Praia, Cape Verde — A Portuguese rabbi and a Moroccan diplomat stood shoulder to shoulder in a Catholic cemetery here while 200 mourners howled in grief as they buried a resident of this island off the western coast of Africa.
The foreigners had come to Cape Verde’s main cemetery earlier this month not to bury a local, but for the rededication of 10 gravestones of Moroccan Jews — members of an extinct community whose roots trace to the 1860s.
With virtually no practicing Jews on Cape Verde today, the cemeteries had fallen into neglect. Now a Washington-based nonprofit is spearheading their restoration.
The Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project has a board stuffed with prominent Jewish Washingtonians, but its funding comes almost entirely from one man — King Mohammed VI of Morocco. According to the group’s U.S. tax filings, the king was the organization’s sole donor in 2011 and 2012, giving $100,000 each year.
Andre Azoulay, a senior Jewish adviser to the king and a member of the project’s advisory board, told JTA that the effort is reflective of the king’s “deep commitment” to preserving Jewish heritage in Morocco and elsewhere. But even if, as some speculate, it is motivated by a desire to attract tourists and curry favor with American Jews, the king’s drive clearly sets Morocco apart from other Middle Eastern countries where Jewish sites have faced increasing threats under new Islamist governments.
“This is all part of a strong push from His Majesty the King that started three, four years ago, when we saw cemeteries have become vulnerable because of lacking care by all of us,” Azoulay told JTA.
Approximately 3,000 Jews are living in Morocco, a North African monarchy about the size of Texas that had been home to a large and thriving Jewish community for centuries. In the 19th century, a number of Moroccan-Jewish families resettled in Cape Verde, attracted by the financial potential of this transatlantic hub.