Israelis of Moroccan origin can ‘bridge’ and strengthen ties with Rabat

"It is not a coincidence that in Morocco there was no Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox [communities]. It is because the leadership said ‘we accepted everyone,'" said Shimon Ohayon.

Suzanne Harroch, a Moroccan Jewish singer from Rabat, looks through a photo album during an interview with Reuters at her home in Rabat, Morocco December 11, 2020.  (photo credit: REUTERS/SHEREEN TALAAT)
Suzanne Harroch, a Moroccan Jewish singer from Rabat, looks through a photo album during an interview with Reuters at her home in Rabat, Morocco December 11, 2020.
The normalization agreement between Israel and Morocco is the latest in the series of such agreements with Arab countries but hopes for a warm peace between the two countries are especially high, given that Moroccan Jews and their descendants comprise a huge and culturally significant portion of Israel’s population.
More than 300,000 Jews immigrated from Morocco to Israel between 1948 and 1964 and there are now some 1 million Israelis of Moroccan heritage.
Shimon Shetreet, president of the World Sephardi Union and a former cabinet minister and member of the Labor Party who was born in Morocco, noted the strong emotional ties Moroccan Jews in Israel and in other countries still feel towards their former homeland.
He said the Jewish community enjoyed positive standing in Morocco and that it had always had good relations with the Moroccan monarchs, including Mohammed V, Hassan II, and the current king, Mohammed VI, and that prominent members of the Jewish community had served as advisers to the royal court and as government ministers.
These warms ties, said Shetreet, can help strengthen the connection between Israel and Morocco and the already existing cultural and economic relationships, as well as boost tourism between the two countries which, even without diplomatic relations, sees at least 70,000 Israelis visit Morocco every year.
Shetreet noted that the Culture of Peace organization that he heads has held several conferences in Casablanca, met with Andrei Azulay, a member of the Jewish community and an adviser to the king, and participated in numerous cultural events in the country.
“These activities will increase, not just by our group, but other organizations as well,” said Shetreet.
He also praised the recent renovation of Jewish cemeteries in Morocco by King Mohammed VI, as well as the renovation of the old Jewish quarter of Marakesh and the King’s decision to restore the old Jewish street names there.
“There is an emotional approach from both sides, of respect for the period in which cooperative life existed in Morocco.
“The Moroccan Jewish community in Israel can really be a bridge between the two countries, and its connection to Morocco can strengthen these ties because of its emotional connection with its former country.”
Yonathan Arfi, Vice-President of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewish communities, noted that France’s Jewish community has a large proportion of Moroccan Jews due to the country’s past as a protectorate ruled by France.
He noted that the Moroccan Jewish community in France has close ties with Morocco and feel close to the country from where they emigrated.
“Moroccan Jews in France are very Zionist, they feel very attached to Israel, but they also have a special link to Morocco,” said Arfi.
“The normalization agreement is like having a kind of diplomatic recognition of all the different parts of their identity, it unifies them and makes it more natural,” he said.
Arfi added that the French Jewish community is also hopeful that the agreement will have a positive impact in France itself, and will bring about a change in perspective of at least part of the Muslim community there, in particular the large Moroccan Muslim community.
He said that anti-Zionist and antisemitic sentiment among significant portions of the Muslim community, including those from Morocco and Algeria, is strong, but that the decision by Morocco to normalize relations with the Jewish state could help change those perspectives and help deepen dialogue between the Muslim and Jewish communities in France.
Shimon Ohayon, a former MK for Yisrael Beytenu, chairman of the Jewish Moroccan Association, and director of the Dahan Center at Bar Ilan University, said that beyond the advantages for Israeli – Moroccan relations, the new agreement would help demonstrate the contribution of Moroccan Jews to Morocco itself and to the Jewish people as a whole, especially the cultural inheritance it has bequeathed.
“Moroccan Jewry has a very special musical heritage which it brought from Spain 500 years ago,” said Ohayaon.
“Andalusian music was preserved by the Muslims and the Jews. The Muslims perform it using their liturgy and the Jews use the same tunes with their liturgy, but it’s the same tradition. It is not Western or Eastern but a meeting of east and west.
“This is our opportunity to expose and familiarize these traditions to the Jewish people,” he continued, and said that this process could also challenge the prejudices held by some Israelis towards the Moroccan Jewish community in the country, including perspectives that Moroccan Jews are “primitive.”
“Moroccan Jewry has a history of communal and Jewish law remedies, it is connected very strongly to the historic Spanish Jewish community, by its traditions, its Jewish law rulings, culture, music, poetry and creativity, it is the authentic successor of Spanish Jewry, culturally and religiously,” said Ohayon.
Ohayon also praised the model of leadership demonstrated by Moroccan rabbis who he said had always held an expansive view of the Jewish communities needs and issued rulings in Jewish law that accorded with the character of the entire community, and not just small components of it.
“It is not a coincidence that in North Africa and especially in Morocco there was no Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox [communities]. It is because the leadership said ‘we accepted everyone, even those who don’t observe the laws of kashrut and Shabbat they remain with me’,” said Ohayaon.
“This principle of ‘all the Jewish people’ has been lost in our country where the secular speak against the ultra-Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox against the secular, where is the perspective and leadership?”