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A Moroccan Spark of Pintele Yid

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A Moroccan Spark of Pintele Yid

The office of Haim Toledano could be mistaken for a hoarder’s basement. A dozen colored glass lamps float above a dozen end tables. Twin damascene gazelle statues peer out the front window, their alert and empty eyes unsettling. Piles of dusty, weather-warped photographs are spread across every surface. Glass cabinets are snugly packed in and packed full of jewelry, trinkets and bugs who probably met their doom in the same way I believed I would in that office: death by suffocation. 

One of Toledano’s many hats in Meknes, Morocco is an antiques salesman, so the oppressive number of plastic wrapped silver teapots and ivory inlaid ashtrays began to make sense. But the photographs remained a mystery. 

Most are pictures of himself or family members. Under some stacks are faded file folders of newspaper clippings that mention the Toledano name. The bits of wall that aren’t covered by cabinets are covered in even more photographs, most ornately framed and crookedly hung. The pièce de résistance of Toledano’s collection is the monstrous portrait of King Hassan II, the Moroccan king from 1961 until his death in 1999. It is flanked on either side by smaller but still significantly sized photographs of Hassan II’s predecessor, Mohammed V, and the current king, Mohammed VI. It is customary for Moroccan business owners to hang a picture of the king, but these pictures, organized in an altar-like fashion, seemed unnecessarily large, as if Toledano venerates the men as more than kings. So I asked.

“Since independence, the kings have given the Jews the best treatment we could ask for,” he said, his little body hunched over a makeshift table of microwave oven boxes, sorting through pictures to show me. “When we need anything, we are well served. When we knock on any door, they open it.”

Toledano 2

Haim Toledano

Graves in the Jewish cemetery in Meknes tell a story of eight generations of Toledanos, much like Haim, that led the Meknesi community in one way or another – business men, community leaders, judges, rabbis. Toledano is a household name in Meknes, and Haim is a bit of a local celebrity. As we sat in his office, he often stopped mid-sentence to blow kisses to locals who had knocked on his front window to wave hello. 

At 85, Toledano has been the leader of the Jewish community in Meknes – a current group of about 30 people – for over 60 years. But when Toledano was a boy, the Jewish community was much bigger. Census numbers from 1951 show nearly 12,500 Jews called Meknes home. These numbers reflect a similar trend across Morocco. Once the largest Jewish community in the Arab world, a population of over 250,000 has been reduced to a few thousand.

As the Jewish Moroccan population ages and dwindles, some grow worried about the preservation of the culture, a culture older than the modern state of Morocco itself. Without rapt attention, the subtle hallmarks of Jewish heritage are lost in the carnival of Moroccan city life – abandoned shells of former synagogues, informational plaques, white blue walls of old neighborhoods. Despite concern, Toledano and other community leaders remain confident that the Moroccan Jewish tradition will carry on, just as it has for centuries. 

Meknes Mellah - synagogue

A long-forgotten synagogue in the Meknes mellah stands empty, the lock rusted shut. Neighbors are mostly unaware this was once a street full of Jewish life among a Muslim city.

“It’s like a mother and her children,” he says, sipping on unpalatably sweet Moroccan mint tea. “She can never stop loving them, and she can never forget them. A Moroccan Jew can never forget Morocco.” 

The Jews were first drawn to Morocco by the Carthaginian gold market in the fifth to third centuries B.C., according to legend. From the coasts, missionary work took the Jews inland where they converted the indigenous Maghrebi peoples, or Berbers. The year 70 B.C. brought with it the Siege of Jerusalem. As the Romans partook in the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews fled. Many went as far as Morocco.  

Following this initial influx of Jews, Jewish migration to Morocco occurred in waves: the Visigoth persecution of Jews in Spain, the Spanish Reconquista, the Alhambra Decree ordering the expulsion of Jews from Spain, a similar expulsion of Jews in Portugal. A final wave came with the rise of Nazi Germany. At the time, masses of Jewish people had migrated to the Arab world – nearly 800,000. North Africa had been a place of relative peace and protection from the Nazi extermination camps in the West and further persecution in the former Soviet Union and satellite states. 

