Morocco, the westernmost country in North Africa, has a rich and treasured Jewish history dating back to antiquity, including legends that say Jews settled in the country before the destruction of the First Temple. Following the establishment of Israel in 1948, many Jews were forced to leave Morocco. Today, the Jewish population of Morocco stands at approximately 2,100 people. In this series of articles, we will be introducing the reader to stages from the history of this community spanning over the centuries.
In 1948, about 238,000 Jews lived in French Morocco, 15,000 in Spanish Morocco, and 12,000 in the international zone of Tangier. The 1951 census in French Morocco indicated 199,156 Jews and, together with the Jewish population of Spanish Morocco, the total number of Moroccan Jews reached then about 222,000. The first census conducted in united Morocco in 1960 recorded 159,806 Jews while, in 1962, an estimated 130,000 Jews lived in the whole of Morocco, decreasing to 85,000 in 1964 and about 42,000 in 1968.
The two censuses of 1951 and 1960 give valuable evidence of the demography of the Jewish population in Morocco. In 1951, over a third of the Jews lived in small towns and villages, but in 1961, as a result of the mass exodus to Israel, only about a quarter of them still lived there. The continued aliyah after 1960 reduced this number even further, so that the majority of Jews in the country in the late 1960s were concentrated in the major cities. Census data show that among the emigrants there were more young people than old; this is confirmed by the census conducted in Israel in 1961.
The dispersal of Moroccan Jews throughout scores of towns, townlets, and villages, which sometimes contained only a few dozen families, made it difficult to provide Jewish education for all who wanted it, and up to the time of the mass exodus there were places in which there were no Jewish educational institutions. This is one of the reasons for the high percentage of illiteracy among Moroccan Jewry, even in 1960.
In a sample of 2% of the overall Jewish population aged five and over, taken in Morocco in 1960, 43.2% were illiterate (i.e., could not read Arabic or French, for those who knew only Hebrew letters were counted as illiterate). However, the 10–14 age group had an illiteracy rate of only 18.1%, whereas the age group 60 years and older had a rate of 76.3%. The 52 schools of the Alliance Israélite Universelle had 21,823 pupils in 1948 and, in 1956, 28,702 pupils attended its 82 institutions. The number of its pupils subsequently dropped to 9,000 in 1965, of whom about 1,000 were non-Jewish.
In October 1960, the Moroccan government nationalized a fourth of the schools run by the Alliance Israélite Universelle, turning them into government schools, to which hundreds of non-Jewish pupils enrolled. Apart from the Alliance Israélite Universelle institutions, there were also schools run by Oẓar ha-Torah, Em ha-Banim, and, from 1950, by the Lubavitcher ḥasidic movement. Talmud Torah schools and ḥadarim continued to exist, despite the fact that the opening of new ḥadarim was forbidden in 1953.
The lack of a sufficient number of schools, along with the emigration of many educated Jews to France, resulted in a low number of university graduates in Morocco. In 1954, there were only 239 Jewish university students, of whom 151 had studied abroad. According to government statistics in 1964, of the 75,000 Jews who remained in the country there were only 60 physicians, 15 dentists, 50 pharmacists, and 44 lawyers. However, in proportion to the Muslim population, the Jews were better educated, for in that year the whole country contained only 232 lawyers.
Despite the fact that a few wealthy Jews lived in Morocco, most Moroccan Jews were considered to be poor. Many of them were peddlers or artisans or lived on social assistance. Since Jews lived in poverty and poor sanitary conditions in crowded homes of the mellah, where eight to ten people sometimes dwelt in one room, many Moroccan Jews suffered from diseases, especially trachoma. In fact, among the pupils attending Alliance Israélite Universelle institutions in Casablanca 30% suffered from trachoma, and the Alliance Israélite Universelle had to open a special school for them. This was also one of the reasons for the Israel government’s adoption of a policy of health selectivity toward Moroccan immigrants. The Jewish Agency for Israel and OSE worked in cooperation with many local doctors to treat Moroccan Jews before entry to Israel.
In the mid-20th century the legal status of Moroccan Jewry improved. With the exception of a few Casablanca Jews, they did not have the right to vote in local elections. Disputes between Jews and non-Jews had to be settled in Muslim courts, which judged according to Muslim religious and secular law. Jews were not allowed to elect their own representatives on the Jewish community councils, the members being appointed by the authorities.
