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In Search of Morocco’s Lost Jewish Heritage

By | November 1, 2013

A Cemetery and a Synagogue, an Orphanage and a Museum

Morocco is a Muslim country as anyone visiting it today can notice right away. Anywhere you turn you’ll see mosques, madrasas, and other signs of Islamic civilization. Virtually 100% of the population consists of Sunni Muslims. Whether or not they observe their faith to the fullest extent notwithstanding, the religious homogeneity of the Moroccan nation is evident.  This, however, was not always the case. Up to two generations ago, a small yet significant portion of the population exercised the Jewish faith while sharing a common heritage with their Muslim compatriots. Numbering more than a quarter of a million souls at the time of Morocco’s independence in 1956 (out of a population of about 10 million), the Jewish community today has shrunk to about 5,000 members.  For all intents and purpose, Jewish presence in Morocco has vanished. The reasons for the mass and rather sudden exodus of Jews from Morocco lie beyond the scope of this piece, as does the long and rich history of Judaism there. What concerns us here is the manner in which the memory of that history is being preserved in a variety of ways, as our tour has discovered at three distinct locations: Fez, Sefrou, and Casablanca.

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich
Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich
Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich
Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

The origins of Judaism in the extreme northwestern corner of Africa are unclear, but that presence may be traced back to ancient times, predating by at least half a millennium the arrival of Islam to that part of the world.  Jews arriving from the Eastern Mediterranean integrated among the Imazighren (Berber) tribes, some of whom may have converted to Judaism, before switching to Islam.  Andalusian Jews fleeing from the Christian Reconquista found refuge in Morocco and helped build its unique identity in later centuries.  Benefiting from their protected status as “People of the Book,” Moroccan Jews added skills and resourcefulness to the Sharifian Sultanate but remained a distinct minority group.  With the growth of European influence during the 19th century, many among them embraced the economic, cultural, and educational opportunities it provided.  By the time the French Protectorate was established in 1912, Moroccan Jews had already began to assimilate into French culture, although they remained subjects of the Sultan, whose symbolic protection helped them traverse the painful era of the pro-Nazi Vichy regime during World War II.  With the advent of Morocco’s struggle for independence, however, Jews felt by and large left out, suspected of affiliation with the colonial order and with the newly formed State of Israel.  Presented with the opportunity to migrate, amid uncertain future in the independent Morocco, many Jews voted with their feet and left during the 1950s and early 1960s.  Another wave of migration came after the 1967 Six-Day War, which had intensified tension between Jews and Arabs throughout the Middle East.

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich
Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

A Cemetery and a Synagogue in the Mellah of Fez

On the afternoon of its first day in Fez, our group visited the old Mellah (Jewish neighborhood). Even though Rabat is Morocco’s political capital, and Casablanca its economic hub, Fez may be said to represent the soul of the nation.  The imperial capital of the north, built more than twelve centuries ago, has served as the seat of power and religion for most of Moroccan history.  The Mellah itself, originally created during the 14th Century, as part of the Marinid construction of “New Fez,” was intentionally situated next to the royal palace, as if to signify the Sultan’s protection of “his” Jews.  The elegant balconies facing the main street of the Mellah, a tribute to the Andalusian architecture most original inhabitants of the Mellah had left behind, stand in stark contradiction to the austere and simple outward look of the old Muslim Medina.  In that section, which we had visited that same morning, a home’s beauty can only be appreciated once you pass beyond the simple, non-distinct façade.

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich
Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

Jews have resided in Fez since its creation twelve centuries ago and their history there includes periods of great scholarly tradition and economic prosperity, where others suffered poverty and persecutions.  The city’s most famous Jewish inhabitant was philosopher Moses ben Maimon, “Maimonides,” who escaped from Cordoba, Spain during the Almohade terror of 1165, and lived in Fez for five years, before moving to Egypt.  In modern times the local community underwent turmoil and changes.  In April 1912, a military uprising against the imposition of the French Protectorate resulted in a three-day attack on the Mellah and the killing of at least 45 of its inhabitants.  A few years later, Jews began to leave the Mellah and move to the newly built European city.  Towards the end of the Protectorate, the Jewish population reached 22,000.  Today, however, only about 60 Jews continue to live there and none reside in the Mellah.

