African Island's Lost Jewish Heritage

Morocco King Funds Spruce-Up of Cape Verde Cemetery

Strange Companions: Sephardic rabbi and a Moroccan diplomat rededicate Jewish graves in the African island of Cape Verde, where many Portuguese Jews once lived.
jta
Strange Companions: Sephardic rabbi and a Moroccan diplomat rededicate Jewish graves in the African island of Cape Verde, where many Portuguese Jews once lived.

By JTA

Published May 14, 2013.
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A Moroccan diplomat, who spoke to JTA on condition of anonymity, said the restoration project could bring political dividends for Morocco, which has been accused of human rights abuses in Western Sahara, a disputed territory to which the kingdom lays partial claim.

“To Morocco’s great consternation, the U.S. last month proposed the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara help monitor human rights,” the diplomat said. “It’s very useful for us to have someone — a strong lobby group, perhaps — to help talk the State Department out of this idea. The Jewish lobby is a very strong one.”

The board of the Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project includes Howard Berman, a former California congressman who chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee until his defeat last year; Daniel Mariaschin, the executive director of B’nai B’rith International; Herman Cohen, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state; and Toby Dershowitz, who heads a Washington public affairs consultancy.

But Azoulay grows indignant at any suggestion the king has his eye on the economic or political benefits of his largesse.

“This effort is the concrete manifestation of a consensus in Moroccan society, that our society is partly built on Jewish culture, a culture deeply rooted in three millennia of history,” he said.

“You have to understand the purity of it,” Azoulay added. “Those who think it is to attract tourists are just out of order.”

As popular revolutions have swept the Arab world since late 2010, Jewish heritage has suffered under newly empowered Islamist governments. Two Jewish cemeteries were desecrated earlier this year in Tunisia, prompting Israel to express concerns for the safety of the country’s Jews, the daily Maariv reported.

In Egypt, the government prevented several dozen Israelis from making the annual Passover pilgrimage to Alexandria’s main synagogue, one of the few properly maintained and functioning Jewish sites in the country. Egypt also briefly censored a film about the flight of its Jews following Israel’s establishment.

But in Morocco, a similar film, titled “Tinghir-Jerusalem: Echoes from the Mellah,” won a prize last month at the Tangier Film Festival. It also triggered protests from a few hundred Islamists and left-wing activists saying the film promoted “normalization” of ties with Israel, The Associated Press reported.

Still, many Jewish visitors speak of Morocco as a friendly place. Nuno Wahnon Martins, the director of European Affairs at B’nai B’rith International, said he felt safe enough to abandon all caution when asking for directions to synagogues during a recent visit. And Rubinfeld said he was surprised to hear a Hebrew song blasting from the stereo of a shop in Casablanca’s main market.

“Being a Jew in Morocco is safer today than on some streets in Brussels,” said Rubinfeld.


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