“Mohammed V rescued us from the Nazis,” Toledano said. “If it weren’t for the monarchy, we would have been killed.” 

In the years of Hitler’s rise to power and the Holocaust, the Nazi-aligned Vichy government in France had influence over Morocco, as Morocco was still a French protectorate at the time. Despite French oversight, King Mohammed V refused to send Jewish Moroccans to concentration camps when the Nazis ordered.  

The king famously replied, “We have no Jews in Morocco, only Moroccan citizens.” 

I began to pay more attention to photographs of the king – in the grocery store high above the produce piles, in my favorite cafe leaning against a window. In that café, I met Ahmed Chouari, a professor and researcher of Moroccan Jewry. He said the king’s protection of the Jews was indicative of his perspective of his role as king.  

“The king often considered himself a commander of the faithful,” Chouari said, looking down into his espresso and then over at the portrait before continuing, as if he were assessing if the king was within earshot. “That’s not just those faithful to Islam – it included Christians, Jews, Muslims, all faiths.” 

Perhaps if Mohammed V were in Venezia Ice listening to our conversation that day, that’s exactly what he would want to hear, reassurance that his actions were seen purely as support for the Jewish community and a gesture of equality to all faiths. Given how every autocratic leader has behaved in the history of the world, I could not help but think there were other factors at play. 

Fez mellah

A Muslim woman are her son walk through the streets of Fez's old mellah, or Jewish district. Today, few Jews remain in the city, let alone the mellah neighborhood. Most inhabitants are Muslim.

In 1438, the first Jewish district, or mellah, in Morocco was established in Fez. Soon, mellahs popped up in cities across the country. With few exceptions, these mellahs were built near the royal palaces. Youness Yona Abeddour, a Moroccan Jew and a Ph.D. student researching Moroccan Jewish identity, said the mellahs were partly created for tax purposes. Jews were considered dhimmis, a historical term for monotheistic minorities living in countries with Muslim majorities. Dhimmis were free to practice and observe religious customs in exchange for paying a jizya, or a poll-tax, which was incredibly high under certain radical Moroccan dynasties to encourage religious conversion. Having the Jews in a confined place close to the royal palace was a practical solution to supervise and simplify their taxation.  

In modern Morocco, I experienced this closeness between the Jewish quarters and the royal cities. A two-lane road is all that separates the wall of the royal city in Meknes from the new mellah. The Ibn Danan synagogue in Fez is just a few minutes' walk from the old royal palace.

Ibn Danan Synagogue, Fez

Inside the Ibn Danan synagogue in Fez, Morocco. No longer an active place of worship, the building serves as a museum that helps to preserve Moroccan Jewish history.

But Abeddour said the strategic location of the mellahs had another purpose. Their location near the royal palace is often noted as a sign of protection from anti-Semitics, “as if to say an attack on a Jew is an attack on the king,” Chouari said.  

Kings had incentive to protect their Jewish constituents. Jewish Moroccans were historically considerable contributors to the Moroccan economy. Many of them were successful business owners inside and outside the mellahs, much like Toledano, who owns dozens of properties across Meknes.  

Jewish Moroccans dominated international trade from Morocco. In Essaouira, for example, Jewish traders settled there in the eighteenth century and effectively turned the Moroccan coastal village into a bustling port and trade town. Many Moroccan towns have a similar economic story to Essaouira, owing strong economic development to their Jewish inhabitants. Poll taxes and staggering customs duties on imports and exports also helped to stimulate a struggling Moroccan economy. Given the role Jews played in the economy, protecting the Jews from anti-Semitic Moroccans and from Nazi persecution was in the best interest of the country. 

But today, the Jewish population does not seem to play the same role in the economy as it once did. Some are among Morocco’s most vulnerable, poverty-stricken populations, and social welfare programs have surfaced to treat and serve Moroccan Jews. American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or JDC, assists Jewish diaspora and provides all-encompassing support – cash assistance for food, rent and utilities, medical care, and homecare for needy Moroccan Jews. It runs a home for the elderly in Casablanca and supports a health clinic for Jews who cannot afford medical care. 

