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Curating Casablanca

A t first glance — given the recent history of Jews in Arab lands — the statistics for Morocco’s Jewish community are unsurprising, even if startling. A population of roughly 265,000 in 1948 has dwindled to merely 5,000, as most Moroccan Jews have immigrated to Israel, Europe and North America. Yet Morocco, almost an entire continent removed from the Arab-Israeli conflict and Gulf-based radicalism, maintains a decidedly different outlook toward Jews when compared to most other Arab states. Copies of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” prominent staples of any newsstand in Beirut or Amman, are not noticeably available on the streets of Rabat or Casablanca. Old Jewish quarters, virtually forgotten and replaced in Alexandria and Damascus, have been meticulously preserved in Marrakech and Fez. And synagogues — heavily guarded in Egypt, even when not in use — stand without patrols in all of Morocco’s major cities. Jewish schools and synagogues in Morocco receive government subsidies, while King Mohammed VI retains the counsel of a Jewish senior adviser — a truly remarkable gesture in this part of the world.

This relative comfort historically enjoyed by Morocco’s Jewish community is brought to life at the Moroccan Jewish Museum of Casablanca, which prides itself on being the only museum of its kind in the Arab world (oddly, it is also the only museum in the Casablanca area). Founded in 1996 in the posh suburb of Oasis, roughly 15 minutes from downtown Casablanca by taxi, the museum serves as the base for the greater effort of the Foundation of Jewish-Moroccan Cultural Heritage to conserve and present the Jewish history of Morocco.

The museum primarily features a wide range of Jewish artifacts from all over Morocco, including synagogue furniture from Meknes, Larache and Tetouan; traditional Jewish garments from Fez and Rabat, and an assortment of scrolls, menorahs, mezuzot and ark lamps. Furthermore, it maintains a catalog of (French-language only) videos on Moroccan Jewry, as well as a photographic exhibit on Jewish communities of the 1960s. Perhaps most interestingly, the museum displays a collection of texts and plaques written in the unique Moroccan Jewish dialect: Arabic, interspersed with Berber words, written in Hebrew characters. A guided tour of the exhibits costs 30 dirhams (about $3.50) and takes about an hour.

The museum was founded thanks to the efforts of Simon Levy, who continues to serve as director. Levy, a retired university professor and the author of a French-language book on Moroccan Jewish history, presents his heritage with an overwhelming sense of pride and purpose. “Moroccan Jewry is the most important in the world, culturally,” he said. “Every Moroccan rabbi was a scholar and recorded the history of [his] community, which has preserved our knowledge of these communities. Morocco is the only place in the world where Jews lived continuously, with at least some rights, for over 2,000 years.”

Levy fears that Moroccan Jewish history is rapidly being forgotten. In particular, he expressed his frustration with the contemporary Jewish focus on Israel over other historic Jewish communities. “It is a catastrophic aspect of the last century of Judaism, because now [Jews] are fabricating a past in the Holy Land,” he said. “In the Holy Land, you have Jerusalem, but during the past 15 centuries there was nothing. There were a few Kabbalah rabbis, but nothing else. But here in Morocco, every town has a mellah [Jewish quarter].”

Through the museum, Levy aims to fill in the blanks of Jewish history prior to the founding of the State of Israel. In his view, Morocco was the setting of the authentic Jewish experience, in which Jews were a respected minority, mostly at peace with their non-Jewish neighbors. “It wasn’t a paradise,” he acknowledged, “but Morocco was traditionally good and made a place for the Jews.” This historic Jewish niche in Morocco is perhaps best illustrated by old Moroccan coins in a museum display case. They bear the six-pointed Star of David as the Moroccan national emblem. Like Judaism, Islam recognizes David as a prophet, and the star thus symbolized Moroccan ecumenism (while occupying Morocco, the French later revised the star to five points).

The museum suggests that Moroccan Jews established a meaningful balance between their Jewish and Moroccan identities. They were active in the 1930s Moroccan nationalist movement and resisted instruction in French schools — activism that, at times, brought them into conflict with French Jews settling in Morocco. Yet they further maintained their communities, built synagogues and recorded their histories.

Levy views this balance as the core of what it means to be Jewish, and sees the State of Israel as threatening the historic Jewish experience. “Israelis are not Jewish,” he said. “If you enter Israel, you are not Jewish because you don’t have to think about it. In Israel, there is the logic of a nation and patriotism. But when a Jew in [the Diaspora] says he is a Jew, he knows what this means.”

Levy wouldn’t call himself an anti-Zionist. “Jews in Morocco support Israel because of 2,000 years of bad history,” he said; however, he views this legacy of “bad history” as a European story — not as one from North Africa or the Middle East. “Jews came from Spain, Portugal, France and England — Christian states — to escape repression,” Levy noted. “They also fled to Islamic lands during the Crusades, and from Russia during tsarist repressions. The Arab and Turkish lands received Jews. Jews were never expelled from these lands.”

While Jews historically fared better under Islamic rule than in Christendom, the past 60 years have witnessed a reversal so overwhelming that the very future of Jews in the Islamic world is mostly in doubt. Indeed, the museum’s greatest weakness is its utter silence on the causes of Jewish decline in Morocco in the past century — a wave of emigration in which the Jewish population of Morocco decreased by 98%.

According to Levy, the decline was mostly a product of a bargain reached in the 1960s between King Hassan II and Israel. Under this deal — which reversed previous Moroccan policies against emigration — Zionist activism was permitted among Morocco’s Jews to encourage 100,000 to move to Israel. More recently, Moroccan Jews have predominately immigrated to Europe and the United States for economic reasons, following a widespread Moroccan trend that is contributing to a worrisome “brain drain.”

While the causes of Jewish emigration from Morocco were largely disconnected from Moroccan politics, Levy believes that Moroccan and regional politics will largely determine the community’s fate. “The future of the Jews in Morocco depends on two streams: Islamist and nationalist,” he said. In recent years, the Islamist stream has been of greater concern. On May 16, 2003, Morocco suffered the worst series of terrorist attacks in its history: Thirty-three people died, and more than 100 were injured, in a series of attacks that targeted a Jewish cemetery, a Jewish community center and a Jewish-owned Italian restaurant, among other Casablanca targets.

For the time being, however, Morocco remains a rare bastion of tolerance. Shortly after the terrorist attacks, King Mohammed VI visited each of the targeted sites to cheering crowds. The result of such a gesture is the restored confidence of the Jewish community — an air of evident comfort that makes the Moroccan Jewish Museum of Casablanca the rare Jewish site in this region without 24-hour military patrol, a metal detector or even a bag checker.

“This isn’t Egypt,” Levy said proudly.

Eric Trager is a 2006-2007 Islamic Civilizations Fulbright grantee based in Cairo, Egypt.

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