After the independence of Israel (1948), the Jews in Morocco, as in the East, suffered from severe attacks by the population. On June 7, 1948, 43 Jews were murdered and 155 injured at Jérada (Djérada) and Oujda, after nationalists incited the population. However, the government brought scores of guilty to trial, sentencing two of them to death and others to imprisonment.
Beginning in August 1953, anti-colonial manifestations in French Morocco became widespread following the exile of the pro-nationalist Sultan Sidi Muhammad ben Yusuf to Madagascar. One year later, and then again in 1955, pro-nationalist forces attacked Jews in Casablanca, Rabat, Mazagan and Petitjean. A number of Jews were murdered. Much Jewish property was looted in various places throughout the country; the Alliance Israélite Universelle schools at Boujad, Mazagan and elsewhere were set on fire. Emigration subsequently increased. While between 1948 and 1953 about 30,000 Jews went to Israel, emigration figures in 1954–55 rose to 37,000 and in 1956, on the eve of Moroccan independence, to 36,301. Jews may have reached Israel in greater numbers at the time had the State of Israel and the Jewish Agency refrained from enforcing social and medical selection policies which deprived numerous elderly, sick, and economically disadvantaged elements from leaving Morocco. The Jews, however, feared that in an independent post-colonial Morocco their situation would worsen.
Morocco Gains Independence
When Sultan Muhammad ben Yusuf (King Muhammad V since 1957) returned from exile in November 1955, and Morocco gained its independence in March 1956, the situation of the Jews improved temporarily. For the first time in their history, they were to enjoy greater equality with Muslims. A Jewish leader, Dr. Leon Ben Zaqen, was appointed minister of posts in the first independent government. Other Jews began to gain important positions in the government administration as officials and in courts of law as judges. Jews were also appointed to the advisory council, the first being David Benazareff, shortly after his appointment to the presidency of the Casablanca community council. But on May 13, 1956, an order was issued forbidding Jews to leave for Israel. Then, in June 1956, the offices of the Cadima organization – the name under which the Jewish Agency’s Immigration Department functioned inside Morocco since 1949 – were closed. The Israeli aliyah emissaries, as well as envoys of other Jewish Agency departments dealing with Youth Aliyah, Zionist education and youth movements, were then compelled to leave the country. After long negotiations with the representative of the World Jewish Congress, the government permitted the emigration of the 6,325 Jews in the Mazagan camp who were ready to leave for Israel. At the same time, the Jewish Agency succeeded through channels and the bribing of senior Moroccan officials in smuggling several thousand additional Jews to Israel via Casablanca harbor and a “special route” through Tangier. However, vigilance on the Moroccan frontiers increased in 1957, after pressure from the opposition parties, and obstacles began to be placed in the way of those Jews requesting permission to travel legally for a short visit abroad, if it was suspected that their final destination was Israel. From that time on they had to show proof that they were able to support themselves abroad.
Afterward (1958–59), a number of Jews were tried and sentenced for smuggling their currency, or even for possessing an obsolete calendar issued by the Jewish National Fund. In 1958, when a new government was formed, Ben Zaqen was not included, and a number of Jewish officials were dismissed. In 1959, all Zionist activity was forbidden in Morocco and many Jewish organizations were forced to close their doors. That year, swastikas were daubed in Casablanca and Rabat.
As a result of this situation and despite the illegal exit, about 25,000 Jews went from Morocco illegally to Israel between 1956 and 1961. The groundwork for the illegal activity was laid in 1955, when Israel, fearing that Moroccan independence was imminent, formed a Zionist underground. The Mossad, Israel’s secret service agency, created the Misgeret (Framework), which organized self-defense training for all of the Maghreb. Misgeret’s operational headquarters were in Paris; Casablanca became its center in Morocco. Misgeret’s Israeli emissaries arrived in the Maghreb between August 1955 and early 1956. In Algeria and Tunisia they engaged mostly in self-defense training, but in Morocco they had five units in the urban centers: Gonen (self-defense), Ballet (recruiters of activists), Oref Ẓibburi (the channel for communicating with leaders of the Jewish community councils), Modi’in (intelligence gathering for missions), and Makhelah (illegal aliyah).
