There is always two sides to every story. The Jews from the Arab world, other wise known as Sephardic or Mizrahi Jews, must have their historical narratives shared as well. With the world’s focus on the Palestinian refugees, people should not forget the Jewish refugees from the Arab world. Since my father’s background is of Moroccan descent, I will focus on the Moroccan Jewish journey and exodus from Morocco.
The Jewish existence in Morocco began in pre-Islamic times following the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem in the year 586 BCE. Jews arrived to Morocco from the Holy Land as traders and merchants, and remained in that land up until the present day. During the Spanish Inquisition, many Jews fled to Morocco from Spain in the 15th century, thereby enriching the pre-existing Jewish Moroccan Diaspora.
Under Islamic rule, particularly in the 19th century, the Jews were forced to live in overcrowded ghettos called “Mellah” and placed under “Dhimmi” status. Mellah denotes “salt” and refers to the time when Jews were forced to putting salt on heads of executed prisoners before being put on display. The Dhimmi status was a special title, recorded in the Charter of Omar, given to Christians and Jews in Muslim territory. This status would enable them to practice their own religion while living under Islamic rule. According to the Koran, monotheistic religions did not need to convert to Islam since they were the “People of the Book” of the book and monotheists. However, Islam, which was considered to be the ultimate religion by Muslim leaders, was considered the ultimate religion and thereby superior. In order to render non-Muslims inferior, Jews and Christians had to pay an extra tax called the jizya in order to practice their faiths and customs. In essence, Jews and Muslims, under Islamic law, were considered to be second-class citizens. Some of the requirements under Dhimmi status often times consisted of wearing humiliating clothing, such as a yellow Star of David for the Jewish people. Other examples of the imposition of a supreme Islamic law on a religious minorities included rules for any religious buildings, mandating that Jewish and Christian houses of worship had to be shorter in size than the nearest mosque.
During the French protectorate of Morocco from 1912 to 1956, the Jews enjoyed greater freedom and were able to move up in society (History of the Jews in Arab countries, Middle East Facts). For example, the French provided schools for the Jews called Alliance Israelite Universelles from 1862 and the Hasidic movement helped to educate Jews in their religious schools. Dhimmi laws were largely abolished under European colonial rule.
Once Morocco gained independence in 1956, however, the Jews feared that their freedom would be restricted again and the Dhimmi status would be enforced again. Following the creation of Israel in 1948, some Moroccan Jews thought that Jews only belonged in their Jewish homeland as written in the Old Testament. Others were influenced by Arab persecution and persuasion from the Zionist individuals sent by the Israeli government to aid in immigration to Israel. Many religious Jews were influenced by the daily prayer services which contain the promise that the Jews will return to their homeland when the messiah arrives. Many Jews, especially the poor and the religious, felt the need to live in their ancient country since a Jewish homeland hadn’t existed since the second temple destruction by the Romans.
Even though the situation for Moroccan Jews were quite peaceful, thanks to the protection by the Moroccan King, the Moroccan Jews, like their brethren from other Middle Eastern territories, longed to return to a Jewish home land free from the threat of persecution. When the Arab world rejected the State of Israel, many Arabs viewed their Jewish citizens as collaborators with the Israeli government. There were many persecutions across the Arab world to drive out the Jews from their country. There were numerous covert operations in Morocco to get the Jews out with the help of the Mossad, the Israeli Secret Service. The birth of the state of Israel drastically changed the way of life for the Moroccan Jewish community, who are one of the oldest Jewish communities in the Middle East.
Many Moroccan Jews, no matter where they live in the world currently, frequently return to their original homeland to visit their heritage and history in Morocco. Many Israeli Moroccans go on two week excursions around the Jewish quarters in Morocco to show affection and ongoing connection to their heritage. Also, many Moroccan Jews visit holy places in Morocco and burial spots of esteem rabbis, to show their devotion to their former religious spiritual leaders. The Moroccan government would like to keep a strong bond with their Jewish neighbors to show the world that they are more moderate Arab kingdoms, unlike the other Arab countries in the Middle East that are plagued by religious fanaticism. Presently, the Israeli Jewish Agency places the Moroccan Jewish community still living in Morocco at around 3,000 Jews, however, that number is decreasing each year.
Unlike any of the other Arab Jews who emigrated to Israel from North Africa or the Middle East, only Moroccan Jews still enjoy the ability to visit and live, for the most part free of discrimination, back in their ancient homeland. This is an interesting phenomenon given the volatile state of affairs in these two regions of the world.