Sun, Dec 11, 2016
The Moroccan Jewish culture has persevered through time, resisted the wear and tear of successive persecutions, stigmatization and massacres, and is still alive and thriving today.
Jews have lived in Morocco for nearly two millenia, and Morocco’s Jewish community, which once numbered more than 250,000, remains the largest in the Muslim world. They came to Morocco in 70 AD after the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem by the Romans. So, like in Spain, their religion predates Islam that arrived only, later on, on the 8th century.
The Moroccan Jewish culture has persevered through time, resisted the wear and tear of successive persecutions, stigmatization and massacres, and is still alive and thriving today. For two thousand years of their existence, Moroccan Jews have showed great love and allegiance to Morocco, their land and country, and this unique feeling is even stronger today for those who have left the country. This incredible love and affection is due to the tremendous ongoing dialogue, esteem and cooperation between Muslims and Jews within Morocco.
A good illustration of that is the grotto that exists in the city of Sefrou, nicknamed Little Jerusalem, which is called: Kaf al-Moumen, “The Cave of the Faithful”, where a Muslim and a Jewish saints are, supposedly, buried and are revered by both Muslims and Jews in turn. This incredible symbiosis between Islam and Judaism is the result of strong commonality resulting from a solid cultural substratum. Indeed, while the Moroccan Jews show obsequious love to their country of origin and come back to celebrate the religious rite of Hailula, their Muslim brethren regret their departure through such films as: “Tinghir, Jerusalem: echoes of the Mellah.”
Because of this shared love and respect that grows and mellows with time, in the wake of the Arab Spring, the Moroccan constitution was overhauled and Hebraic (Jewish) tradition was highlighted in its wording and considered a major confluent of Moroccan identity and culture in its preamble.
A sovereign Muslim State, attached to its national unity and to its territorial integrity, the Kingdom of Morocco intends to preserve, in its plentitude and its diversity, its one and indivisible national identity. Its unity, is forged by the convergence of its Arab-Islamist, Berber [amazighe] and Saharan-Hassanic [saharo-hassanie] components, nourished and enriched by its African, Andalusian, Hebraic and Mediterranean influences [affluents]. The preeminence accorded to the Muslim religion in the national reference is consistent with [va de pair] the attachment of the Moroccan people to the values of openness, of moderation, of tolerance and of dialog for mutual understanding between all the cultures and the civilizations of the world.
The example of Sefrou is not unique in its kind in Morocco; it is found in other places like Debdou, Azrou, Fes, Rabat, Meknes, Marrakesh, Essaouira, etc. In all these cities lived large communities of Jews and they practiced their faith and trades in complete peace and harmony. They were full Moroccans and, as such, enjoyed the full rights and obligations of their Muslims brethren.
Of course, not everything is rosy about the presence of Jews in Morocco, there were several instances of massacre of this minority. Indeed, in May-June 1033 Tamim a tribal Amazigh (Berber) Chief of the Zenata Banu Ifrah tribe took the city of Fes from the Maghrawa tribe and by so doing burned partially the historical capital city and killed 6,000 Jews and appropriated their possessions and took their women. This is undoubtedly a true pogrom. In 1038-1040 the Maghrawa tribe retook Fes and forced Tamim to flee to Salé and set about to pay compensation money to the surviving Jews of this horrid genocide.
The Almoravids (1040-1145), an austere and orthodox Amazigh (Berber) dynasty, sought to gain the alliance of the Jews to conquer the rest of Morocco, the latter, faithful to time-old neutrality in politics refused politely and the Almoravids massacred many of them in the major cities, those who survived fled to the mountains where they sought protection among the Jewish Amazigh (Berber). There were also mass murders of the Jews during the Almohad rule (1121-1269, a dynasty that treated the Jews harshly in Morocco and nicely in Spain, for some unknown reason.
The Merinids (1244–1465) gave preferential treatment to the Jews and almost allied their dynasty to them unfortunately this was badly interpreted by the ulemas (Muslim religious scholars) who incited the faithful to defy the sultan and, thus, a pogrom was committed in 1276. The Merinids, as they strengthened the control of the empire decided to house the Jews in a quarter near the Palace in Fes Jdid where there was an old salt mine and, consequently, the people called the Jewish area of the city Mellah from the Arabic word Melh, meaning salt. Later on, all Jewish quarters all over the country were given the same name. However, another story has it that the sultans beheaded their enemies and asked the Jews to salt their heads in their quarters and stick them on spears at the gate of the city to show the ultimate punishment of insurgents brought upon them by the mighty Makhzen (traditional absolutist monarchy.) So as result, the Jews were even more detested by the Muslim population, for serving the sultan in his cruelty.
But, alas, in spite of their good treatment of the Jews, the Merinids strengthened the dhimmi status of the former forcing them to address the Muslims as: sidi lmeslem “ the lord Muslim”, dismount in their presence and look down in respect, as well as walk barefoot outside their quarters. The Alaouite Sultan Moulay Slimane (1795–1822), a true reformer and kind ruler tried to rescind these humiliating laws in the capital Fes , but the religious zealots showed their discontent of his action by massacring Jews in the city. The Moroccan Rabbis, realizing the dangers the Jewish community was facing, as a result, thanked the sultan and implored him to repeal his decree to insure their safety.
