Ian Pokres
Ian Pokres

Jews in Morocco Today: Not as Nice as You’ve Heard

Olive tree with Fes Medina/Old City in the background centered on al-Qarawiyyin Mosque. Photo Credit: Author.

I cried the moment I heard that King Muhammad VI of Morocco signed onto the Abraham Accords with Israel and other brave countries in the region. I spent a year of my life in Morocco based in Fes, and to a lesser extent in Essaouira, studying Arabic and learning even more about life. My time there shaped me profoundly. I made many friends and have vivid, beautiful memories of the place. I have a Master’s degree about Islam and the Middle East and spent some time as a yeshiva bocher. Jews and Arabs mean everything to me.

But I feel like I am being gaslighted when fellow Jews, and up-and-coming leaders of any persuasion – with the backing of the academy – tell the world that Morocco is and always has been a place of religious tolerance and inclusion. It is not, and was not. I will tell you all in multiple parts from my own experience, some of my Moroccan friends’ experiences, and with historical examples why the narrative of Morocco-as-harmonious-“prototype of multiculturalism” is a false one. I will use Jordan Royt’s recent ToI blog to make contrasts with this narrative, because it is a comprehensive, succinct, and recent example of the very popular tendency to paint Morocco, and the Jewish-Arab relationship more generally, in this light. 

The inside of Fes Mellah on a sleepy morning. Photo Credit: Author.

Ms. Royt sets the scene in Casablanca: “A renewed and reinvigorated religious coexistence is uncovering a nation’s multicultural legacy.” Let me tell you a different story about Casablanca: I met a brilliant, young Moroccan woman at the language institute I studied at in Fes for more than half a year. Mostly middle class, but also some hard-working young Moroccans study English there, sharing the space with English-speaking students of Arabic. Let’s call my new friend Esther, because that is the name she has chosen for herself. (She is not Jewish; allow me to explain…)

She approached me: “You’re Jewish right?”

I was apprehensive. I had had some not so pleasant experiences as a Jew in Morocco already. (I hope to tell you some of them in the future.)

Very forwardly suspicious, I replied, “Yea…why??”

She told me quite surprisingly, “O, don’t worry, I heard you speaking about it. I want to know if you will help me convert.”

This was quite a shock. “Morocco is still an Arab, Muslim country” another Moroccan friend once told me, not subtly hinting at the connotation. It is only hyper-PC “Westerners” who would pretend not to know what she meant – nearly any Moroccan I met had no such qualms. 

Upon some digging, I learned that Esther had been disaffected with Islam since early teen life. She had been studying Christianity with the Protestant couple from Texas that runs one of the two churches in Fes, and found that they did not like her questions very much. Her investigations brought her to Judaism. Moreover, not only did she believe for a number of reasons that her maternal grandmother was a Jew from a heavily Jewish area of the region outside Agadir in the South (her family would not answer questions on the subject), but she had already been booted from her university for publicly questioning her professor’s baseless anti-Zionist proclamations. Kol ha’kavod Esther! She said after that incident her peers stopped interacting with her and assignments went ungraded by the staff. Finding this story and interaction incredible, I felt that she was being sincere. But, there’s another problem. Proselytization in Morocco is illegal. It is punishable with imprisonment. But for a foreign citizen of a powerful country, deportation is the more likely outcome. And I wanted to stay in  Morocco. 

So, not knowing the bounds of the law, I told her I would show her where the active synagogue in Fes was. This synagogue is seldom known by even native Fesis, as people born in Fes are called. If you mention “the synagogue,” they think you mean the abandoned ones in the old Jewish quarter near the palace, the mellah. The King is turning those into museums for the benefit of tourism. Torah scrolls sit unused and misquoted on endless tours by legal guides and shysters alike. What people often fondly dub the revivification of Jewish culture in Morocco is more accurately termed the mummification of something very much dead. At least in Fes, local Jews don’t want everyone knowing about their continued communal life. My first time at the community center was a Friday evening. The seeming lady-in-charge told me I was welcome any time, but I shouldn’t invite Moroccans. An elderly member of the community I had the opportunity to briefly interview through a translator told me it is not safe for him to wear a yarmulke outside. Even as a child, when Jews still populated the mellah, wearing a kippah was dangerous. Harassment was a given, and assault was likely, even if it wouldn’t cause great physical harm. I will say more about mellahs in a later post. To come back to Esther, I decided it was worth transgressing the matron’s graciousness to help this struggling young lady out whom I knew had put herself in harm’s way already for the Jewish people.

