Morocco: From massacre to beacon of tolerance

During Holocaust Remembrance Day week, it is important to remember that Sephardim too have suffered terribly at the hands of our enemies. Indeed, exactly 100 years ago this week, mutinous Moroccan troops looted the mellah (ghetto) in Fes, Morocco’s then capital, murdering 45 Jews and wounding many more. Nobody remembers it now, but the 1912 Tritl (as it is known in Morocco, “sacking” ) has powerful resonances today.

The link between Fes and Jewish persecution is a close one. Jews were murdered here every time an anti-Jewish sultan gave the green light. Prior to the Tritl, the sultan Yazid hung over a dozen Jews who refused to convert to Islam around 1790, and the rest converted for fear of the gallows. You can find Muslims in the city to this day called El Kohen, and you know their origins! (The current Mayor, Mr. Shabbat, who has accused Jews of wanting to take over the world, is presumably also a descendant.) Maimonides, the philosopher who studied and perhaps taught at the local university, the Qarawiyyin, saw his own teacher put to death here, so the head of the Fes community has told me.

The echoes of the persecution are still live. One of those murdered in Fes in 1912 was a Madame Serrero. Benjamin Serrero, a friendly fellow, with whom I dined on a recent visit, helped organize synagogue services here. He was bludgeoned to death with a hammer last month. One of the children murdered recently in Toulouse was Myriam Monsonego, a direct descendant of the Chief Rabbis Monsonego of Fes.

I visited the head of Fes’s Jewish community, Dr. Guigui. He’s a physician, much loved by the local population as a whole. One of my local contacts, unaware of my interest in this community, told me he’s the best doctor in town. We discussed centuries of persecution, and then moved on to the positive, as Dr Guigui told me with great pride of the recent refurbishment of an old synagogue here, and showed me photos of him together with England’s Prince Charles, when they visited it together last year. In his surgery, I met two Muslim students, who organized a symposium on the Holocaust near to here, unique in Arab lands. While Ahmedinajad adds to Jewish suffering by denying the Holocaust, young Muslim students spread awareness of it, as humanitarians, in Morocco.

The aftermath of the Fes pogrom (photo credit: Ben-Zvi Institute)
The aftermath of the Fes pogrom (photo credit: Ben-Zvi Institute)

Fortunately, most Jews in today’s Morocco feel safe, even with an avowedly Muslim-headed government. King Mohamed VI, as his father before him, has been highly appreciative and protective of them, and the kings are much loved in return. Indeed, the king’s grandfather, Mohamed V, has a status equivalent to that of a saint, having refused to hand the Jews over to the pro-Nazi Vichy occupying forces, during the Second World War. As far as Moroccan Jews worldwide are concerned, he is more popular than any gentile sovereign since Cyrus the Great helped build the Second Temple. (Current Persian heads of state are a little less popular today.)

Attitudes toward Jews are often positive in this country. A schoolteacher of my acquaintance, K, a committed and fervent Muslim, even tells me that most of the prophets in the Koran are Jewish. He is correct, but don’t repeat his words elsewhere in the Arab world, or you’ll find yourself in the local stocks.

Why are Moroccan Muslims’ attitudes  to Jews so often different from those held by their coreligionists elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East? First, they are far away from the Arab-Israel conflict. Second, the entirely encouraging views of the king and his two predecessors have made a profound difference. For they all also held the status of Amir al Muminin, Prince of the Faithful, in effect the head of Islam in this country. The king’s Ambassador in London is his cousin, Princess Joumala. She told me recently that for her family, being a spiritual head was more important than being king. As far as protecting their Jewish minority is concerned, what the kings say and do matters. They appointed Jews as ministers and royal advisers, showing the royal seal of approval. But where there were at least 200,000 Jews 70 years ago, today under 5,000 remain.

Serge Berdugo, the ebullient secretary-general of Moroccan Jewry and a former minister of tourism, is optimistic about the current state of his community. He tells me of his good relations with the new Islamic Premier, Abdelilah Benkirane. Newspapers photographed them embracing warmly the night Mr Benkirane won parliamentary elections. The joint message of the two leaders – Jews and Muslims get on well together in today’s Morocco.

May this be a beacon of tolerance for all of North Africa and the Middle East.


About the Author
Andrew M Rosemarine runs an international law office, has 3 law degrees (Oxford), is a former fellow of the Harry S. Truman Institute for Peace, is multi-lingual, and writes on the Middle East and Europe for various newspapers worldwide. His main hobbies are conflict resolution and solving problems for clients, colleagues and friends.