Saturday, October 10, 2009

IDF recruit from Morocco wore religion on her face

Kudos to Herb Keinon of the Jerusalem Post for this rare gem: the story of a girl soldier in the IDF who had been brought up not just on couscous, but in Morocco itself. In Morocco, "you live well, but there is always that thing you have to hide - that you are Jewish", she says. Moreover, Jews look different, wearing their 'religion on their face.'

"The IDF has thousands of soldiers in the army who grew up in homes where their parents spoke the Moroccan dialect; who feasted on couscous, stuffed dates and kebab; whose grandparents waxed nostalgic about Casablanca, Marrakech or Rabat; and who - in this land where the country of one's parents' birth defines a person's Jewish "ethnicity" - are considered Moroccan. But the IDF has just a very few soldiers who themselves - not their parents or grandparents - were born in Morocco, and who immigrated not in the 1950s and 1960s, but rather over the last few years.

"Fhima is one of the few, and - in this regard - is something of a curiosity. Israeli children of Moroccan Jews, those reared on stories of King Hassan II, a backward country, and long treks over the Atlas Mountains to make aliya and live in tent camps in Israel, have a difficult time pegging her. "When they hear I am from Morocco, people my age ask what its like to live there, whether there are cars, how I got here," says the twenty-one-year-old Fhima, in a lilting French-accented Hebrew. "I remind them that it is not exactly the same Morocco their grandparents left fifty years ago, that it is a modern country. It is an Arab country, but it is modern."

"Modern or not, it is not a country where Jewish youth, or their parents, see much of a future.

"The Moroccan Jewish community has gone from some 250,000 in 1948, to about 4,000 in 2008. And even though the current king, Mohammed VI, has taken pains to show support and protect the Jewish community, especially after al-Qaida linked terrorist bombs against Jewish targets in Casablanca in 2003, most Jewish youth leave there after high school. And most of them leave for other locales, not Israel.

"The way it works in Morocco," says Fhima, stroking long, thick, wavy brown hair, "is that you go to high school, do the matriculation exam, and then go abroad for university. There are no good universities in Morocco, so the Jews go elsewhere. Everyone goes to New York or France or Canada. They don't stay in Morocco."

"Of her class of some twenty-five at the Alliance Israelite school in Casablanca, a Jewish school that also accepts a small number of select Christian and Muslim students, nearly everyone left Morocco after high school. She was the only one to come to Israel.

"Speaking of her Jewish classmates, and why they showed little interest in studying in or moving to Israel, Fhima says they "didn't want to go to a country where there are problems, I don't think they wanted that pressure. To a certain extent, I think they were afraid."

"Which, considering the portrayal of Israel in Morocco, is not entirely unreasonable. But rather than scaring Fhima away, the unbalanced representation of Israel at home only increased her motivation, since she was convinced Israel was much different from what was being shown.

"My mother had friends in Israel who would come to visit, and we also had some cousins there whom I would talk to on the Internet," she says, sitting on her porch during a four-day leave from her base in a sleeveless, rainbow-colored blouse, her green army fatigues drying on a clothes line just over her shoulder. "From time to time they would come to Casablanca. They talked about life in Israel, and told me how after high school the kids go into the army."

That talk had an impact, and from the time she was about ten years old, Fhima says she realized she too wanted to join the Israeli military. "I remember people asking what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I would say, 'go to Israel and go into the army.' And everybody would laugh."(..)

"It is possible to live there as a Jew, but you feel it when you come and go. People stare at you," she says, adding that the Jews in Morocco are - because of their facial characteristics - easily identifiable. With olive-colored skin and large, brown eyes, Fhima looks distinctly Mediterranean, and those Jewish characteristics of which she speaks are not immediately apparent. Yet, she says, in Morocco it was as if she wore her religion on her face.

Isabelle Fhima (Photo: Ricki Rosen)

"It is not too comfortable an atmosphere," she says, adding that there have not, however, been the isolated incidents of beatings of Jews that occurred sporadically in France during the early 2000s. "You live well, but there is always that thing you have to hide - that you are Jewish."

"One of the most refreshing things she finds about Israel is that she can walk around without feeling all eyes are on her; that she can apply for a job or for school and not be concerned she will be rejected because she is Jewish. This was her strongest impression of Israel when she visited for the first time in 2004 as a participant on a two-month program for Moroccan Jewish youth going into the twelfth grade.

"I liked the feeling that I would walk in the street and nobody would look at me," she says. "You feel yourself, that nobody is going to do anything to you because of your religion. I felt free in my soul. I had no concern when I walked around that anybody would stare. That's what I felt here. I felt that I could breathe at last. I wanted to stay."

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