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Morocco: A Modern-Day Model for Convivencia in the Arab World

As far as her eyes can see, a Jew of Moroccan heritage perceives an oasis of coexistence emerging within the divisive desert that is the Middle East and North Africa.
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Nestled in a vintage wooden armchair, its white fabric adorned with pink flowers, I first heard the story of how the sultan of Morocco courageously took a stand against the Nazis. The chair belonged to my great-aunt, likely dating back to the same era as the story itself. From that seat in her Gibraltar apartment, my 14-year-old self could glimpse Morocco just across the Straits, as my great-aunt shared her wartime memories with my father, cousins and me, emphasizing Morocco’s kindness toward Jews.

I mostly recall the steadfastness and authenticity with which my great-aunt recited the history. Now, as an experienced journalist and editor, I am able to flesh out the factual details.

In the summer of 1940, the Vichy French government threatened to impose draconian laws on its Jewish citizens. Almost immediately upon taking power, the government passed a statute modeled after the Nuremberg Laws, and imposed them throughout its colonies — including in French Morocco. The laws aimed to exclude Jews from public service, schools and a range of professions as a means to remove them from the public sphere.

The Jewish community of Morocco, with a history spanning over 2,000 years, was deeply terrified by these measures.

However, Sultan Mohammed bin Youssef, later crowned King Mohammed V of Morocco, defied the pro-Nazi French colonial powers and ensured the protection of the country’s quarter-million Jews. The sultan played a crucial role in mitigating the impact of the anti-Jewish laws, ensuring that Jews in Morocco were not subjected to deportation or harm. He vehemently opposed the Vichy regime to such an extent that Moroccan Jews never were forced to wear the yellow star.

The sultan’s famous declaration in 1941, “There are no Jews in Morocco, only Moroccan subjects,” continues to resonate with Moroccans to this day — and with my family.

When North Africa was liberated in 1942, the Moroccan Jewish community was unscathed by the horrors of the Shoah. Sultan Mohammed’s decision to stand up against Nazi ideology and defy the Vichy powers exemplified remarkable courage.

This interpretation of history has its detractors, with some European academics and researchers arguing that the sultan had no political power under colonial rule and therefore had no influence to protect the Jews. For my family, however, this is not a disputed myth but rather an ingrained truth: Morocco’s pluralism and spirit of convivencia have made it a generally comfortable and welcoming place for Jews.

When I use the word convivencia, I am channeling the definition posited by Jewish historian Benjamin R. Gampel, meaning I am “not attempting to conjure up an image of total harmony, of a cosmopolitan setting where all faith communities joyfully infused each other with particular strengths. Rather, we are evoking images of a pluralistic society where communities often lived in the same neighborhoods, engaged in business with each other, and affected and infected people with their ideas.”

My great-aunt shared her wartime memories with my father, cousins and me, emphasizing Morocco’s kindness toward Jews. ”

The Jewish presence in Morocco can be traced back to the days of the Roman Empire, when Jews arrived on Phoenician boats after the destruction of the Second Temple. The second major wave of Jewish migration to Morocco occurred in 1492, as Sephardic Jews sought refuge in Muslim lands following the Spanish Inquisition. Many Jews, including my ancestors, settled in Morocco to escape Christian aggression. My family arrived in Morocco during this period, first in Tetouan and Meknes, and later in the renowned port city of Essaouira.

For Jews, life in Morocco was a radical improvement compared to life under Christendom. In addition to being subjected to regular brutality and violence since Roman times, Jews under Christian rule were prohibited from holding public office, living in certain areas and participating in aspects of public life.

“Henry VIII … would have no Jews in England. Neither would Queen Isabella in Spain. And Martin Luther would want them only in the slave stables,” philosopher Dagobert D. Runes wrote in his 1965 book, The Jew and the Cross.

There was no such blanket and consistent discrimination in Morocco as there was in Christian lands. Jews were afforded protection and even a level of comfort provided they paid a jizya tax, which provided official government protection for non-Muslim residents of a Muslim kingdom. There have been senior Jewish advisors to Morocco’s monarchs and rulers on and off since the 1400s.

