Mohamed Chtatou
Mohamed Chtatou

Sefrou, the “Little Jerusalem” of all times Part 4

But the highlight of the religious coexistence initiated in Sefrou was the veneration of the same saints by the two religious communities. For Geertz and his team, Jews and Muslims, despite their differences, had much in common on the cultural level.[xxxiv]

” … Jews mixed with Muslims under uniform ground rules, which, to an extent difficult to credit for whose ideas about Jews in traditional trade are based on the role they played in premodern Europe, were different in religious status. There was, of course, some penetration of communal concerns into the bazaar setting (exclusively Jewish trades, like gold working and tinsmithing and such special phenomena as Kosher butchers), but what is remarkable is not how much there was but how little. The cash nexus was quite real; the Jew was cloth seller, peddler, shopkeeper, shoe-maker, or porter before he was a Jew and dealt and was dealt with as such. Contrariwise, there was some penetration of general Moroccan patterns of life into the communal area: Jewish kinship patterns were not all that unlike Muslim; Jewish not only had saints of their own but often honored Muslim ones as well: and Arabic not Hebrew, was the language of the home.”

This perfect coexistence between Jews and Muslims in Sefrou has found its ultimate expression in the worship of the same saint by both religious groups. Indeed, at the northern entrance of the city in question, on the side of a small mountain on the right is a cave, which, according to the hagiographic literature of both Judaism and Islam, is home to the tomb of a saint venerated by the two religious communities. The site is deftly called Kaf al-Moumenthe Cave of the Believer“, without specifying which Abrahamic believer is it about. Nobody seemed to care about such a detail, anyway, ever.

The people of Sefrou, so confident in their ancestral traditions have never asked themselves the question of whether it is one and the same saint for the two religions or for two different saints. In a way, such a question was totally superfluous for them. A saint is a saint.

This question, so relevant to some fundamentalists on both sides, was of no importance to the people of Sefrou. Their religious coexistence was so strong and solid that they laid out strict time periods to visit the cave around the religious calendar of each denomination and, for centuries during, this calendar worked wonderfully, for all, and without any problems and it could have continued to function if the Jews of this city had not left following campaigns of incitement of Jewish American and international agencies to make them migrate to Israel.

This religious coexistence was not the prerogative of the city of Sefrou, indeed there were plenty of similar examples in other localities of Morocco, whether they are imperial cities or small towns of little importance.

This coexistence, although effective throughout the territory, hid a phenomenon of latent racism, nevertheless, among certain social groups, especially the rich who saw the success of Moroccan Jews with great jealousy, and expressed this feeling by bullying, aggressive verbal behavior, or simply by invoking religion and viewing the Jew and the Christian as impure beings, and using, therefore, the Arabic racist and condescending term “hashak” (meaning impure being) when mentioning their names or referring to them.


In 1956, Morocco regained its national independence from France, and attended powerless or half-consenting, to the emigration of its small Jewish communities from the mellahs of the Atlas, followed closely by those of the medium-sized cities of the Kingdom, towards the young state of Israel. The danger, then, lay in the fact that:[xxxv]

The Jews of Morocco were anxious to safeguard first and foremost what was the pivot of their existence: religion and erudition, without paying too much attention to keeping the material evidence of a life nourished by millennial tradition

The year before the independence of Morocco was marked by massive emigration of Jews, and by a series of deadly attacks. Zédé Schulmann’s sons left the country permanently to settle in France and their collection of Moroccan Jewish folk art was shipped to Jerusalem via Marseille. Ten years later, in 1965, during the inauguration of the Israel Museum, Zédé Schulmann and all the donors, occupied the places of honor, at this celebration, and received medals for “having saved the treasures of the tradition and the Jewish folk art.”

In 1973, the Museum organized the first major exhibition ever devoted to the Jews of Morocco, to “highlight the contribution of Moroccan Judaism to the culture and universal Jewish thought.[xxxvi] The exhibition is mainly based on the collection of objects, documents, photographs, and films collected by Jean Besancenot and Zédé Schulmann. A warm tribute was paid to the latter for the passion with which he had engaged in “these real campaigns of rescue.”

