Casablanca Back Streets May Hold A Solution to Arab-Jewish Friction

Morocco's Jews could be pivotal in reconciling Israelis and Arabs

IN the sultry city of Casablanca, Jews mingle freely with Muslims in the shadow of the lavish Hassan II Mosque, Islam's tallest shrine.

Built on piles over the Atlantic Ocean, the mighty memorial to Islam dominates the skyline of the city that is home to most of Morocco's small but influential Jewish community.

In downtown Casablanca, Arabs on the crowded sidewalks pass the Jewish synagogue in Boulevard d'Anfa as though it were the most natural thing in the world.

Moroccan Jewry, long the target of barbed jokes in Israel, has emerged as a pivotal factor in the reconciliation between Arab and Jew in the Middle East.

The small community of about 8,000 Jews in this country was instrumental in forging closer ties between Morocco and Israel, which were consummated in Rabat, Morocco's capital, on Nov. 2 with the opening of an Israeli interests office there.

The Moroccan Jews, who achieved a rare relationship of mutual respect with the Muslim Arabs in cities like Casablanca, are now promoting a model for Jewish-Arab cooperation that could help rescue the ailing peace accord between Jews and Palestinians in Israel.

``If coexistence is possible here in Morocco, then why not in Israel and the Middle East as a whole?'' asks Boris Toledano, president of the 5,000-strong Jewish community in Casablanca.

``We live very well here. We are free to come and go as we please .... There is no security problem,'' says Henri Sedbon, a Jew who moved to Morocco 40 years ago from Tunisia.

``A Moroccan Jew can never lose Moroccan nationality,'' says Mr. Sedbon, who is married to a Moroccan Jew - the first woman doctor in the country.

``All my friends are here, and I think life is better for me here,'' he says.

The spirit of coexistence is symbolized by a centuries-old Jewish festival known as Memouna whereby Moroccan Arabs provide freshly baked bread to Jews in the neighborhood when they break their fast on the eighth day of the Pesach, the Jewish Passover.

The ceremony, which is now observed in a ritualized form by Jews around the world, had its origins in the spontaneous relationship between Arab and Jew in Morocco.

The role of the Jews who live in Morocco won recognition from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin here recently.

In paying his respects to King Hassan II for hosting the first Middle East-North Africa Economic Summit earlier this month, Mr. Rabin also acknowledged the special role of the Moroccan Jews who, he said, tended to listen to the king rather than to him.

The quip captured the extraordinary loyalty of the Moroccan Jewry to the king - and his late father King Mohamed V - as well as their intense pride in their Moroccan heritage and culture.

An estimated 500,000 Moroccan Jews in the diaspora - mainly in France, Canada, the United States, and South America - have recently formed an international association to promote peace and understanding in the Middle East and to impart the experience of Jews in Morocco.

The international effort, known as the Confluence of Cordoba in Spain, is co-sponsored by the kings of Spain and Morocco and the presidents of Israel and France.

Inferior in Israel

Separated by the elongated Mediterranean Sea, the Moroccan Jewry in Morocco, Israel, and the diaspora could help rescue the ailing peace accord between Jews and Palestinians in Israel.

But Israel's 600,000 Moroccan Jews - the main component of the Sephardic Jews - feel embittered by their inferior socioeconomic status and perceived discrimination by the Ashkenazi Jews of European origin who dominate the ruling Labor Party in Israel.

``When we came to Israel, we were told that we had no history and no culture,'' says Joseph Toledano, who moved to Israel in 1963 after completing a degree in political science in Paris.

``We had already undergone the trauma of transition in Morocco ... now, we were going through another trauma and emerging with a feeling of inferiority,'' he says.

Moroccan Jews, often the targets of barbed jokes and ethnic jabs in Israel, were the focus of the Ashkenazis' resentment because they were believed to have a divided loyalty between Morocco and Israel.

Before the recent wave of some 500,000 European immigrants, mainly Ashkenazis from Russia, the Sephardics were in the majority in Israel. But the Ashkenazis have edged ahead again.

The majority of Moroccan Jews in Israel, who swell the ranks of the growing underclass there, switched from the Labor Party to the more conservative Likud Party in 1977 for largely socioeconomic reasons.

Sephardic support could prove crucial for Rabin if or when he loses popularity over contentious decisions involving the status of Jerusalem, withdrawal from the strategic Golan Heights in Syria, and the resettlement of Jewish settlers on the occupied West Bank ahead of Israel's next election in 1996.

``The Sephardic Jews did not support the Likud because they were against peace, but because they saw the Israeli bourgeoisie that supported the Labor Party as responsible for their poor socioeconomic situation,'' says Shlomo Elbaz, who returned to Israel in 1955 and later helped found the now-inactive Sephardic-based East for Peace movement.

``There are signs that the Moroccans in Israel are beginning to focus more on the peace process than on their past frustrations ... and this could strengthen the peace process,'' says Mr. Toledano, director of the newly-created Center for North African Jewish Communities in Jerusalem and author of three groundbreaking books on Moroccan Jewry.

``The special contribution of the Moroccan Jews is to show how Jew and Arab can live together in harmony and peace while maintaining their own religious and cultural identity,'' Toledano says.

``This is a unique form of cohabitation, which was not achieved in any other Arab country,'' he says.

Historic contributions

The small Jewish community in Morocco plays a role in the country's economy far beyond its numbers, counting tourism minister Serge Berdujo, who also heads the Jewish community, and Andre Azoulay, King Hassan II's financial and economics adviser, among its more influential members.

The first Jews are believed to have arrived in Morocco with the Phoenicians in the time of King Solomon between 900 and 1,000 BC. Archaeological evidence indicates that Jews were established in Morocco by the first century AD.

But the major influx came after the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 when some 30,000 fled to Morocco as part of an estimated 164,000 refugees, about 94,000 of whom went to Turkey and the Balkan states.

Alone among the Sephardics, the Moroccan Jews learned Arabic and dispersed across the country to all the major centers. Some settled in Arab and Berber villages and adopted the language and attire of the Arabs but maintained their Jewish identity.

When France colonized Morocco in 1912, the Jews identified with the French. The Jews' socioeconomic position improved dramatically, causing resentment among the Arabs.

The first wave of Jewish immigrants left Morocco after the creation of Israel in 1948, which disrupted relations between Arab and Jew - even in Morocco.

But when independence from France came in 1956, King Mohamed V did not allow Jews to leave, insisting that he would protect them from Zionist propaganda. It was only in 1961, after the coronation of King Hassan II, that Jews were free to leave Morocco.

Protection, gratitude

During World War II, King Hassan II's late father, King Mohamed V, refused to cooperate with the Vichy authorities, saving the Moroccan Jews from the Nazis and winning their undying gratitude.

``I think what made the situation in Morocco unique for Jews was the positive experience with French colonialism, the protection of successive monarchs, and the fact that there were Jews already established in Morocco when the main influx from Spain arrived in the 15th century,'' Toledano says.

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