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Jewish Africa Conference in a Muslim Country

This wasn’t my first time in Morocco. I’d already fallen in love with it 9 years ago when I spent 5 weeks there. But this was a short trip that was no less enriching.

You see, recently I was there for the second edition of the Jewish Africa Conference. The first edition took place pre-Covid in NYC. This one, was in Rabat, Morocco so we were able to talk about Africa, on the African continent.

I came from Israel with a group of researchers and for some, it was their first time in the country and they weren’t quite sure what to expect. Can we speak Hebrew in the streets? Do we need security following us everywhere? Jewish conference participants were unsure who or what would meet them in this Muslim country.

But had they thought about who brought us to Rabat in the first place, I doubt these questions would have come up.

For you see, not only were the organizers of the conference Mimouna Association, “a cultural non-profit association created in 2007 by young Muslim students willing to promote and preserve the Jewish-Moroccan heritage,” but some of the participants talking about Jewish Africa were Muslims as well!

Therefore, my thoughts during the visit were different than those of the aforementioned newcomers. Although Mimouna has been a partner of ours at the American Sephardi Federation for a couple of years, taking part in this conference and seeing their activities firsthand somewhat boggled me.

It’s not that there are no Jews left in Morocco, but the majority of young ones end up studying in France, Israel, or Canada and then stay there. So where did this interest in Jews come from among the younger Muslims? How many Jews had they actually known?

To delineate the extent of Mimouna’s interest, let me give you a short anecdote.

At the end of one of the conference sessions on Tunisian Jewish life, a Mimouna board member who facilitated the session, summarized with “LeShana HaBa’a BeDjerba” (Next year in Djerba). It was seemingly a simple statement, calling for more gatherings like this in other places, but I’m not sure the statement was  actually so simple. Think about it. This was a twist on a common Jewish phrase, used appropriately and in Hebrew, by this young Moroccan Muslim.

It was a wonderful example of what Mimouna is. More so, it was the instigator for the question I mentioned early, “where did this interest in Jews come from among young Moroccan Muslims?”

In thinking about this, I was reminded of a piece I wrote awhile back, about not preserving culture. My main argument for this was that preservation, or the act of holding things in a museum-like setting, would “actually have the opposite effect. It won’t last. The further we keep it from real-life settings, the more we push it into a category that is disconnected from the outside world, the more likely it is to be forgotten and lost.”

Actually, some of the conference sessions were exactly about this museum-like preservation. Some presenters spoke about cemeteries in Algeria and Egypt where I’m not sure Jews will ever return to live. On the other hand, there was a presentation about a Namibian Jewish family buying the Windhoek synagogue there in order to ensure that if a community were to return, they would have what to return to.

In parallel, something else seems to be going on in Morocco. Something I wouldn’t quite call preservation.

On the one hand, there are Jews refurbishing cemeteries for anticipated visits of planes-full of Moroccan Jews. There is the USAID-sponsored conservation of synagogues throughout Morocco. One of the most famous synagogues in Marrakech is even ready to open its main gate, which has been sealed off with cement for years, so that the hoards of people visiting from the small side access door can finally experience the grand entrance.

And then, there’s Mimouna Association. A group eager to learn about and maintain the sites of Jews who lived and live in Morocco. Not because they have the intent of converting. Not because their neighbors are necessarily Jewish. And not because they’re necessarily interested in bringing back the more than 250,000 Jews that once lived in the country. But because they recognize that their culture and their history is infused with Jewish influence.

Jews have been in Morocco for over 2,000 years and were there before the Muslims and Arabs. They lived among the Amazigh and their cultures are intertwined. As are those of the Muslims who settled there later. I remember when I was in Morocco 9 years ago, as I was studying Arabic, my teacher told us that her accent was recognizable as being from Fes because there was Hebrew influence in it from the large number of Jews who lived in the city over the centuries. What Mimouna is recognizing today is that the Moroccan culture is infused with Moroccan Jewish culture. The long history has done its part and the activeness of the Jewish community there has made its mark.

Therefore, although I wouldn’t expect Morocco to return to having the same amount of Jews living there, the preservation efforts are not just for museum-like settings, they’re for living the history, living the culture. From Muslim-Jewish Andalusian music festivals in Essaouira to Jewish Africa Conferences, Moroccans, or at least the ones we met, are set on living their shared culture.

About the Author
Dalya works with the American Sephardi Federation Institute of Jewish Experience and is an active soccer player and soccer coach in Israel. Although she is a Technion graduate with an M.Sc. in Urban Planning, rather than build physical bridges, she's working on building social bridges - between different Jewish communities and connecting people through sports.
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