And I was right. I showed her the place, a tucked-away spot with a police guard that attracts many visiting Israelis every Shabbat, baruch Hashem. Two of the women there, including the one who had helped me feel at ease, directed her to the acting Rabbi of Fes, a descendant of one of the famous rabbinic dynasties of Fes – I won’t say which. Within days, she had arranged daily Hebrew lessons with him, and unabashedly brought her materials – Hebrew and siddur lessons on paper printouts – to the “garden” at our language institute, where students congregate to study and chat. Of course, she attracted attention. This was supposed to be an outpost of openness (I’m not naming names, but the institute accepts half its funds, and includes in its name a certain Western nation on which it models its teaching. Feel free to Google; I won’t lose any sleep over it.), but some things apparently push the limits too far. One of my closest Moroccan friends, an otherwise sweet and open Fesiya, told me Esther’s behavior was weird and unacceptable, and she shouldn’t be doing it. Mind you this friend had herself stopped wearing her hijab and told me she no longer called herself a Muslim. But again, limits. Some things are just not touched in Moroccan society…this was a universal theme I heard from my young friends and acquaintances there, no matter their place on the religio-political spectrum. Go and ask for yourself if you don’t believe me.

View from the top of Hassan II, main road and gathering place in the New City of Fes, Morocco. Photo Credit: Author.

Needless to say (unfortunately), the situation devolved. I became absorbed in my studies and did not speak to Esther for some weeks. The next time I saw her, she was leaving the gate of the institute crying, looking truly desperate. I lived just around the corner. She wasn’t looking for me, but simply pacing up the street, staring blankly with tears flowing. I gave her a hug and eventually asked what happened. She told me she had been kicked out of the institute permanently. Two young male Moroccan English language students had returned from the Friday afternoon prayer service at a nearby mosque – a large, important one in the new city of Fes. During a special prayer service on Fridays, Islam’s holy day, it is custom for the leader of a large mosque like this one to give his main weekly sermon at the khutba, the name given to this ritualized speech. According to Esther, the young men were openly discussing a prejudiced interpretation of a Quranic verse in the presence of some of some foreign, probably Christian students. 

In my later research, I discovered from what she had told me that they must have been talking about a well-known interpretation of Quran 1:7, the final verse of Islam’s most beloved and read chapter. This is the verse and the one before it, addressed to God: “Guide us to the straight path – The path of those upon whom You have bestowed favor, not of those who have brought down Your anger or of those who are astray.” Eize yofi, no? Any Jew, any believer of any religion could say this. But the verse isn’t the problem, it’s centuries of interpretation including the following hadith (Islam’s second stratum of religious text, sort of like the Mishna) where the problem lies: “’Adiyy bin Hatim narrated that the Prophet said: ‘The Jews are those whom Allah is wroth with, and the Christians have strayed’” (for my sticklers, this is Jami’ al-Tirmidhi 47.4712, also mentioned in 4711 – both Hasan – and without the explicit nature in Sahih al-Bukhari 12.749). The truth is, though, that the khutba could have been about any number of verses and their authoritative interpretive traditions, because in Islamic texts, God is simply and clearly wroth with the Jews – and to a much lesser extent the Christians (see Sahih al-Bukhari 60.80, and Ibn Ishaq through Ibn Hisham 374-378, 397-398 as starting points – the final example being related of course to some ancient Jews being turned into apes and pigs because of God’s anger). 