As the Jewish community’s contributions to the Moroccan economy have shrunk considerably with a dwindling and poorer Jewish Moroccan population, Morocco’s incentives for keeping the national Jewish community in its best interest have shifted. Less interested in how Jewish Moroccans themselves impact the economy, the incentives appear to have manifested themselves in Israeli relations. 

Morocco declared formal relations with Israel in 1994. Ties were cut by Morocco on the outset of the Second Intifada in 2000, but trade between the two countries has continued uninterrupted. In 2017, Morocco imported $22 million in goods from Israel, according to data from Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics. Exports totaled $15 million. These numbers put Morocco as Israel’s third largest Arab trading partner. 

Not only economically do the two countries have connections, but Morocco is considered by many as Israel’s closest ally in the Arab world.

Israeli premiers have visited Morocco on several occasions: Shimon Peres in 1986 and Ehud Barak in 1999. In 2016, Andre Azoulay, one of Mohammed VI’s advisors and a Jewish Moroccan, attended Peres’ funeral. Just last September, current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a secret meeting with the Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. 

Even before 1994, the two countries maintained close ties. Morocco has served as a mediator between Israel and other Arab countries, and it remains one of the only Arab countries that permits Israeli citizens entrance. Moroccan Jews that left Morocco for Israel retain their Moroccan citizenship. Israel has aided the monarchy in the Western Sahara conflict and his feud with Polisario, the Moroccan political party advocating for the independence of the southern territory. But Morocco’s support for its Jewish population and its relatively friendly relationship with Israel hasn’t been easy to maintain.  

Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate of Palestine, friction has been building up between Palestine and Israel. Israeli declaration of independence in 1948 lifted the lid on the conflict boiling inside; the two sides took up arms in First Arab-Israeli War. But boiling water splashed beyond the boundaries of Palestine. With a newfound sense of unity and purpose in their war against the Israeli state, Arab countries rallied together to support their fellow Arab country. 

“There was a push for the preservation of Arab identity and religion and language, and nationalism was on the rise,” Chouari said. “All of this was to protect and preserve the Ummah.” 

Derived from the Qur’an, Ummah is the term for the supranational Islamic community which encompasses all Muslims, regardless of nationality, class and ethnicity – including Palestinians. 

“Morocco was at an impasse, having to maintain a relationship with Israel in a discrete way, but at the same time sharing and participating in some of the reactions of the other Arab countries, like supporting military action against Israel,” Chouari said with a shrug. “and that’s politics.” 

Thousands of miles from Israel, the Moroccan government has been fairly successful at keeping this careful balance in check. As the strong waves of Arab nationalism are losing their intensity, other Arab countries have followed Morocco and are softening their hardline stances on Israel, despite little resolution with the Israel-Palestine conflict.  

Egypt and Jordan have initiated peace and free trade agreements with Israel, perhaps due to their shared borders. Jordan, Israel’s eastern neighbor, is Israel’s number one regional trading partner, followed by Egypt. Jordan and Israel are working in tandem on the $2 billion Red-Dead pipeline project to help preserve their shared tourism asset, the Dead Sea, and provide potable water to Israel, Palestine and Jordan. While Saudi Arabia has no formal ties with Israel, behind-the-scenes relations between the two countries are widely acknowledged, specifically in dealings with their shared enemy, Iran. 

However, many Arab countries refuse entrance to Israeli passports, and few have formal relations. Lebanon, home of Hezbollah, one of Israel’s longtime political and military adversaries, is a leader in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, along with Syria. In early 2019, there were rumblings of a meeting between Mohammed VI and Netanyahu that would take place in Morocco. Although the rumor was unfounded, Algerian and Tunisian authorities quickly announced that they will refuse Netanyahu into their airspace if or when he makes a flight to Rabat. 

Despite a few hold outs, Morocco has been a pioneer in normalizing Arab relations with the Israelis, and I was curious to know what Moroccan Jews thought of themselves in relation to the Israel-Palestine conflict, the conflict that exacerbated those relations. I wondered if Moroccan Jews struggled with feeling religiously committed to Judaism and Israel while simultaneously recognizing their connection to the Arab state of Palestine as citizen of an Arab country. For some Moroccan Jews, two halves of their identities are at war in the Promised Land.  

