The role of younger generations of Moroccan Israelis in Morocco-Israel peace

Kulna in Yeruham, Israel in 2019 (Photo by Omar Oualili)
Kulna in Yeruham, Israel in 2019 (Photo by Omar Oualili)

The 10th of December 2020 is now a memorable day for many Moroccans and Israelis alike. On that day, then-President of the United States of America, Donald Trump made an important announcement. He declared on his official Twitter account that both America’s strategic allies, Morocco and Israel, will establish full diplomatic relations. For Moroccans, this resumption of official contacts between Morocco and Israel also came with the US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over its Sahara.

Ever since that day, we witnessed many firsts such as the first direct flight between Tel Aviv and Rabat as well as the first official agreements between Morocco and Israel. Further on the political stage, many meetings between Moroccan and Israeli officials took place at embassies of these two countries all over the world and many Zoom calls connecting Rabat to Jerusalem amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Culturally, there was even the first song between Israeli artist of Moroccan origin Elkana Marziano and Moroccan artist Sanaa Mohamed. We can say that this resumption of contact was at all levels. But we did not get there overnight. This was a long process of rapprochement that built up to these warm relations we are suddenly seeing today. It took a lot of work from all parties, the Kingdom of Morocco, the State of Israel and the Trump Administration and… a pool of mostly unknown talented and bright Moroccan Israelis. 

To be clear, Morocco and Israel were always close. In fact, the connection was between diasporas as Einat Levi, a researcher at Mitvim Institute declares “Morocco and its Moroccan Jewish diaspora in Israel and Israel and its Jewish diaspora in Morocco”. Although small, there is an active Jewish community in Morocco. Jews in Morocco participate in all aspects of life, either in politics with the example of Andre Azoulay, current advisor to King Mohamed VI or in culture with artists such as Gad El Maleh known in the international scene as one of the most popular Jewish comedians. On the other side of the Mediterranean, almost one million Israelis claim descent to Moroccan grandparents. In summer 2019, I had the opportunity to visit Israel for the second time. During my time there, I was interviewing Moroccan Israelis of second and third generation who kindly welcomed me in their country, their cities and their homes. The purpose of this research was to complete my thesis for my master’s at Kings College London. During my week in Israel, I learnt a lot about the country and Moroccan Jews and I clearly saw that normalisation and peace, between Morocco and Israel, were already in the making for many years. On this unusually long blog on The Times of Israel, I will tell you about what I observed. 

Photos of some prominent Mizrahi figures. Seen at Kulna’s HQ in Yeruham in 2019. (Photo by Omar Oualili)

The trauma of the third generation

During the past decade, there is a noticeable trend amongst younger generations of Mizrahi Jews in Israel. These young people mostly from the second or third generation are reclaiming a lost identity. An identity taken away during the early days of the foundation of the State of Israel. Indeed, their grandparents fled their countries of origin to find themselves taken to transit camps in Israel or remote peripheries – leaving them to face a new chapter of their lives in precarity, while at times, being forced by the state to assimilate with a Western and Ashkenazi culture. Consequently, many Moroccans denied their own Moroccan identity with some going as far as changing their Arabic or Sephardic last name to erase their Arab origins and rather present themselves to society as Europeans. Meanwhile, others have resisted the change and started a call for justice in the 1970s with a group called the “Black Panthers” established in Jerusalem by second-generation young Mizrahim. 

Through my interviews, I find out that the trauma of leaving Morocco and staying in transit camps in Israel lived by the grandparents has been transmitted to the subsequent generations. This trauma shapes the identity of young people and it reinforces their “Moroccanness”. However, many Israelis of Moroccan origin claim that there was also a strong absence of Morocco during their upbringing. They either feel that their second-generation parents never talked about it or their young self was too ashamed to interact with their Moroccan identity due to the social stigma of being Moroccan in Israel. Both experiences have pushed many second and third generations Israelis to reclaim their Moroccan identity. But how can they claim an identity from a country they have never seen and at times heard negative things about?

