Jewish culture in North Africa [en]

Morocco’s Jews and their legacy

Morocco is aiming to enshrine Judaism as part of its national identity: the «House of Memory» in Essaouira is one step towards realising that goal. The nation’s Jewish legacy has also been added to the national curriculum. Abdessamad Jattioui reports from Essaouira

For the first time in Moroccan history, the legacy and history of the country’s Jews is being taught in the nation’s schools. The move followed the opening of the Jewish «House of Memory» in Essaouira by King Mohammed VI. The exhibition is located in the rooms of a restored Jewish temple. «This is an absolute paradigm shift,» says Moroccan-Jewish singer Susan Haroush, who was jointly responsible for the exhibition’s design. «This house offers a completely new opportunity to discover something about the shared history of the Moroccans, Jews and Muslims,» she says.

The «House of Memory» is the continuation of Morocco’s long-held course of promoting interfaith dialogue. The Kingdom was one of the first Arab and Muslim nations to take part in the «Aladdin Project» initiated 12 years ago by UNESCO. This is aimed at fostering religious and cultural dialogue while at the same time countering anti-Semitic tendencies spread by extremist groups in the region.

Morocco adopted a new constitution in the year 2011. This means that the Kingdom is the first Arab-Muslim nation to recognise Jewish culture as a key element of its multicultural legacy and fundament of its current identity.

«A significant historic step»

The programme to present Morocco’s Jewish heritage began at the start of the new school year. For the first time, students started learning about Jewish life in Morocco, much to the joy of the nation’s Jewish community. The opening of the exhibit was a «significant historic step,» said Serge Berdugo, leader of the community and the country’s former tourism minister. «The younger generations have the right to know their history,» he said. Moreover, many of his compatriots sensed a profound desire to tell Morocco’s story.

Experts hope that introducing the subject of Judaism and the country’s Jewish legacy to the school curriculum will influence future generations in two ways. Firstly, it is hoped that this will create an awareness of the nation’s multicultural history, thereby helping to promote tolerance. At the same time, it should work to counteract anti-Semitism as well as anti-Jewish stereotypes.

Flying the flag for Morocco’s Jewish heritage

«We are very proud of this house as a Jewish community,» says singer Susan Haroush. Jews coming from abroad are also impressed by the exhibition and appreciative of just how much the King is flying the flag for Morocco’s Jewish heritage, she adds.

It’s not known exactly how many Jews currently live in Morocco. But statistics indicate that number is around 3,000 – a miniscule figure compared to the around 250,000 Jews living here in the 1940s before the mass exodus to Israel. Jews represented around a 10th of the entire Moroccan population at the time.

Historians point out that Morocco protected its Jewish citizens during the French colonial era and after independence. During the Second World War, King Mohammed V. rejected the anti-Semitic policies of the Nazi-controlled Vichy regime. «There are no Jews in Morocco,» the King explained at the time. «There are only Moroccans, and they are all my subjects.»

In recognition of his actions to protect the Jews, Israel erected a monument in the city of Ashkelon in honour of Mohammed V., calling him a «friend of the Jewish people».

«Part of our memory»

The Arab-Israeli wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973 drove down the number of Jews living in Morocco. In Israel on the other hand, the number of Jews with Moroccan roots increased. This is currently estimated to be between 600,000 and 900,000. Their political influence has grown accordingly. The Jews that remained in Morocco have played a significant role in sustaining Moroccan-Israeli relations. The two nations maintain ties in the economic and tourism sectors in particular. Morocco frequently assumed a mediator role during the Arab-Israeli conflict.

A great many Moroccan Jews travel annually to Israel to take part in pilgrimages. For its part, Morocco has more than 500 Jewish places of worship, most in the south of the country. Centres of Jewish life were and still are Essaouira, Casablanca, Rabat, Fez, Marrakesh and Meknes, to name but a few.

«The Jews have lived with us for a long time,» says an elderly Muslim passer-by. «We worked together and there were never any real disagreements. They were active in commerce and industry, we Muslims in agriculture and traditional trades. The Jews here are part of our shared memory.»

Abdessamad Jattioui

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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