“I don’t care about Israel,” Toledano dismissed the question as if the decades-old conflict that has resulted in 116,000 dead and 114,000 injured isn’t one of the most pressing issues of our time. “There is no reason why I would ever go. I’m living here in Morocco, and I love Morocco.” He loosened his Versace scarf from around his neck and gestured to the cluttered office. “What is going on between them is no concern to us. Israel is so far from us. Our lives are here.” 

The clash may represent two parts of his identity, being Arab and Jewish, but first and foremost he is Moroccan, he said. Just like most Moroccans, he greets people with salaam alaykum, a typical greeting in the Arab-speaking world. Meaning peace be upon you, the phrase has Qur’anic roots. In line with Moroccan tradition, he eats couscous every Friday without fail. The only difference between Muslim Moroccans and Toledano is that the 85-year-old enjoys his couscous with a little whiskey, haram for Muslims. He offered me a beer to drink with the heaping platter of couscous, steaming and smothered with tender, spiced vegetables, chick peas and chicken.  

He said that being Jewish doesn’t immediately require a deep devotion to the Israeli state, just as being an Arab doesn’t demand an attachment to every Arab. He feels removed from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He seems to be the exception. 

Yona Abeddour

Youness Yona Abeddour

Abeddour identifies as a Masorti Jew, one who is neither strictly religious nor secular. He has lived and worked with Jewish diaspora in Morocco, his birth country, and in countries across the world, including Israel. Speaking from his own experiences with Moroccan Jews, the diaspora presents itself as different from Israel, yet most are generally in support of an Israeli state. 

“Israel, for a good number of Moroccan Jews, is seen as the Jewish homeland. Some live with one leg in each country,” Abeddour said in a message. “In many of my conversations with them, they talk about Israel as ‘we’, they are proud of the achievements of Israelis, and when I taught Hebrew in Casablanca, most of my adult students were learning modern Hebrew in order to move to Israel. When they are in cultural centers, they talk about Israeli politics. When I go visit family members and friends [in Morocco], they are curious to know the latest news about the country [Israel]. Of course, all that passion for Israel is kept at home and not shared with the wider public. 

“I have rarely met a Moroccan Jew, living in Morocco, in their private space criticizing Israel or the government.” 

However, diaspora groups are popping up across the world and taking stances in opposition to the Israeli occupation. They are active in making their voices heard. Jewish Voice for Peace is one of many organizations that advocate for equality for Israelis and Palestinians and oppose the occupation.  

“Israel claims to be acting in the name of the Jewish people, so we are compelled to make sure the world knows that many Jews are opposed to their actions,” the JVP website says. 

For others, including Abeddour, the conflict is complicated at best. 

Abeddour participated in Achvat Amim, an Israeli program for young diaspora Jews to come to Israel and Palestine and learn about both narratives. He said he was motivated to learn about the conflict firsthand and its impact on both Israeli and Palestinian societies. Instead of coming out of the program with answers, he only had more questions. 

“The more you try to indulge in it and better understand it, the more complex it gets,” he said about the conflict in a message. “First and foremost, it should not be perceived as a black-and-white dichotomy, but rather as a layered historical process that started with the Ottoman empire and the British mandate and not only in 1948.” 

While Jewish diaspora is divided on opinions of Israel, Moroccans are similarly divided on their perceptions of Moroccan Jews. 

“In general, Moroccans don’t think about Jews in Morocco because the population is so small, there are so few, and I would say most don’t associate them with Israel at all. Besides, they are first and foremost Moroccan,” Chouari said. “Sometimes there are negative words, but really, there’s a good relationship with the Jews and Muslims of Morocco.” 

In Toledano's childhood, he played in the mellah and in the downtown district Hamria with his friends, both Jewish and Muslim. In fact, he said he had so many Muslim friends that his father started to endearingly call him “Muslim” as a nickname. Today, he works and lives in Meknes with few problems. His biggest complaint is the unkept tile sidewalks that have buckled with time. As we walked around the city, he watched his feet so as not to trip. 