In his autobiography, which he wrote two years before his death in 1981, Zédé Schulmann testified to his action as a necessary task, which he was proud to have accomplished, but which he does not intend to derive any glory from: “if I had not done this work at that time, it would have been impossible to do it.” However, he helped make Moroccan Judaism known and to preserve it from a prejudicial oversight and time decay.

Between 1948 and 1968, almost all Jewish families in Sefrou decided to abandon their « Little Jerusalem » and millennial Morocco to emigrate to Israel. A Moroccan Jew himself and believed to be: “one of the last Davids born in Sefrou“, David Assouline collected testimonies and archive footage to understand the reasons for such a massive departure which might be one or all of the following reasons: end of the French protectorate, independence of Morocco, creation of the State of Israel, Israeli-Arab wars, Oujda pogrom of July 1944, proselytism of the Universal Israelite Alliance, socialist ideal of the Kibbutz, etc. It is, indeed, a whole cluster of fears and hopes that pushed the Jews of Sefrou to go to the Promised Land.

But, faced with the Ashkenazi contempt for these so-called “knife-cut Moroccans“, the people of Sefrou had to fight to find their place in Israel and to found their new city: Ashdod. Today, as Youval says: “resentment is no longer appropriate, nor is idealism.” But for Moshe, Samuel, Aba, David, and even for their descendants, Sefrou remains a mythical dream, whose nostalgic memory remains “a sweet wound

The documentary of David Assouline is, definitely, a must-see for the beautiful images of this peaceful past in the medina and discover, once again, that the drama of integration is not necessarily played where we expect it. For the elders of Sefrou, the promised land had a bitter taste: “I was a master, I became a servant,” says one of them who recounts the humiliations, haughtiness, and the morgue of the Jews of Europe (Ashkenazi) and the girls who turn their backs on Moroccan Jews. To end up accommodating: “My sons, at least have not been treated dirty Jews.[xxxvii]


What remains of Sefrou, the little Jerusalem of Morocco, the beloved oriental paradise of Colette? A memory, a sweet wound for the children of these thousands of Jews who lived formerly in this small Moroccan town close to Fez. “The land of Israel was here,” said Moshe, one of the last Jews to leave Sefrou for Israel. They left one after the other, driven by the Moroccan independence, the wars of the Middle East and this diffuse fear which stifled the sweetness of living together, Jews and Arabs, without conflicts or hatred, whatsoever.[xxxviii]

If these Jews and their descendants love Morocco so much, today, despite the passing of time, it is because this country is an integral part of their personal history.[xxxix] For most of them, Morocco is the land of their ancestors, a beloved land that has generally treated them well. The position of Mohammed V during the Second World War was not forgotten: he refused to surrender Moroccan Jews to the Vichy regime who wanted to deport them, stating that all Moroccans are Jews. Later, Hassan II did not cease to recognize an integral part of the Jews and Judaism in the Moroccan identity. As for King Mohammed VI, he  ensured that Judaism is among the “secular tributariesof national identity, and inscribed it, in gold, in the constitution of 2011 :[xl]

« With fidelity to its irreversible choice to construct a democratic State of Law, the Kingdom of Morocco resolutely pursues the process of consolidation and of reinforcement of the institutions of a modern State, having as its bases the principles of participation, of pluralism and of good governance. It develops a society of solidarity where all enjoy security, liberty, equality of opportunities, respect for their dignity, and for social justice, within the framework of the principle of correlation between the rights and the duties of the citizenry.

A sovereign Muslim State, attached to its national unity and to its territorial integrity, the Kingdom of Morocco intends to preserve, in its plenitude and its diversity, its one and indivisible national identity. Its unity is forged by the convergence of its Arab-Islamist, Berber [amazighe] and Saharan-Hassanic [saharo-hassanie] components, nourished and enriched by its African, Andalusian, Hebraic and Mediterranean influences [affluents]. The pre-eminence accorded to the Muslim religion in the national reference is consistent with [va de pair] the attachment of the Moroccan people to the values of openness, of moderation, of tolerance, and of dialog for mutual understanding between all the cultures and the civilizations of the world. »


[xxxiv] Op. cit. Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society: Three Essays in Cultural Analysis, p. 165.