The need to organize illegal immigration and to create the Makhelah unit stemmed from the Moroccan decision to dissolve Cadima; the Mossad understood that the Jewish Agency had erred in not evacuating more Jews when the opportunity existed under colonial rule. Between the end of 1956 and mid-1961 Misgeret smuggled out many of the 25,000 Jews who left Morocco, using various land and sea routes. Many Misgeret operations were successful because of services rendered by Spanish and Moroccan smugglers, who assisted Misgeret in evacuating Jews without travel documents. The underground falsified passports, bribed Moroccan officials in seaports, and enlisted the help of the authorities in the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, the British in Gibraltar, and the French who still controlled Algeria. The Moroccan government failed to destroy the underground, although many activists were arrested.
In January 1961, on the occasion of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser‘s visit to Casablanca, Jews were beaten up and jailed. Several days later the Egoz, one of the Misgeret’s smuggling ships, foundered at sea, and 42 Jewish immigrants drowned. The repercussions of these events prompted local Jewish leaders, Israel, and international Jewish organizations to pressure Morocco to liberalize immigration. King Muhammad V promised to tolerate immigration and instructed his minister of the interior to grant passports to all Jews who wanted to leave. But the king died in February 1961 and was succeeded by King Hassan II; these events prevented the policy from being implemented immediately. The intercession of two influential Jews close to the palace enabled Israel to enter into discreet negotiations with the Moroccans through a series of meetings held in Europe; the result of the negotiations between the Misgeret’s top envoy in Morocco and a representative of King Hassan II was a plan. HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) would open offices in Morocco and, under its auspices, Israel could organize more semi-legal departures; Morocco would then receive “indemnities” for the loss of the Jews. Known as “Operation Yakhin,” between November 1961 and spring 1964 more than 90,000 Jews left for Israel by chartered planes and ships from Casablanca and Tangier via France and Italy. The secret negotiations leading to Yakhin also paved the way for Moroccan-Israeli negotiations over behind-the-scenes cooperation in intelligence and defense endeavors which yielded benefits in subsequent decades.
Until 1961, when the Moroccan authorities tightened restrictions on immigration, the remaining Jewish elite still held some privileges. In fact, the post-1956 elites were divided into three currents. The first, influenced by French and European schooling, emphasized the central importance of European culture. In general, the members of this group were not attracted to Zionism, and they eventually settled in France.
The second group included those who, despite the education they had received at the Alliance Israélite Universelle schools, were still influenced by Zionism. The third group, which favored a Judeo-Muslim entente, emerged during the mid- and late 1950s and was by no means homogeneous. This group included about 400 activists with strong leftist tendencies and about 500 communists, as well as moderate leftists and conservatives.
Several activists in the third group advocated Jewish-Muslim integration with Jews frequenting the same clubs as Muslims and attending the same schools, in order to bridge the political and intellectual gap between the two peoples. Others were more cautious, arguing that rapprochement should not compel Moroccan Jews to sever their ties with Israel or to embrace Arabic language and literature at the expense of French culture. To achieve national unity and engender reforms within the Jewish communities, the leftist integrationists affiliated with the Istiqlal party and, in 1956, the Union Marocaine de Travail, the Moroccan labor union, founded a pro-entente movement known as al-Wifāq (Agreement). During the late 1950s, leaders sharing their political orientation gained some prominence within the community councils, although eventually they either moderated their stance and remained in positions of authority or more moderate elements prevailed.
When Morocco gained its independence, a royal decree of January 1956 abolished rabbinical courts and turned them into state courts of law, with the exception of the Supreme Rabbinical Tribune in Rabat, which was abolished by government order in 1965. From 1945, the rabbinical court was headed by Chief Rabbi Saul D. ibn Danān, who went to Israel in 1966. From 1965, the other members of the rabbinical court were appointed judges in state courts. Jews who remained in Morocco were subject to military service.
Emigration continued to both Israel and other destinations. Aliyah reached a low point in the years 1965–67, but picked up its pace after the June 1967 war. Between 1967 and 1970 as many as 4,000 Jews left for Israel annually. Israel ceased to be attractive for most Moroccan Jewish immigrants afterwards.
Those who left Morocco in the 1960s included wealthy and educated Jews, not only the lower socioeconomic stratum. In 1970, some 35,000 Jews were living in Morocco. Of those who had emigrated a considerable number, mainly the wealthy and more highly educated, settled in France and Canada. Among the immigrants were lawyers, engineers, and doctors who were marginalized in their place of work in favor of Muslims.