Jews in Morocco nevertheless still faced threats, which were spread out over the centuries. Under the Amazigh-led Almoravid Dynasty (1050-1147), Jews experienced freedom with certain restrictions, depending on the leader. During the Almohad rule (1147-1269), however, Jews were forced to convert to Islam or face death, resulting in the killing of over 100,000 Jews in Fes in 1146. Viewed across the span of time, these extreme measures are considered aberrations in the history of Jews in Morocco.

Under Merinid rule in 1246, for example, the sultan protected the Jews from a potential violent attack, which significantly influenced the general attitude of Moroccans toward Jews.

Two hundred years later, the first Jewish quarter in Morocco, known as a mellah, was established in Fes in 1438 — near the sultan’s residence. Although mellahs resembled ghettos, they were intended to showcase that Jews were welcomed and protected members of society, which is why they were situated beside the residence of the sultan or governor. The ruling class used the mellah as a means to offer Jews protection from uprisings and violence. However, while they were intended to provide protection, they also had some drawbacks and were not always idyllic for Jewish residents. Norman Stillman, a foremost scholar on the Jews of Muslim lands, points out that in addition to occasionally making them feel “othered,” the mellahs made them captive targets during the uprising of 1465 in Fes.

Another major incident occurred in Tetouan in 1789 when Jews refused to participate in a war of succession, and some Muslim elites hid Jews during this period. While these events certainly were traumatic to the Jewish story, it is notable that in later years, Jews often were shielded from violence, and that Morocco has moved consistently toward a culture of coexistence over the last 900 years.

Over the past 500 years, in particular, Morocco has embodied the concept of convivencia, the pluralistic coexistence of religion, ideas and people. Originally used to describe the society in Spain’s kingdom of Al-Andalus during Muslim rule between the 8th and 11th centuries, convivencia became synonymous with respect and the celebration of pluralism. After the Reconquista in Spain, these ideas permeated Morocco — and Muslims, Amazighs and Jews together rebuilt a coexistent society based on convivencia.

My grandmother’s birthplace, the port city of Essaouira, is a notable example of that coexistence, both then and now. Essaouira, formerly known as Mogador, is and was a beautiful haven of Moroccan convivencia. In the 19th century, it was the only city in the Muslim world with a Jewish majority, fostering a diverse and harmonious environment where people of different faiths and economic backgrounds lived and worked together. At its peak, the city boasted 16,000 Jews. Part of what unified them was music and sound — shared tunes and prayer tempos — in that one could be walking in the streets and hear themselves in the melodies emanating from a mosque, synagogue or performance alike. The restoration of Essaouira’s culture, led by V.E. Andre Azoulay, a senior advisor to the current King Mohammed VI, has aimed to revive its radical spirit of convivencia. Essaouira hosts October’s Atlantic Andalusia Festival, which celebrates music from different parts of the Mediterranean, with Jewish-Arab, Andalusian and modern flamenco beats.

In 2020 in Essaouira, King Mohammed VI inaugurated Bayt Dakira (The House of Memory), a center dedicated to the historic convivencia between Jews and Muslims in Morocco, and the only center of its kind in the Middle East and North Africa region.

Walk through the streets of Essaouira — or anywhere else in Morocco — and older citizens will boast of their Jewish connection. “The home there, that’s where my Jewish friends used to live,” a shopkeeper might say. “Over there lived a Jewish woman and she made the best cakes in the area. She went to Israel,” another friendly local might offer. “The Jews used to live here, but they left us and didn’t return,” many lament, referring to Jewish immigration to Israel after Moroccan independence in 1956. They say this with mixed emotions of glimmering pride and twinges of sadness.

Walk through the streets of Essaouira — or anywhere else in Morocco — and older citizens will boast of their Jewish connection. ”

Morocco’s 2011 Constitution served as a huge attempt to bring pluralism and diversity back into the consciousness of the culture. In a report to the Human Rights Council, United Nations Special Rapporteur E. Tendayi Achiume praised the constitution for its “vision of a diverse but unified society, where all can enjoy full human rights and full political and social membership.” But she cautioned that this vision “is one that the Government of Morocco — like all other governments — must continue to work hard to implement.”

