large for King Mohammed VI, told JNS.org

Indeed, Morocco’s King Mohammed V, grandfather of the current monarch, is famously hailed for his refusal to deport Jews during the Holocaust, when Morocco was under the control of the Nazi-collaborationist regime in Vichy France. 

Rather, Berdugo told JNS.org that there were a number of complex factors that led to the massive Jewish exodus, including “socio-economic issues, religious beliefs, family reasons, [and] political and strategic trends in the Arab world.”

Click photo to download. Caption: King Mohammed VI of Morocco (left) with Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the former president of Brazil, in November 2004. Credit: U. Dettmar/ABr.

“All these factors created an atmosphere of permanent uncertainty for the Jews,” Berdugo said. 

Despite its Jewish population decreasing to 5,000, Morocco has maintained warm ties with Moroccan Jews abroad, with tens of thousands of Jews from Israel and elsewhere regularly visiting as tourists. 

At a time when Jews and Israel are constantly vilified by Arab media outlets and leaders, Morocco’s appreciation for Jews has been a welcome development for Berdugo.

“Unlike so many countries in the world, Morocco does not feel any guilt towards them [Jews],” he said. “On the contrary, they feel they have lost part of their national body because of their departure and are very proud to know that those who left did not forget their country... It’s a good feeling of mutual recognition of our common cultural heritage of tolerance and of the Moroccan people.”

Nevertheless, challenges do exist. Morocco’s Islamic Justice and Development Party (PJD), which controls the parliament, , has along with other parties proposed a series of bills outlawing contact with Israelis.

The bills seek to make it illegal to trade with Israeli entities and for Israeli tourists, of whom many are of Moroccan descent, to enter the country.

“The very fact that the bill [making trade with Israel illegal] has been put forth, and sponsored by members of parliament from a variety of parties, including those in the government, is disturbing,” Maddy-Weitzman said.

Jewish human rights advocates have been quick to condemn the bill and have called on King Mohammed VI to stop the proposed legislation.

“This law would not only endanger the Jews remaining in Morocco, it would set a precedent for the exclusion of other minorities, thereby wrecking Your Majesty’s 2011 newly enacted human rights based Constitution,” Shimon Samuels, Simon Wiesenthal Center’s director for international relations, wrote in a recent letter to King Mohammed VI.

“Indeed, it may also deter foreign investment prospects, both current and future,” Samuels added.

Given King Mohammed VI’s affinity for Jewish heritage and his unique role in steering Morocco, observers think he will likely veto the bill.

Despite the reforms, “power in Morocco rests in the hands of a ruling elite that revolves around the Palace, and the Morocco’s governing institutions—the prime minister’s post, his cabinet, and the legislature—do not exercise real power,” Maddy-Weitzman said.

For Westerners, especially Americans, there would seem to be an inherent contradiction in a monarch guiding his country towards modernity. But in a region wracked by civil strife and revolutions, King Mohammed VI, back by his family’s legacy, believes it is his place to guide Morocco into the future.

At the same time, Berdugo believes that his country’s tiny Jewish community, which is bolstered by a benevolent king, can serve as example of what is possible between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East.

“They (Moroccan Jews) are the witnesses of a possible peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews with full rights and duties. As such, their voice for a just peace in the Middle East is a clear one based on experience and living together,” he said.

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Posted on December 1, 2013 and filed under Features, News, World.