The mass exodus caused the closing of most Jewish institutions, yeshivot, schools and many synagogues. The community in the 1960s lacked rabbis, dayyanim and even readers of the Law in synagogue. The charitable organizations that functioned throughout Morocco were liquidated; Jewish newspapers were closed. One of these, La Voix des Communautés, was an official communal organ.
During this period anti-Jewish propaganda increased, organized mainly by the Istiqlāl Party, led by ʿAllāl al-Fasi, who at the time also served as minister of Islamic affairs. The party journal, L’Opinion, and the rest of the Moroccan press, with the exception of newspapers supported by the government party, published much incendiary material against Jews, and in 1965 the al-Istiqlāl newspaper published extracts from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. During and after the June 1967 war, the Istiqlāl party encouraged Muslims to enforce an economic boycott of the Jews, but King Hassan adopted a firm policy so that Jews were not seriously harmed, and the economic boycott was implemented only partially.
In the 1970s, with a Jewish population of some 20,000 (1975), two-thirds of whom were concentrated in Casablanca and the remainder in Rabat, Marrakesh, Tangiers and Fez, Morocco had the largest organized Jewish community of any Arab country. But Moroccan Jewry was indeed moving slowly toward its self-liquidation. The school population was perhaps the best yardstick. Jewish day schools saw their enrollment drop by about 15 percent between October 1972 and October 1973, and they have noted subsequent drops of about 5 percent every year since. Yet the Arab-Israeli War of 1973 and later Middle East conflicts did not result in the end of Morocco’s Jewish communities. Those who remained weathered the crises and expressed confidence in the monarchy’s ability to safeguard their well-being.
Despite the tolerant attitude of the authorities toward the Jews, difficulties were still placed in their way in respect to national organization or attempts to establish contact with Jewish organizations abroad, apart from philanthropic or religious organizations such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Alliance Israélite Universelle and the Lubavitch Ḥasidim.
Several communities of Jews delayed their complete departure in the 1970s through the 1990s, partly because they owned large pieces of communal property valued at many millions of dollars. These properties were registered with the Ministry of the Interior and could not be sold without the ministry’s permission, while the proceeds of the sales had to be kept in cash in a bank or reinvested in other property.
After King Hassan’s death on July 23, 1999, his son, Muhammad VI, ascended to the throne. In sharp contrast to his father’s aspirations of involving Morocco in regional and international politics, Muhammad VI seemed – in the first years of his royal tenure, at least – to concentrate on domestic social reforms, greater equality for women, and democratizing the nation’s political institutions. Thus far he has also demonstrated a belief in peaceful Muslim-Jewish coexistence. He retained André Azoulay as the monarchy’s chief adviser and facilitated the return from France of Abraham Sarfati, the exiled communist activist, whom the king appointed as his chief expert on sources of energy.
The terrorist acts of the Moroccan al-Qai’da-affiliated Salafiyya Jihadiyya Islamist radical group in Casablanca (May 16, 2003) claimed many lives and also caused damage to Jewish institutions. This and other acts by Islamists may well hasten the departure of younger Moroccan Jews who will be followed to the West by their parents. Nevertheless, the king vowed to punish the perpetrators while the Moroccan press unanimously condemned the act. The latter argued that Morocco had always been a haven for Muslims and Jews, and no extremist forces would be allowed to sabotage the good relations between the two religions.
In 2005, some 3,000 Jews lived in Casablanca and there were smaller communities in Rabat, Marrakesh, Meknès, Tangier, Fez and Tetuan. The major Jewish organization is the Conseil des Communautés Israélites in Casablanca. The welfare organization in Casablanca is responsible for medical aid to the needy and hot meals for underprivileged Jewish students. Most of the community are of the upper middle class and enjoy a comfortable economic position. Most Jewish schools are closed and only those in Casablanca – under the auspices of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, Ort, Chabad and Oẓar ha-Torah – remain active. Interestingly, the number of kosher restaurants in tourism-oriented cities is on the rise.
A Jewish museum documenting the Jewish presence in Morocco, he first of its kind in the Arab world, and a foundation for Jewish Moroccan cultural heritage were established n Casablanca. In cooperation with UNESCO, the restoration of old synagogues has commenced.