Mohammed, a Fez local, has memories of living with his Muslim family in the mellah alongside the Jews when he was a young boy. Some of his best friends were Jewish. He said that every Friday, the neighborhood Jewish women would cook to avoid cooking on Saturday, or Shabbat, the Jewish holy day. The narrow streets would fill with fantastic smells, and he remembers that Jewish women would hand out hot slices of cake to the local children, Jewish and Muslim. These are the ideas he associates with Moroccan Jews; A connection to Israel is far from Mohammed’s mind.  

Unfortunately, there are always exceptions to the rule. Fewer and fewer Moroccans recall this peaceful coexistence that Mohammed experienced during his childhood. As the number of Moroccan Jews continues to shrink, Jews become abstractions to younger Moroccans, and they are associated with the occupiers of Palestine. Anti-Semitism is still alive in Morocco, and the inability or unwillingness of some Moroccans to distinguish the Jewish diaspora from the Israeli state has exacerbated the hate. 

During the first Arab-Israeli War, 44 Jews died in anti-Jewish riots that sprung up in the Moroccan towns of Oujda and Djerada. A Jewish community center in Casablanca was one target of a series of suicide bombings orchestrated by Moroccan jihadists in 2003. In October 2015, a pro-Palestinian protest took place in Casablanca. While a pro-Palestinian protest is not on its face anti-Semitic, some protestors dressed up as Haredi Orthodox Jews and demolished a model of the al-Aqsa mosque, a holy site for Muslims in Jerusalem. The protestors dressed as Jews were held at gunpoint by protestors and were led to a mock execution. 

“When you mistreat an important part of your population, ultimately, you are the loser, especially when those people could contribute in a massive way to the society, diversity, economy and cultural richness of the country,” Chouari said.  

Toledano seems oblivious to the increase of anti-Semitism across the country that has been acknowledged by several watch groups. 

“My sons are all in France, most of my friends have moved away or have died, my wife passed 26 years ago,” he said. “If I had experienced anything bad, I would have left Morocco long ago.” 

But Toledano lives in a sphere of influence. Some of the faded pictures in his office show him with Hassan II and Mohammed VI. He is frequently asked to attend city and police events, most recently the inauguration of a new police precinct in Meknes. His wealth and affluence are not to be overlooked when considering his life experiences, including lack of incidents with anti-Semites.  

Abeddour said he and his family have not personally experienced anti-Semitism in Morocco. They are what he calls “assimilated” Jews, those that have non-Jewish sounding names and speak Darija, or the Moroccan Arabic dialect. 

Other Jewish Moroccans haven’t been as lucky as Abeddour and Toledano. While large-scale anti-Semitic incidents in Morocco are rare, most infractions take the form of vandalism, under the breath slurs and insults, and a rising popularity of Arabic translations of Hitler’s autobiography Mein Kampf. 

Chouari said the prevalence of anti-Semitism could have ties to a lack of education on the entwined nature of Muslim and Jewish history in Morocco. 

“Morocco for so long presented itself as only an Arab Muslim country, which was equally reflected in the educational system,” Abeddour wrote in a message. Learning about the entirety of Moroccan history and all the streams of culture and influence that make Morocco the country it is today, including the Jews, contributes to the enhancement of different minority groups, he said. If Moroccans are taught about Moroccan Jewish history, they begin to understand Moroccan Jews and see them as Moroccan, not as “the other.” 

Abeddour said the Moroccan government is now promoting a more pluralistic and mosaic-like identity which is more inclusive of the Jewish narrative. In late 2018, the king ordered for the incorporation of Jewish history and Holocaust studies into the public high school curriculum. 

"Education has the power to fight against ‎‎discrimination and racism, as well as the ugly ‎phenomenon ‎of anti-Semitism,” a quote from the king in an official report said. “The history we teach our children must include a ‎pluralistic variety of opinions and stories. It must ‎present humanity’s greatest moments, as well as its ‎darkest moments.” 

Chouari said these dark moments are not discussed in some Arab countries, partly due to the tender nature of one outcome of the Holocaust - the creation of the Israeli state and the occupation of Palestine. Not only is absence of Holocaust education an issue, but Holocaust denial has long been propagated by some Arab states, making Mohammed VI’s mandate all the more unprecedented. 