Whatever the verse was, Esther once again stood up for Jews and Christians – historically oppressed groups in Muslim societies, we should remember – telling the young men that these interpretations were hateful, that they were in the company of  such minorities, and that such times as these interpretations were acceptable would be better left in the past. But therein lies the rub. These prejudiced interpretations are very much not part of the past in Morocco. Studying Hebrew in the “garden,” OK, we can put up with it (maybe); asking funny questions, really best not, you could get us and yourself in trouble; but undermining the khutba, absolutely not, you’re out and we don’t care where you go. 

A tiny alleyway in Fes Medina/Old City with low passageway. Photo Credit: Author.

Somehow though, Esther got a hesitant second chance. My hunch is that the director of the institute gave her the chance after hearing her side of the story (nothing happened to the two young men who had caused the problem, by the way. And ousting Esther was done without the director’s consent, whose sole purview such an action falls under – more on him in a moment). Not long after this occurred, I was sitting having a stimulating group discussion with some Moroccan students in the “garden.” Esther was there sitting next to me, minding her own business in fact, studying quietly while I was chatting away instead of doing my work. The man who had taken it upon himself to kick this brave young lady out of the institute due to his own righteous anger – but without right – I saw at a certain point very, very oddly pacing on the other side of the little plot of flowers and bushes that separated the work area from the kitchen window where we bought our lunches. He was pacing back and forth, staring at Esther, and glaring. I’m not exaggerating. Not two minutes later, Esther and I, with our backs to the institute’s main building, were informed by a Moroccan student on the opposite side of the table from us (facing the building) that we were being recorded by that man from inside the window. And we were.

I had had enough. I had invested significant funds, time, and effort (not to mention love) into this institute (stomaching the lesson in which my class was made to sing ‘al-Quds a’simat Filistin’/’Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine’ from inside our American-designed curriculum) and now was being secretly recorded by an anti-Semite who was on a witch-hunt to hurt a friend who was defending me and my people at her own peril. I decided then and there to have it out with the director, but could not get a hold of him and found out that he was going away for a few weeks. 

To make matters worse in the interlude, the pacing, angry, crazy man waited for the director to leave (knowing he had no right or power) and kicked her out once-and-for-all. When the director returned, he had a strongly-worded email waiting for him. He invited me to have dinner in the Old City of Fes where he had been living for over twenty years. We already had a relationship. The institute is a casual place, and having spent so much time there, we were on friendly terms. I told him what had happened. He was very quiet and pensive, with knitted brow, murmuring “hmmmm, hmmmm” over and over again, rubbing his lip with extended an pointer finger. After a time, he told me this is not what he had been told. The man had made up a story that Esther had been pestering students praying in the institute’s tiny masjid (prayer place), accusing them of being dumb for praying, or something of the like. One problem, I thought, staying silent – she prays with me at synagogue on Friday nights. Irrelevant though, I knew it was a lie.

I wouldn’t let the director have this one. I told him I’m a proud Jew, the institute welcomes mostly non-Muslim student from around the world and takes their money with extended hands. This is unacceptable – anti-Semitism needs to bother you as much as it bothers me; you took my money too, and hers to boot! And the recording??

Yes, it was very strange, he said.

He became quiet again, and then apparently resolved to tell me his little secret: He too was a Jew. He didn’t tell his colleagues and advised me to keep it a secret.
He said, and I paraphrase: “no reason to make trouble. The attitude is common here; you know where you are. Why advertise it if people are just going to treat you differently? I need to work with these people.” This coming from a man who had happily lived there for 20+ years…

He asked: “It really bothers you that much?” The answer was obvious. My unstated question to him: “How can you stay here?” I admit, it made me ill. The cause was a lost one. I couldn’t take on a society alone.