In 2010, King Mohammed VI announced a plan to restore at least 167 Jewish burial sites throughout his country. In August 2019, Moroccan officials and Jewish community leaders celebrated the renovation of a Jewish cemetery in the coastal city of Al Jadida, about 80 miles southwest of the capital Rabat.
In January 2020, King Mohammed VI inaugurated a $1.5 million center dedicated to Jewish culture in the city of Essaouira, a port city that once had a large population of Jews. Today, only a handful of Jews remain. The center, Bayt Dakira (Arabic: House of Memory), was mostly funded by the government. It is in home that houses a small synagogue, a museum, research center and space for cultural events.
More than 43,000 Moroccan Jews have received reparations since 2011, when Germany finally recognized them as Holocaust survivors,
Moroccan Jewish Education in the 20th Century
The history of the educational system represents the stabilization of a Jewish society under French rule that had preserved traditional values over a long period of time and now had to accommodate itself to new times and forms. Moreover, the importance of education grew because it served as a base for social mobility, particularly the growth of new elites: community leaders, merchants, officials and professionals achieved their positions through modern Western education. Some of them managed to combine education of this kind with values stemming from the Jewish heritage as it crystallized in Morocco.
Until the middle of the 19th century, public education was the responsibility of the Jewish community. In many places, no special buildings were set aside for the Talmud Torah, and elementary schools and often yeshivah studies as well were conducted in synagogues, this being the origin of the name slla (“synagogue“ in Moroccan Arabic) as used for schools. The sllas were run by local teachers. The aim of elementary schooling in Jewish traditional education was to teach the child to read and write and prepare him to take part in the life of the synagogue. The yeshivot, which were post-elementary schools, were intended mainly for youngsters from rabbinical families. The status of the rabbi-teachers was shaky; they lived in dire economic straits, and were forced to take other jobs, as ḥazzanim, shoḥatim, etc., or abandon teaching when they found more remunerative occupations. Jewish girls generally remained ignorant, aside from what they learned from their mothers, which mainly concerned practical Jewish matters like kashrut, family purity, and the like.
From the beginning of reform in traditional education, Jewish institutions outside Morocco were involved – the Alliance Israélite Universelle and American institutions. The first school of the Alliance was founded in Tetuan in 1862. In conformity with its philanthropic-intellectual leanings, its institutions aimed at providing a secular education in French and in this way at achieving the Emancipation as understood by Western Jews, namely to abrogate the status of Jews as a tolerated minority and prepare them to take their place as useful citizens employed as craftsmen, merchants, and officials.
From the outset of Alliance activity, a major problem was the absence of teaching staff familiar with the new trends and a suitable pedagogic background. At first, out of political considerations, the Alliance, wishing to coexist with the communities and expand its activities, did employ teachers who had studied in traditional schools to teach Jewish subjects. But out of fear that the schools would become old-fashioned, the Alliance teachers, most of whom came from Alsace and different parts of the Ottoman Empire, tried to get these other teachers dismissed. Filled with the zeal of pioneers in pursuit of their aims, the Alliance director and teachers entrenched themselves in the communities, particularly from around 1900 on. Not only did they assert their authority in educational matters but often settled disputes within the community and served as go-betweens for the community and the European consuls with the aim of protecting the Jews from the Muslims. In addition, once they had consolidated their position, they came out against slla education and its outdated methods. In the period from the mid-19th century to the early 1920s there were rabbis, mainly representing communities in the interior of the country less exposed to European influences, who regarded the Alliance schools as “centers of heresy.” These rabbis clung to a policy of keeping their youngsters out of these schools so long as they had not completed their traditional educations. As a result many young people did not go to these schools.
The Alliance personnel at this time were not conciliatory. Nurtured on secular Western education in the rabbinical seminary of Paris, they lacked sensitivity to the values of Moroccan Jewry and their traditions. They sought to underscore the gap between the enlightened world and the tradition and experience of the parental generation and the slla schools, which they termed “centers of reaction.” In fact their depiction of the Talmud Torah schools as lacking any value was an oversimplification. One of the problems that cropped up in the 1924–45 period in Alliance educational activities derived from its negative attitude to Jewish nationalism in the Land of Israel and to Hebrew as a living language. Other organizations took advantage of its difficulties to step in and operate in Morocco. First the Em ha-Banim Talmud Torah network, which had started operating through the efforts of Rabbi Zar Halperin, an East European Zionist who was in Morocco from 1914 to 1922, flourished. By 1935, it had important schools in the interior of the country, mainly in Fez, Sefrou, Meknès, and Marrakesh.
