Moroccan Jewish leaders on the promise of the Israel-Morocco breakthrough
Last week’s announcement that Morocco and Israel will formalize the unofficial ties that have bound them together for decades brought fanfare and celebration to populations in both countries.
Israelis of Moroccan descent hailed the move and relished the opportunity to renew connections that previously could be explored only through unofficial channels. In contrast, the headlines in Morocco were focused primarily on US recognition of the country’s sovereignty in the Western Sahara — a disputed territory to Morocco’s south. But Jews living in Morocco were clearly elated.
For most Moroccans, the connection with Jews and Israel has not changed at all; as a nation, they have always been rather friendly toward Israelis. In recent years, I have visited the country more than ten times. I’ve always worn a kippah openly. I’ve never encountered hostile looks from the population.
The local synagogues do not hide behind protective walls. There are security guards, like there are at almost every shul outside of Israel, but in Morocco’s case, it seems to be mainly pro forma. There have been no significant anti-Semitic incidents against local Jews for several decades, except during times of Israeli-Palestinian tension. Even then, it was only Israeli tourists who experienced hostility, not the local Jews.
Last Thursday’s historic declaration did not surprise Serge (Shlomo) Bardugo, the president of Morocco’s Jewish communities. He is one of the senior Jewish personalities in the country and serves as a personal ambassador to the king, a job he was appointed to more than ten years ago. He sounds excited about the deal when he speaks with Mishpacha.
“We got the news on the first night of Chanukah, a season known for miraculous occurrences,” he says. “And this is the best thing that could have happened to us as this year — which was extremely difficult — winds to a close.”
The Moroccan Jewish community sustained many losses from the COVID-19 pandemic, but Bardugo says the normalization declaration ends the calendar year on a positive note, with hope that ties between the two countries will flourish. “I keep getting good wishes from my local friends about the deal between the nations. We all waited for it, and I’m happy that it is finally happening.”
He does not ignore the fact that there are pockets of opposition to the agreement. “In a nation of more than 30 million people, not everyone agrees about everything. That’s the essence of democracy. But ultimately, the actions that are taken are based on the majority, and most are interested in this deal.”
In addition to his Jewish communal positions, Bardugo has held important jobs in the government. In the 1990s he was the tourism minister, and he has also served as a senior executive at Morocco’s national bank. His leadership of the Jewish community has come at a propitious time: King Mohammed VI has allocated large sums of money for the development of synagogues and the restoration of nearly 200 Jewish cemeteries throughout the country.
“This is not to be taken for granted,” Bardugo says. “It shows that there is a strong bond between the two countries.”
As one of the most influential Jews in Morocco, Bardugo has worked valiantly to promote coexistence between the Jewish and Arab populations. He often quotes the previous king, Hassan II, who, when asked about the emigration of Jews to Israel and other places, said, “Morocco never loses a Jewish citizen, it is sending an ambassador.”
Bardugo appreciates the reward Morocco got from the Trump administration in exchange for the normalization of ties. “The recognition of sovereignty over the Western Sahara,” he tells Mishpacha, “is a matter of national pride for us and important to all residents of the country. And because it comes with formalizing ties with Israel, I am doubly happy.”
Bardugo will oversee the tourism aspects of the normalization agreement, under which there will be direct flights between the two countries. “Until now, tens of thousands of Israelis came and they were welcomed warmly. Now, because of the direct flights, I’m sure 100,000 Israelis will come in the next year, when coronavirus ends. In three or four months, we will be ready to welcome all the Israelis who want to come.”
He also has great expectations for growth in commerce. “Anyone who is serious will be able to do business with an Israeli passport,” he promises. “That was not the case until now.” He does not detail which areas he hopes Israelis will invest in, but likely candidates include tourism, agriculture, and hi-tech.
In any event, he hopes to celebrate the arrival of Israelis. “As a native of Meknes,” he says, “I have a dream to make a big hilula in the city in memory of the tzaddikim who lived there, Rabi Raphael Bardugo, Rabi David Busidan, and many others who are buried in the cemetery in the city.”
Jacky Kadosh is president of the Jewish community in the city of Marrakech. His primary role has been to help Israel tourists visiting the city who need information on religious services. He describes reactions from his local friends to the news of the agreement.
“Some of them don’t understand all the excitement,” he tells Mishpacha. “After all, there is already peace between the nations, and Israelis visit here in big numbers. As a Moroccan Jew, I am doubly happy — for the normalization, and for the recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara.”
Kadosh marvels about the last few years and the exponential growth in the number of Israel tourists. “At first, more than a decade ago, about 5,000 tourists came a year. Now it is ten times that much. In the coming year, I think that number will double.”
A primary benefit of direct flights, he says, will be the number of Moroccans who visit Israel. “Curiosity is tremendous. The Moroccans will visit Israel in droves. They like the Israeli population and want to visit — that wasn't an option until now."
He mentions a Muslim student who approached him for assistance to travel to Israel and study at Hebrew University. “I tried to explain to him that it’s complicated, and he doesn’t speak Hebrew, but he really wanted to, and today, he has been learning for a year and a half in Israel and he speaks fluent Hebrew.
“This is not what a new peace agreement looks like,” he emphasizes. “This is what a continuation of peace looks like. You make peace with enemies you were at war with, like Jordan and Egypt. Morocco was never at war with Israel. On the contrary, we’re longtime friends. So this agreement formalizes the peace and facilitates the arrival of more Israelis to our country so that they can enjoy it, and for Moroccans to go to Israel.”