One of these Jews, a caretaker, Monsieur Gabai, met us at the edge of the old cemetery and led us through it.  The cemetery dates back to the early 17th century and is still in use today as can be seen by recent tombstones of community members who have deceased in recent years.  All tombstones are white and most are made of simple stone.  Many tombs are unmarked, bearing victims of the Black Plague, who had to be buried hurriedly.   While dotted with the graves of notable religious scholars and communal leaders, the cemetery’s most famous figure was 17 year-old Sol Hachiel, AKA Lalla Suleika.  A native of Tangiers, this beautiful maiden had been falsely accused of conversion to Islam and then reneging on her conversion.  When she refused to abandon her Jewish faith, she was condemned to death and beheaded in 1834.  Her martyrdom propelled her to the level of popular saint, revered by both Jews and Muslims.

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich
Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

From the cemetery we proceeded to visit the Ibn Denan synagogue. This 17th century house of worship, one of the oldest and most important still in existence in North Africa, had been built by a prominent Moroccan Jewish family and renovated to its present form in the late 19th century. It is a rare relic of a period in which the Jewish community of Fez had thrived. Its importance comes from the fact that it contains the only complete set of Moroccan synagogue fittings in existence. After suffering from many years of neglect and disrepair, due to the shrinking size of the Jewish community, the synagogue eventually became included in the World Monuments Watch’s list of 100 endangered monuments in need of preservation. Its renovation involved contributions from various private and public bodies including the Moroccan government and descendants of the Ibn Danan family. Restoration work began in the late 1980s and completed a decade later with a May 1999 dedication ceremony, patronized by the Moroccan government.

Standing inside the beautifully restored interior, facing the ornate Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark) with my fellow travelers sitting on both sides of the Bimah (raised platform) was the perfect setting for me to deliver an impromptu lecture about the long history of Moroccan Jewry and its relations with the government of the Sultan. I also talked about the reasons for the departure of most Moroccan Jews and the prospects for the future of that community.

An Orphanage in Sefrou

The following morning we left Fez and drove east to Bahlil, a charming Arab-speaking village in the midst of a Berber-speaking region, where we were treated to a tea ceremony in a cave-dwelling.  From there we continued to Sefrou, the region’s administrative center. Located at the foot of the Middle Atlas Mountains, 28 km (18 miles) from Fez, this town of some 80,000 inhabitants has played an important role as a trading center on the route of caravans from the southeastern oasis of Tafilalt, birthplace of Morocco’s ruling dynasty. Nowadays, the local economy is based mostly on agriculture and the town is known for its annual cherry festival in the month of June.

Sefrou used to be a cultural crossroads where Jews and Muslims, Berbers and Arabs peacefully coexisted for centuries. This cultural mosaic led numerous American anthropologists, notably Clifford Geertz, to choose Sefrou for their field research. For much of its history, Sefrou had been one of a handful Moroccan villages with a high percentage of Jewish population. By the time of Moroccan independence in 1956, Jews still composed a third of Sefrou’s population, about 5,000 living in the small Mellah. Only a few remain there since the mass exodus of Morocco’s Jews in the 1960s and early 1970s. The Jewish Mellah is now inhabited by Muslims and the property left behind is taken care of by them.

Our group visited one of these places, an orphanage named Em Habanim (“Mother of the Boys”), situated just outside the Mellah in an enclosed compound. The orphanage had been part of the Em habanim network of Jewish Moroccan schools, established in 1912 by a group of Jewish women as a counterpart to the Francophone system of the Alliance Israélite Universelle. The first school and orphanage was established in Fez and the Sefrou school was inaugurated in 1917. It provided elementary education to Jewish children for five decades. Today, the place is deserted for the most part, except for groups like ours who visit it occasionally.

Our tour focused on the orphanage’s synagogue, which is well preserved and contains a small library of Hebrew prayer books (Sidurim) as well as some books in French. The pastel colored walls and decorations hint at the identity of its original residents. A short clip from a 1997 documentary film by director David Assulin, called  Haaretz Hamuvtahat (“The Promised Land”) contains original footing, presumably from the 1950s, depicting Jewish boys eating and praying at the school. The clip can be found on YouTube.