Flash forward a few months…I had left the country. Periodically I got emails from Esther asking for advice: are online conversions OK? Does this escape plan sound feasible? Would the State of Israel help me? I told her what I could from what I know. Then one day I got a DM on Facebook. Esther had just come from Casablanca. I had told her some time prior that that was where she would need to go for a beit din necessary for the halachic conversion that she wanted. She had gotten in contact with one of the community leaders there, who contacted one of the high-ranking Moroccan Rabbis of France who helps oversee halachic affairs in the city. This Rabbi gave her an expenses-paid trip to Casablanca for an in-person consultation. Long story short, conversions are not performed in Morocco. The community fears backlash from the Muslims (who of course make up more than 98% of Morocco’s population). She was asked if she had money to go to France. The answer was no. He may have performed the conversion there under certain stipulations, one presumably being that she did not return to Morocco. No use in making trouble I guess…Better to stay quiet: a theme.

The outer facade of Fes Mellah, now a busy commercial drag adjoining Fes Jdid. Photo Credit: Author.

A renewed and reinvigorated religious coexistence is uncovering a nation’s multicultural legacy. Morocco is setting a modern example of acknowledging religious rights and history in a region that often emphasizes religious and cultural homogeneity.”…I think not – this story shows it’s business as usual for “the region” in Morocco. The country is distinctly, heavily, and seriously Sunni Muslim one. What cultural and religious diversity does exist there, I will discuss in the following article, but already we can see that full expressions of Christianity and Judaism are unwelcome phenomena in Morocco (I forgot to mention, it’s illegal to possess a Bible in Arabic there), and certainly not all Jews there feel safe. I have only made it three lines into Ms. Royt’s article, but I hope I have begun to show you how many of her assertions are simply not true. In the coming posts, we will dig deeper into that article (which utilizes the in-vogue default narrative) to show with more concrete historical examples how the remainder of her and her like’s assertions are also highly questionable if not false. 

I want to conclude the current post by telling you what became of Esther. (And to note, she gave me permission to, and in fact very forcefully told me that she wished I would write about her.) Her dejection over her rejection did not stop her from studying. Last I spoke to her, her Hebrew was probably better than mine, which is decent. She was watching shiurim and had chevrutim around the globe. But her father kicked her out of the house (or made it unbearable for her to stay – sounds a lot like the Jews’ circumstances before leaving the same country, no?). She has gone dark. In our last correspondence, she was in Agadir, unable to find a job for weeks. I have followed up multiple times and no response. I am really worried about her. And I feel like we as Jews failed her.

For our up-and-coming leaders and no small amount of Jewish scholars to spread the lie that Morocco is and has always been somehow a haven for Jews only compounds that failure. The apparent inability or unwillingness to speak the bald, uncomfortable truth about our situation in the world only plays into the hands of our haters and their enablers, and serves to suppress the voices more friendly to us in foreign nations. We have more in common with Esther, the Jews at Fes’s last synagogue, and every other silenced voice in the Arab world than we do with the Moroccan King. We should applaud King Muhammad VI, but we must not blind ourselves to reality with elation-inspired optimism. The four Abraham Accords are only the beginning of the beginning of the beginning. Resting on our laurels, for us and our “Arab cousins,” is not an option. Reconciliation begins with being able to look each other in the eye and tell the truth, no matter how painful and jarring it may be. It most certainly doesn’t begin by covering over our oppression with flowery language and making excuses and apologies for our haters’ worst attributes. If their peace depends on our silence – our eating from the scraps of their false narrative – then they can keep it. Am Yisrael Chai.

Thanks for reading! Hope to see you next time. 🙂

About the Author
South Jersey native, Reform Jew turned former Baal Teshuva, Ian studied human evolution and religion for his BS and religion for his MA, where he focused on Ottoman Islam and modern Islamic fundamentalism. An EMT by day, his current project is a (very) deep-dive into what the three "Abrahamic religions" (he hates the term) have to say about each other. A year spent in Jerusalem and a year in Fes shaped him profoundly. He hopes you will learn, enjoy, and use "Contact Me" to send him questions and comments!
Related Topics
Related Posts
Comments