This validation of the international and Moroccan Jewish experience is seen by the Jewish diaspora and most of the international community as a progressive and positive step, and the king has been quick to take more. 

In 2010, Mohammed VI appropriated millions of dollars to repair and refurbish the decaying remains of an architectural Jewish history – synagogues, cemeteries and heritage sites – speckled across the country. The names of Jewish streets and districts are being reinstated. After most Jews had left Morocco for Israel, streets previously bearing Hebrew names were often switched out for traditional Muslim ones. Marrakech’s historic Jewish quarter, previously renamed Essalam, was restored to El-Mellah in 2017. Following the Arab Spring in 2011, Morocco’s constitution was updated and included Jewish contributions and culture as a critical element of Moroccan identity. 

Following in his father and grandfather’s footsteps, Mohammed VI has been a champion for the remaining Moroccan Jews and for the history left behind by thousands. However, the future of the small community is uncertain. As older generations die and younger generations pursue educational and employment opportunities in other countries, dwindling numbers have unbottled a realistic fear – a vanished Jewish Moroccan community. Although fear can be crippling, it can also be a motivator. Local and international groups are inspired by this fear and are committed to preserving the Jewish Moroccan story. 

The JDC is one of those groups. Although it offers medical care and general financial assistance, the organization also focuses on reviving Jewish life and spiritual health. 

“We have this phrase, pintele yid, or a spark of Jewishness. We believe where there is a spark of Jewishness, we can turn that into a flame, and then into a fire,” Michael Geller, director of media operations for JDC, said. “We see a spark in Morocco.” 

Because of this spark, JDC maintains two Jewish school systems, Ozar Hatorah and Ittihad, which serve more than 500 Jewish children. Although both are private schools, JDC offers tuition assistance and school supplies to low-income students.  

Although the Jewish community in Morocco is small and shrinking, Geller said JDC will continue its support as long as it is needed. 

“There are Jews in these places who want to continue being Jewish and want to continue to engage with their Jewish identity and their Jewish life, and it has always been out our goal to ensure they can continue to do that.” 

JDC is not alone in its pursuit to bolster the Moroccan pintele yid. Some Muslim Moroccans are also working to turn that spark into a flame. 

A student organization from Al-Akhawayn University in Ifrane is spreading a Jewish Moroccan history lesson around the country. Founded and operated by Moroccan Muslims, the Mimouna Association has encouraged bridge building between Jews and Muslims and has made efforts to educate Muslims on Jewish culture and traditions that once thrived in Moroccan society. Since its foundation in 2007, new chapters of the group have been founded at universities an in communities around the country. 

Despite these efforts, Moroccan Jews are still leaving. Even Toledano has considered it, a man near obsessed with the monarchy and fervent in his national pride. 

“Sometimes I think about leaving,” he says, casting his eyes to the street down below his apartment balcony. He readjusts in his armchair, clears his throat and smiles, “But I say no. I know I will never find a place that is more home than Morocco.” 

Even if the Jews continue to leave, Morocco will still be home to the stories of the Haims of Meknes, the Mohammeds of Fez, the Yonas of the diaspora, the stories that preserve the history of Moroccan Jews.  

Photos in Toledano's office

A wall of photos in Haim Toledano's office in Meknes.

It was the stories that I discovered when I visited Toledano’s office again and again. At first I assumed the jewel-encrusted candlestick holders and the woven tapestries were among the most valuable items in the chaotic mess he effortlessly navigated. But as I grew to understand Toledano and the larger Jewish Moroccan community, it was indeed the discolored photographs that held the most value to not only him, but to the Jewish Moroccan history as well. 

Those photographs tell a story of Jewish and Islamic coexistence, of neighbors and friends brought together over glasses of tea and plates of couscous. They tell of a strong devotion to Judaism when conversion may have been easier, of centuries of Jewish struggle in Morocco and hard times overcome. They tell of an uncertain future for the religious minority, yet they also reveal a history that will resonate in the hearts and minds of Moroccans, just as it always has.

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Former Editor in Chief

Former Editor in Chief of the BG News. Currently a freelance journalist in Meknes, Morocco.

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