A Museum in Casablanca

On the last day of our tour we reached Morocco’s largest city, Casablanca. As we approached the city from its southern side, having arrived from Marrakech, we stopped at the plush suburb of Oasis to visit the Museum of Moroccan Judaism. This is the only museum of its kind in any Arab-speaking country and one of only two museums in any Muslim country (the other is located in Istanbul, Turkey). It is also the only museum in the entire city of Casablanca, the fifth largest city in Africa.

Situated behind the thick white walls of a lovely villa, which once served, just as in Sefrou, as an orphanage. The museum is surrounded by a beautiful garden, which blends well into this plush neighborhood.  There are no signs to guide the visitors to its location and only when you get there can you notice a generic plaque stating it’s a “museum” in Arabic and French.  A second sign above the inner entrance provides more proper introduction in four languages, including English and Hebrew.  Another plaque, in French only, is dedicated to the man who founded the museum and the foundation for the preservationof Moroccan Jewish culture, Simon Levy.

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich
Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

Widely regarded as Morocco’s foremost authority on Moroccan Jewish culture, Levy was born in Fez in 1934 and died in Rabat 77 years later. He was a professor in the Spanish Department of Mohamed V University in Rabat since 1971. A devoted activist since his youth to the cause of Moroccan independence and human rights, Simon Levy had been imprisoned numerous times during the late colonial period and again during the reign of King Hassan II.  He was a leading figure and active member of Morocco’s Communist party, in which he held key positions for more than 30 years. He was also the Secretary General of the “Foundation of Judeo-Moroccan Cultural Heritage” and the Founding Director of the Museum in Casablanca.

The museum contains a permanent display of artifacts related to the rich history and culture of Moroccan Jewry.  These range from large items, such as the restored bimah from a synagogue in Tetouan (Northern Morocco) to small dolls depicting Jewish brides in their wedding dresses.  Full-size garments are also displayed, along with stunning jewelry pieces worn by brides.  Various religious artifacts such as mezuzahs (doorposts), Hanukiah menoras, Kiddush cups, etc. can also be found in the exhibit halls.  Other than the permanent collection, the museum also organizes occasional exhibits on related topics.

Conclusion: Judaism as a Component of Moroccan Identity

As we were about to exit the Jewish Museum, we stopped in front of a plaque in Arabic and French, containing the preamble to the newly revised Moroccan Constitution of 2011, which reads as follows:

“A sovereign Muslim State, attached to its national unity and to its territorial integrity, the Kingdom of Morocco intends to preserve, in its plentitude and its diversity, its one and indivisible national identity. Its unity, is forged by the convergence of its Arab-Islamist, Berber [amazighe] and Saharan- components, nourished and enriched by its African, Andalusian, Hebraic and Mediterranean influences.

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich
Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

The official inclusion of both Berber and Jewish (“Hebraic”) identities as components of Morocco’s national identity is a very meaningful act, which recognizes the contribution of both Berbers and Jews to Morocco’s history and culture.  Thus, even though very few Jews continue to reside in Morocco today, those living in other countries (notably Israel, but also in Europe and North America) are still regarded as belonging to the Moroccan nation and are encouraged to visit it and invest in its future.  While the physical presence of Jews in Morocco may have nearly ended, their impact on its character continues to be felt nearly everywhere you go.


To learn more about our Splendors in Morocco tour click here.

Africa Dr. Moshe Gershovich Morocco Splendors of Morocco

Dr. Moshe Gershovich

Dr. Moshe Gershovich is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History at the University of Nebraska-Omaha (UNO). A native of Israel, he earned a B.A. at Tel Aviv University and a Ph.D. in history and Middle Eastern studies at Harvard University. He taught for three years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before traveling to Morocco in 1998 as a Fulbright Senior Scholar to research the oral history of Moroccan veterans of the French Army. Moshe resided in Morocco between 1998 and 2000 during which time he also taught at Al-Akhawayn University in Ifrane. In recent years, Moshe has taken groups of UNO students to Morocco where they were immersed in the study of Arabic and North African history and culture. He is fluent in Hebrew, French, and Moroccan Arabic.

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