‘Coexistence’ films make great PR

In Israeli eyes, Kamal Hachkar is a brave man. His film ‘Les Echos du Mellah – Tinghir-Jerusalem’ – a portrait of Berber Muslim-Jewish coexistence in the Atlas mountains before the entire Jewish population was transplanted to Israel in the 1950s – has come under fire from North African opponents of ‘normalisation ‘ between Morocco and Israel.

A Moroccan-born Frenchman, Hachkar tracked down these Berber Jews from his home town of Tinghir in their new homes in Israel. He learnt Hebrew in order to communicate with them. His film was shown at the university of Tel Aviv. The Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry was so flattered that it trumpeted a video interview with Hachkar on its website, as an example of Arab-Jewish coexistence.

But a closer look shows Hachkar’s work to be a paean of praise for Moroccan ‘pluralism’. Moroccan Jews, he insists, feel Moroccan first, and Israelis only second. With a touch of chutzpa, Hachkar claims his film was a response to marginalisation of these ‘primitive’ Jews in Israel. He does not explain the mass exodus of all but 2, 500 of Morocco’s 260,000 Jews. He does not acknowledge that these Jews are now at home in Israel, with no desire to return to Morocco.

Jews were so desperate to escape their ‘dhimmi condition of institutionalised subjugation that they were already seeking to leave Morocco in the 19th century.

David Littman and Paul Fenton in their book ‘L’exil au Maghreb‘ describe the appalling conditions Jews then endured. (Unfortunately it is only in French.) Jews tried everything they could to obtain European passports. (Gibraltar, British since the 18th century, has been populated by Moroccan Jews).

The dhimmi status, with its ritual humiliations and exactions, was still being applied to Jews into the 20th century, long after it had been abrogated in the Ottoman empire. The country had a dismal record of forced conversions and abductions of Jewish women.

Under the French protectorate Jews were more secure and their rights were protected by the judicial system, but this period lasted only from 1912 to 1940.

Morocco became independent after Israel and did not become a member of the Arab League until 1958.

In spite of an atmosphere of nationalist hostility and forced arabisation, threats to strip Moroccan Jews of their passports were never carried out, according to the historian Robert Assaraf. There was no concerted effort to dispossess Jews. (This does not mean that Jews desperate to leave at times abandoned their assets or sold property at rock bottom prices. Indeed, another film by another Moroccan Muslim, Les destins contraries, interviews a Jewish man who got rich on the back of fleeing Jews.)

Dina Gabay Levin, whose family left Morocco in the 1950s, describes insults and ceaseless intimidation. For example, her father, who owned a large and successful butcher shop, was at the mercy of local thieves, who sometimes simply walked into his business and demanded that he give them whatever they wanted – at no cost. Her father knew better than to argue.

As in other Arab states Zionism became a crime. Jews were scapegoated in anti-colonialist violence. Morocco formally violated civil rights by preventing its Jews from leaving. The ban came into force as soon as Morocco became independent in 1956 and provoked increasingly desperate attempts by Jews to flee, culminating in the 1961 Pisces (Egoz) disaster, in which 42 Jews and their Spanish skipper drowned. Thereafter the emigration ban was lifted and Israel ransomed each Jew from the Moroccan government for $250 per head.

But the idea that one fine day the Zionists scooped the Jews of Morocco up and shipped them off to Israel overnight does not stand up to scrutiny.

Delve into the history of the country and you will learn that Morocco has one of the worst records for anti-Jewish pogroms. Taza (1903), Settat (1903), Casablanca (1907), Fez (1912), Sefrou (1944), Oujda and Jerrada (1948): who can blame the Jews of Tinghir for not quite trusting their security to the Moroccan authorities?

Ask the Moroccan Jews themselves, and they profess undying affection for the king. Did the wartime sultan, the future Mohamed V, they claim, not save the Jews of Morocco from being deported to concentration camps? Did he not ask the Vichy regime which imposed itself on the Moroccan protectorate to wear the Nazi yellow star? And even ask for 20 more for the royal family?

Yet historians affirm that the king’s philosemitism is the stuff of legend. Even if he prevaricated and locked anti-Jewish Vichy decrees away in a drawer, he did not fail eventually to sign every one of them.

Hardly a week goes by without a favourable report in the press concerning Morocco’s laudable treatment of the Jews. Here, an announcement that Morocco is renovating synagogue X, there the news that the Moroccan government is restoring Jewish cemetery Y.

Indeed, since the late 1970s, the king of Morocco has been pursuing a public relations strategy to project a positive image in which the Jews have played a salient part.

Moroccan Jews outside the country, wherever they now lived, would be considered in exile from their true homeland. Jews returning to Morocco would be entitled to an instant Moroccan passport.

In 1990, the French left-wing author Gilles Perrault published a damning indictment of King Hassan ll’s human rights abuses, ‘Notre ami le roi’. The book had a disastrous effect on Morocco’s image. Enter Andre Azoulay to stage-manage the king’s public relations. A former communist, Azoulay had not lived in Morocco for 28 years. He worked in Paris for the bank Paribas before becoming the royal adviser on Jewish affairs.

There was another good reason why the king first began harnessing the goodwill and loyalty of the Moroccan Jewish communities to boost himself with the West. Morocco was engaged in a long-term dispute with its neighbour Algeria over Western Sahara. Morocco needs US support for its territorial claims and military struggle against the terrorist raids by the Polisario liberation front.

Besides realpolitik, a third reason why Morocco wants to be seen as ‘good to the Jews’ is the country’s reliance on tourism, the country’s second largest currency earner. Morocco attracts some 40,000 Jewish tourists every year – of which some 3,000 are Israelis. Jewish culture is a key attraction for all tourists – synagogues, yearly pilgrimages or hilulot to famous rabbis’ tombs, and the Jewish quarters or mellah, or Moroccan towns. It is no surprise that the head of the Jewish community, Serge Berdugo, also held the portfolio of Minister of Tourism.

The more you look at it, the more Hachkar’s film appears to be a PR exercise for the Moroccan government – another feather in the cap for Andre Azoulay. ‘Coexistence’ films make great PR, but do they do justice to history?

About the Author
Lyn Julius is a journalist and co-founder of Harif, an association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa in the UK. She is the author of 'Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilisation in the Arab world vanished overnight.' (Vallentine Mitchell)