Who says Morocco never persecuted its Jews?

As a new era dawns between Morocco and Israel, let honesty and transparency prevail.

The “mellah” in Tinghir, Morocco. Credit: Zohr Amazighya via Pinterest.
The “mellah” in Tinghir, Morocco. Credit: Zohr Amazighya via Pinterest.
Lyn Julius
Lyn Julius is the author of "Uprooted: How 3,000 Years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Vanished Overnight" (Vallentine Mitchell, 2018).

The news that Israel and Morocco are about to “normalize” their relations has been met with jubilation in Israel—and in the Moroccan diaspora. The first direct flight has taken off for Rabat from Tel Aviv, and liaison offices will be opened in both countries, to be upgraded to embassies in due course.

A wave of nostalgic affection has swept over Jews born in Morocco. “There’s a special place in my heart for Morocco,” gushes Casablanca-born columnist David Suissa, president of Tribe Media/Jewish Journal, who now lives in California.

On the diplomatic front, the U.N. ambassadors from Morocco and Israel marked the beginning of their new era with a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony. Then Rabat’s ambassador, Omar Hilale, dropped a bombshell: He said that Morocco had never persecuted its Jews. As far as we know, Israel’s ambassador, not wishing to spoil the love-in, said nothing in response.

Morocco is the first of the four countries that have agreed to a peace deal to have had a substantial Jewish population—its 300,000-member  community was the largest in the Arab world. But this community is now 1 percent of its previous size. If Morocco was such a hospitable place for its Jews, why did almost all leave?

One can point to the Oujda and Djerrada riots of 1948, in which 48 Jews died. Spasmodic violence in the 1950s was directed against the wedge group caught between the French colonials and the Muslims—the Jews. One can point to the fact that Morocco forbade its Jews from emigrating for five years, provoking increasingly desperate attempts to flee.

Zionism became a crime and a pretext for imprisonment once Morocco became a member of the Arab League. Jews in mixed areas were frequently harassed and threatened.

Mob violence erupted so frequently that the troubles were hardly worth recording. One Jewish woman asked her neighbors for assurance that an anti-Jewish riot was not being planned for the date of her daughter’s wedding.

Then there was the ever-present threat of the abduction of Jewish girls and forced conversion.

But Moroccan Jews themselves often deny that they left through persecution. The main reason is their loyalty to the king. “The king loves us,” Suissa declares. Jews believe that the wartime sultan saved the Jews from the Nazis and even wore the yellow star.

But historians have debunked this myth.

Deportation was never a realistic possibility. The king may have prevaricated, but he rubber-stamped every single anti-Jewish decree promulgated by the Vichy authorities, the real “power behind the throne.”

Morocco’s record has been muddied by a decades-long campaign, spearheaded by the king’s Jewish royal adviser, André Azoulay, to project an idealized image through the preservation of Jewish heritage, music festivals and other demonstrations of interfaith coexistence.

Historically, the Moroccan monarchy generally did show benign tolerance towards its Jewish subjects, who lived in a quarter, or mellah, adjoining the royal palace. An attack on minorities was seen as an attack on the sultan’s power.

Dhimmi Jews, routinely subjected to restrictions and humiliations, paid for his protection with hard cash. After the post-Inquisition influx of Jews from Spain, sultans appointed Jews to be their advisers and intermediaries with the European powers.

But not all sultans were benevolent. At the end of the 18th century, Moulay Lyazid ordered Jews in Oujda who dared to dress like Muslims to have one ear cut off. He planned to exterminate the Jews of his kingdom and incited a pogrom against the Jews of Tetuan.

No persecution there.

The Jews were left without protection at times of instability or in the interregnum between rulers. Take the Fez pogrom of 1033, where 6,000 Jews were reputedly murdered. At other times, fanatical preachers whipped the mob into an anti-Jewish frenzy, as happened in Touat in 1492, when the entire Jewish population was massacred.

In contrast, a well-intentioned sultan might have wished to protect his Jews but could be powerless to do so. In 1863, Sir Moses Montefiore persuaded the sultan to issue an edict granting equal rights for Jews, but local governors failed to apply it.

The 19th century was replete with riots against the usual scapegoats—the Jews—as Morocco became a cauldron of tribal and international conflict.

As a new era dawns between Morocco and Israel, let honesty and transparency prevail. Morocco broke new ground recently, promising to Jewish history and culture in schools. Let’s hope that the children are not taught that Morocco never persecuted its Jews.

Lyn Julius is the author of “Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Vanished Overnight” (Vallentine Mitchell, 2018).

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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