“But Teacher, it is known that all of those who call themselves Israeli today are just descendants of European colonizers or are colonizers themselves.” I don’t really remember how this conversation started. The topic of Israel and Palestine didn’t get brought up too often. And yet, I found myself in a small room with three young Moroccan youth, 11-12 year old boys who had joined my Youth Leadership club. And we were indeed discussing the history of the modern state of Israel, the subsequent war of Independence, or Nakba as they called it, and what the future of the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River entailed.
At this point in time, I had a fond relationship with all three of them. We had organized a trash pickup in their community in order to spur a conversation about litter, pollution, and climate change. We had developed an impressive presentation that they were to give to members of that community: parents, friends, other classmates, and teachers regarding the issue of global warming. The presentation was to be performed in English, and I was one of their English teachers.
As I reflect on that day in light of the recent normalization of relations between Israel and Morocco, I can’t stop wondering about my student. He will remain unnamed. I suspect he could feel betrayed by King Mohammed VI. Or he could be in such utter disbelief that his majesty’s government would even recognize Israel’s existence, hypothesizing it to be a ploy of some kind. Whatever he is thinking, I am thinking of him. The conversation we engaged in about Israel and Palestine was undoubtedly the most illuminating bridge into what many people believe about the State of Israel. Of course, I was not completely unaware of these beliefs. However, to hear a child inform you that all of the Jews will be murdered for stealing Arab land without flinching was a novel phenomenon for me; one that shook me to my core.
“And Allah will cleanse our land of any infidels when the time is right.”
“But you are aware that there has been a Jewish connection to this land unbroken for many thousands of years? Longer than Islam has even been a religion?” (My response)
Unfortunately, for as clever as this boy was, he wouldn’t listen to the historical record before the 20th century. He was only concerned with the narrative that the Jews were given Arab land by the British, that they took what wasn’t theirs to have, and they needed to suffer because of it. The Jews were being given something that wasn’t rightfully their own mostly in response to the horrors of the Holocaust. This boy was well-versed in history and could tell you the dates of crucial historical events such as the Balfour Declaration, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the San Remo Conference, and the Hussein-Mcmahon correspondence. Needless to say I was impressed, frustrated, and terrified all at the same time.
“Teacher, you are aware that the Zionists considered moving all of the Jews to Uganda and having their country there, right?”
“Yes, I am aware that this was an idea put forward by a small fraction of folks but there was never serious talk of it. The large majority of Zionists and Jews the world over wanted there to be a home for the Jewish people in Zion.” (My Response)
As I attempted to give this student of mine the Jewish side of the story, I became quickly disillusioned. He remarked to me that he learned all of this from his father. I asked him if he had ever read through a Jewish prayer book? After the thundering “No” I encouraged him to search the Internet for Jewish Psalms and prayers and consider how many of them call out to Jerusalem. I then began to give him a brief history of Jews in Arab lands, a history that deserves its own separate blog post. I taught him about the hundreds of thousands of Arab Jews who were violently forced to leave their home countries in the early 1950’s due to Anti-Semitism and in response to the newly established state of Israel. I briefly discussed the long line of historical significance Jews have had in countries such as Iran, Egypt, and Iraq. I inquired to him, “did you know that a Jewish presence in Morocco dates back 2,500 years? Or that on the eve of World War 2 there were 250,000 Jews in Morocco? (A whopping 10 percent of the population.) And that high numbers of Israelis trace their ancestry back to them?” I was hoping to deflate his European colonizer argument once and for all. Undoubtedly, it was challenging for him to have someone debate the only narrative he’d ever known on the subject, and better yet a Jewish American who was his teacher. He was stubborn. And I understand it, because that story he’d been told for so many years by his father, by his media, by his confirmation biases, is a damn strong one. I understood it then as I understand it now. At some point I decided to agree to disagree, simultaneously I had a desire to not take away any more from our class time together!
The ensuing weeks and months rolled by in a normal fashion. I performed my daily routines, went to work, went on my way to the local coffee shop or fruit stand, said Salam Aleikum to my neighbors, worked out at the gym, and walked by the sea. However, some days I would reflect on that class where I learned so much about people who hate us Jews. I saw that a lot of the hatred people have in their hearts is borne there by forces beyond their control. I never once faulted my student who has been the subject of this essay. I prayed for him and for the future.
With the most recent announcement between Israel and Morocco, I consider some of my prayers to have been answered. In a 1st for the Arab world, Jewish history and culture will now be taught in Moroccan schools. I believe this will be a huge step forward in Jewish-Arab relations, and will start from the ground up. Education is extremely crucial to build a more tolerant and empathetic world. The normalization between Israel and Morocco is a win for that agenda item and starting with the youth is the correct method of achieving it. As this turbulent year draws to a close, please allow this bit of good news to permeate. The education of Moroccan youth about Jewish history and culture will be a seed of peace and understanding. I hope that it will be cultivated properly.
Disclaimer: I do not wish to portray my student as the average Moroccan’s attitude towards the State of Israel. This is just from my personal experience and what I believed to be one, useful insight into a different perspective.