Monday, April 21, 2014

Mimouna Club braves ostracism

 The Mimouna Club in front of the Jewish Museum in Casablanca

To mark the end of the festival of Passover tonight, Moroccan Jews will celebrate the Mimouna. This unique symbol of Jewish-Arab connection, when Muslim neighbours brought pancakes and other leaven into Jewish homes, is now the name of a club started by Moroccan Muslim students. Of course, if Moroccans have anything to do with Jews and Israel, they run the risk of stigmatisation and ostracism, as Aomar Boum remarks in this Tablet article. See my comment below. (with thanks: Michelle) 

 The Club is called Mimouna, after the traditional Moroccan Jewish post-Passover celebration welcoming the return of leavened bread. For Moroccan Jews, Mimouna signifies the promise of redemption and the hopeful return of the messiah. Israel recognized it as a national holiday in 1966; the Mimouna Club contends that the observance deserves a place in Moroccan culture and society, as a celebration of ethnic diversity.

Today, it has foundation status and chapters in Fès, Rabat, Tetouan, and Marrakech. In December, I met a few members of the foundation in Rabat, where they were preparing to launch a cultural caravan, a 300-mile traveling roadshow about Moroccan Judaism. I asked them why they care about a topic that could potentially bring them nothing but stigma and social rejection. Almost all of them highlighted how little Moroccan youth know about their history and how significant it is for their compatriots beyond the walls of university campuses to embrace Morocco’s cultural diversity.

 For many Moroccans, particularly younger ones, the country’s Jewish story is part of the past and has no place in post-independence society. “How could we have a club about Moroccan Jews many of whom occupy Palestinian lands today?” one Mimouna critic in Casablanca whispered to me during a visit I made in 2010. It was an attitude I knew well from my anthropological and ethnographic research on Moroccan Jewish communities—but the social pressure on me as a professional ethnographer was minimal compared to the pressures the student members of Mimouna face.

A few acknowledged their frustration and anxiety about being ostracized just because of their interest in learning about Moroccan Judaism—really, about Moroccan history. Recently, the name of one of the Mimouna club members was listed in a public document published online by the Moroccan Observatory Against Normalization with Israel, alongside names such as André Azoulay, an adviser to King Mohammed VI; Driss El-Yazami the president of the National Human Rights Council; and Berber, or Amazigh, activists, some of whom have contact with Israeli institutions, citizens, and other public organizations.

 But when I spoke to these students in the course of completing work for a book on the monarchy, Jews, and Holocaust politics in Morocco, I was surprised to find that their interest in the history of Jewish-Muslim relations emerged from their own lives. The majority of them were born and raised in Casablanca, Rabat, Marrakech, and Fès and knew their hometowns had complex histories. Elmehdi Boudra, the co-founder of the club at Al-Akhawayn—who subsequently went on to earn a master’s degree in coexistence and conflict from Brandeis—talked to me about how he never knew, growing up in Casablanca, about the longstanding relations between Jews and Muslims in the old city.

Boudra was also inspired by one of the group’s early mentors, Simon Lévy, a renowned linguist of Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Spanish, a political dissident, and former director of the Jewish Museum of Casablanca who also played major role in Moroccan politics since Independence as one of the leading figures of the Party of Progress and Socialism founded by Ali Ya’ta. Another student, Sami Gaidi, described how he went to school in Rabat with Moroccan Jews with whom he remained in touch; a third, Myriam Mallouk, talked about how she was hosted by a Moroccan Jewish family while studying law in France.

In 1998, in a famous Le Monde Diplomatique article titled “Israel-Palestine: A Third Way,” Edward Said responded to Arab critics after his call for seeking communication with Jewish partners in an article that he published for al-Hayat newspaper in June 1998. Said called on Arabs to engage Jews in a responsible conversation including understanding the Holocaust. “When I mentioned the Holocaust in an article I wrote last November, I received more stupid vilification than I ever thought possible; one famous intellectual even accused me of trying to gain a certificate of good behaviour from the Zionist lobby,” Said wrote. “Of course, I support Garaudy’s right to say what he pleases and I oppose the wretched loi Gayssot under which he was prosecuted and condemned. But I also think that what he says is trivial and irresponsible, and when we endorse it, it allies us necessarily with Le Pen and all the retrograde right-wing fascist elements in French society.”

 Mimouna has taken the challenge to heart. In 2011, the club attracted international attention after its members organized a conference on the record of Morocco’s King Mohammed V during World War II, when he resisted orders from the Vichy government to deport Jews living inside the kingdom. For the students, the point of organizing a conference on the Holocaust was to educate their fellow Moroccans about a period when refugees from Europe—many, though not all, Jewish—found shelter in Morocco before the Allies landed at Safi and Casablanca in late 1942.

