Fez - In Morocco, Muslims and Jews have lived side-by-side for centuries.
Fez – In Morocco, Muslims and Jews have lived side-by-side for centuries.
Stereotypes and interpretations of pseudo-historical religious texts that undermine Muslim-Jewish relations elsewhere in the world have not severely affected Moroccan society. Muslims and Jews have coexisted peacefully in Morocco even during critical moments in history. As a whole, Morocco has been always a place where Jews can live comfortably.
During my childhood, all of the neighborhood teens had a passion for football, but they were annoyed when their football cleats became torn, since they had to wait for months to get another pair. Their refuge was the qualified cobbler in the neighborhood, who was dubbed the “Jew.”
The now-deceased owner of the business left an indelible impression in my neighborhood with his great customer service and manufacturing of high-quality sandals. Omar, the Moroccan Muslim who now works there, revealed to Morocco World News that he had an excellent relationship with David’s widow, with much respect and understanding. “She was one of the most generous people I have ever met,” he added.
Dr. Armond Guigui, President of the Fez Jewish Community, is widely known and respected for his devotion to his job. The people of Fez owe him a lot: they go to him whenever they are concerned about the medical treatment of their children. He is a native Moroccan Jew who is considered a brother and an equal citizen, just like all native Jews living in Morocco. They are far from any political or religious conflicts that affect the two communities worldwide. The royal order of knighthood was bestowed upon Dr. Guigui to honor his service to his country.
The Jewish community that lived in Morocco before 1956 was considered the largest community in the Arab world. Fez was the first city in Morocco to create the Mellah as a neighborhood for Jews in 1438. Jews mingled with Moroccans to the extent that many families in Fez claim ancestral ties to Jews: their ancestors converted to Islam after being affected by the Islamic traditions.
The Decline of the Jewish Presence
The Jewish presence in Morocco began to decline in 1954. Waves of Moroccan Jews emigrated to France, Canada, and Israel.Many acquiesced to leave, few stayed, and still others want to come back, and many have already returned. Fanny Mergui, who returned to Morocco in 2004, said in an Al-Jazeera documentary that her Moroccan identity was not questioned when her family lived in Morocco. She also noted that Jews and Muslims with different cultural religious backgrounds lived in harmony.
Throughout history, many sultans and kings of Morocco respected Jews and protected their interests. When Moulay Idriss II ascended the throne in 791 AD, he hosted a large number of Jews from Andalusia who enriched commercial activity in Morocco. However, Jewish tribes had already existed in Morocco from when they were scattered around the Roman Empire. From the 9th to 11th centuries, the Jewish community reached its golden age. Religious schools (yeshivot) attracted many scholars and grammarians, as well as sages like Dunash Ibn Labrat and Rabbi Isaac Alfasi.
When the Marinides seized power in Morocco, Jews enjoyed security. Fes el-Jadid was created to make them less vulnerable, but as a preventative measure, they later moved to be near the palace. In Europe, Jews suffered from persecution, and fled to Morocco as a safe haven. When Granada fell into the hands of Isabella of Spain in 1492, she forced 165,000 Jews to convert or face expulsion. Thus, many left to settle in Morocco where they lived in Mellahs in different cities like Fez, Marrakesh, Meknes, Rabat, and Tetouan.
In 1864, Sultan Sidi Mohamed acted with great magnanimity and humanity, decreeing that Jews should be treated equally under the law. Later, King Mohammed V protected 200,000 Jews from the Nazis in World War II, disobeying orders from the French Vichy government to force them to wear yellow stars that granted them second-class status and cut them off from social activities. Instead, as an act of defiance, he invited all rabbis for the throne ceremony in 1941. King Mohammed V said, “There are no Jews in Morocco. There are only subjects.”
In modern times, cemeteries and synagogues in Fez have been renovated, and plans are in place to renovate those in Essaouira. These plans aim at building bridges between the diverse communities living in Morocco. The constitution calls Morocco “A sovereign Muslim State, committed to the ideals of openness, moderation, tolerance, and dialogue to foster mutual understanding among all civilizations; A nation whose unity is based on the fully endorsed diversity of its constituents: Arabic, Amazigh, Hassani, Sub-Saharan, African, Andalusian, Jewish, and Mediterranean components.”
The Jewish ties to Morocco are still strong. Currently, many Moroccan Jews come to Morocco as a tribute to Amram Ben Diwan, who came to Morocco, settled in Ouazzane, and gathered donations to help Jews around the world. After spending ten years in Morocco, he went to Hebron, but was persecuted, which compelled him return to Fez where the Jews welcomed him. He died in Ouazzane while making a tour around Morocco with his son. Jews visit his tomb annually as a kind of pilgrimage. Moreover, in a festival called Hiloula, Jews also celebrate saints buried in Safi, Essaouira, and Taroudant. The Mimouna celebration, which originated in Morocco, is commemorated in Israel and is a national holiday.
Moroccan Jews did not only live in the large cities. They also have origins with the Berbers in the Atlas Mountains. Kamal Hachkar, director of the Tinghur Jerusalem documentary, was surprised to find a cultural heritage shared between Berbers in Tinghur and those in Yavne or Safed, Israel. He said, “Most of them are elderly women who today live in Yavne or Safed, and who suddenly find they share a dialect and cultural experience with the young Muslim.”
Islamophobia and anti-Semitism may provide a great motive to build a bridge between the two cultures to end the crisis in the Middle East, which has strained the world.
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