Israel, Morocco, and the ‘History of Moroccan Jewry’

Morocco is one of the four Arab states that have agreed to normalize relations with Israel. It was a decision taken for reasons of state policy: King Mohammed VI and his officials were promised that in exchange for Morocco’s joining the Abraham Accords, the Trump administration would recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara, a recognition long sought in Rabat, and one that dealt a severe blow to the Polisario Movement. The Americans kept their promise, and so did Morocco. But normalization is much more than an exchange of diplomats brokered by the Americans. Israel already has such a “cold peace” with Egypt (though now that peace appears to be warming up) and Jordan. It signifies the ties that bind peoples. We have seen this happening with the United Arab Emirates and Israel: the Israeli and Emirati businessmen, investors, entrepreneurs, singers, models, sports teams, musicians, tourists visiting one another’s country, making deals, finding mutual interests, forming friendships, and agreeing to cooperate in a hundred sundry ways, little and big.

Morocco is engaged in its own version of this people-to-people business. King Mohammed VI has seen to it that the history and culture of Moroccan Jewry, as well as the history of Israel, will now be included, from 2021 on, in the curriculum for Moroccan children in their final year of primary school, when they are 11 years old. At the same time, students in Israel will be taught Moroccan Jewish history, starting next year, in a historical collaboration between the education ministries of the two countries.

A report on this welcome development is here.

Morocco now becomes the first Arab state to have introduced the history of its own Jews, and of Israel itself, as part of its national curriculum. The king’s grandfather, King Mohammed V, is regarded with gratitude and reverence by Moroccan Jewry, for during World War II he refused to turn over any Jews to either the Vichy regime or to the Germans. Of the 250,000 Jews in Morocco in the 1940s, almost 200,000 have since left for Israel. The 3,000 Jews still in Morocco are well treated; a Moroccan Jew, André Azoulay, serves as a senior adviser to the King, as he did for his father King Hassan. At least 500,000 Israelis are Moroccan Jews or their descendants; they have ties of affection to the country, and many travel back as tourists. They have been especially enthusiastic about the normalization of ties between Israel and Morocco. It’s an unusual affection, given that many of them, or their parents, had to flee Morocco because of the anger directed at them as a result of Israel’s victory in the 1948 war. Apparently, today’s “Moroccan” Israelis have gotten over that trauma, and remember only the good things, and especially, King Mohammed V’s protection during the war.

How will the history of Morocco’s Jews be taught in that country’s schools? Will the students be told of how Jews historically were treated, as dhimmis, under Muslim rule, or will that be soft-pedalled, or ignored altogether? How much of the truth will the Moroccan authorities allow to be taught? Will Israelis object if the Moroccan educational authorities only teach a sanitized version of the history of Jews, or will they convince themselves it’s better not to make waves, to be grateful that Jewish history is being taught at all in Moroccan schools? There is the argument to be made, not without merit, that it is best not to dwell on, or tell the full truth, about the treatment of dhimmis, to young Moroccans, for fear that this will only create tensions. Some Moroccan clerics, or others outside Morocco, could in response take the occasion not to denounce how dhimmis were treated but, rather, to justify that treatment. And what will those 11-year-old pupils think, if they are taught the truth about what the Moroccan Jews endured? Will they be properly horrified, or will some of them feel compelled to defend what is, after all, islamically justified?

Might the history taught in Morocco about that country’s Jews include something like this: “Morocco’s Jews were not always well-treated by those who misunderstood the true, tolerant message of Islam. They did not have to pay the Zakat, but in exchange they were required to pay the Jizyah, a tax non-Muslims – not just Jews – had to pay for the protection they were offered by the Muslim state. In modern times, there is no longer any payment of the Jizyah, nor any other special duties imposed on Jews or other non-Muslims. They are full citizens. And let us not forget that while many countries in Europe turned over their Jews to the Germans who then sent them to their deaths, one leader, our King Mohammed V, refused absolutely to turn over even a single Jew, but protected them all through the war. Several hundred thousand Moroccan Jews owe their lives to him. No wonder that the Moroccan Jews in Israel remember him with such gratitude.”’

And to pre-empt a possible question from a pupil who might well ask “if the Jews were so well-treated in Morocco, why did so many of them leave to live in Israel?,” teachers in Morocco could be provided with a prepared reply, which would be something like this: “Because of Israel’s quarrel with Arabs in Palestine, a few Moroccans decided to make life difficult for Jews in Morocco. Some were even threatened with bodily harm. So a handful of Jews initially left and then a kind of panic, a hysteria, took over, and the trickle of Jews leaving became a torrent. And it was not just that they were fleeing danger from a handful of extremists, who did not – and never will — represent the true spirit of tolerance in Morocco. It was also that they wanted, no matter how well treated they had been in Morocco, to live with other Jews, in a Jewish state. It’s understandable. In general, people prefer to live among others like themselves.”

But how will Israelis, when they find out what is being taught to those Moroccan pupils, react? Will they want to risk damaging relations with Morocco by objecting to such a comforting, and false, presentation? Would they really expect Moroccan education authorities to allow teachers to discuss what being a dhimmi meant? Would it help the blossoming ties between Israel and Morocco if the Moroccan teachers were to describe the anti-Jewish riots in Oujda and Jerada, that occurred on June 7–8, 1948, in which 44 Jews were killed and hundreds wounded? Wouldn’t it be better to simply refer to “a handful of anti-Jewish demonstrations” that were “quickly quelled by the police”?

How much of the truth does either party wish to tell about the history of Moroccan Jewry, and how much do they think it prudent at this point to ignore that full truth for what might be deemed a greater good –  a close friendship, and possibly a real alliance, between Moroccans and Israelis?

Questions, questions. So much hope. So much possible despair.

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