Marcus Sheff
Featured Post

Morocco’s school curriculum demonstrates remarkable respect for Jews

A Muslim state's textbooks teach that Muhammad, no less, would have been glad one of his followers shared a meal with a Jew
A 4th grade Arabic textbook teaches about the importance of Jewish-Moroccan music to Moroccan musical tradition. (courtesy)
A 4th grade Arabic textbook teaches about the importance of Jewish-Moroccan music to Moroccan musical tradition. (courtesy)

It is possible that Jews arrived in North Africa after the Babylonian Army destroyed the First Temple in 586 BCE. Or, alternatively, that they headed west during the destruction of Jerusalem and the slaughter of Jews by Titus’ army. But the first evidence of Jews in what is now Morocco is in the form of gravestone epitaphs in Hebrew at Volubilis and the ruins of a third-century synagogue. Before the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, there were about 250,000 to 350,000 Jews in the country, which gave Morocco the largest Jewish community in the Muslim world. Today, around 3,000 Jews remain there.

It is the in-depth portrayal of this ancient Jewish community that lived uninterruptedly in Morocco for close to two millennia that makes the reformed Moroccan national school curriculum distinctive. The personification of Jews in curricula in the Islamic world has improved in several countries, but more often is harmful. In Palestinian Authority textbooks, Jews are presented as liars, fraudsters, and murderers. Authors of the Iranian and Syrian curricula draw upon classic antisemitic tropes that connect Jews to money and power. Countering this, the Emirati curriculum features many examples of tolerance toward Jews, and the Saudis have removed a great deal of antisemitism from their textbooks.

A new report by the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se), unprecedented in scope, shows a different approach, born of the history of Moroccan Jews. The Jewish community is acknowledged as an inseparable part of Moroccan society, as enshrined in the country’s constitution. Moroccan textbooks foster respect for Jewish people and beliefs, and contain an abundance of information about the country’s indigenous Jewish community.

Students are taught that the Jewish community is an inseparable part of Morocco’s social fabric and identity, and lessons teach about Jewish heritage. They are given information on Moroccan-Jewish history, and learn about the day-to-day lives of Moroccan Jews.

A sixth grade Arabic Language textbook features a text introducing Bayt Dakira (‘House of Memory’), a museum for Jewish heritage that opened in the historic Jewish quarter of Essaouira in 2020. (courtesy)

Multiple examples are provided of coexistence between Jews and Muslims in Morocco, such as Jewish and Muslim children playing together in the neighborhood, a Jewish boy hosting his Muslim friend for Shabbat dinner, and a Muslim woman explaining the Jewish tradition of Mimouna to her son. One history textbook highlights the city of Essaouira, a place where Jews and Christians prospered alongside Muslims for centuries. Tolerance is visually represented in an illustration from another textbook, where symbols of the Abrahamic religions are displayed under the Arabic word for tolerance. 

[Left] A Jewish boy hosting his Muslim friends for Shabbat dinner. [Right] Jewish family hosting guests for a Mimouna celebration. (courtesy)
Textbooks introduce Judaism as the first monotheistic religion in Morocco, imbuing it with prestige from an Islamic perspective. Following a description of the mellah (Moroccan Jewish quarter) and its synagogues, one textbook asserts that “to this day, the mellah is still considered a part of the Moroccan heritage and memory.”

The curriculum emphasizes that Jews have made positive contributions to Moroccan society. Interestingly, one of the female role models who features in a French language textbook is a French politician of Moroccan Jewish descent, Audrey Azoulay. A common medium of reference is music; for example, one textbook mentions a development “considered a musical marriage, where Jews and Muslims participate in creating a single musical style called “Matrouz.”

A 4th grade Arabic textbook teaches about the importance of Jewish-Moroccan music to Moroccan musical tradition. (courtesy)

While Islamic education textbooks do include isolated polemics around the Christian and Jewish rejection of Islam, multiple textbooks mention Muhammad’s guarantee of religious freedom to the Jews of Medina, and downplay the undoing of these guarantees following later tensions. One textbook quotes a hadith where one of Muhammad’s companions makes a point of sharing his meal with a Jew, explaining that this is what Muhammad would have wanted.

Areas of the curriculum seem specifically devised to undermine stereotypical antisemitic tropes. One textbook mentions Moroccan Jews living in France, and all interviewees express deep affection towards Morocco, which the textbook interprets as a sign of patriotism as well as loyalty to the ruling dynasty, undermining past Moroccan perceptions of Jews as treacherous during the colonial period.

Morocco’s curriculum boasts evidence of rare self-reflection and critical thinking, with parts of the curriculum encouraging students to interrogate past Moroccan abuses of human rights. The country has long been one of the most accessible in the region, and is often perceived as the Arab world’s window to the West, with its Arabic name, “Al-Maghreb,” meaning, “the West.”

Anti-colonial sentiment in Morocco still renders current relations with France and Spain difficult and colors how it teaches about Israel. But while unsympathetic material about Israel remains, there has also been recent improvement: a reference to “ugly Zionist crimes” and a poem about the “colonial occupier’s” cruelty in a 2014 textbook were both deleted from the 2020 edition. There is discussion of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and the 1993 Oslo accords. Textbooks explore political conflict resolution efforts, accompanied by a quote from King Mohammed VI supporting the establishment of a Palestinian state that would coexist with Israel in peace.

Historically, relations between Morocco and Israel have mainly been conducted in private. King Hassan II secretly met Israeli leaders, and his mediation efforts between Israel and Egypt, helped pave the way for Egyptian President Sadat’s historic visit in November 1977. The monarch quietly approved the entry of Israeli visitors to Morocco, but refrained from publicizing his interest in pursuing open relations. In the 1990s, Morocco maintained a liaison office in Tel Aviv, but it closed during the Second Intifada.

Now, Morocco’s entry into the Abraham Accords and recent visits of Israeli government and IDF officials to Rabat signal a new era of open cooperation between the countries. We can expect further developments in relation to the portrayal of Israel in the curriculum, which is characterized by tolerance and peace, and proudly applies these values to Jews in the form of welcoming respect. The seven million children currently educated in Morocco’s schools will surely carry these values into adulthood in the not-too-distant future.

About the Author
Marcus Sheff is CEO at The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Curtural Tolerance in School Textbooks. IMPACT-se analyzes textbooks, employing standards on peace and tolerance as derived from international declarations and resolutions.
Related Topics
Related Posts