Currently, Morocco’s ethnic breakdown is 99% ethnic Arab-Berber. However, on closer examination, individual ethnic groups resent the conflation of Arab and Berber (or, better said, Amazigh) identities, and still see the two as separate identity puzzle pieces. In addition, this conflation of identities erases the presence of sub-Saharan Africans and Morocco’s spiritual nomads, the Gnaouas. And yet within the country’s ongoing soul-searching, it is making strides toward cementing a harmonious coexistence. For example, this year, the Amazigh New Year was recognized as a national holiday.

The attempt at restoring and improving the convivencia of old does not stop at Morocco’s current minority groups; it also involves empowering the current Jewish community — 3,000 people, concentrated in Casablanca — as well as restoring Jewish heritage, culture and memory in the kingdom. In much of the Middle East and North Africa, this has been seen as majorly taboo, as Judaism has been conflated with Israel and with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Morocco is facing that reality head-on.

Having a national history imbued with convivencia, it is therefore no wonder that Morocco is the birthplace of the Mimouna Association, the first-ever Muslim student and young professionals group dedicated to preserving Jewish history — and cementing a present — in their home country. What started as a university club has now turned into a national organization educating Moroccans about Jewish culture and heritage in Morocco, and the integral role Jews once played in all strata of society.

Some of the association’s most powerful work has been centered around coexistence. In 2011, the U.S.-based Kivunim Institute and the Mimouna Association organized the first Holocaust conference in the Arab world at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco, commemorating the courageous actions of the late King Mohamed V during World War II.

In 2018, the Muslim-Jewish Interfaith Coalition (which I founded), in partnership with the Mimouna Association, and the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, hosted the first Muslim Jewish interfaith conference in a Muslim country in modern times, wherein we learned sacred text, inspired by both the coffee houses of old and the relationship between renowned intellectuals Maimonides and Ibn Rushd (Averroes).

This year in Morocco, the Mimouna Association, the Council of Moroccan Jewish Communities, and the United Nations Information Center hosted a Holocaust education conference for over 350 participants in Casablanca. Elmehdi Boudra, the founder and director of the Mimouna Association, wrote in an op-ed that international attendants, including from France, Spain, the Vatican, and Israel, “packed the pews to honor King Mohamed V, savior of the Moroccan Jewish community.”

And this is where the dialogue regarding Morocco’s coexistent blueprint hangs in the balance: with Israel. Morocco has a longstanding history and symbiotic cooperation with Jews, but not as a political entity. The introduction of political Israel into Moroccan consciousness — in a time where most Moroccans believe in freedom of movement for Palestinians and many advocate for Palestinian statehood — runs a significant risk of seeing a radical conflation of Judaism and Zionism in a land where, for centuries, this was never the case. Time will tell how this continues to develop.

The story of King Mohammed V during the Shoah remains a beacon of hope for anyone seeking a new mode of connecting between Jews and the country in which they reside. Aomar Boum, a southern Moroccan native, chair of Sephardic Studies at UCLA and researcher who interviewed Moroccan Muslims about their memory and relationship with Jews, noted that learning about these experiences “make me and make the world more humane.” More humane because in learning more about other people and communities, in opening ourselves up to our neighbors and former neighbors, we inherently learn more about ourselves, our values and our own humanity.

In this vein, Morocco could be a model for creating a radically coexistent and pluralistic society, devoid of religious, ethnic or racial discrimination, where everyone benefits. A society embodying a tradition of openness, wherein our conscious and subconscious behaviors create a mutually beneficial web of intercultural and interreligious values.

While in some cases the idea of pluralism can be used to whitewash a country’s record, in the case of Morocco, history shows that it has been moving in a generally pluralistic trajectory for the last half millennium. King Mohammed V’s famous declaration from 82 years ago, “There are no Jews in Morocco, only Moroccan subjects,” reflects the spirit of inclusivity and coexistence that persists today.

Rachel Benaim-Abudarham
Rachel Benaim-Abudarham is an award-winning journalist, activist, and Ph.D. candidate studying interreligious cooperation in Morocco. She currently teaches Judaic Studies in South Florida, where she lives with her husband and two bonus-kids.
Rachel Benaim-Abudarham
Rachel Benaim-Abudarham is an award-winning journalist, activist, and Ph.D. candidate studying interreligious cooperation in Morocco. She currently teaches Judaic Studies in South Florida, where she lives with her husband and two bonus-kids.

Opinions expressed by the authors contributing to Distinctions journal reflect the views of the individual writer and not necessarily those of JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa.

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