Thursday, July 30, 2015

PBS projects reductive Moroccan history


The transcript of a televised PBS report, this article is an example of  how journalists and Moroccan officials work together to write a sloppy and reductive history of the Jews - a mix of half-truths and cliches -  designed to project 'coexistence' and a positive image of the kingdom. My comments in italics:

For many people, Judaism in the Middle East conjures images of discord. But the Islamic nation of Morocco is an exception — it’s a place where Jews are not just tolerated but embraced in some circles as an important part of the country’s history and culture.

Even before the arrival of Islam in Morocco, Jews called this North African coastal nation their home. About 400 years ago, the Moroccan Jewish community forged a strong connection and alliance with the country’s ruling dynasty, the Alaouites.

A gross oversimplification. The so-called philosemitic Moulay Ismael sent his troops into the Meknes mellah to plunder Jewish possessions in order to finance his disastrous war against the Turks in Algiers (Assaraf, p 18). Jews and Muslims suffered from his sons' wars of succession.  The 19th century saw a major wave of Jewish emigration.The push factors include the precariousness and degradation of 'dhimmi' status and the pressure of forced conversion to Islam.

In the 20th century, persecutions across Europe brought new waves of Jewish immigrants to Morocco seeking safe haven. Their hope was not in vain — in 1940, when the Nazi-controlled French government in Morocco issued anti-Semitic decrees, the Alaouite Sultan Mohammed V rejected the racist laws.

In one oft-repeated story, he refused to ask his Jewish subjects to wear the yellow stars. “There are no Jews in Morocco,” he reportedly said. “There are only subjects.”

'Waves' is an exaggeration. And what about the existence of labour camps on Moroccan soil in which Jewish prisoners were tortured to death? The 'yellow star' story is pure legend. It is simply not true that Mohammed V rejected the racial laws, he signed every Vichy decree.

Today in Morocco, Jews enjoy equal rights and privileges. One of King Mohammed VI’s senior advisers, André Azoulay, is Jewish. Morocco also has state-funded Jewish schools and Jewish religious courts.

Andre Azoulay is the King's chief PR adviser, and is responsible for generating articles like this one.

At the Jewish courts, called Bet Din, civil cases are heard and adjudicated by rabbis. Morocco’s Bet Din is the only such Jewish court system outside Israel, officially recognized as an alternative legal body and housed within the same complex as Muslim courts.

Not true: 'Batei Din' exist wherever there is a Jewish community. 

Despite the tolerant atmosphere, Morocco’s Jewish population is steadily decreasing. Although Moroccan Jews are largely free from the persecution and animosity that they may face in other Muslim nations, there was a series of suicide bombings on May 16, 2003 in Casablanca that targeted sites of Jewish life and killed three Jews.

 The decrease has been not steady but quite dramatic, and preceded the 2003 Casablanca terrorist attacks by about 50 years. 

Moroccan Jews have been flowing to Israel, Europe and the Americas for religious reasons, fear of persecution and to better their economic situation. At its height in the 1940s, Morocco’s Jewish population exceeded 250,000; today, only about 4,000 remain.

The Jewish community has mostly abandoned its formerly vibrant existence in Moroccan cities like Tangier, Fez, Salé and Tetouan. Only the city of Casablanca maintains a significant population and is now the center of Moroccan Jewish life.

Casablanca boasts 17 active synagogues, three Jewish schools, an extensive Jewish museum, and a community center that cares for the sick and elderly. But the mellahs (Jewish quarters) of other Moroccan cities stand empty or repurposed.

A semblance of truth, at last. 

Because of the mass exodus, some in Morocco are racing to preserve the country’s Jewish culture and community. At the Jewish Museum in Casablanca, which is the only one in the Arab world, Muslim curator Zhor Rehihil is passing on the history of Morocco’s Jews to all who visit.

Read article in full


Anonymous said...

while this is all true, there are rumblings among some young Moroccans (an Amizegh-American dual citizen, Amine Ayoub, is openly publishing and giving interviews on Voice of Israel) similar to the movement in Tunisia to combat antisemetism. And that gives me reason to be a little hopeful that there are better times ahead.

bataween said...

I would like to share your optimism. I don't know how representative the philosemitic Amazighen might be.

Sammish said...

I am slightly pessimistic about the future of the Jewish community in Morocco. The demographic trend by itself attests to the major issue. Declining Jewish population and huge out-migration may not be the result of anti-semitism (which is good) but why are the Jews leaving? why isn't there a thriving and growing presence of the like of past?

It is simply the lack of opportunities. The command economy (if not to say ever growing cronyism driven by the Bakshish (Rashoua in Moroccan language) for which the Arab Moroccan themselves suffer from. This has lead in the past to increase Muslim fundamantalism among the youth. The lack of basic education, benign xenophobic outlook and deep seated patriarchial culture all lead to the incompatibility of educated Jews to stay and live in Morocco. Even the young Arab Moroccans (educated or not) attempt to leave for Europe.

Unless Moroccan (muslim) society adapts itself to the modern cultural standards, I do not see any chance for it to bring back its Jewish "subjects" back. And no high Jewish court officials of the likes of Azoulay or Amar will change this. The Israeli Arab conflict does not help either.

As for the Museum, I agree with the one comment from the original article. I visited it twice in 2008. It was empty. The majority of Arabs do not visit museums, period. Art, literature and history are not celebrated or studied by the vast majority of the population. The vast majority would not set foot in the Jewish museum nor art gallery. The museum is a good PR for Moroccan tourism.

Amine Ayoub said...

I am a Moroccan Muslim