The stepped-up activities of the World Zionist Organization in the 1920s also constituted a challenge to the Alliance. At first the WZO tried to found societies for the renewal of Hebrew culture and language and to collect money for the development of Ereẓ Israel. Later it became a focus of local Zionist pressure exercised against the Alliance not only in the name of pedagogic advancement and the creation of new educational structures but also to adapt education to the needs of Zionism. The Alliance’s problems did not only stem from its universalist ideology; it also had practical causes. The organization had received considerable financial support from the French government, a fact which the French used to put pressure on it to give priority to French and general studies over Hebrew and Jewish education. This pressure had a positive effect, as many parents wanted their children to receive an education that would prepare them for jobs in the modern bureaucracy of the Protectorate or in banks and business firms. However, they were uneasy about the cutback in Jewish studies. The arrangement also made life difficult for the pupils. They, as well as those who had studied first in a slla and then in an Alliance school, reached the fourth grade of elementary school at the age of 17.
The only way the Alliance could reconcile various circles by teaching Jewish subjects while instituting teaching reforms was by training a special staff of teachers. An attempt in this direction was made by supporting a local initiative on the part of the Torah and Ḥayyim Society of Tangier to set up a teachers’ seminar. Teachers from within the community taught Jewish subjects while general subjects were taught by teachers from the French schools in the city and the Alliance faculty. Another change was in the encouragement given by the Alliance chief representative in Morocco, Yom Tov Sémach, to the teaching of modern, spoken Hebrew. Though not an adherent of political Zionism, but rather the opposite, Sémach argued that the teaching of living Hebrew was an expression of Jewish solidarity, the first and foremost means of communication in the Jewish world and part of the renascence of Jewish culture. The Alliance administration in Paris also did not heed the advice of the Tangier seminar’s director to bring over teachers from Ereẓ Israel who had studied at the teacher training institute in Paris. Out of fear of the nationalistic reactions of Morocco’s Arabs and the possibility that such a step would be interpreted as pro-Zionist, Hebrew studies were not allowed at the institute. But the pressure exerted by rabbis and parents did not abate. The parents sought a balanced curriculum in Alliance schools, with more Jewish studies than in the past.
The period after World War II, from 1946 until the 1960s, represented a major turning point in Jewish education in Morocco. The Zionist Organization contributed to the process by accelerating the acclimatization to modern Jewish thought and education in Jewish institutes. Another factor, after 1948, was the growing importance of aspects of Hebrew as a language representing the link between Moroccan Jewry and the State of Israel. Moreover, with increasing financial assistance from the Jews of America and Europe, the Alliance began to develop Jewish programs of study that were not totally subordinate to the French colonial administration in Morocco despite continued French aid to expand secular education.
Another factor contributing to the change was the disappointment of the Alliance leaders, who underwent bitter experiences during the war and witnessed the tragic failure of the ideology of “emancipation through assimilation” (which rather than being met with enthusiasm by colonial society provoked antisemitic propaganda). And indeed, from 1946 on, though the Alliance did not cooperate with the emissaries of the Jewish Agency, it did cooperate with influential local Zionists. An excellent example of this is the establishment of the Hebrew teachers seminar in Casablanca in cooperation with the Zionist Magen David Society. In 1956, almost all the teachers who were products of traditional education were replaced by graduates of the seminar. This produced big changes in the Jewish studies in schools, not to mention the fact that such an institute as the Hebrew University agreed to award graduates the “Jerusalem certificate,” which exempted them from the University’s entrance exam in the Hebrew language. The prestige of the seminar spread through the communities of Morocco and won for it rabbinical support. Graduates of the seminar began teaching in Alliance schools along the Mediterranean Basin and in Iran and, in the course of time, also in Israel, Latin America, Western Europe, and Canada. These graduates also played a part in the Arabization of the schools with the introduction of Arab studies after 1956. They also contributed to the creation of a social and economic elite among the Jews who remained, as the independent Moroccan government was not favorably inclined toward teachers educated in French (even if they were Moroccans). Moreover, while the number of admissions to French high schools before independence was relatively low because of the undeclared quota system, now after independence, admission became easier because of Moroccan policy. At the same time, the Alliance schools, which up to the mid-1950s had provided education up to junior high school only, now became full-fledged high schools. Thus the impetus of social and economic change that had its start in the 1940s and 1950s was not stopped with independence.
