Jewish in Morocco

A weekend with the head of Morocco's Jewish community.

The winds off the Atlantic whistled through Casablanca’s ancient outdoor market as I prepared to visit Serge Berdugo, the ambassador-at-large and head of Morocco’s 5,000-strong Jewish community. I didn’t initially plan on seeing him. I was actually visiting the coastal city to write for the Financial Times about Morocco’s version of Oprah, Nassima el Hor. But my interview with Ms. el Hor was canceled because the month-long Muslim fasting holiday of Ramadan had just ended, and nearly everyone in the city was celebrating the subsequent three-day Eid festival.
moroccan synagogue
Because anything work-related grinded to a halt during Eid, Berdugo, whom I had met on a previous reporting trip, invited me to spend Shabbat with him and his family at his summer home in the ancient city of Marrakech. Before our departure we met in Casablanca’s Jewish community center for lunch. Over plates of hummus and carrots doused in cumin, he talked to me about life as a Jew in Morocco. For his part, Berdugo can trace his family’s arrival to the Spanish inquisition, when both Jews and Muslims from Spain found refuge in nearby Morocco.

A History of Tolerance

This shared migratory experience, Berdugo explained, helped form a tight bond between the two peoples. And, while the majority of Moroccan Jews have left to reside either in Israel, Europe, or North America, Berdugo sees the role of Morocco’s community–the largest of its kind in the Arab world–as one that is emblematic of peaceful coexistence with Muslims. “We are friends here,” said Berdugo. “We live together and we are the same. This is an extremely tolerant society.”

The kingdom’s respect for the minority community was best elucidated during World War II when the pro-Nazi, French Vichy regime attempted to exert its anti-Jewish decrees over Morocco (from 1912-1956 the country was a French protectorate), and King Muhammed V resolutely blocked the initiatives.

On a more personal level, Berdugo was the country’s Tourism Minister from 1993 to 1995. In this role, he helped encourage dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis during a multitude of visits to Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. He also coordinated trips for Moroccan Muslims to Mecca for the annual Hajj pilgrimage. A controversial task in the Arab League–having a Jew oversee the most important religious pilgrimage in Islam–but since Morocco has held fast to its role as the country in the Arab world that is most tolerant of its Jewish community, no eyebrows were raised.

During the Oslo Accords, Morocco, which does not abide by the Arab League’s boycott, established low-level diplomatic ties with Israel. In 2003, two years after the start of the second Intifada, Berdugo spearheaded efforts alongside the king to re-establish relations with Israel after the monarch decided to play a more active role in resolving the conflict. Though these efforts did not materialize, Moroccan-Israeli diplomatic contacts continue.

Leaving Morocco

The drop from 300,000 Jews in the first half of the 20th century to 5,000 at present took place just after Israel was established. At this time riots in the eastern cities of Oujda and Djerada killed roughly 44 Jews, and this was a catalyst for emigration.

In the 1950s, the annual departure of Jews increased. In 1956 a ban was placed on Jewish emigration. Still some organizations, like Israel’s Mossad, were able to defy the decree and move nearly 18,000 Moroccan Jews to Israel, mostly because Moroccan authorities turned a blind eye to the exodus. This changed when the Moroccan Istiqlal party reneged the nation’s former laissez faire attitude towards the mass migration and began actively restricting departures. In 1961, though, King Mohammed V upended Istiqlal’s position and allowed the nation’s Jews to relocate if they so desired. Free of limitations, nearly 70,000 Jews moved to Israel.

More recently, Morocco, like many countries in the region, has felt the affects of terrorism. In the 2003 Casablanca bombings, three of the five targets were Jewish institutions. And while no Jews died that day, Berdugo and his Jewish compatriots were forced to consider its effects on their small community.

Berdugo’s reaction was one of commitment to his native land, particularly after becoming aware that the Jewish Agency in Israel was encouraging Moroccans to relocate. Berdugo publicly declared at the time, “We are the only Arab country with a vibrant Jewish community, and we believe we have to preserve that small Hanukkah light. Many people would like us to leave, but we are asking our Jewish friends around the world to understand we are attached to Morocco.”

Through it all the country has held tight to institutions that encourage cross-cultural understanding. One in particular is Casablanca’s Jewish elementary and high school–Lycee Mainonide–which at the start of 2010 will mark its 150-year anniversary. Here both Jewish and Muslim Moroccan children study the history of each other’s religions, while honing their Hebrew and Arabic language skills.

Shabbat in Marrakech

After lunch with Berdugo, I drove along the 130-mile road to Marrakech, winding through long stretches of camel-colored land mixed with rows of leafy crops, some of which are barricaded by cacti. When I arrived at Berdugo’s home, smells of mint mixed with turmeric hovered by the front door. Soon I was called to join the family at the Shabbat table.
After wine was sipped and blessings recited, meat perfumed with dried fruits was served. Over tea, Berdugo explained to me that despite the drop in numbers the Jewish community in Morocco is still vital. In the city of Casablanca alone there are 15 active synagogues, a Jewish museum, two delicatessens, and even a kosher wine shop.

The following morning Berdugo and I visited a synagogue in the center of Marrakech, which at present has a community of 400 Jews. Inside, wrought iron bars shaped like Jewish stars separated women and men. After the service, Berdugo delivered a short speech to the congregation detailing many of the vibrant efforts of the community, which include the recent establishment of a housing unit for low income Jews in Casablanca.

That afternoon Berdugo pulled me aside to play a selection of Moroccan music. He stopped at a particular folder labeled “Chants de Traverse,” explaining that this was the name of a concert series he organized for seven years. “We had Jewish and Muslim singers and musicians on stage performing together. It was so popular, it was even sold on the black market in Algeria,” Berdugo said.

On the album, drumbeats merge with clinking tambourines while singers’ voices dip and soar to lyrics that describe experiences of love and loss. Berdugo launched the endeavor as a way to close painful gaps that remain prevalent in this very volatile region. “Jewish life in Morocco is a window into what peace between us can look like,” said Berdugo as he ticked up the volume several notches. “Here we can show the world what is possible.”

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