Hoya Paxa

Judaism in Morocco

The 2011 Moroccan Constitution paints Morocco as a highly heterogeneous nation, stating in the preamble that the country’s unity “is forged by the convergence of its Arab-Islamist, Berber and Saharan-Hassanic components, nourished and enriched by its African, Andalusian, Hebraic, and Mediterranean influences.” According to certain North Africa scholars, including Samuel Tadros, Morocco’s efforts to become a “new Andalusia” have played a large part in Morocco’s attitudes toward its Jewish community. Unlike many Arab states, Morocco maintains diplomatic ties with Israel, and the Museum of Moroccan Judaism in Casablanca is one of the only of its kind in the Arab world. Furthermore, despite being a Sunni Muslim state, Morocco has gone to great lengths to protect and support its Jewish community. Why does Morocco, unlike so many other countries, put such great emphasis on ensuring that its Jewish community flourishes? 

This question is one that I sought to answer in my undergraduate thesis, “By the Book? Moroccan and Egyptian Religious Freedom Policy Implementation.” Through a grant from Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel to Morocco in March 2016 in order to conduct research regarding the history of Morocco’s Jewish community, as well as modern Moroccan attitudes toward Jews. On the surface, Morocco and Egypt both have extremely similar religious freedom policies. Although both recognize Sunni Islam as the official state religion, the constitution in each country also provides for freedom of conscience, belief, and worship. Nevertheless, religious minorities in Egypt don’t receive anywhere near the level of support that Morocco grants its Jewish community.

One of my most significant findings was that the vast majority of Moroccans truly do seem to consider Morocco’s Jewish history to be a significant part of the country’s heritage. One woman told me, “No Moroccan is truly Arab, or [Berber], or anything else—we are Moroccan because we are a mixture of all of these. I am not Jewish, but the Jews are also part of that.” A man that I spoke with told me that his childhood neighbors had been Jewish, and that he had celebrated Jewish holidays with them while growing up without realizing that the holidays were Jewish. The children next door had a similar experience with Muslim holidays.

I also was able to meet with Dr. Mohamed Chtatou, one of the world’s leading scholars on Moroccan Jewish history. His insights provided me with a broader framework for understanding the current state of Moroccan Jews. According to him, Jews have long played an extremely significant role within Morocco’s political and economic spheres. When the state of Israel was created, he said, the Moroccan king realized that there needed to be some incentive for Jews to stay in Morocco; otherwise, many would emigrate, and the Moroccan economy would suffer. Ensuring support for the Jewish community was part of this Moroccan effort to provide this incentive.

The monarchy remains involved in maintaining Morocco’s Jewish heritage. In 2010, King Mohammed VI announced a new initiative to restore Jewish cemeteries in Morocco. When I told her why I was in Morocco, my landlady informed me that she knew of a book about the initiative, including photos of the cemeteries and descriptions of the project’s implementation. Unfortunately, the book had been published by a relatively obscure agency and wasn’t available in bookstores. Nevertheless, I became determined to find this book. Eventually, I was able to track it down—through a friend of a friend of my landlady’s sister’s nephew. I felt that this book alone—which I cited several times in my thesis—justified my time in Morocco, given that finding it would have been impossible had I not been in the country.

Overall, my time in Morocco was extremely informative and greatly aided me in my thesis research. Seeing sites and artifacts about which I had read was incredible, and hearing from Moroccans themselves helped me have a more nuanced understanding of Moroccan religious freedom policy. I am extremely grateful to the Berkley Center for this wonderful opportunity!

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