This past summer, a remarkable and courageous group of 16 young Moroccans, all Muslim, came to Jerusalem to attend the annual “Tomorrow” Conference sponsored by the President of the State of Israel, Shimon Peres. They were the first group of Arab students to participate in a comprehensive Israel seminar, traveling throughout the country for two weeks and exploring all aspects of Israeli life and history. All are members of the Mimouna Clubs from campuses across Morocco, clubs committed to the study of the Hebrew language and Jewish culture as a means of deepening their understanding and appreciation of their own Moroccan identity.

As Arabs (some of course are Berber) and as Muslims they also have a deep commitment to helping to achieve peace and justice for the Palestinian people. They traveled to Ramallah where they met with senior officials of the Palestinian foreign ministry who were heartened by their visit. They met with Palestinian doctors studying in Israel in order to advance medical practice on the West Bank. They met with Palestinian-Israelis who reported experiencing discrimination in seeking jobs and opportunity in Israel’s booming economy. They came to understand and appreciate the complexity of the challenges ahead. They felt the sadness and the pain of decades of unresolved conflict.

Moroccan Mimouna participants meet Palestinian doctors at Kibbutz Tzora

Yet even faced with these “negatives,” they fell in love with Israel. They saw and internalized Israel’s achievements. They intuited the boundless potential for the Middle East as a whole and for the broader world beyond (including Morocco) when a final peace settlement will free Israel to share its technological and scientific advancements throughout the Arab world. They felt the power of Israel’s open society even – or maybe particularly – in the face of its failures and current limitations. Finally, they were and remain fascinated by the world of Moroccan-Jewry, most of whom make their home in Israel. They experienced the love by Moroccan-Israelis of the land and culture of their birth, manifest most powerfully in Ashdod, where they prayed at the memorial to King Hassan II in the middle of one of the city’s parks. Who could have imagined a memorial to an Arab King in the middle of an Israeli city?!

Their intellectual and spiritual openness led to their desire to encounter Israel openly. In the face of initial opposition by some of their peers and even family members, they decided to constitute this first visit to Israel by Arab youth (and one of the first of its kind from any age group from within the Arab world). They came to Israel to see and hear with their own eyes and ears the expansive nature of Israeli life as well as the many perspectives on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. They opened their hearts to Palestinians, Palestinian-Israelis, Israeli Jews and particularly Moroccan-Israeli Jews and grew to anticipate solutions to the problems that continue to paralyze the region, sensing the enormous potential for good that will come with its resolution.

When they returned home to Morocco in July, their experience was welcomed by most, challenged by others and has proved transformative to all who hear of their experiences. Many more Moroccan students want to come in the future, others want to pursue graduate studies in Israel and parents and family members have expressed deep pride in their children’s groundbreaking adventure (and want to come to visit themselves!).

They were received everywhere with a warmth and joy that was palpable, reflecting, as it does, the desperate longing in the Israeli psyche for acceptance within its troubled neighborhood. Some people call what they did “normalization,” the tacit acceptance of Israeli occupation and all that may imply. But the Palestinian leadership itself encouraged them to chart a role for Moroccan young people in helping to build a bridge of trust and mutual acceptance between Israeli and Palestinian.

The 1300+ years of Muslim-Jewish convivencia in Morocco can become a vital force in helping to overcome the endless violence that characterizes the day-to-day reality in the Holy Land. Many look with cynicism at the seemingly impossible task of bringing peace and justice to the Middle East. These students saw first hand the power of opening oneself to the “other” and in so doing beginning the process of humanizing the conflict. America is at peace with Japan; Israel and the Jewish people with Germany; the Germans with the French and the British; the Vietnamese with the United States. Breaking down the barriers of fantasy based upon ignorance can go a long way to effecting, maybe even forcing change. We hope that more Moroccans and young people from other Arab lands will do as the Mimouna students have done and not allow the decades of the Arab-Israeli “Iron Curtain” to continue any longer.

In 1960, President John Kennedy included these historic words in his inaugural address: “The torch has been passed to a new generation….” And the whole world immediately began to recognize the potential and anticipate the actuality to be played by young people in shaping the future of the world. These young “barrier-breaking” Moroccans now hold that torch and are in the process of determining how their commitment and courage will allow them to initiate a breakthrough that could result in the permanent gift of peace and justice for all the peoples of the Middle East.

This post was co-written with ElMehdi Boudra, the co-founder and president of the MIMOUNA Foundation in Morocco who was responsible for selecting and organizing the Moroccan students for this joint program.

ElMehdi is currently an MA student in Coexistence and Conflicts at Brandeis University.

The NY Times referred to Boudra and Geffen as “barrier-breakers” for their joint sponsorship of the first Holocaust Conference in the Arab world.

The Mimouna-KIVUNIM Israel Seminar was organized, co-planned and led for them by their educational partner, KIVUNIM, (www.kivunim.org) a unique program in international Jewish education which includes annual visits by young North American Jews to Morocco. KIVUNIM and Mimouna have developed an ongoing and powerful relationship over the past several years co-sponsoring together the first Holocaust Conference in the Arab World Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco honoring King Mohammed V for his actions in saving the lives of his 300,000 Moroccan Jewish subjects during WWII. (NY Times reporting on the Mimouna Holocaust Conference, Sept. 2011.)

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