Rebecca Abrahamson
Muslim-Jewish rapproachment

Mimouna – Jewish Heritage and Future

March 2024 found me in a place that I never planned to visit, a land to which I had only heard my Jewish neighbors with roots there pine for — Morocco.

My family escaped the pogroms in the Ukraine, and certainly never looked back.

But Moroccan Jews — what a different narrative!

Mr. Citon had told me, well he was bragging: “You Ashkenazim, what did you have?” And he listed the inhumanities on each finger. “You had crusades, pogroms, Communism, Naziism, and what did WE have?” He raised his hand in the air and beamed. “We had Islam!”

He was proud of his land of birth and proud of the religion that, he bragged, prides itself on coexistence. That pride and that tolerance continues today, I am witness, and the Mimouna Organization in Morocco is one small sample.

One morning of this whirlwind trip, hosted by the Sharaka Organization and the Association Maroc Coexistence, in conjunction with the Masjid Muhammad of Washington DC, we davenned shacharis at the Rabbi Shalom Zaoui Synagogue in Rabat, and met with Abdelhak El Kaoukabi, who introduced himself to us as Abdou, Director of Education of Mimouna, an organization formed in 2007 by Muslim students to preserve Jewish-Moroccan heritage.

These students see the Jewish history of Morocco as an essential part of their history, they were determined to tell its story, and they dream of rekindling the community until it thrives again in Morocco.

“We have one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world here,” Abdou said, a statement repeated by many other of our hosts during this trip. After the fall of the First Temple, migrations of Jews found their way to what is now Morocco. The Rambam’s family emigrated from Spain to Morocco when he was 10 years old, escaping the Almohad conquerors in 1148 — another piece of history that is pride to the Moroccans we met.

The Mimouna group of course faced challenges. Some suspected the founders of secretly wanting to convert them to Judaism, as Abdou described, “At one of our first events, three people arrived. They stared at us and were wondering if we were going to make them recite ‘Shm’a Yisrael’.“

Others were worried that this group would be trying to get Muslim students to support Zionism. Abdou said, “In Morocco, you have some who are very against Judaism, but most say they do not have a problem with Judaism at all, or with Jews, they only have issues with the State of Israel. There is a small BDS group in Morocco, but this is fringe.”

The Mimouna group persisted, and its membership grew to over 120. Mimouna is in the universities in Fez, Tangiers, Marrakech, and others in smaller towns.

Mimouna activities, reprinted with permission from the Mimouna Association

“We have hosted 400 events in Morocco, the USA, Canada, and France. We have interfaith groups, because here in Morocco, the best way to reach people here is through religion.” In this vein, they host interfaith gatherings. He elaborated that although Morocco is very open and friendly, there is a strong traditional undercurrent to people’s lives. “There are many who may not pray every day, but when Ramadan arrives, everyone is fasting, if someone is not fasting, others will be shocked.”

That traditionalism means that buying or selling alcohol is illegal during Ramadan, though our guide Youssef quipped that Morocco produces one the the largest quantities of alcoholic beverages in Africa. That may not be because Moroccan Muslims drink alcohol, many probably do not, but because of its heritage of tolerance and acceptance of other groups, including Jews and Christians. A hospitable culture will provide what its guests prefer.

Abdou described the synagogue in which we were sitting, “when the Israeli consulate was here, this synagogue would be used for Shabbat and Chagim, but now, there is no minyan at all. We would love to have the Jewish community return and thrive here.”

In 2011, Mimouna began an educational program about the Holocaust. Abdou said, “We do not talk about the Holocaust in Morocco, it is not in our school curriculum, so we hosted Holocaust survivors who spoke with the university students.”

Mimouna spearheaded an effort to acquaint the residents of the former Jewish neighborhoods with the heritage of where they dwelled. ”We brought people from the Jewish quarter and had them speak with the Muslim residents there, who may live on a street named ‘David Cohen’ and have no idea what the name means. We educate them about the former Jewish community.”

Logo of the Mimouna Association, reprinted with permission

In 2020, with the Abraham Accords, Abdou said that relations warmed between Israel and Morocco, there was more hope in the air.

Rabat is host to a yeshiva ketana high school for boys, and a girl’s high school, the students are from Israel, many have roots in Morocco. We met with the director, who described the community as hoping to take more root. “We have families settling here, we celebrated our fifth birth this year in our community just this week. Everything flows here, when we were building this school, we expressed our needs and we got what we needed. The boys enjoy going to the shuk once a month and purchasing a new djellaba.”

The djellaba is the traditional dress of Morocco, a flowing garment with an inconspicuous hood that falls down in back. Both men and women wear this either as main attire or over another attire, it may be worn over western business suit, over traditional dashiki and pantaloons, over modern fashionable skirt and blouse, or over traditional hijab.

The community members need not hide their Jewishness, whereas during my visit to Egypt, with all the love and hospitality there, we had to hide our Jewish identity, and most definitely that we hailed from Israel. In Morocco, they are glad to see you and hope you will remain. “Are you Jewish?” and elderly gentleman approached me, “my best friend is Levi! Welcome!” a stranger on the streets of Morocco loves you as you are.

Mimouna in action, reprinted with permission from the Mimouna Association

Abdou hopes the Jewish community will again thrive in Morocco. These sentiments echoed those of our tour guide in Meknes, who described the exodus of Jews from Morocco as a heartbreak. Many left because of the dream of Zion, but in the mid 20th century there were also scattered pogroms, the instabilities with impending independence from France, and the very dynamic of the Jewish community, in which communities move as a whole. “Once the moreh or rabbi leaves, others go with him”, quipped Abdou.

Mimouna has hosted exchange programs with Israel, sending Moroccan Muslim students to Israel to learn about its culture and challenges.

“Their opinion about Israel changed, and after the events of October 7, those who were in the program contacted their acquaintances in Israel to ask after their welfare.” This is no small gesture, as regarding what I heard from the Jewish residents in Morocco, there is a reticence to discuss October 7th and its aftermath. Abdou also remarked that many Moroccans do not know what Hamas did to Israel on that day, and that people are less willing to engage now.

He does remain hopeful, as there are rumors that direct flights to Israel and Morocco may resume after Ramadan, which would be a very positive step.

Abdou described the marriage laws in Morocco, which are the Islamic laws – a Muslim man can marry any monotheist woman, whether Christian, Jew or Zoroastrian. A Muslim woman can marry a non-Muslim if he converts to Islam.

Abdou described the culture in Fez as more conservative. The people there are friendly and hospitable, but when it comes to marriage, there is an ethic of like-marries-like in order to build strong families, which exists in the more traditional parts of our Jewish community as well.

It was a privilege to meet Abdou and hear about the Moroccan Jewish community, and very touching to see people not only wish to preserve its history, but work towards a thriving future!

About the Author
Rebecca Abrahamson is co-director of AlSadiqin, an organization that researches the common heritage of Islam and Judaism. AlSadiqin strives to conform in every way to sharia and accepted convention, with the conviction that conflict resolution occur in line with scriptural values that Muslims and Jews hold dear. Peace agreements that organically grow out of our scriptures and shared histories are truly the key to lasting peace. Rebecca co-hosted a conference on making the UN Resolutions for a Culture of Peace into law at the Knesset, edited “Divine Diversity: an Orthodox Rabbi Engages with Muslims”, began a column in the Israel National News service entitled Giving Voice to Muslims Who Seek Peace and has written in the same vein for the Jerusalem Post and the Jewish Press. She is married to Ben Abrahamson, who is also active in Muslim-Jewish dialogue.