Influential American Rabbi Menachem Genack shares his personal connection to the Moroccan monarchy's legacy of benevolence towards the Jewish community.
Rabat – King Mohammed VI’s recent visit to Bayt Dakira, a historical landmark of Morocco’s Jewish community in Essaouira, did not come out of the blue. Overt gestures of respect for the Jewish faith and its adherents are not foreign to the Moroccan monarchy.
The King’s celebration of Moroccan Judaism was warmly received by the international community. Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, voiced his praise for the King’s unabashed enthusiasm to continue “the legacy of his ancestors through strong connections to the Jews of Morocco and nurturing coexistence between Muslims, Jews, and Christians.”
Key in Morocco’s reputation as an “exception in the Arab world” and a “good house in a bad neighborhood” are its commendable security apparatus and a legacy of religious tolerance, pluralism, and coexistence.
Morocco was once home to the largest Jewish community in the Muslim world, reaching a population of 300,000 at its height.
The Jewish presence in Morocco dates back to the time of the Phoenician Carthaginian state, more than 2,500 years ago and long before the Arabs arrived from the Middle East in 680 AD.
Morocco, of course, is far from a faultless nation, and its history is not without blemishes: Jews were persecuted in Morocco for centuries, both formally and informally.
The tide finally turned in the 20th century when King Mohammed V ascended to the throne and fortified his country as a bulwark against the anti-Semitism that ravaged Europe during World War II.
Rabbi Menachem Genack: beneficiary of Moroccan tolerance
Rabbi Menachem Genack is one of many high-profile Jewish leaders to visit Morocco and applaud the monarchy’s recognition of the kingdom’s Jewish heritage.
One of the most influential rabbis in the US, Rabbi Genack is a close friend of the Clintons, who have also made their affinity for Morocco public.
The Clintons’ most recent trip to Morocco was in September 2019, when the former First Couple attended the birthday celebrations of Moroccan billionaire Marc Lasry in Marrakech.
Upon returning from her trip, Hillary Clinton asked Rabbi Genack if he had ever been to the kingdom.
“She said to me, ‘Do you know about the history of the kings in Morocco and how benevolent they’ve been to the Jews?’” Rabbi Genack shared with Morocco World News. “I told her, ‘Hillary, I’m a beneficiary of that.’”
During World War II, Rabbi Genack’s family fled from Antwerp, Belgium, just as the Nazis were preparing to invade.
The rabbi’s parents, hoping to resettle in the US, found themselves on a boat to Casablanca.
While they were in Morocco, then a French protectorate, the Nazi-controlled Vichy government demanded that King Mohammed V impose anti-Jewish legislation upon his people and deport the country’s 250,000 Jews to extermination camps in Europe.
The late King’s response to the Vichy government set the precedent for his successors’ relationship with the Jewish community.
“There are no Jewish citizens, there are no Muslim citizens,” King Mohammed V told the Nazi regime. “They are all Moroccans.”
The late King’s exact phrasing is unknown, but the Sovereign’s position was clear: Not a single Jew in Morocco would be killed or handed over to the Nazis.
The King also refused to enact discriminatory measures against the Jewish population. His Jewish subjects did not wear yellow stars, they were not stripped of their citizenship, and their property was not seized.
In another act of defiance, King Mohammed V invited all the rabbis of Morocco and other senior Jewish figures to the throne celebrations in 1941, after Vichy France ruled that Jews should be banned from public functions. The King even went so far as to seat the Jewish delegation next to French officials during the ceremony.
“I absolutely do not approve of the new anti-Semitic laws and I refuse to associate myself with a measure I disagree with,” King Mohammed V told the French officials during the celebrations.
“I reiterate as I did in the past that the Jews are under my protection and I reject any distinction that should be made amongst my people.”
Hundreds of thousands of Jews, including Rabbi Genack’s parents, were thus spared from Nazi death camps.
“This tradition of benevolence is deeply rooted in Moroccan society,” Rabbi Genack remarked.
The Moroccan exception
King Mohammed V has since been honored by Jewish organizations around the world for his role in protecting the community during the Holocaust. On February 26, 1961, 75,000 Jews publicly mourned the Moroccan monarch’s death.
When the Arab world erupted in violence after Israel was established, King Mohammed V did not expel the Jews from Morocco as many other Arab countries did. In fact, the late King reminded Moroccans that Jews had always been protected in their country and should not be harmed.
Despite this decree, the majority of Morocco’s Jews have left the country. The exodus, or mass emigration, started in 1948 with the creation of the state of Israel.