[xxxv] « La vie juive au Maroc – Arts et Traditions » édité par A. Muller-Lancet et D. Champault, Tel Aviv, 1986, p. 3

« les juifs du Maroc, avaient pour souci de sauvegarder en priorité ce qui représentait le pivot de leur existence : la religion et l’érudition, sans trop se préoccuper de garder les témoignages matériels d’une vie nourrie de traditions millénaires »

[xxxvi] Remarks of Alix de Rothschild introducing the exhibition (1973).

[xxxvii] “Entre paradis perdu et terre promise,” Authors : David Assouline ; Luc Decaster ; and Mehdi Lallaoui. Editor :  Paris : Mémoires Vives Production [prod.], 1997.

The story of the immigration to Israel of the last Jews of Sefrou in Morocco.

Jews from Sefrou are more known for trading. But David Assouline, 54, chose another path: history and activism in the ranks of student movements of the extreme left. His other passion is the issue of immigration to which he has devoted several books. He was one of the famous figures of the “March of the Bers” in 1983. Trotskyist activist, he finally joined the Socialist Party in 1995 and became national secretary in charge of defense issues. Very close to Ségolène Royal and Martine Aubry, he is also an advisor for the city of Paris and senator since 2004. He travels quite often to Morocco where he has several friends in the Moroccan left parties. In addition to his multiple responsibilities, he is now one of the PS spokespersons.

[xxxviii] Sefrou, Jérusalem du Maroc. Arte, 20h45, documentaire. Carte blanche aux 2 Be 3. MCM, October 15, 1997.

[xxxix] In 1996, I was appointed by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation -OIC- to lead a fact-finding mission on the educational needs of The Palestinian Authority. After getting a visa from the Israeli diplomatic representation in Rabat, I left with my party made of Mauritanian and Malian diplomats to Jordan. The next day we were driven to the border and crossed on foot to Israel where we were received in a mobile office by beautiful immigration women officers. Given that my companions had diplomatic passports and I did not, I handed the passports to the Israeli officials with mine at the bottom. Half an hour later, a beautiful young woman, surely their superior, came out all smiles and called my name, kissed me on the cheeks, and said in Moroccan Arabic: « nta weld bledi, ana mrrakchiya » (You are the son of my homeland, I am from Marrakesh.) Having said that she offered us coffee, cookies, and soda and called for a limousine to take us to the terminal where Palestinian officials were in wait for us.


« Fidèle à son choix irréversible de construire un Etat de droit démocratique, le Royaume du Maroc poursuit résolument le processus de consolidation et de renforcement des institutions d’un Etat moderne, ayant pour fondements les principes de participation, de pluralisme et de bonne gouvernance. Il développe une société solidaire où tous jouissent de la sécurité, de la liberté, de l’égalité des chances, du respect de leur dignité et de la justice sociale, dans le cadre du principe de corrélation entre les droits et les devoirs de la citoyenneté. 

Etat musulman souverain, attaché à son unité nationale et à son intégrité territoriale, le Royaume du Maroc entend préserver, dans sa plénitude et sa diversité, son identité nationale une et indivisible. Son unité, forgée par la convergence de ses composantes arabo-islamique, amazighe et saharo-hassanie, s’est nourrie et enrichie de ses affluents africain, andalou, hébraïque et méditerranéen. La prééminence accordée à la religion musulmane dans ce référentiel national va de pair avec l’attachement du peuple marocain aux valeurs d’ouverture, de modération, de tolérance et de dialogue pour la compréhension mutuelle entre toutes les cultures et les civilisations du monde ».

Bibliography :

Bazin, R. 1921. Charles de Foucauld : Explorateur du Maroc, Ermite au Sahara. Paris: Plon.

