Morocco: Arab or Berber by Identity; Jewish by Culture

Posted by Ira Forman
June 16, 2016
Special Envoy Forman meets with Mimouna Association members at U.S. Embassy Rabat. [State Department Photo]

Morocco is distinct for a number of reasons. From the colorful zellij (mosaic tiles) that adorn its mosques, to its unique souks and spices, to its blend of Amazigh (Berber), Arab, French, and Spanish traditions, Morocco is distinctive. What most people do not realize, however, is that Morocco is also noteworthy because of its Jewish community and heritage. 

Morocco was home to the largest Jewish community in the Middle East prior to 1948; today about 4,000 Moroccan Jews remain, with most residing in Casablanca. His Majesty King Mohammed VI of Morocco has been a strong supporter of pluralism and diversity; in fact, the country’s constitution outlines a commitment to preserve the various cultural and religious influences interwoven into the tapestry of Moroccan history and heritage, including Jewish influences. Yet many younger Moroccans are unaware of the country’s rich Jewish heritage. 

One group, Mimouna Association, hopes to change this. Founded at Al-Akhawayn University in Ifrane in 2007, Mimouna’s members –- primarily Moroccan Muslims –- promote recognition and celebration of Morocco’s unique Jewish culture. The organization now has chapters at universities in Fes, Rabat and Marrakesh.  

David Toledano, President of the Jewish community in Rabat, holds a plate of sfa, Moroccan sweet pasta [State Department Photo].

The club is named after the unique Moroccan Jewish celebration held the day after Passover to welcome the return of leavened bread. Traditionally, Moroccan Jews invited their Muslim neighbors to their homes to participate in the feast. For Mimouna club members, this festival is a symbol of what the Vice-President of the Association, calls the “Convivencia,” the brotherhood of Muslims and Jews in Morocco. “We must preserve this beautiful aspect of our culture,” she said.

Many older Moroccans remember their former Jewish neighbors with nostalgia. However, younger generations are largely unaware of these relationships, and their views of Jews may be influenced by anti-Semitic sentiment that unfortunately exists everywhere. Additionally, many young Moroccans have never met someone who is Jewish. Mimouna aims to expose students to this aspect of the country’s history and culture. 

To do so, Mimouna has organized numerous cultural and academic events. They have arranged annual “Moroccan Jewish Days” on university campuses, featuring art, music, dancing, and food. In 2011, Mimouna organized a conference about the Holocaust. The New York Times wrote that this event “may well have been the first of its kind in an Arab or Muslim nation, and a sign of historical truth triumphing over conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic dogma.”

Foods from a dinner with Moroccan Jewish interlocutors in Rabat [State Department Photo].

In 2014, the organization launched the Moroccan Jewish Caravan, a series of events and conferences in Fes, Casablanca, Tangiers, Rabat, Essaouira, and New York City. They hope that their work with also serve to strengthen Muslim-Jewish relations throughout the Moroccan diaspora.

The members of Mimouna believe that civil society organizations such as theirs provide the way to achieve real change in the region, by building bridges connecting communities and helping Moroccans stay connected to their multi-cultural roots. As the President of Mimouna told us at a recent roundtable event hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Rabat, “We are proud to be good Muslims. We are Arab or Amazigh (Berber) by identity, but we are also Jewish by culture.”

About the Author: Ira Forman serves as the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism at the U.S. Department of State. 

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Comments

Gina C.
|
Morocco
June 17, 2016
What a nice, heart-warming piece, reflecting tolerance and a wonderful culture. Makes one even more proud to be part of Al Akhawayn University with its open-mindedness, tolerance, appreciation of diversity and celebration of excellence wherever it is found.
Wilda S.
|
North Carolina, USA
June 17, 2016
Salaam, Shalom from Salem, North Caroline from your little sister. During this time of Ramadan when we share experiences of the deep inner mercies of the Great Creator, blessed be His Name and this night of Shabbat where we studied the great Blessing we are to share with other, thank you for your witness of Understanding and Peace.
Annette G.
|
Idaho, USA
September 17, 2016
Thank you for this great article! I grew up Jewish in Boise Idaho, with a mother who had lived in Agadir and Casablanca Morocco. She kept her heritage suppressed for various reasons, although she made sure that her children practiced Judaism, even in the midst of a strong Mormon and Christian Community in the 1960's and 1970's. I was a closet Jew, but after having come out in my senior year of high school and attendance at the local synagogue later, I knew my Judaism was somehow different from that practiced around me. I took care of my mother during the last 10 years of her life with Alzheimer's/ dementia. During those 10 years, many more questions my Moroccan heritage arose. (Her Arabic language and strains of a mountain dialect came back in the later stages, and she struggled to find English words.) Only after a trip to Morocco earlier this year did I begin to find some clues to my Amazigh and Jewish heritage! It is great to see an article from the US government highlighting a link to my ancestral past! Thank you so much!

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