New York Jews of Moroccan descent delight in renewed ties

On December 10, Morocco became the fourth Arab nation to normalize relations with Israel in 2020.

White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner during a visit with Israeli delegation to Rabat, Morocco (photo credit: US EMBASSY IN MOROCCO/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner during a visit with Israeli delegation to Rabat, Morocco
NEW YORK – Jewish New Yorkers of Moroccan descent have spent the month celebrating the North African kingdom’s decision to normalize relations with Israel, calling it a long-awaited “dream come true.”
“This is a historic breakthrough. Morocco is a country that has centuries of Jewish history,” Meyer Harroch told The Jerusalem Post. Harroch immigrated to New York City from Casablanca 30 years ago and writes international travel guides, including one on the Jewish heritage of Morocco.
On December 10, Morocco became the fourth Arab nation to normalize relations with Israel in 2020, following the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan. The two countries have promised full relations “as soon as possible.”
The agreement calls for Morocco to open full diplomatic channels and to formalize economic ties with the Jewish state. It will also allow direct commercial flights between Moroccan airports and Tel Aviv.
“For me, this peace treaty is a dream come true,” Rabbi Gad Bouskila, who leads Congregation Netivot Israel in Brooklyn, told the Post. “Growing up, I lived side by side with Muslim Arabs and we had great friendships. We’ve always cohabitated beautifully, but it was unofficial. Moroccan Jews were afraid to speak Hebrew. I always dreamed that peace would become official.”
Bouskila was born and raised in Morocco. He came to New York in 1980 and opened Netivot Israel, the first Moroccan Jewish center in the state.
“I’ve gotten so many congratulations from members of the Arab world. They’ve told me until now we were cousins, now we have become brothers,” Bouskila said.
“We were all so happy to find out on Hanukkah. It made lighting the candles so much happier,” said Chantal Tobaly, a Moroccan immigrant who lives on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. She moved to the United States in 2000 after living in France and Israel. Her brother remains in Morocco, where he works as a lawyer.
Upon hearing the news, Tobaly thought of her deceased father.
“After he moved to New York, he would always tell me that smelling the air of Morocco in a café was the best thing.”
Morocco today has a Muslim majority. The country’s Jewish community, once the largest in North Africa, has dwindled from more than a quarter of a million in the 1950s to fewer than 3,000 today. Moroccan King Mohammed VI and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu both cited the historic ties binding the countries in their statements on the agreement.
“The Sefrou Jewish community left early. I remember one day there were no Jewish families left. It was empty,” said Tobaly, who was born in Sefrou and grew up in Fez before moving to Paris in 1973. “Jews didn’t want to be there. There weren’t really options for Jewish schools. Maybe now this will change.”
“Jews returning to Morocco [from Israel and the US] are going to bring a lot of action back to the country,” Tobaly said. “We’re going to see so many Jewish tourists, tens of thousands of people coming to Marrakesh for Passover.”
ISRAEL AND MOROCCO had opened mutual liaison offices following the 1995 Oslo Accords, but closed them in 2000 after the Palestinian Second Intifada broke out. The new alliance, which has been under discussion since 2017, gives US President Donald Trump another diplomatic victory in his final month in office.
“The agreement adds to Trump’s Mideast legacy, just as Joe Biden prepares to assume the presidency in January,” Harroch said. “The agreement builds on one of his main foreign policy accomplishments, winning broader recognition of Israel in the Arab world under the rubric of the Abraham Accords. I am sure the Biden administration will continue on this path in expanding peace with other countries.”
Tobaly added, “Everyone should be giving Trump credit. I compare him to King David.”
Bouskila shared his belief that the agreement will have positive implications for the economy and world peace.
“The economical aspect of this is going to be huge. American Jews and Israelis are going to start investing in Morocco. It’s always been a beautiful project, but people used to be afraid,” he continued.
“This should be a lesson and example to everyone. If a Muslim country like Morocco can come out and do this treaty, all of the other Muslim countries should understand that Israel has nothing to offer but peace, love and friendship.”
Cynics, however, downplay the establishment of ties, citing the lack of embassies being opened and ambassadors being assigned.
Tobaly said she would tell skeptics that full ties are going to happen “step by step. This just takes time.”
Harroch and Tobaly are members of the Manhattan Sephardi Congregation, a synagogue with roughly 100 members who are predominantly Sephardi immigrants from countries such as Iran and Syria. One synagogue employee estimated that 70% of the congregants hail from Morocco.
Brooklyn’s Congregation Netivot Israel specifically serves families of Moroccan descent.
“I created the center for the simple reason that there are so many Sephardi synagogues. Our tefillot [prayers] are all the same, but I wanted to give legitimacy to the Moroccan Jewish people,” Bouskila said. “Our goal is to teach our children the way we lived in Morocco. Even our grandchildren, born in the US, call themselves Moroccan with pride. It’s important for our kids to have strong ties with Morocco and to sing our songs and prayers with pride.”
More than 200 families are members of the congregation. Bouskila estimated that there are 2,000 Moroccan Jews living in the tri-state area, with the largest concentrations in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan.
Tobaly said the Moroccan community in Manhattan is vibrant. She does not consider moving back to Morocco.
“We have huge Shabbat dinners here. I make couscous and invite everyone,” Tobaly said. “In New York, we can really express our Moroccan roots. I would never leave.”
But she plans to visit her brother after the pandemic.
“It’s the best place for tourists,” she said. “Everyone is so welcoming.”
“My childhood is there. I’m going as soon as COVID finishes,” she continued. “And for the first time I’ll be able to take a direct flight from Morocco to Israel.”