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Morocco: a model of Muslim-Jewish ties

The tone of tolerance for the nation's Jewish minority begins with the king.

By Serge Berdugo / January 9, 2007



CASABLANCA, MOROCCO

As the flames of anti-Semitism continue to be fanned across much of the Islamic world, there is a risk that today's youth will grow up believing that Arabs and Jews were simply not meant to coexist, let alone thrive together.

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That idea conflicts with history – and is a falsehood today. My country, Morocco, illustrates the viability and vitality of a Jewish community – my community – in an Arab country. It's a model of harmony other Muslim nations should follow.

The Jewish people have been a presence in Africa's Maghreb region for more than 2,000 years. North African Jews and Muslims traveled north and thrived together in southern Europe for more than 700 years. In 1492, when we refused to convert to Christianity, we were expelled – together – from Spain. And together we successfully sought refuge in Morocco, which accepted us into its society and institutions.

A history of defending Jews

Morocco's leaders have always made the well-being of the Jewish people a top priority. During World War II, when the Vichy government of occupied France announced that it had prepared 200,000 yellow stars for the Jews of Morocco, King Mohammed V replied that he would need 50 more for him and his family. He refused to make any distinction between his citizens.

The importance of a nation's leader setting the tone for recognition, respect, and treatment of minority faiths can- not be overstated. Today, King Mohammed VI has declared his religious, historical, and constitutional obligation to protect the rights, liberties, and sacred values of the Jews in Morocco.

This commitment dramatically affected Morocco's reaction at moments of great challenge. After May 16, 2003 – the Moroccan 9/11, when five terrorist bombs exploded, three directed at Jewish targets – King Mohammed VI expressed condolences at a Jewish Center, condemning the criminal acts and reaffirming his determination to protect Jews and all Moroccan citizens.

In doing so, he defined the attack as one upon all Moroccan society, awakening the national conscience and strengthening the bonds between us. Moroccans of all faiths responded with candlelight vigils at bombing sites and demonstrations attended by nearly 1 million participants.

Many Moroccan Jews have emigrated to Israel and elsewhere, but the attachments to our homeland are unique. "Morocco never loses a Jewish citizen – we gain an ambassador," Mohammed VI's predecessor, King Hassan II, once said. Today, there are 1 million such "ambassadors" all over the world and 600,000 in Israel alone.

We Jews who call Morocco home have a vibrant community that includes 30 functioning synagogues and three school networks, which many influential Muslim families choose for their own children. Moroccan Jews serve as counselors to the king, ministers, colonels, members of parliament, judges, and ambassadors. On Jewish holy days, Muslim authorities, out of respect, attend our services.

With help from the Moroccan government, we started a foundation to preserve Jewish historical sites. And we support research on our community – including 30 doctoral dissertations presently under way by Muslim candidates.

Muting the extremists' call

Are we an isolated society? Hardly: Moroccans young and old have access to as wide an array of media and ideological diversity as anywhere in the Islamic world. Yes, the extremists' call is heard here, too, but make no mistake – it's the response that differs. The tones of tolerance, trumpeted by a government that believes that Moroccan Judaism is an intrinsic and permanent part of the national culture, overwhelm the extremists' siren song.

Are we a historical accident or the path forward? Perhaps the answer is that our historical good fortune now has to be transformed into a model for others. We are more relevant outside our border than ever before.

Other world leaders must realize that the path forward lies not in fanning the fires of the moment, but in setting a tone of authentic coexistence that will endure.

The author is the president of Morocco's Jewish Community Council.

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