I had no desire to visit the birthplace of my ancestors.
But when Morocco quickly became a hotspot for tourists and destination weddings, my social feeds gradually lured me in with the sight of antiquated tajins and mosaic ornamented doors. So, with much apprehension, I embarked on a trip with twelve other eager Jewish young adults to learn the history of my people and coalesce the similarities between Israel (my grandparent’s motherland) and Morocco, that could be found hidden in the Suks’ crevices and the colorfully displayed spices. I felt a tiny sense of belonging when I saw my last name engraved throughout Casablanca’s Beth El Synagogue, Jewish Tombstones in Fez, and along the streets of the old Jewish Quarters.
Yet, I was still not convinced that this was my homeland. From the moment I stepped foot onto Royal Air Maroc’s airline, I felt like a duck out of water, scrambling to find a familiar face among the swarm of garbs and hijabs. As we walked through the Hassan Mosque in Casablanca to the slither of a Jewish Quarter hanging by a thread in Marrakesh’s Medina, I was reminded of a once booming Jewish community that now hung by a thread.
Morocco’s dwindling Jewish presence was not always a concern.
Before Israel became a state in 1948, there were 250,000 to 350,000 Jews living in Morocco. Now with a population of 35 million people, there are only 5,000 Jews inhabiting the land. Even with their shrinking communities, they prove to be one of the most tight-knit and vibrant groups of people I’ve ever seen. Throughout my conversations with young Moroccan Jews they were quick to explain how they lived comfortably as minorities in a Muslim country. But it became strikingly clear how they were able to coexist: Teaching about the State of Israel in school settings is completely off limits.
Make no mistake, all Jews residing in Morocco love Israel and make that known—within the confines of their own social circles. But even then, they have to be careful.
“I lost almost all of my Muslim friends because I dared to speak about Israel [on Facebook],” my Moroccan tour guide said about showing her support for Israel on her social media platforms. Americans who follow Trump supporters on Facebook, may understand this schism all too well. “Sometimes when they listen to me, I tell them, if tomorrow something happens to us here, there’s already a country that I can go to. Israel will always open its doors. My heart, my soul is in Morocco but a bit of me is in Israel, like almost every Jew in the world,” she added.
Our Shabbat dinner host reiterated those same sentiments, almost verbatim. If it weren’t for his buoyant family business in Morocco, he and his wife would be on the first flight out to Israel, he told me. None of their children live at home — Moroccan Jews, after high school, leave the country to study in France, Canada, United States and Israel in search of growing Jewish communities.
When I asked the principal of Neve Shalom, an Orthodox school in Casablanca, why Moroccan Jewish schools can’t teach about Zionism, she gave me the most practical answer: to keep the peace.
The relationship between Moroccan Muslims and Jews versus other Arab countries has always been strong. When German Nazis and the occupying Vichy French forces approached the King of Morocco, Mohammed V, during World War II and asked him to send his Jewish community to concentration camps, he told them: “There are no Jewish citizens, there are no Muslims citizens, they are all Moroccans.” Soon after, the king required all schools to learn about the Holocaust in their curriculum. Just last month, his decision to incorporate the Holocaust into his country’s curriculum was made public by Morocco’s Education Minister Said Amzazi in a high-level meeting at the United Nations General Assembly. The king opined that, “anti-Semitism manifests the negation of the other and is an admission of failure, insufficiency and inability to coexist.”
In 2011, the Moroccan referendum recognized the Jewish community by stating in its constitution that their nation’s unity “is forged by the convergence of its Arab-Islamist, Berber and Saharan-Hassanic components, nourished and enriched by its African, Andalusian, Hebraic, and Mediterranean influences.” Furthermore, the “Museum of Moroccan Judaism” in Casablanca, is the only one of its kind in the Arab world and the Advisor to the King, Andre Azoulay, even went to represent Morocco at Shimon Peres’ funeral. But their respectful relationship always came with a price: the price of keeping silent. Even then, that did not always ensure complete safety for the Jews of Morocco — between 1940 and 1942, Moroccan Jews had to abide by discriminatory laws. “Jewish children were expelled from schools, Jews were fired from government jobs, and there were quotas on how many Jews could attend universities or work as doctors, lawyers and pharmacists,” said Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and author of a “Among the Righteous” about lost stories from Holocaust’s long reach into Arab lands.
I understood why Casablanca schools are reluctant to teach their students about Israel when I visited the Alliance Narcisse Leven School, a prestigious Jewish private school with a bi-cultural Muslim and Jewish student body. I couldn’t tell the difference between the two nationalities when I heard a class of 6th graders singing Hebrew songs in unison, or when I watched kindergarteners holding hands and skipping during recess, unaware of the wars going on far away.
As an American Jew with Israeli and Moroccan roots I relate much more to the former than I do the latter. Still, when people hear my surname, Azoulay, which dates back to the Spanish Inquisition, they ask if I’m Moroccan. If, perhaps, I am related to some big rabbi, or a famous painter, or the senior advisor to King Mohammed VI, Andre’ Azoulay. I stop them before they could voice their assumptions. “I’ve never even attended a henna party,” I explain in an attempt to wash away their speculations about my heritage.
What they don’t hear from my last name is the clammer of my grandparents’ suitcases, trying to escape a place where they couldn’t yet call their own. The rockets flying over their homes, or their mother tongue—a language dating back to the second millenium. It is hard to imagine identifying myself as a Moroccan Jew when I lived my life learning about zionism as the granddaughter of two Israelis.
Before I left Neveh Shalom’s school grounds for the last time, I saw a sign glaring at me behind the playground. It read in Hebrew: “Im eshkachech Yerushalayim tishkach yemini.” [If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,let my right hand forget her cunning]. Even though teachers are not boasting of Israeli nationalism to their students in school, I felt comforted finding their subversive nod eastward.