Chenier, a French famous traveller of the 18th century argued that the blessing bestowed by Moroccan dynasties on their Jewish subjects proved in many instances counterproductive and dangerous for Jewish communities. As a result, Moroccan Jews were, through out history walking a tight Europe in Morocco. On the one hand, they were grateful to the Sultans for protection and affection, but on the other hand they dreaded the popular backlash out of jealousy or religious zeal and hatred:
The lowest among the Moors imagines he has a right to ill-treat a Jew, nor dares the latter defend himself, because the Koran and the judge are always in favor of the Mohammedan. Notwithstanding this state of oppression, the Jews have many advantages over the Moors: they better understand the spirit of trade; they act as agents and brokers, and they profit by their own cunning and by the ignorance of the Moors. In their commercial bargains many of them buy up the commodities of the country to sell again. Some have European correspondents; others are mechanics, such as goldsmiths, tailors, gunsmiths, millers, and masons. More industrious and artful, and better informed than the Moors, the Jews are employed by the emperor in receiving the customs, in coining money, and in all affairs and intercourse which the monarch has with the European merchants, as well as in all his negotiations with the various European governments.
The Jews, no matter how educated or rich were always supposed to treat Muslims as their natural superiors, those who violated these rules were fined first and if they breached again this code of conduct they were imprisoned and if they persisted they were banned from their city of residence and their property confiscated.
The Alaouites (1631- Present) were always good to the Jews and treated their scholars, Rabbis and businessmen with much deference. They authorized the Jews to have their schools, their rabbinical courts and elect their representatives to the sultan. During the reign of Moulay Ismael 1672–1727, the latter treated Muslims harshly and the Jews favorably . So, their business prospered and with it their stature and standing within society. Moulay Ismael always consulted with them for the conduct of state affairs, bearing in mind that they were versed in business and diplomacy and had good relations with the Christian states of Europe.
This favorable treatment was to come to an end with the cruel Alaouite Sultan Moulay Yazid who reigned from 1790 to 1972 and had an intense hatred for the Jews, as a result, there were pogroms in Tetuan in 1790 and 1792, in which children were murdered, women were raped and property was looted. He hanged all the Jewish notables of Meknes from their feet for 10 days, he also later burst the eyes of 300 Muslim notables who had the courage to question his violent temperament and his mistreatment of the Jews.
Between 1864 and 1880, there were, also, a series of pogroms against the Jews of Marrakesh, in which hundreds were slaughtered.
Norman Berdichevsky in an article entitled The Moroccan Jews: Contradictions Galore argues :
By and large, the older generation of Moroccan Jews living today in Israel do not have bitter memories or hostile sentiments regarding the land of their birth and quite a few have returned to visit the graves of their ancestors.
However, when the Jews expelled from Spain arrived in Morocco, they were met by some sort of unfriendliness from the local Jews, who were afraid to loose their business privileges and official benediction, on the ground that the newcomers were more educated, sophisticated and experienced in serving officials in several areas. The local Jews were actually right, because, indeed, they were soon relegated to the status of merchants and, as a result, loosing the blessings of the monarchy. Somehow the Muslims had the same feeling but did not show it publicly for fear of retaliation from the Makhzen (absolutist government power). As such, the Spanish Jews became very close to the palace and the Sultan chose from their ranks his advisors and, most importantly his businessmen commonly known as : tujjar sultan (merchants of the king) and this is still true today, indeed one of the close advisors of Mohammed VI is André Azoulay, a Moroccan Jew.
Norman Berdichevsky makes mention of some sort of animosity between local Moroccan Jews an Spanish incoming Jews :
In Morocco, a historic meeting or confrontation took place between the indigenous Jewish population speaking Arabic and long settled in the country with the new wave of “Sephardim.” At first, the two groups maintained a separate existence with separate synagogues, cemeteries and religious schools but gradually intermarried and merged. The same process occurred at the eastern end of the Mediterranean between Greek speaking Jews in the Ottoman Empire and the new Sephardi refugees.
He goes on to say that they created some feeling of uneasiness not only among local Jews, but, also, among Muslims :
The influx of Sephardi refugees into Morocco aroused uneasiness both among the Muslims afraid of inflated prices and among the Jews already settled there. The Sephardi refugees surpassed the older Jewish Moroccans in education, commerce, and intellectual achievement and made many contributions to the stability of Alaouite monarchy.
During the Second World War, the Third Reich blamed the Jews for all the problems and ailments of Nazi Germany. From verbal blame, the Hitler regime moved on to humiliate them by making them wear yellow stars of David. Official Europe did not raise a finger to stop this horrible mental and psychological repression on a religious minority that has, over centuries, contributed scientifically and economically to the strength and the glory of this continent. Worse, the Catholics and the Protestants alike acted in unison as if nothing happened, except for few individuals who denounced such a horrible conduct.