 It was, one of them told me, a first step—“which is listening to the other and building a trustworthy relationship and a responsible discussion.” Speakers at the conference included a Holocaust survivor—a first for an Arab university. Within Morocco, Khalid Soufyani and other members of the anti-normalization movement argued that the conference undermined the Palestinians and their fight against Israeli occupation. Even Sion Assidon—a Moroccan Jew and former political dissident, critic of Zionism and Israel, and proponent of the BDS movement—harshly critiqued the club for what he saw as implicitly advocating normalization of relations with Israel.

 A year after the Holocaust conference, 16 members of the club took a trip to Israel, where they had a firsthand experience of daily encounters between Jews and Muslims—and the realities of the conflict in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Ramallah and other places. They were also able to meet different generations of Moroccan Jews in Israel and the West Bank.

The trip was organized in collaboration with Kivunim, a New York-based gap-year program created by Peter Geffen, the founder of the Heschel School on the Upper West Side. Geffen took the students to Jerusalem and Ramallah—and to Ashdod, where they visited a statue to Hassan II that stands in a city park. These young students reflected on the complexities of the conflict as their minds and emotions struggled to bridge the distance between Yad Vashem, Deir Yassin, the Haram al-Sharif, and the Western Wall.

Despite the anxieties of the experience, they cherished meeting in person Israelis and American Jews as well as Palestinian Arabs, Christians, and Muslims. When I asked a student if he regretted making the trip after it attracted public criticism, he replied with confidence. “No, I do not regret the trip,” he told me. “I developed a strong friendship with Israelis and Palestinians who work together as we speak now for a possible, just, and peaceful world. It is tough. But the fact of seeing Israeli women standing between an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian worker gives me hope.”

 Read article in full

 My comment: The Mimouna club should be applauded for taking risks to build bridges between the two communities.They have been brave enough to arrange a trip to Israel; they have had to fend off accusations of normalisation with Israel. But I am uneasy about the kind of Israel they were taken to see. It is an Israel which confirms the Arab version of history - a version which sees Palestinians as victims. At the same time, it confirms the myth that Moroccans saved Jews during WW2. I bet that these young people were told nothing about Arab antisemitism.

 I am further uneasy that Boum quotes, of all people, Edward Said. Arabs should acknowledge the Holocaust so as not to be bracketed with far right fascists, he said. A bizarre and disingenuous argument.

Pro-Jewish students suffered antisemitism

Holocaust conference has its dangers 

Aomar Boum: A market without Jews is like bread without salt


SyrianJew said...

The so-called Muslim-Jewish "coexistence" in Morocco is nothing more than a fantasy. It has absolutely no basis in reality. The vast majority (90% according to surveys) of Moroccans hate their Jewish compatriots. I'm so sick of dhimmi Jews going to Morocco and praising the country's "tolerance". If Morocco is tolerant, then I can't even begin to imagine an intolerant place.

Anonymous said...

Yes, quoting Said on the Holocaust, decrying the sanctions against Roger Gaurudy is like having to point to Finklestein and fellow great "public intellectual" Noam Chomsky on the subject of BDS. Finky and Chomsky are virulent campaigners against Israel because it is a modern pro-western state instead of being an "anti-imperialist" entity, like their Shia theocratic fascist heroes in Lebanon,.Hezbollah, who er ... want to destroy Israel.

bataween said...

One finds that Arabs who acknowledge the Holocaust cannot help but score political points by drawing false equivalence between 'what the Europeans did to the Jews' and what 'the Zionazis did to the Palestinians' i.e the Nakba.That is why the Aladdin project failed to use Arab recognition of the Holocaust as a tool for reconciliation.
Said was wrong to identify antisemitism with the Right, the most active proponents of the destruction of Israel are to be found on the left, or in the Red-Green alliance.

Syrian Jew is right. The danger with initiatives by the Mimouna Club/ Kivunim is they are indeed built on this lie of Muslim-Jewish coexistence. Said and other antisemites of the left never abandoned their fantasy of the destruction of Israel.

Anonymous said...

Said was wrong to suggest that it is a greater problem on the Right than on the Left, but really, Hamas and Hezbollah both being highly reactionary religious movements, means that the red-green alliance is proof that at their extremes, the political left and right find lots of common ground, including virulent antisemetism.

Sylvia said...

I applaud this group for their courage without reservation whatsoever. They take seriously their new constitution which says that "Hebraic culture" has been an element (among many others) of their identity.

I'll ask, not which Arab or Muslim country has admitted that much - we know the answer to that - but which democratic and "advanced" country has formally said so? None to my knowledge.

In their parents generation, the thousands of years of Jewish presence in the Maghreb was summarized in half a line in history textbooks.

