Defying the darkness with the light of peace
For Jews hailing from the Middle East and North Africa, the normalization of Morocco-Israel relations is a reminder of how far we’ve come in our history of struggle and persecution.
(December 16, 2020 / JNS) This week, Jews all over the world gathered to celebrate Hanukkah, the annual festival of freedom. This year, thanks to the miracle of the Kingdom of Morocco becoming the fourth Muslim-majority country to normalize relations with Israel, the holiday has special meaning to me.
For a Jew from Libya, like myself, and for all other Jews hailing from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the development is a reminder of how far we’ve come in our history of struggle and persecution.
In the diary that gained her worldwide posthumous fame, German-Dutch Holocaust victim Anne Frank wrote: “Look how a single light can both defy and define darkness.”
By normalizing relations with Israel, Moroccan King Mohammed VI has defied the darkness, just as his father, King Mohammed V, defied the Nazis by protecting his country’s Jews.
Before normalizing relations with Israel, Morocco included the history of its Jews in an unprecedented national school curriculum—a move that also “defies darkness,” by embracing the richness of the country’s pluralistic society. Indeed, Jewish history is an integral part of the colorful, textured tapestry of Moroccan history.
No Arab country has ever included Jewish history in its curricula. In fact, most of my Arab friends tell me that they only know about Jews living among Arabs from what their grandparents told them.
During my last visit to Morocco, I “relived” my days in Tripoli, Libya as a child. While walking in the mellah (Jewish quarter) in the Old Town in Fez, my family and I would encounter young men with large trays over their heads. The trays had freshly baked cookies that they were bringing back from the local community oven.
No matter how many trays we encountered in the mellah, the carrier of the cookies would always stop and offer us some. At the sound of our shukran (Arabic for “thank you”), the young men would invariably ask, “American?” and give us a warm welcome.
As I walked the narrow labyrinth of the crowded mellah, I traveled back to Tripoli as a young girl with a tray over my head carrying nonna (grandma) Regina’s Shabbat bread to the community oven. The smell of coffee beans roasting on the open fire, the fragrance of the cumin, harissa and other spices, invaded my nostrils.
While in Morocco, we visited Jewish sites, the ones the guide “chose to show us” that were still standing. We saw a cemetery that we were told was maintained with funds from Moroccan Jews in France, some small synagogues and a dilapidated Jewish community center.
Unfortunately, the cemetery in Tripoli where my ancestors were buried has been desecrated.
For me, though visiting Morocco was similar to going back to the Tripoli I remember as a young girl before we were expelled in 1967 when I was 19 years old.
The roots of Morocco’s Jewish communities go back to 600 BCE, with the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. At that time, Jews fled and settled in North Africa.
After the Islamic conquest reached Morocco, Moroccan Jews were subjected to centuries special taxation, discrimination and harassment, similar to the treatment of MENA Jews. The Moroccan-Jewish population swelled after Jews escaped Spain and Portugal from the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. By 1930, the Moroccan-Jewish community numbered 225,000, the largest in the MENA region.
When the Nazis decreed racial laws in Morocco, King Mohammed V protected the Jews. When Israel became a state in 1948, however, anti-Semitism increased in Morocco, and a large number of Jews was forced to flee.
Many went to Israel and the Diaspora. In 1967, after the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors, the Jewish population declined. Today, there are about 4,000 Jews left in Morocco.
The recent progress made in the Middle East is a true dream for so many former Jewish refugees from the region (myself included), especially Israelis who are most impacted by normalization and Morocco’s remaining Jewish community.
What is truly remarkable is that Jews from Moroccan ancestry will be welcome in their ancestral homeland, a Morocco that gave them such a rich culture, tradition, music and one of the best cuisines.
Moroccan traditions, like the Mimouna celebrated after Passover and henna ceremony before weddings, have today been adopted by Jews worldwide.
To celebrate this historic event, the San Francisco-based NGO JIMENA—Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa—is hosting an online event to which everyone is invited.
The event will take place on Dec. 17 at 3 p.m. PST, will feature Israeli Moroccan singer Lala Tamar, and local Moroccan singer Hind Ennaira live from Morocco. They will perform Arabic and Hebrew music.
Gina Bublil Waldman is co-founder and president of JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, and a recipient of the prestigious Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award for her work on Human Rights.