Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Morocco's oldest Jewish hospital demolished

View from Tangiers

Morocco lost one of its historic landmarks when the oldest hospital in the land, the Jewish Benchimol hospital in Tangiers, was rased overnight on 2 April. And the Jewish cemetery might be next. (With thanks: Daniel)

Why did the demolition squads choose the dead of night and the middle of the festival of Passover to do the deed? And who ordered them in? The Moroccan newspaper Liberation, lamenting the destruction of Morocco's heritage, blames not just the local municipality for this act of historic vandalism, but the local Jewish community, which ostensibly 'sold' the pre-colonial, 110-year-old hospital in order to raise money for its poor - in spite of objections from the Fondation du Patrimoine Culturel Judeo-Marocain, whose aim is to safeguard Morocco's Jewish heritage. (Another report, however, says that the community did not own the site, which was the property of the Benchimol family, French nationals. Only the French consulate would have been able to give approval for the hospital to be torn down.)

Historian Ralph Toledano prefers to speculate that a rogue Wali is to blame, who acted without the knowledge and consent of the king. The deed was done while the few members of the tiny Jewish community were away.

"It is not just that this was a Jewish building which upsets me. All destruction of historic heritage is an irredeemable loss. A heritage cannot be reconstituted," Toledano writes. He admits that he had heard rumours that the local authorities had been wanting to demolish the building for some time. The (bizarre) aim was to turn the site into a public park, adjoining the ancient palace of Sultan Moulay Hafid. "One must never despise rumours, they often become fact."

Hence must be taken seriously a rumour that the municipality has next set its sights on the Jewish cemetery of dar el San’a, on rue du Portugal, opposite Bab America. The cemetery was an 18th century concession negotiated between the Sherifian king's representative and the Jewish community on the site of an old Portuguese fort.

The site measures more than a hectare, and commands a beautiful view over the straits. Mr Toledano is horrified at the thought that a site where venerable rabbis and community dignitaries are buried might be bulldozed. The 15th century Castille cemetery in Tetuan has a similarly breathtaking view.

Update: according to the Depeche du Nord (scroll down comments) security guards on the hospital site had their mobile phones confiscated by the demolition squad and were locked up, preventing them for preparing meals for the residents of an old people's home over Shabbat. The incident put the welfare of the residents at risk, the newspaper claims.

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