Thursday, July 01, 2004

Moroccan Judaism

It looks like I won't be venturing to the museum by the Jewish cemetery before I leave Fez this weekend, so I'll just go ahead and write up my impressions of the state of Judaism in Morocco. One thing that struck me was how often Judaism comes up in casual conversations. When people talk about different religions, they mention Judaism the same way they do Christianity, someone in Tangier included the Jewish Quarter in their list of interesting places in Fez, a guy on a train referred to Hebrew in explaining Arabic sounds, a guy in a restaurant mentioned Judaism in the list of religions whose sacred music he studied, etc.

The Moroccans I have spoken to, and of course because of my social location they are not representative of the whole population, are aware of the Jewish heritage in their country, and consider the inclusion of Jews in Moroccan society a point of pride. It's sort of amusing how much some talk about Moroccan Jews resembles talk about the Elves in the The Lord of the Rings, and I half expect to encounter Jewish caravans in a forest headed off to Israel. However, problems have clearly existed. Morocco has separate Jewish quarters in every city, which seems unusual for the Islamic world and probably doesn't indicate anything good. The largest Jewish exodus, however, occurred after the Six Day War, when there were attacks on Jews by Moroccan Muslims.

According to the person with whom I had the most substantial conversation - and I should note here it was in Arabic, so I apologize for anything I get wrong - Moroccan Jews today don't face a real threat of violence, and the main reasons for continued emigration are economic. I've referred before to the fact of economic migration in Moroccan life, and if you're Jewish, you have a industrialized country that is ready, willing, and even eager to accept you. Jews who remain in Morocco are often prominent community members - here in Fez they seem to live in the upscale Ville Nouvelle. One person pointed out the house of a rabbi, which was a fairly nice residence in Fez al-Jedid. However, I was told, although Moroccans freely interact with Jews in business, politics, and society, "in their hearts" many Moroccan Muslims do have anti-Semitic attitudes.

Two last points: I have not talked to an actual Moroccan Jew about any of this. I don't like going into potentially sensitive issues without have some connection to a person, and no such connections existed. So this information comes from Muslims and other Americans who have talked to people on their own. Secondly, I get the feeling many of the Jews left aren't terribly religious. At least, there are two functioning synagogues in Fez with about 5000 Jews, and they have trouble getting a congregation together. In any case, I suspect we are seeing the last days of substantial Jewish culture in Morocco. If the major way for the average visitor to experience a culture is to visit cemeteries, that's not a terribly good sign.

UPDATE: An additional item that seems worthy of mention is that although Morocco was technically under the control of Vichy France and Nazi agents were all over, Sultan Muhammad V refused to implement the Holocaust in Morocco, and the country actually became a major transit point for Jews fleeing to the U.S. Unfortunately I can't find much more than the above after googling and glancing through a couple of travel books which refer to the above. If anyone knows more about this history, I'm rather curious.


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