By Joshua Kohen
By Joshua Kohen
Washington DC – The skies were bright blue and winter’s last breath of cold wind brushed through the air. Despite it being a windy day, more than one thousand Moroccan-Americans came to protest outside of the United Nations headquarters in New York, to show their support for Moroccan sovereignty on March 21.
After the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon insulted Moroccans earlier this month, it was an uplifting sight to see that the Moroccan diaspora was not asleep, we were ready to rally in defense of our country. I felt it was my duty to attend this rally because I felt offended by Ban Ki Moon’s comments, especially as someone who knows Moroccan history, and had been in Laayoune for the 40th anniversary of the Green March. I needed to defend my roots, and as an American Jew, I needed to show other Moroccans that we need to be ready to stand up to anyone who wishes to harm or undermine the Moroccan nation.
Wrapped in a Moroccan flag, wearing the Jewish kippa (religious skullcap), and holding a picture of King Mohammed VI, I found myself welcomed by a jubilant crowd of Moroccan-Americans. The unity of people from all different backgrounds united by the Moroccan cause was spectacular. Jews and Muslims, Imazighen and Arabs were all ready to show Ban Ki Moon that we will not remain silent regarding his lack of impartiality. It was truly an emotional experience and the energy I felt in New York was the same energy I felt in Laayoune. I felt the spirit of Green March was still alive, 40 years later. Not only was it alive, but it was reinvigorated. The sense of pride and brotherhood at this rally reminded me why it is important to promote and never forget about my Moroccan pride.
Six years ago, I knew very little about Morocco. I never thought about my roots and just considered myself as an ordinary American-Jew. Nevertheless, the curiosity of Morocco was always there and finally, I visited in 2010, with my father. Of course, I fell in love with this land and vowed to return again, which I have many times in the past 5 years. Returning to Morocco was like returning to the past, I almost forgot about. When Moroccans think of Moroccan-Jewry, they always think of it in the context of the mass exodus that occurred in the 50’s and 60’s, after the establishment of the State of Israel. Unfortunately, people neglect other parts of Moroccan- Jewish history, especially from before the French colonial era. Jews did not start leaving Morocco until 1948. Although significantly smaller in numbers, Jews had been emigrating from Morocco since the 19th century, especially Jewish merchants, and my ancestors were among them.
There were several famous Jews of Moroccan origin during this time, such as America’s first Jewish senator, David Levy Yulee, who served as a U.S. senator in the mid-1800’s. Even before this era, Moroccan-Jewish figures like Isaac Pinto (perhaps one of the first-Moroccan-Americans) played a huge role in establishing early relations between the United States and Morocco in the late 1700’s, including the creation of America’s first treaty with Morocco. This aspect of Morocco’s Jewish history is often overlooked and hidden by the mass emigration that took place in the 20th century. Nevertheless, I want to follow in the footsteps of these early Jewish pioneers who used their diplomatic skills to love Morocco and promote it in the international arena. All of us must uphold their legacies and help bridge Morocco with the outside world. While I take great pride in the Moroccan part of my family history and my grandmother’s family origins, I also feel the downside.
Since they left Morocco so long ago and had become so assimilated in the outside world since the 19th century, we lost almost all aspects of Moroccan culture. Intermarrying with Ashkenazi Jews erased the Sephardic elements. Growing up in Western culture further diluted the remnants of being North-African. I almost envy those that left Morocco after the mid-20th century. They were able to preserve the culture since such large groups left at once and formed large communities elsewhere. For those of us with roots dating back to the 19th century, it has not been the same experience. It is for this reason that I made it a personal mission to reconnect with my “Moroccanness,” to foster a bond between my American identity and my lost Moroccan identity. I did not want to simply visit Morocco as a tourist and eat Moroccan food and celebrate my heritage by going to Mimouna parties and singing Moroccan-Jewish songs. I wanted to connect on a deeper level by making friendships with Moroccan Muslims, learning Arabic, and becoming politically engaged with Morocco.
When I first visited Morocco, I was surprised at how the Moroccan people embraced me and considered me as a lost son of the land. They did not care that I’m Jewish or born in the United States. They saw me as someone with Moroccan blood and as someone who wants to learn more about Morocco. This inclusion made me more interested in connecting with the Moroccan people of today. Their encouragement and warmness has made me more passionate about Morocco because I realized that Moroccans look up to their brethren outside of the homeland to represent them. When my father and I departed from the Mohamed V airport on my first visit in 2010, I can still remember a Moroccan woman telling my father, “This is your second home.” These words have stuck in my head ever since.
When some people suggested that I learn French, I adamantly refused. When my ancestors lived in Morocco, they spoke Arabic and were not exposed to the Francophone culture that came after the 1912 protectorate. For me, learning Arabic was the only way I could truly connect with Morocco and my history. Understanding Moroccan history and immersing into the culture has provided me with the well roundedness to become more engaged with various topics affecting Morocco internationally, especially regarding the Sahara. When Ban Ki Moon referred to the so-called “Western Sahara” as a Moroccan occupation, of course, I was offended. He did not only insult those living in Morocco but he insulted all of us outside who hold connection to Moroccan history. When I see separatists like Aminatou Haidar spread anti-Moroccan propaganda, I grow enraged because these individuals want to hurt a piece of my identity. Morocco is a diverse, exemplary North-African state and a beacon of hope, located in a region of despair and uncertainty. We have the duty to preserve this and defend it.
Reviving this duality in my identity has come with criticism by some Americans who question why I am so patriotic?
My answer to them is simple: How come every St. Patrick’s Day, millions of Americans of Irish descent wave Irish flags, yet their ancestors came to the United States over 150 years ago? What is the difference between me and them? I will never suppress my heritage in order to fit into the Western perception of “identity.” Morocco is a part of who I am. Morocco has helped me grow into the young man I am today. Every visit I make to Morocco, I take a piece of it back with me to the U.S. One reason my Moroccan journey has been so enriching is that Moroccan youths are as curious about their country’s Jewish past, as I am about my Moroccan past. We are both equally as passionate about our heritage.
Morocco is in serious need of more youth engagement, and I believe not nearly enough has been done to make this happen. Many leaders are aging with nobody to carry on their legacies. Without educating youth about this, Morocco will face challenges with future development and international relations. As an outsider, I believe it is necessary to continue to maintain my bond with Morocco and use it to serve the best interests of Moroccans and Moroccan-Americans. My dream is to inspire more youth from outside Morocco to become more involved.. Each of us is an ambassador in bringing Morocco closer to the global community. Unburying Morocco from my past has given me the ability to become a part of Morocco’s future.
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