In the 2010s, Morocco made considerable steps to welcome Israeli tourists (Photo by Omar Oualili)

2010s – The decade of change

As these young people struggle with their Moroccan identities in Israel, Morocco was making it easier for them to visit or even move back. Many Mellahs (Jewish neighbourhoods in Morocco) went through full rehabilitation programs and at times some streets have been renamed to their original Jewish names. Most recently, the King of Morocco, Mohamed VI, visited “Bayt Dakira” in Essaouira early 2020. This space is both spiritual and historical as it seeks to preserve the Judeo-Moroccan heritage. Ever since 2011, Morocco officially acknowledged the Jewish component of the Moroccan identity in its constitution. This move makes an end to a long perception within Moroccan subjects that Morocco is exclusively an “Arab and Muslim” country. In parallel, Israel also relaxed its melting pot policies implying that being Israeli is not exclusively being “Western and Ashkenazi”.  Moreover, in 2015, the Moroccan Ministry of Moroccans Living Abroad formally recognised that 800,000 Moroccans live in Israel, the second Moroccan diaspora in the world, only after France. 

Right now in Israel, Moroccan Jews have an increased representation in many fields. Although it is symbolic in some instances, but Moroccans made significant progress economically at least. They are no longer at the end of the social ladder; they have financially progressed and they feel comfortable. Indeed, Kobi Ifrach, one of the people I interviewed, states that Moroccans can afford to go on heritage tours to Morocco which further reinforces their Moroccan identity. Indeed, all Israeli tourists in Morocco feel welcome and safe. This safety is provided by the Kingdom of Morocco to all its visitors. It is also attractive for Israelis to make business there as on average 45,000 Israelis visit Morocco every year and this, long before the latest normalisation deal. In the past decade, learning Arabic, travelling to Morocco and celebrating Mimouna became a trend in Israeli society. During the same period, songs in Moroccan Arabic have topped the Israeli charts. This acceptance of Moroccan music in the mainstream was supported by Miri Regev, a second-generation Moroccan Minister of Culture under the Likud Party between 2015 and 2020. 

This is Meknes, Morocco. The city from where my family comes from as well as part of Einat’s family. (Photo by Omar Oualili)

The power of social media to bring Morocco to Israel

Einat Levi has some Moroccan roots. She works as a researcher at the Mitvim Institute. Over the last decade, she caught the Moroccan “travel bug”. Indeed, she made countless trips to Morocco to uncover the story she was never told back home in Haifa. Morocco was completely absent from her upbringing in Israel so after taking her first trip to Morocco, she took a leading role in making bridges between the two countries.

In the era of transnationalism, ideas, cultures and capital move beyond national borders, meaning one can belong to more than one national identity. Moroccan Muslims around the world show these traits. They have the ability to fully integrate into their host countries but also keep their Moroccan identity alive. They create websites, blogs and more recently social media pages to talk about Morocco and keep the connection alive. This is exactly what Einat did for Moroccan Jews, she created a Facebook group called “The Jewish Project” where she posts photos collected from abandoned Jewish places in Morocco and finds people who can relate to them. Einat says that “it made things invisible now visible […] the Facebook groups heal the absence and give back all the memories lost”. These groups were so successful that the number of members kept on rising, reaching the thousands. Moreover, Einat also runs a successful Facebook page simply called “Morocco – מרוקו – المغرب”, right now with over 10,000 followers. Due to the borderless nature of social media, Moroccan Muslims also have an opportunity to connect with Moroccans in Israel. Einat says that her page is open for all, hence why the title is written in English, Arabic and Hebrew.

With the success of her personal trips, Einat took the initiative to take groups and delegations to visit Morocco. She consequently inspired a whole community of young Moroccan Israelis to go back to chase their grandparents roots.  With each person going to Morocco and posting a story, a photo or a video on social media, they are inspiring their friends and family. Like a snowball effect, Morocco becomes a trend in Israel – even among non-Moroccan Israelis. In music, popular singers like Kobi Peretz, Eden Ben Zaken or Miri Mesika sing in Moroccan Arabic but they do it their way. They make old Moroccan songs appeal to the younger generation and it works! 

Thanks to the power of technology and social media, Moroccan culture made it to the mainstream and is consumed by every Israeli household. By allowing this trend to accelerate during the past decade, the Israelis are sending a clear message that they have already normalised with Morocco. 

