I have had the privilege to travel the Middle East for several years before the Abraham Accords were signed. My experiences in Jordan, the Gulf, and elsewhere have given me a very nuanced and optimistic outlook on the potential for lasting peace in the region and have also helped rid in me many of the false stereotypes of inherent isolationism that all too many in Israel harbor deep within. I have long ago learned that while there is much dividing us from our Muslim and Christian neighbors, in this region, there is much more that unites us.
Between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, I made a last-minute trip to Morocco in order to advance a philanthropic cause. I had been lectured repeatedly that I would not just find a rich and continuous Jewish tradition dating back 2000 years, but I would find some sort of competition in social and historical complexity rivaling Israel. Nothing could prepare me for what I saw and experienced from the second I landed until I took off again towards Israel.
I spent 5 days in Morocco and can now adamantly state that a visit there is as pertinent for the modern Jewish experience as one to Poland but for exactly converse reasons.
As Jews suffered away in Europe, Morocco has a contiguous history of tolerance and while the Jewish of Poland were often isolated and subjugated, the mausoleum of the Saadian dynasty in Marakesh is full of the graves of Jewish advisors and dignitaries buried alongside Muslim ones.
Morrocan mosques, both new and old are adorned with Stars of David and other Jewish symbolic references in plain sight. Although the Arabic spoken in Morrocco is vastly different than that in the Levant, many linguistic similarities can be found between it and Hebrew.
While we were taught as children that the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, the context neglected is actually that this coincided with the fall of a Muslim Morrish kingdom ruling Southern Europe where Jewish life flourished and many of these retreating Jews found refuge back in Morocco. Like in too many places in Europe, one can walk through old Jewish quarters in Casablanca, but unlike in Warsaw and Barcelona, you can still find pockets of Jews in many of these same areas.
Morocco is a country imbued with deep Jewishness which is gaining increased top-down recognition. Although this phenomenon is recent, its bottom-up recognition was always insuppressible. One just needs to speak to taxi drivers in Rabat, to hear a detailed lesson in the inexorable links between Judaism and the Amazigh people. This experience was repeated everywhere I went, whether it be by other taxi drivers, store clerks, political figures, or mosque employees, there is a keen recognition of our shared history and a deeply sad longing for the Jews who left Morocco in the two decades after the founding of the state of Israel. The pain is authentically felt on the individual level by average Moroccans who enthusiastically inquire about who they still consider their compatriots in Israel.
When leaving the Jewish graves in the Saadian Mouselium in Marakesh, I was dragged into a cosmetics store by someone on the street. When the Muslim employee in the store realized I was Israeli, she began to speak to me in fluent Hebrew, it ends up she worked in Israel for several years and came back proselytizing the language to all of her coworkers. This was not a new phenomenon to attract Israeli tourists, but a woman who returned to Morocco 7 years ago bringing back with her something lost to her own society.
Culturally, socially and architecturally the similarities are no less profound, there were times in Casablanca I could have been in Herzilya and parts of Rabat that one could think is King George street in Tel Aviv. The brazen and sometimes comedic overconfidence and the “it will all be okay” attitude of the Moroccan people are exactly like ours in Israel, language aside many reactions and experiences are interchangeable.
Like Israel, Morocco has a very strong civil society. This foundation alongside the deep cultural and historical ties make this warming relationship of the utmost fascinating and inspiring. The potential for collaboration and deep friendship between both countries is truly deeper than I could have fathomed.
Even my experience leaving the country was perfectly encompassing of the complexity and potential between both countries. I handed my American and Israeli passports to a police officer at passport control, when he saw on my Israeli passport, that my middle name is “Benyamin” he instantly asked if my father is Muslim. When I informed him that was not the case, he said “I have good news for you, you must have Muslim roots because this name is very common in my family.” to which I replied to him: “I have good news for you, the name is Jewish and you are the one with Jewish roots” perhaps we are both in some ways right. He then handed me back my US passport, held up the Israeli, and said “from now on just give us the Israel one, in Morrocco, it’s all you will ever need from here on out… plus we prefer it”.
It is time we begin to prioritize teaching about our diasporic triumphs and richness not just our suffering. After visiting Morocco, as an Ashkenazi Jew who immigrated to Israel from the United States, I wholeheartedly believe we have more to learn about the past, present, and future of Israel from our intrinsic history in Morocco than we do from all of our pains in Europe.