“I was born in Morocco, in Boujad, and I feel like my dream has come true,” said Israeli Knesset member Amir Peretz on December 13, 2020, according to Zineb Riboua in the Atlantic Council. Just a few days before, on December 10, Morocco followed the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Sudan in establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. Though the North African country cut off ties with the Jewish State in 2000 following the Second Intifada, many Moroccans were not surprised to see their country become the sixth Arab nation to normalize relations with Israel. The relationship has deep roots.
Morocco is often lumped into the Middle East (rather than North Africa) and classified as an Arabic country. But the indigenous people of Morocco—the Berbers—are the area’s original inhabitants. The majority of the country’s population of around 34 million is Berber, not Arab. In modern day Morocco, nearly all Berbers are Sunni Muslim. But their traditional practices and beliefs can still be found woven into the fabric of everyday life. Actually, Morocco’s culture is a blend of religious and ethnic traditions, encompassing Berber, Arab, African, Mediterranean, and Jewish influences.
The Jewish community in Morocco was once vibrant, estimated at 250,000 people in the late 1940s. Today, the estimated 3,000 Jews in the country still represent the largest Jewish population in a single Arab country.
Though there have been dark periods in the relationship between Jews and Muslims, Morocco’s attitude towards its Jewish community – which has lived in the country for more than 3,000 years – has helped shape ties with Israel, where about 10% of Jews are of Moroccan origin.
In fact, Rabat, the Moroccan intelligence services, has had an unofficial relationship with Israel through its intelligence agency, the Mossad, for almost sixty years. Their history of intelligence sharing not only helped shape the establishment of Israel in 1948, but also enabled the current Alaouite dynasty to preserve the monarchy because the Mossad informed the late King Hassan II about plans to overthrow him.
I had the privilege of visiting Morocco during the summer of 2006. My wife and I were invited to attend a family wedding at the invitation and urging of good friends in the United States whose families still live in Morocco. Realizing our interest in Judaism and my interest in Middle Eastern history, they were anxious to share an insider’s view of the Moroccan-Jewish relationship. “There are things you must see,” my friend remarked to me.
Arriving in Casablanca, Rebecca and I were met by our friends who were anxious for us to meet the family clans. And we were not lodging at any ordinary hotel either; we were invited as special guests to stay in the home of one of the families.
Located in the central-western part of Morocco bordering the Atlantic Ocean, Casablanca is the second largest city in the Maghreb region and the eighth largest in the Arab world. It’s considered the economic and business center of Morocco, although the national political capital is Rabat. You may remember the city as the colonial setting of the 1942 American romantic drama film, “Casablanca,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.
One of the first telling impressions I saw was of a Moroccan flag, divided in two, that was painted on a wall in the city square. One half pointed to the Ould el-Hamra mosque, built by a sultan around 1789. Another half pointed to the Ettedgui synagogue, erected by a bourgeois Jewish family from the northern city of Tétouan, in the mid-19th century. I later learned that King Mohammad VI restored it in 2016, after it was destroyed in the Naval Battle of Casablanca during World War II.
We soon learned Moroccans are always happy to welcome guests into their homes and we were no different, except that we were privileged guests of honor for an extended stay. Moroccan families also share everything with their guests naturally and spontaneously and they extended to us every comfort and attention.
The time spent in Morocco held many moments of discovery and exposure to how others live in another culture and view life through a different lens. Among the many experiences that stood out was the visit to the famous Hassan II Mosque. It is the second largest functioning mosque in Africa and is the 7th largest in the world. As one of the world’s largest, the magnificent Mosque boasts of a capacity for over 100,000 worshippers. From its regal cliff-top perch overlooking the ocean to its soaring 210-meter high minaret (the world’s highest) that shines a beam towards Mecca in the evening hours, everything about the Hassan II Mosque is grandiose. It was inspired by the Koranic verse that tells of God’s throne being built upon water.
Another was the visit to Marrakech, one of Morocco’s four Imperial Cities and a busy and hectic trading hub for many years. There stood the Koutoubia Mosque, the largest in Marrakech. Built in the 12th century with its intricate geometric stonework, graceful arches and imposing square minaret, it is one of the most influential buildings in the Muslim world.
Then there was the wedding. Let it never be said that Moroccans don’t know how to party; one of the best ways to experience this truth first-hand is to attend a wedding. Moroccan weddings are 24-hour affairs, but some can take place over the course of two or even three days. The traditional Moroccan wedding is elaborate, diverse, and I’m sure quite expensive. The bride gets to dress in several outfits and the food as well as the music varies between traditional and modern.
We sat with family members. The guests are divided by gender, and men and women sit for hours on end chatting, sipping tea, talking about the happy couple and even breaking into some impromptu songs and dances. Later, the bride and groom arrived to greet the guests (the bride and groom are kept separate for the majority of the ceremony), all the while being serenaded by the audience with a number of traditional verses. After they were declared husband and wife, we waited again for another outfit change.
Finally, dinner was served. Guests are again split by gender, with the men seated and served first and the women after the men finish. No matter how hungry you may be, you can’t eat yet. The bride and groom must first visit your table and break the bread, at which point you are welcome to eat your fill. After dinner and dessert, everyone joined in for a traditional song and dance ceremony with the festivities continuing most of the night.
We remember dawn breaking over the city as we made our way back from one very long wedding celebration. I’ll never again complain about sitting through a lengthy Jewish Passover Seder.
Morocco has taken steps unique in the Arab world to safeguard Jews’ history and role in society. It is the only country in the Muslim-Arab world where the state funds projects to restore Jewish cemeteries and renovate Jewish neighborhoods and religious sites. In Morocco, there are Jewish footprints everywhere: from the ‘mellahs’ (Jewish quarters) to temples, cemeteries, synagogues, butcher shops and even schools. A plaque is seen inside Casablanca’s Moroccan Jewish Museum, the only museum dedicated to Judaism in the Arab world.
Thanks to our gracious hosts (who consider themselves Berbers), we had been immersed into the world of Moroccan culture and hospitality, not from a tourist’s view from hotels and tour buses, but from a privileged and personal up-close encounter from within the world of the culture itself.
Most Jews in Morocco have at least one relative who lives in Israel. Before the coronavirus pandemic forced countries to lock down, nearly 45,000 Jews would tour Morocco every year – mostly from Israel, but also from the United States and Canada.
Now, we are witnessing the sixth country in the Arab League to normalize relations with Israel and the planned operation of flights between Rabat and Tel Aviv.
In the Middle East, that’s genuine progress.