Jews, cemeteries and Morocco

Rabat – At a time of heightened fear and panic, Morocco’s efforts to maintain peace between its Jewish and non-Jewish communities was brought to the forefront last year when the country’s efforts were recognised in the US.

 Jewish cemetery in Fes, Morocco. 

At two events, one in the New York Museum of Modern Art and one on Capitol Hill, Washington DC organisers applauded the kingdom’s effort in the rehabilitation of the country’s Jewish cemeteries.

A five-year program called the ‘Houses of Life’ which began in 2010, has restored and aims to preserve 167 Jewish cemeteries across the Muslim-majority kingdom.

In DC, US congressman Andre Carson said Morocco, amid challenges, showed commitment and perseverance on the path of moderation, dialogue and diversity.

“As we mourn the terrible attacks in Paris, we’re hearing calls to seal our borders against refugees. Even some presidential candidates are calling for closing mosques across the country,” Carson said.

The event was hosted by several Jewish organisations in the US, including the Council of the Jewish Communities of Morocco (CJCM).

“Humanity cannot continue to grow in distrust and fear. We must learn from countries like Morocco to understand each other and respect our differences.” Carson continued.

Adding the project is “proof that peace is possible in a world that is being threatened by extremism.

The project saw all 12,600 graves restored across 38 provinces, where 159 doors were replaced, and about 42,672 metres (140,000 feet) of fencing was added and replaced at cemeteries. The sites were weeded, cleaned and damaged mausoleums and graves were rehabilitated along with the addition of 163,000 square metres of pavement in total.

Prior to the start of the project the majority of graveyards – which are located in Souss-Massa-Draa, Meknes-Tafilalet and Marrakech-Tensift-Al Haouz – were eroding to the point of absolute decay.

Morocco’s Ambassador to the US Rachad Bouhlal said the rehabilitation of the Jewish cemeteries in Morocco is a testimony that Muslims and Jews can coexist and live together in peace and harmony.

“[It’s] a testimony that this is possible in a world that is being threatened by extremism and radicalism, hatred, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia. Ladies and gentlemen, the world needs projects like the rehabilitation of the Houses of Life,” Bouhlal said.

In the book Les Maisons de la Vie, réhabilitation des cimetières juifs du Maroc  (Houses of Life, Rehabilitation of Jewish Cemeteries in Morocco) written by Serge Berdugo, former Tourism Minister and Secretary General of the Council of Jewish Communities of Morocco (CCIM), archives the cemetery renewals initiated by the CCIM, the Chief Rabbinate of Morocco, and the Ministry of Interior with the strong support from the monarchy.

“It is a different vision and practice of religion that is being put into action. It is a practice of moderation, dialogue, and respect of the others, which is completely against current patterns that are occupied by extremists,” said Serge Berdugo during a presentation of the book in Paris.

Work still needs to be done, including rehabilitation on cemetery sites without graves as well as the registration of all Jewish cemetery sites with the Moroccan Jewish Funerary Patrimony. This will digitise records for research purposes and a database will be created to maintain a living record of all the deceased, as well as provide deciphering capabilities for the texts on the graves.

The next phase of the project is to preserve and protect the cemeteries.

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI speaking about the project said: “Blending harmoniously with the other components of our identity, the Jewish legacy, with its rituals and specific features, has been an intrinsic part of our country’s heritage for more than three thousand years. As is enshrined in the Kingdom’s new Constitution, the Hebrew heritage is indeed one of the time-honoured components of our national identity.”

Jewish Morocco

Moroccan Jews have inhabited the North African country since antiquity, and, before the mass migrations to Israel – occurring in the second half of the 20th century – there were more than 250,000 Jews living in Morocco.

Jews, having settled in this part of North Africa long before the Arab Muslim empire, have contributed much to Morocco’s unique character .

Bit of History…

It is believed the first Jews migrated to Morocco about 2,500 years ago after the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem, when the Carthage Empire ruled. They settled among the Berbers adopting many local customs and contributing their own.

Until the Arab conquest in the 8th century, Moroccan Jews lived and prospered – as far as certain parts of Mauritania – under Roman, Vandal and Byzantine dominion.

Under Muslim-Arab dominion, Jews were mostly ‘tolerated’. For example, the population was protected under the Idrisid dynasty who allowed for Jewish settlement across the kingdom and allocated areas for them, the largest of which was the quarter in Fes. However, the communities had to pay a special tax, known as the ‘Jewish tax’.

Jewish community from Gourrama in the south of Morocco , circa 1900s

A second wave of of Jewish migration occurred during the 14th and 15th centuries when Jews were fleeing persecutions in Spain. The Alhambra Decree expelled the entire Jewish population from the Iberian peninsula.

Not always living in harmony, Moroccan Jews faced severe persecution at times. In the 11th century about 6,000 Jewish residents in Fes were massacred in 1033. In 1465, during the Moroccan revolt, Fes’ entire Jewish community was annihilated. Like anytime in history, the treatment of minority groups depended very much so on the leader and political situation.

During the Second World War, when Vichy France (who was allied to Nazi-Germany) demanded antisemitic decrees to be upheld in the French protectorate, king Mohammed V refused, instead inviting the rabbis of Morocco to throne celebrations. The orders from the Vichy government included making the 250,000 Jews living in Morocco to be excluded from public functions and wear yellow stars, as they did in France.

“There are no Jews in Morocco. There are only subjects,” the king is reported to have said.

Mohammed V’s rule is also said to have saved many Jews from the Holocaust by the king’s apparent refusal to ‘hand them over’ to Vichy France, according to the Times of Israel.

Jewish men conversing, circa 1950 .

After the war, many of Moroccan Jews emigrated to Israel in various mass exoduses during the latter part of the 20th century, where they are said to constitute the second-largest community (about 1 million).

Morocco is home to about 4,000 Jews, who live mostly in the cities of Casablanca, but also in Fes and other main cities.

It is said the Jewish communities in North Africa brought a wealth of culture to the region which is still evident today through music, songs, language, literary field and dance.

This article first appeared in Morocco World News on November 26, 2015

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