The 1946–60 period also represented a turning point in terms of the initiative shown by American Jewry on behalf of the Jews of Morocco in educational affairs. The outstanding American organization was Oẓar Hatorah, a society of Sephardi Jews believing in a combination of Jewish and general education and supported financially mainly by the Joint Distribution Committee. Oẓar Hatorah started operating in the large centers like Rabat and Mogador, and also in small villages in south Morocco. At first, relations between Oẓar Hatorah and the Alliance were tense. The representative and teachers of Oẓar Hatorah in Morocco (as opposed to the directorate in New York) regarded the Alliance teachers as confirmed secularists who had driven away the young Jews of Morocco from the Jewish heritage. But when they saw the Alliance’s powerful popular support and the Hebrew teachers seminar was set up in Casablanca, they toned down their criticism. After Morocco received its independence they cooperated in such projects as preparing and printing Hebrew and Jewish texts in the face of Morocco’s ban on the import of Hebrew books printed abroad. Not the least important of the Alliance’s activities was its campaign to update traditional education. Together with Oẓar Hatorah, it succeeded in persuading a number of community leaders to institute reforms in curricula and methods in the old-fashioned Talmud Torah schools in the community. This influence continued to grow until in 1970 the number of students in reformed Jewish studies exceeded the number in Alliance schools: 7,800 compared with 7,100. This renascence of Jewish education made it possible to provide spiritual leaders for the North African communities in Western Europe and Canada. The change was also felt among the rabbis identified with this trend who reached Israel in the 1960s and 1970s. In the last three generations important work has also been done in Morocco by the Chabad educational system. The results of the work done by the Alliance and Oẓar Hatorah were impressive. On the eve of Moroccan independence in 1956 there were 83 Alliance schools with 33,000 students, representing 80% of all Jewish children of school age. The Oẓar Hatorah system had 6,564 students, or 16%, in 32 institutions. It is therefore correct to say that, in the 1940s and 1950s, the Jews of Morocco rapidly entered a new era in their history.
In 2020, the primary-school syllabus incorporated Moroccan Jewish history and culture, the first time any Arab country had taken such a step. Meanwhile, the Musa Ibn Maimon High School in Casablanca, established in 1950, now has an enrollment of 400 that is approximately 90 percent Muslim. Students learn Hebrew and Arabic, and celebrate Jewish and Islamic religious holidays.
Relations with Israel
The Moroccan-Israeli relationship is rooted in the presence of roughly one million Jews of Moroccan descent.
When Hassan II took power, he developed a close relationship with the Mossad, which had informed the king of a plot to overthrow him by opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka. Israel provided weapons and training to the king’s forces and shared intelligence with his intelligence service.
In September 1959, Morocco severed postal ties with Israel, ties that were renewed only in 1994. This and other measures instituted at the time were a result of Morocco’s policy of avoiding conflicts with Egypt and Middle Eastern states at war with Israel. The Egyptians were quick to accuse the Maghrebi states of permitting Zionist activity and aliyah, which according to their argument, only strengthened the Jewish State. Moreover, Morocco did not desire to lose Jewish nationals as this could have been detrimental to the Moroccan economy.
Despite the fear of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the king allowed the Mossad to bug rooms used by Arab leaders and military commanders meeting in Casablanca in 1965, which tipped Israel off to their plans and capabilities. “These recordings, which were truly an extraordinary intelligence achievement, established our feeling…that we will win the war against Egypt,” recalled Gen. Shlomo Gazit.
Israel did favors for Morocco as well, including luring Ben Barka to Paris where he was abducted and killed by Moroccans. “Mossad agents disposed of the body, which was never found,” according to Ronen Bergman.
Israeli and Egyptian officials met secretly in Morocco in the 1970s to discuss the possibility of peace. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat preferred this channel to short-circuit U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s efforts to convene an international peace conference which he believed would be an impediment to reaching an agreement with Israel. These talks formed the basis for the Camp David negotiations.