Beaumier, A. 1999.  Rawd al Kirtas. Histoire des Souverains du Maghreb et Annales de la Ville de Fes. Rabat : Editions La Porte.

Cefaï, D. 2003. Clifford Geertz, Le souk de Sefrou : sur l’économie de bazar. Traduction et présentation de Daniel Cefaï. Saint-Denis : éd. Bouchène.

Chafai El Alaoui, C. 1983. « Naissance et développement d’une municipalité marocaine sous le protectorat français : Séfrou (1912-1956) », thèse de doctorat de 3e cycle, Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne.

Cohen, Mark. R. 1994. Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages. Princeton University Press.

Colette. 1920. Notes marocaines. Text written in 1920 and published in 1958. Genève: Éditions Mermod.

Chtatou, M. 2019. « Expulsion of Sephardic Jews from Spain In 1492 And Their Relocation And Success In Morocco ». In Eurasia of September 5, 2019.

————–2018. « Emigration of Moroccan Jews to Israel in the 20th Century » in Eurasia Raview of March 5, 2018.

—————2009. « La diversité culturelle et linguistique au Maroc : pour un multiculturalisme dynamique ». Asinag 2.

De Périgny, M. 1917. Au Maroc: Fès, la capitale du Nord. Paris : chez Pierre Roger & Cie.

Foucauld, Vicomte C. 1888. Reconnaissance au Maroc: 1883-1884. Paris : Challamet et Cie, Editeurs, Librairie Orientale.

Geertz, C.; Hildred Geertz et Lawrence Rosen. 1979. Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society: Three Essays in Cultural Analysis. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Geertz, C. 1992.  Observing Islam: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia. Paris: La Découverte.

Hoffman, Bernard G. 1967. The Structure of Traditional Moroccan Rural Society. The Hague and Paris: Mouton.

Inglis, F.2000. Clifford Geertz: Culture Custom and Ethics. Polity.

Koehler, R.P. Henry. « La grotte dite « du Juif » à Sefrou (Maroc) ». In : Bulletin de la Société préhistorique de France, tome 51, n°9-10, 1954.

Levtzion, A. & J.F.P. Hopkins. 1981. Corpus of early Arabic sources for West African history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Miranda, A.H. 1964. Rawd el-Qirtas. 2nd edition. Valencia: Anubar Ediciones, Vol. 1.

Muller-Lancet, A. et D. Champault, eds. 1986.  La vie juive au Maroc – Arts et Traditions. Tel Aviv.

Saisset, P. 1930. Heures juives au Maroc. Paris: éditions Rieder.

Spector, Reeva Simon; Michael Menachem Laskier and Sara Reguer. 2003. The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times. Columbia University Press.

Stillman, N. A. 1988. The Language and Culture of the Jews of Sefrou: An Ethnolinguistic Study. Manchester: University of Manchester.

Rauschenbach, Sina and Jonathan Schorsch. 2019. The Sephardic Atlantic: Colonial Histories and Postcolonial Perspectives. Editions Springer.

About the Author
Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of “MENA region area studies” at Université Internationale de Rabat -UIR- and of “Education” at Université Mohammed V in Rabat, as well. Besides, he is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, American, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islamism and religious terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism. During 2015 he worked as Program Director with the USAID/CHEMONICS educational project entitled: “Reading for Success: A Small Scale Experimentation” in cooperation with the Moroccan Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training (MENFP). He recently taught cultural studies to Semester abroad students with AMIDEAST, IES and CIEE study abroad programs in Morocco insuring such courses as: “Introduction to Moroccan Culture,” “Contemporary North African History,” “Arab Spring,” “Amazigh Culture,” “Moroccan Jewish Legacy,” “Community-Based Learning” (internship with civil society organizations). He is, also, currently teaching “Communication Skills” and “Translation and Interpreting” to master students at The Institute for Leadership and Communication Studies –ILCS- in Rabat, Morocco and supervising several Fulbright students in areas of religion and culture in Morocco. He has taught in the past some courses in universities in the USA, Spain, France, Italy, England and Greece.