Morocco was already a welcome place 40 years before normalizations

REGIONAL AFFAIRS: When peace feelers between Egypt and Israel developed after the war, Morocco became a prime facilitator.

A HANUKKAH MENORAH graces the home of Davide Toledano, a businessman who heads the small Jewish community in Rabat, Morocco. (photo credit: SHEREEN TALAAT/REUTERS)
A HANUKKAH MENORAH graces the home of Davide Toledano, a businessman who heads the small Jewish community in Rabat, Morocco.
 The affable young information officer reached for my press card with a smile, stared at it for a long time, looked at it from different angles, then turned it over as if hoping for better news on that side. There wasn’t any.
“Only the king’s cabinet can approve an interview with His Majesty,” he said finally. “I’d be happy to arrange meetings with anybody else you’d like to meet.” He left his office to consult with superiors and returned embarrassed. “Morocco’s position on Israel is well known but if we spoke for quotation in an Israeli newspaper,” he said apologetically, “you know what our neighbor (Algeria) would say. They’d jump on us.”
However, the king’s cousin, Moulay Ahmed Alaui, agreed to meet me in the parliament and had no hesitation in introducing me as a reporter for The Jerusalem Post to fellow parliamentarians.
It was 1978, five years after the trauma of the Yom Kippur War and a year before Egypt and Israel would agree at Camp David to make peace. Unlike the Arab countries which have agreed in 2020 to normalize relations with Israel – the United Arab Emirates, Sudan and Bahrain – and other countries mooted as American peace targets, Morocco alone had engaged Israel in war. A Moroccan infantry brigade, on the Syrian army’s northern flank in the Yom Kippur War, faced off against Israeli tanks and units from the Golani Brigade at the foot of Mount Hermon and suffered heavy casualties. However, peripheral contacts between the two countries resumed after the shooting stopped.    
The Jewish community, which traces its presence in Morocco back 2,000 years, numbered 250,000 in 1948, but the founding of Israel led to anti-Jewish riots and large-scale emigration. The outflow resumed after the Six Day War. There was no similar exodus after the Yom Kippur War but by then there were only some 22,000 Jews left. (Today there are about 2,000.) Instead of antagonism toward Israel over the casualties suffered by the Moroccan expeditionary force in the 1973 war (700 dead, according to one non-Moroccan source; higher according to other sources), there was pride for the fight the Moroccan troops had put up until war’s end against “the best army in the world,” as a Moroccan general was quoted as saying. 
When peace feelers between Egypt and Israel developed after the war, Morocco became a prime facilitator. Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and other Israeli leaders flew into Morocco in disguise for secret talks, which would lead eventually to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Israel and peace negotiations.
ON MY 1978 visit, the prevalent attitude I encountered within the Jewish community was ambivalence. The community enjoyed the warm embrace of the royal house, businessmen were doing very well economically and in general there were good relations with Arab neighbors. The community enjoyed full civil rights. But there was uncertainty. “I’ve lived here all my life,” said a young manufacturer who had invited me to his luxurious home for Sabbath lunch, “but I don’t feel at home.” 
He himself did not have a single Muslim friend, he said – by his own choice. There were some who wanted to be friends with him but he did not feel comfortable with them. He did not permit his four young children to play with Muslim children. As we spoke, the four were peering through the gate at a lively game of soccer on the street outside being played by Arab children from the well-to-do neighborhood.
Another man said that the absence of attacks on Jews during the Yom Kippur War “says a lot about the tolerance of ordinary Moroccans.” But anxiety, he said, was legitimate for any Jew living in an Arab society. “There is a special fanaticism latent in such a society. I would say that 80% of the Arabs here would not be sorry to see us go.”
The Istiklal Party, then a minor member of the government coalition, often printed articles in its newspaper that were as much anti-Jewish as anti-Israel. It had even reproduced the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But government newspapers had adopted dramatic pro-Jewish positions. Under the headline “The Descendants of Abraham,” one paper praised the cultural and intellectual level of the Jewish community, which it termed “a component of the Moroccan personality.” 
King Hassan II himself publicly referred to the Jewish “genius.”  For the first time, a government newspaper stated that sympathy for Israel was a natural sentiment for a Moroccan Jew. Skeptics would say that this overtly friendly attitude was not unconnected to Rabat’s interest in Washington’s support. In any case, the Trump administration, in announcing this month the normalization agreement between Israel and Morocco, also declared its support for Morocco’s territorial claim in the Western Sahara vis-a-vis the Algeria-backed Polisario Front.
During my visit four decades ago, I met one of the few Jewish intellectuals who had not left Morocco after the Six Day War. He cited the easy life in Morocco. “Where else would someone on my salary be able to be a member of a club and have water-skiing, golf or tennis every day?”
But there were deeper reasons. Gerard, as we will call him, saw himself as a guardian of the Jewish past in Morocco. An obsession, he called it. He had, since his university days more than 20 years before, been a militant integrationalist. In newspaper articles and public forums, he had demanded that Moroccan Jews take part fully in national life and that Muslims recognize Jews as fellow citizens, not an alien entity.
“I’m quite alone here, you know.”
His wife had died years before and he had sent his daughter to Paris to study for a law degree. 
“It’s painful but there are no young men here. I can’t keep her. I’m about to send my son off to university in Paris as well. I don’t have a single relation left in Rabat and not a single close friend. They’ve all gone off. I play golf because I can play it alone.”
As we parted, he noted that Moroccan Jewry was made up of extended families with very close relationships. “We aren’t built for exile. I guess no one is.”
 The writer is a former Jerusalem Post reporter and the author of The Yom Kippur War, The Boats of Cherbourg and The Battle for Jerusalem.