In the mid- and late 1990s, 6,000 Jews remained in Morocco. Influential Jewish leaders – among them Robert Assaraf, a noted entrepreneur and one of the most affluent Jews in Morocco, and Serge Berdugo, who served as a minister of tourism in the 1990s –wielded influence, playing a cardinal role in politics. Their intimate ties to both the monarchy and opposition parties enabled them to promote diverse Moroccan-Israeli connections.
While Berdugo was minister of tourism, Israeli-Moroccan tourist exchange gained considerable momentum. This came in the wake of the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accord of 1993 that led to the establishment of liaison offices in Rabat and Tel Aviv. The primary purpose of the liaison apparatus was to promote even greater tourist activity, particularly from Israel to Morocco.
In October 1994, André Azoulay, a Jewish economist and one of King Hassan’s confidants, was the driving force behind the first Middle East Economic Summit in Casablanca. The intermediary role played by the king in bringing Israel and the Arab states closer together, leading to the Egyptian-Israeli peace initiative in 1977, also contributed to Muslim-Jewish coexistence at home.
The outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000 compelled Morocco to shut down its liaison office in Tel Aviv and ask Israel to recall its representative from Rabat – a move that is seen as a temporary break in ties.
Despite the lack of official diplomatic relations between the two countries, in November 2016, seven journalists from Morocco visited Israel to meet with government and military officials and tour the Gaza border. The group trip, which included five female and two male journalists, was organized to help combat negative stereotypes about Israel in the Arab media.
In 2017, a conference was held in Israel for the first time with seven Muslim guests from Morocco and other participants from the United States and Europe. A second meeting was held in August 2018 in Strasburg, France.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a secret meeting with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in September 2018. During the meeting Netanyahu expressed interest in making a public visit and normalizing relations with Morocco. They also discussed their mutual interest in countering Iranian actions in the region. Earlier, Morocco had cut ties with Iran due to Iranian interference in Moroccan internal affairs.
Morocco received three Israeli reconnaissance drones in January 2020 as part of $48 million arms deal. The drones will be used against extremist groups and rebel movements in the Western Sahara.
Morocco and Israel have a long history of military and intelligence cooperation despite having no official diplomatic ties. That cooperation is likely to deepen now that Morocco agreed to establish full diplomatic relations and resume official contacts with Israel. In a deal brokered by the Trump administration, Morocco said on December 10, 2020, it would grant overflights and direct flights to and from Israel for all Israelis. In addition, liaison offices in Rabat and Tel Aviv will be reopened with the intention to open embassies soon.
The decision was coupled with the announcement by the Trump administration that the United States would recognize Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara. This was a goal of King Muhammad VI, who had sought the help of Israel and American Jews to convince the United States to ignore international support for the Saharawi people.
On December 22, 2020, Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner flew aboard the first direct commercial Israeli flight on El Al from Israel to Morocco. The same day, Morocco, the U.S. and Israel signed a joint declaration formalizing the re-establishment of diplomatic relations. The statement said Israel and Morocco will also promote dynamic and innovative bilateral economic cooperation in the fields of trade, finance, investment, and technology. The countries also agreed to cooperate in civil aviation, visa and consular services, tourism, water, agriculture, food security, development, energy, and other areas.
The declaration was signed by Jared Kushner, Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat, and Morocco’s Head of Government Saad Eddine El Othmani before King Mohammed VI during a meeting at Rabat’s Royal Palace.
Also in January 2021, El Mehdi Boudra, the president of Association Mimouna, and Elan Carr, the U.S. State Department’s envoy to combat anti-Semitism, signed a Memorandum of Understanding “to work together to share and promote best practices for combating all forms of anti-Semitism, including anti-Zionism and the delegitimization of the State of Israel” and “for combating other kinds of intolerance and hatred, including Islamophobia.”
The agreement is similar to one signed in October 2020 with a Bahraini institution.
The Israeli Liaison Office in Morocco reopened on January 26, 2021, when former ambassador to Egypt David Govrin arrived in Rabat. It had been closed for 20 years.
When President Biden took office, there was some discussion of reversing Trump’s annexation of Western Sahara and upending the deal with Israel. Secretary of State Tony Blinken told his counterpart in April 2021, however, that the administration would not do so.
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