Back in 1920, when Hitler presented his platform to the small Nazi Party, he made clear his hatred for the Jews. One of the five points of National Socialism stated clearly;
None but members of the nation may be citizens of the State. None but those of German blood may be members of the nation. No Jew, therefore, may be a member of the nation.
For Hitler, as stated in Mein Kampf, the Jews wanted to contaminate the blood of the Germans through marriage and thus lower their IQ to reduce them to slavery. His anti-semitism will reach its apogee with the advent of Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1945. Him and his party started systematically the elimination of the « filthy race » of the Jews. The thugs of SA and SS were given free hand in doing the dirty job. As the Jews were lead first in dozens to their death for being Jews, democratic Europe totally ignored the genocide, as if it were just a simple piece of news and not an organized massacre of an ethnic and religious group on a large scale. Then thousands were murdered to settle the number, in the end, around the appalling figure of 6 million human beings gassed, just for being Jews, no more.
The democrats of Europe, the religious leaders whether Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox all acted as if nothing was happening until their own life and stability was threatened earnestly by the Nazis, who had occupied France and were at the gate of England, two of the stalwarts of the free world. In the meantime 6 million innocent people were exterminated in total silence, not to say total collusion with the German empire of evil, a maleficent entity never known in the history of mankind.
Enhardened by this accomplice silence of the two Christian churches, the Natzis moved forward to the mass elimination of millions of Jews and this went on for many years before the Christian faithful moved to take action. The end result millions of Jews were killed, the biggest genocide of all human history, to date. The European Christian uproar only manifested itself, after the drama took place.
it was the wholesale slaughter of six million people, the horror of which was in its planning and methodicalness: — the cattle-car trains, the concentrations camps, the starvation, the forced labor, the torture pretending to pose as medical experiments with nothing medical about them, Zyclone B gas showers into which Jews were pushed to kill them faster, and the non-stop crematoria.
The Vatican indirect collusion with the Nazis is no secret to anyone, but nobody in Europe is daring, even today, to put the blame on the Catholic establishment or ask for official answers. The disturbing question is, undoubtedly: why did not the Catholics condemn the anti-semitic policies of Hitler back in 1933 and why did they turn a blind eye to the genocide and did not react on time ? What happened to the sacro-sanct judeo-christian solidarity and understanding ? Encouraged by this strange attitude many European banks, like in Switzerland, did even collaborate actively with the Nazis. Europe of human rights and ideals of democracy, rather than give lessons to the rest of the world in these matters must face today the reality of all the skeletons it is hiding in its cupboard and justify its unacceptable attitude, then. Probably, if Europe had reacted quickly back in 1930s, the Holocaust would not have occurred at all, maybe.
In this regard, Peter Stanford, wrote in the British daily The Independent an article entitled : « Religion, Rome and The Reich: The Vatican's other dirty secret » published on Sunday 21 May 2006, in which he questions the role of the Papal institution during the Second World War :
In the church's official annals, Pius, who died in 1958, is painted as a saintly shepherd who led his flock with great moral courage in difficult times. For many scholars, though, he is at worst the Devil incarnate, "Hitler's Pope", and at best a coward who refused to speak out against the extermination of Jews, gypsies and homosexuals in gas chambers, even when he had compelling evidence that it was happening, lest his words attract Nazi aggression.
Month by month, year by year, more evidence emerges from other sources about where the Vatican's sympathies lay in the Second World War. Earlier this year, for example, a 1946 instruction from Pope Pius to the French bishops was unearthed that ordered them not to hand over Jewish children they had been sheltering to Jewish charities now the conflict was over. According to the outspoken Harvard historian Professor Daniel Goldhagen, Pius was guilty in this instance of "having given the order to take [Jewish] children away from their parents and should be regarded as little better than a war criminal."
The Vatican's response to all such accusations is to issue a blanket denial, insisting that it was neutral throughout the conflict. Yet in the absence of any compelling documentary evidence to buttress its position, few are now willing to take its word as gospel on its war record.
Will the Vatican someday come forward and shed light on its role and attitude towards the horrendous extermination of millions of human beings because of their religion and ethnicity ? Would the Catholics recognize their sympathy to the racist and criminal Nazi regime ? However, it seems that for the time being, the Vatican is not ready to undertake such steps, instead it rejects the fact that it was deeply anti-semitic.
In Morocco, under the French Protectorate, when the Vichy pro-Nazi government asked Sultan Mohammed V to park Moroccan Jews in Camps and make them wear the yellow star of David, he refused to carry out this demeaning instruction and responded clearly that he is responsible for their safety like all Moroccans, and that he would not allow such a racist and anti-semitic act to take place and if the French put their threat into action, himself and all Moroccan Muslims will go along with Their Jewish brethren , out of active solidarity. To show his displeasure with such anti-semitic order, sultan Mohammed V invited all the Rabbi of Morocco to take part in the celebration of the anniversary of his ascension to the Alaouite throne, known as the Throne Feast.
Header image Credit: Moroccotailormade
Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of education at Mohammed V University in Rabat. He is a political and cultural analyst in the Middle East.