Speaking to Rabbi Genack during his visit to the kingdom in November 2019, Morocco’s Minister for Islamic Affairs Ahmed Toufiq described the period of mass emigration as a “catastrophe.”
“This really resonated with me,” the rabbi revealed, as the word ‘catastrophe’ holds great significance in the Israeli-Palestinian context.
The Palestinian ‘nakba’ or ‘catastrophe’ refers to when 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled their homes after the creation of Israel sparked a violent conflict in 1948.
In Morocco, however, the catastrophe of 1948 was the loss of the country’s Jewish population.
The connection between the monarchy and Morocco’s Jews forged during King Mohammed V’s rule was passed down to King Hassan II.
The first indicator of King Hassan II’s intention to uphold his father’s legacy was the strong presence of Jewish leaders at his coronation and at his first prayer services.
Although King Hassan II’s relationship with the Moroccan Jewish community was a bit more controversial than his father’s, King Hassan II was revered in Israel as a partner in peace and a friend to the Jewish state, primarily because of his active mediation efforts during the Middle East Wars in the 60s and 70s. Tens of thousands of Israelis mourned his passing in July 1999.
Morocco’s relationship with Israel changed under King Mohammed VI, but his respect for Jews and the legacy of Judaism in Morocco is evident.
In 2010, for instance, King Mohammed VI launched the “Houses of Life” program that restored 167 Jewish graveyards and 12,600 graves in 40 provinces throughout the country, primarily in the Souss-Massa-Draa, Marrakesh-Tensift-Al Haouz, and Meknes-Tafilalet regions.
Five years later, the American Jewish Committee and the Council of the Jewish Communities of Morocco organized an event to celebrate the completion of the project on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Held days after the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris that claimed 131 innocent lives, the event celebrated the “Moroccan exception” in a world blackened by anti-Semitism and religious extremism.
“The rehabilitation of the Jewish cemeteries in Morocco is a testimony that Muslims and Jews can coexist and live together in peace and harmony,” Morocco’s then-ambassador to the US Rachad Bouhlal stated on the occasion. “A testimony that this is possible in a world that is being threatened by extremism and radicalism, hatred, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia.”
When Morocco adopted a new, more liberal Constitution in 2011, King Mohammed VI insisted on acknowledging the role of Judaism in Morocco’s history, illuminating the kingdom’s attachment to its Jewish heritage.
“A sovereign Muslim State, attached to its national unity and to its territorial integrity, the Kingdom of Morocco intends to preserve, in its plentitude and its diversity, its one and indivisible national identity,” the preamble to the Constitution states.
“Its unity is forged by the convergence of its Arab-Islamist, Berber and Saharan-Hassanic components, nourished and enriched by its African, Andalusian, Hebraic and Mediterranean influences.”
The reference to Morocco’s Hebraic or Jewish roots in the Constitution is unheard of in the rest of the region, Rabbi Genack believes.
“The preeminence accorded to the Muslim religion in the national reference is consistent with the attachment of the Moroccan people to the values of openness, of moderation, of tolerance and of dialogue for mutual understanding between all the cultures and the civilizations of the world,” the Constitution concludes in its section on the integration of ethnic communities in Morocco.
A model for pluralism
Morocco’s inclusive Islam, Rabbi Genack elaborated, is a long-standing tradition protected by its kings.
“Morocco should be a model for other countries,” he stated firmly.
Rabbi Genack shared with MWN the details of the trip that solidified his perception of Morocco as the archetype of religious pluralism in the Muslim world.
At the Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams in Casablanca, the institution’s head imam, or Muslim leader, showed Rabbi Genack an Arabic text that the students use to study Christian and Jewish traditions. Rabbi Genack was amazed to see that the text was inscribed with Hebrew words.
“I don’t think you’d find this in any other country,” he underlined.
Rabbi Genack went on to describe the connection between Morocco’s physical and spiritual elements.
“The diversity of the terrain, I think, is a metaphor for Moroccan society and its willingness to embrace diversity,” he mused. “Unfortunately, around the globe, this isn’t what we see.”
Morocco is by no means a perfect nation, nor is its relationship with minority communities. With only a few hundred Jews left in the country and more emigrating every year, it is not easy to envision Morocco as a safe haven for Jews.
Morocco does, however, actively uphold the legacy of tolerance as set forth by King Mohammed V during the Holocaust. And at every opportunity, King Mohammed VI makes a point of reminding Moroccans and the rest of the world that the country does not hide from its diverse heritage but proudly puts it on full display.
And that, as Rabbi Genack said, is a model for the rest of the world to follow.