President Herzog hosts Mimouna event

President Isaac Herzog can be credited with quite a number of activities in which his predecessors did not engage, and did so again on Sunday afternoon.

Mimouna celebration at the President’s Residence, April 24, 2022. (photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
Mimouna celebration at the President’s Residence, April 24, 2022.
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)

In past years, it has been customary for presidents of Israel to attend Mimouna celebrations, but not to host them. In fact, the only president to date of Moroccan descent was Yitzhak Navon, whose forebears on both sides came to the Holy Land centuries before his birth.

President Isaac Herzog can be credited with quite a number of activities in which his predecessors did not engage, and did so again on Sunday afternoon. That’s when he hosted a Mimouna event that marked the 170th anniversary of the passing of a pre-Herzl Zionist Rabbi Yehuda Bibas, a Gibraltar-born descendant of the Jews who were expelled from Spain and migrated to Tetouan in Northern Morocco. Bibas’s father – who came from a long line of rabbis – moved to Gibraltar after Tetouan was invaded by Spain, whose army killed many Jews in the process.

Following the death of his father, Bibas, who was still a minor at the time, moved to Livorno in Italy to live with his grandfather, who provided him with both a Jewish and secular education. When Bibas returned as an adult to Gibraltar, he was both a rabbi and a physician. Moreover, he was fluent in Italian, Spanish, Hebrew and English.

In Gibraltar, he established a yeshiva, which he headed. Its reputation was such that it attracted students from England, Italy and North Africa.

In 1810, Bibas traveled to London, where he met with Sir Moses Montefiore. It was the first of several visits, and the two men found that they thought alike on many Jewish issues, though it is not certain which of them influenced the other.

The Ben Zvi ''Piyut Ensemble'', dressed in Moroccan garb, played and sang Moroccan liturgical songs at the President’s Residence Mimouna celebration, April 24, 2022 (credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)The Ben Zvi ''Piyut Ensemble'', dressed in Moroccan garb, played and sang Moroccan liturgical songs at the President’s Residence Mimouna celebration, April 24, 2022 (credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)

Following his appointment in 1831 as chief rabbi of Corfu, Bibas began persuading Torah-observant Jews to move to the Land of Israel, and in 1839, took a year-long journey through Europe to share his Zionist ideology with Jewish communities in different countries. His hope was that an increasing number of Jews would move to the Holy Land and reclaim the ancient Jewish homeland from its Ottoman rulers.

Many of his students were caught up in this ideology, and heeded his words. Some were subsequently in the forefront of community and educational activities in the Holy Land. They were on hand at Jaffa Port when Bibas himself arrived to settle in in 1852. He went to Hebron, where he immediately opened a seminary into which he installed his impressive and extensive library. Unfortunately, he died two months later, on April 6, at the age of 63. He was buried in the old Hebron Cemetery. Prior to the riots of 1929, the Jewish community of Hebron used to honor his memory annually.

With the first and second waves of immigration, up until the early years of the state, the overwhelming majority of immigrants were of Ashkenazi descent, who ignored the fact that Sephardim had been a constant presence in the country long before Ashkenazim arrived in significant numbers.

Whereas many of the earlier Sephardim comprised the intellectual elite of the Jewish community, and the vast majority were religiously observant, those who came after the establishment of the state were marginalized, sent to live in peripheral areas, were considered to be socially inferior and referred to as members of the “second Israel.”

THE PEOPLE attending the Mimouna celebration at the President’s Residence on Sunday could by no means be characterized as such, though some nursed childhood memories of being part of that other Israel.

They represented organizations such as Tor Hazahav, Tikkun and HaIchud HaMasorti, which are dedicated to the preservation and dissemination of Moroccan Jewish heritage in particular and North African Jewish heritage in general in a quest for national unity and fraternity.

This was not a moufleta get-together, but a genuine cultural event. Fanny Ben Ami, a member of the Board of Tor Hazahav (The Golden Age) spoke of the transformation of Israel’s citizens of Moroccan background from pockets of communities that were socially and geographically isolated, to a community that has given one of its own traditions by way of a national holiday to all the demographic components of the nation.

President Herzog mentioned that Mimouna is a festival in which people not only open their homes, but also open their hearts. He also credited Bibas with having been a Zionist pioneer.

It appears that Bibas was not alone in advocating a return to the ancestral homeland. According to Dr. Yehuda Mimran, a senior faculty member of the Mandel Institute and a board member of Tikun, Zionist movements, in all their political and religious aspects, were alive and well in the lands of Islam. Zionism has many faces, Mimran pointed out, adding that Bibas believed that the redemption of the Jewish people would be through a natural progression, through repentance and through belief in the Bible, which advocates solidarity and responsibility. Bibas referred to the Bible in order to understand reality, said Mimran.

Dr. Gali Sambira, a board member of Tor Hazahav, emphasized that in Moroccan culture – not just Moroccan Jewish culture – there is inbred respect for the other and acceptance of the other. She cited as an example that when Muslims in Morocco attend a Jewish funeral, they engage in a ritual washing of the hands afterward, knowing that this is a Jewish custom.

Ophir Toubul, the Ashdod-born founder and chairman of Tor Hazahav, said that for many years there was a reluctance to commit the Moroccan Jewish heritage to book form because of the negative way in which Moroccans were regarded in Israel. Whatever the Israeli-born children of Moroccan immigrants learned was like learning oral Torah, he said. It was simply passed by deed and word of mouth from generation to generation.

However, that is no longer the case, and Toubul himself has edited a book of Moroccan Jewish tradition. The Ben Zvi musical ensemble, dressed in Moroccan garb, played and sang Moroccan liturgical songs to which many in the audience clapped silently, unsure about whether or not they could make a noise in the President’s Residence. They were joined by the president’s wife, Michal, who got completely caught up in the music and swayed as she clapped, eventually clapping out loud as did many others who were present. One of the benefits of being the president’s wife, she said, is the opportunity to meet the full diversity of Israel.

The ensemble’s final song, “Adon Olam” (“Lord of the World”), is one that is regularly sung in Ashkenazi synagogues, but to a completely different tune, with a completely different, haunting but infectious beat. This time, the president, too, got caught up in the music and clapped in unison.