When I read about Morocco’s decision last Thursday to join Bahrain, UAE and Sudan in establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel, i couldn’t help but remember one of the great adventures of my life — the “journalist junket” I took part in with some 15 other American Jewish journalists to that North African nation.
In 1999, my colleagues and I spent two weeks traveling by bus and airplane across Morocco, visiting Fez, Marrakech, Rabat and Casablanca — yes, we had a drink in Rick’s Cafe in that city — and many points in between. One of the people I met on the trip was Debbie Rubin, who six months later was to become Washington Jewish Week’s editor and my boss for the next 11 years.
Our guides showed us all the touristy places, and we met government officials. But the main point of the tour was to visit the country’s Jewish communities. The Moroccan government was interested in improving relations with the U.S. Its leaders understood that most Americans were indifferent to the Arab world, but that American Jews were interested in those countries’ treatment of their Jewish populations and their relationships with Israel. Moroccan leaders believed that American-Jewish support would be crucial to their country’s effort to cozy up to the U.S., and that the good press Morocco would receive from this visit would help sway American Jewry.
The men assigned to shepherd us around the country spent much time “educating” us about how wonderfully Morocco treated its Jews and what splendid, albeit unofficial, relations Rabat had with Jerusalem. And they acted as translators for the French- and Arabic-speaking Jews we talked with and interviewed.
On one of our bus trips, a Jewish leader from one of the cities — I don’t recall which — accompanied us to our next destination. During the long ride, I sat down next to him and began speaking Hebrew. To my great relief, he understood and could speak the language.
From then on, I tried to converse with Moroccan Jews in Hebrew, usually with success. Thus, I cut out the middle man, the government representatives — whose presence apparently intimidated them from speaking openly.
I learned that Jews in the country felt relatively safe because the king protected them. Relations between the country’s Muslim and Jewish communities were generally good — or at least better than in other parts of the Arab world. I witnessed this seeming amity between the two groups on a Friday night when we walked to synagogue —there were only a handful of working Jewish houses of worship in the country as the Jewish population was rapidly declining — for Friday evening services, and the locals wished us “Shabbat Shalom” as we walked by.
However, when there were troubles in Israel between Jews and Palestinians, there were ugly anti-Israel demonstrations, I was told, and that worried Morocco’s Jews.
The Jewish community was dwindling as young people finished their education and left for France, the U.S. or Israel, where they felt freer and opportunities for professional success were much better. The number of Jews living in Morocco, which had once been around 300,000 had fallen to some 5,000 at the time of our visit. Tens of thousands had left in the 1960s for Israel as Moroccan authorities turned a blind eye to this breach of Arab solidarity.
Many older Moroccan Jews were “sitting on their suitcases,” waiting for their children to finish their education so the whole family could emigrate, several people told me.
One image that remains from the trip are the thousands of young Muslim men we saw on weekdays sitting in cafes drinking coffee. Obviously, there was mass unemployment among young people 20 years ago.
I also recall our guard shooing away very young — and persistent —beggars as we made our way through the souk (shuk, in Hebrew, the open air market) in one of the cities. I hope the economic situation is better now. And I’m sure that the peace agreement between Israel and Morocco will give that country some access to the Israeli market.
Close to the end of the tour, our group witnessed the ceremonial opening of one of the country’s oldest synagogues as a museum. The building had been refurbished thanks to a gift from a Moroccan Jew living abroad.
The leader of our group insisted that we not sit together during the luncheon at the event, but rather eat at different tables and get to know some of the important people in the crowd.
I chose a place at random and by chance sat down next to a former chief rabbi of France. He couldn’t speak English; I knew a few phrases learned in high school French and only a few curses in Arabic, in general, very useful but not for this occasion. So we conversed in Hebrew.
“Where is your group doing tomorrow?” he asked about our Shabbat activities.
I didn’t know exactly where, but we were continuing our tour, I told him.
“You shouldn’t travel on Shabbat,” he countered.
“I drive to synagogue every Saturday,” I told him.
“What you do on your own is your concern,” he said. “But here, you represent the Jewish people to the goyim. The group should have told the government officials that you honor Shabbat and will not travel on that day.”
Later, I thought about what the rabbi had said, and I believe he was right.
Photo The Hassan II mosque in Casablanca, the largest in Morocco.