Today, there are impressive dissertations by Muslim Moroccan researchers who add the benefit of direct access to Arabic and Muslim religious sources to their research.

This should be wholeheartedly supported and not only with words.

This group have a lot of courage because more than their compatriots they have to face the Jewish radical left which is much more fanatical, more Catholic than the Pope and even the people directly concerned.

They consider the Palestinians victims? So does Shimon Peres and the entire Israeli left, not to mention the plethora of Jews employed bt the pro-Palestinian NGOs and institutions. let's start there.

Sylvia said...

On quoting Said:

I wouldn't assign a lot of meaning to that. There was a time when practically all doctoral dissertations in the social sciences and humanities had to include at least one quote or two from Said - if not the whole methodology.

I did so myself which is not to say that I am a Said fan - far from it.

Sylvia said...

"Even Sion Assidon—a Moroccan Jew and former political dissident, critic of Zionism and Israel, and proponent of the BDS movement—harshly critiqued the club for what he saw as implicitly advocating normalization of relations with Israel."

They call him "the last of the Mohicans" after Abraham Serfaty, Amram ElMaleh and Simon Levy passed away, but in reality he is not their ideological heir, though they were socialists.

He's attended demonstrations where they shouted "dbah lihoud" (slaughter the Jews) and his lame excuse was that to some people, Zionist is synonymous with Jewish.

Assidon is both a maoist and a businessman, and a Jew with a Palestinian son. Talk about conflicted and biased.

I think neither Serfaty, nor ElMaleh nor Levy had Jewish-born wives either (the first two were French, Levy's sounds Spanish or Portuguese).

But what they really have in common is that they all knew PLO member Laila Shahid, who lived in Morocco after marrying a famous Moroccan writer there, Mohammed Berrada.

The first to befriend Laila Shahid was Simon Levy who with his wife took her on her first trip from France to Morocco (before she married).

bataween said...

Thanks for the background on Assidon. He does indeed sound confused and/or on the lunatic fringe - some would call him a self-hater.
These men were to some extent outside the mainstream.
Laila Shahid sound like some woman, if she managed to influence them all.
I do agree that the Club needs to be applauded. The question is how much of these Mimouna Club-style initiatives are encouraged by the king's adviser Andre Azoulay out of base self-interest in order to impress the Americans.

Sylvia said...

No no, I never said they were influenced by Laila Shahid. They were Communists and anti-colonialists long before the PLO was in the picture. But they certainly stepped up and coordinated their pro-Palestinian activism.

As to Sion Assidon who is younger, she and other Human rights activists visited him and other dissidents when he was already in prison.

Except for Sion Assidon who doesn't have such background, the first three concerned themselves principally with Morocco and fought colonialism, Serfaty was put in jail and tortured by the French, Levy was in politics, and all in all, they are considered heroes and a national treasure in Morocco.

The King's adviser - I don't know if he is still an adviser - has nothing to do with it. I know some of the dissertations/research are partly funded by the Jewish community there.

There have been some brillant results and the initiative should be applauded unreservedly.

Particularly now that the Moroccan archives have become open to the public.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

@Syrian Jew : You are Syrian dude, you were kicked out from your country, therefore I understand Arabs give you a very bitter taste in your mouth and that for you, coexistance between Arabs and Jews sounds like science fiction. But don't transfere your frustration on Moroccan people. There are hundreds of Jewish sites all over Morocco (famous Rabbis and Saints shrines) where thousands of Jews go every year to make hilloulots all accross Morocco, Moroccan Jews are still able to claim their passport and their citizenship and we love them. Maybe some uneducated people manipulated by the medias and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict speak out of ignorance, but most of people are very happy whenever Jews come back because Jews belong there. So keep being sick. Moroccan Jews will always go back to their roots until the end of time, their kids too, they will keep teaching them Moroccan Arabic, they will keep their traditions because Moroccans (Jews and Muslims alike) have this in their blood.

SyrianJew said...


Arabs don't give me a bitter taste in my mouth...I like Arabs...I have a problem with Arab governments.

I've looked at survey data and I travelled throughout Morocco. I talked to the people and gathered their opinions about Jews. 90% expressed nothing short of genocidal hatred. The survey data reflects similar numbers. So I don't see how you can sit there with a straight face and type something as nonsensical as Moroccans are "happy whenever Jews come back". I'm not trying to be rude, but you know that's not true.

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

the situation in Morocco does not seem all that different from Poland since almost all the Jews left there. Now there are Polish intellectuals who are nostalgic about the pre-WW2 days and they maintain a theater in Yiddish [still?] with non-Jewish actors. Likewise in Lithuania where the Nazi collaboration was worse than in Poland. They even claim the Vilna Gaon as a Lithuanian culture hero, as Maimonides is in Spain and Toledo even has a tiny square named after him.