An Amazigh symbol seen in Yeruham, Israel in 2019. (Photo by Omar Oualili)

Kulna – an association promoting Judeo-Moroccan culture in Israel

From Tel Aviv to Beersheba by train, then a bus to Yeruham but I found myself in Ouarzazate, a Moroccan city known as “The Gate of the Sahara Desert”. Indeed, Yeruham was no different as it is located in the Negev Desert in southern Israel. Although I met Kobi for the first time, he greeted me with a hug (that was before corona) and said: “Welcome to Ouarzazate”. It was incredible how I was thousands of miles away from Morocco but never felt as close to my home country from as far. Unlike Einat, Kobi grew up in a tightly knit Moroccan community in Dimona. He speaks Moroccan Arabic with a high level of fluency and says that Morocco is in his blood. There was no absence of Morocco during his upbringing but notices young people are missing a lot from not knowing things about their roots. 

Kobi is one of two founders of Kulna, an organisation promoting and introducing Eastern Judaism culture to young people in Israel. By being based in Yeruham, a city with a high number of Moroccan Israelis, the focus of his programs naturally turns to Judeo-Moroccan culture. However, his programs are open to anyone and now even attract young people from other communities in Israel. Kobi wants to “bring the Moroccan narrative to them”. Indeed, Kobi suggests that school trips to Morocco should be organised to see a different Jewish narrative, the image of a Morocco where Jews and Muslims live side by side peacefully and continuously for thousands of years. A contrasting image to the school trips done in Poland showing the tragic loss of Jewish life in Europe during the Holocaust. To be clear, Moroccans in Israel do not want to erase the Ashkenazi narrative but they simply want to add theirs. 

Right now, Kobi lives between Marrakech and Israel. With Kulna’s program more popular than ever, he is still finding time to do some rehabilitation work in Marrakech’s abandoned Jewish sites, some falling in ruins. He also organises heritage tours for people to learn about their identity. He says that his first groups were “Moroccan Jews who were born in Morocco. Then their children. Now Ashkenazi people go, everyone goes to Morocco!”. Indeed, Morocco has been open to all Israelis for decades now. As per Moroccan Muslims, they facilitated those tours and exchanges. Unlike other countries in the region, they have been allowing Israelis to visit Morocco though non-direct flights. More importantly, they have provided safety and security and an easier visa processing in Moroccan airports. 

Myself with Kobi in Yeruham in 2019. (Photo by Omar Oualili)

Conclusion

On 22 December 2020, Kobi Ifrach was broadcasting live from Rabat-Salé Airport, on his Facebook profile, the arrival of the first direct flight between Israel and Morocco. A historic moment he did contribute to make happen with his heritage tours, his organisation promoting Judeo-Moroccan culture and his efforts to restore Jewish sites in Marrakech. 

As for Einat, she makes Morocco visible on social media to thousands of people in Israel. She inspires many to reconnect with their lost identity to heal the absence of Morocco during their upbringing. Her Facebook pages not only connect Moroccan Jews between themselves but also give a platform to Moroccan Muslims to get to know Moroccan Jews. Tragically, there was also a loss and absence of Judeo-Moroccan culture for many young Moroccan Muslims who also needed to connect with this component of their identities. 

With the current revival of Mizrahi culture in Israel, we are witnessing a unique phenomenon that strongly makes it easier for Israel to make peace with its Arab neighbours and more importantly to culturally become an integral part of the Middle East. Finally, it is safe to say that thousands of Moroccan Israelis like Einat and Kobi are taking leading roles since the past decade. Indeed, to various degrees of involvement and leadership but some are taking part of this trend by simply sharing photos of their holidays in Morocco on social media. Even with little engagement, those thousands of second and third Moroccan Israelis had a key role to play in the resumption of diplomatic relations between Morocco and Israel. Afterall, as the late King Hassan II famously said: “When a Jew emigrates, Morocco loses a citizen, but he gains an ambassador”.

This article contains snippets from my dissertation interviews conducted in June 2019 in Israel. 

About the Author
Omar is from Casablanca, Morocco. He is a master's graduate from Kings College London where he studied Political Economy of the Middle East. Omar currently works at a tech company in London. As an avid traveler, he visited over 65 countries around the world.
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