Israeli-Moroccan ties have had their ups and downs. In the 1960s, the two countries engaged in weapons sales and agriculture assistance, but only with the Oslo accords did these ties become open and official. They were suspended during the second intifada, five years later.
“Even after the official suspension of ties, undercover ties continued in agriculture and other areas,” Kadosh says.
More than ten years ago, Morocco decided to allow in Israeli tourists with a 14-day visa. “That is where we saw the big surprise, and that’s where the nations connected. From a few thousand a year, it became tens of thousands, and now it will only grow.”
He says most Israelis who come are one generation removed from the country, but he believes the current agreement will change the Israeli impression that Morocco is only a destination for researching one’s roots. “Until now, the typical visitors were random groups of Israelis who came over from European trips to pray at kivrei tzaddikim or to tour. It was amazing, and I think it will only grow. Everyone will ultimately discover the beauty of Morocco.”
As to the pockets of resistance in Morocco to the normalization of ties, Kadosh believes the problem can be solved.
“Education did not stress the study of Jewish history in the country,” he says. “That gave rise to an entire generation that does not know the Jews, and many of the local Jews have left to other countries, so Moroccans do not know how they lived in harmony with one another. They were only exposed to the Palestinian narrative.”
In recent months, after extensive efforts by the directors of the community, including Serge Bardugo and Jacky Kadosh, Morocco has included the history of local Jews in the state curriculum. Kadosh says that will change the views of younger Moroccans. “As soon as they are aware, they will respect the Jews. Even so, the opposition right now is on the margins.”
Kadosh is also excited about the commercial potential of normalization.
“Look,” he explains, “until now, when we wanted to send a container to Israel, it was very complicated. We needed to work through a middleman in Europe, and change the paperwork there. With these new ties, it will all be much easier, b’ezrat Hashem. We can also transfer money between banks, which will make business easier.”
Trade between Morocco and Israel, currently valued at tens of millions of dollars a year, is expected to grow significantly. “There is a big demand for household items in Moroccan style,” Kadosh says. “Artwork,tableware — every Moroccan Jew wants such items in his home. In agriculture, the existing cooperation will grow, and I assume we will see some high-tech trade as well.”
A Boost to Local Jews
The Casablanca Jewish community is the largest in Morocco today, numbering about 2,000 members. The community has maintained active shuls throughout the years, the largest of which has hundreds of seats. But the one that is most used is Neve Shalom, directed by Rabbi Yitzchak Sabbag, who also runs the Talmud Torah next door.
“I have the privilege of being in charge of the chinuch of 112 students,” Sabbag tells Mishpacha with satisfaction.
As a Casablanca resident closely attuned to his surroundings, Sabbag doesn’t think the normalization agreement is such a dramatic development. “It’s just a political and administrative formality. There have always been ties between Israel and Morocco, especially in agriculture. There was an Israeli liaison office in Rabat. So as residents, we won’t feel such a big difference.”
Moroccans treat Jews like equals, he says. “We get what we need from the government, which is appointed by the royal household. The rights of Jews are anchored in the constitution. We are equal citizens in every way. I don’t conceal my Jewish identity. Everyone knows me in the streets and identifies me as a Jew, and I have never experienced hostility because I’m Jewish.”
He hopes that the agreement will lead to community growth. Over the years, the younger residents have left to Israel and France. “At first they leave for academic studies — this happens with the Arab populace also. But when someone leaves, it’s hard for them to come back. Now, with the peace agreement, perhaps the community can grow. I know Jews who moved to Israel who miss it here very much. Maybe some will come back to live here.”
Two Intertwined Nations
Dr. Orit Vaknin-Yekutieli, a researcher and lecturer at Ben-Gurion University and chair of the Chaim Herzog Center, explains a bit of what is behind the tolerant dynamic in Morocco. “The Jews have always been a part of the country’s history,” she says. “In Morocco, they differentiate between Zionism — i.e., the state of Israel — and the Jewish community in their country, which has always been deeply respected.”
Among nations that are home to Moroccan expatriates, Israel is second (after France), with one million citizens of Moroccan descent. “For Moroccans, the Jews who left the country nevertheless remain Moroccan citizens,” says Vaknin-Yekutieli. “So an amazing thing happened there — as the Jewish community left, the talk about them grew. Suddenly, they began to speak about the country’s Jewish heritage more. It’s a remarkable trend.”
The fact that the normalization agreement is bound to the American recognition of sovereignty over Western Sahara makes it much easier for the public to accept, says Vaknin-Yekutieli. “The Western Sahara is a top priority, and the Palestinian issue, which prevented official ties with Israel, was secondary to that. The minute America gave recognition to Western Sahara, all the rest was easy, from a public opinion point of view. So there are pockets of opposition, but they are hardly felt.”
Vaknin-Yekutieli says the royal house is very sensitive to public sentiment, which played a significant role in the normalization. “The royal house does everything to preserve its legitimacy, at any price. The Arab Spring passed relatively calmly in Morocco. After the demonstrations began, the king immediately drafted a new constitution, and convened all the relevant entities to see how reforms could be made to improve things for the population. He does not ignore people’s feelings.”
The Western Sahara
Morocco’s involvement in the Western Sahara began decades ago. “The Western Sahara is a tremendous swath of land that Spain took control of in the 19th century,” Vaknin-Yekutieli explains. “From 1912, Spain also controlled a large part of modern-day Morocco, until the latter declared independence in 1956. At that time, Spain maintained control over the Western Sahara, which they called Spanish Sahara.”
In 1975 Spain withdrew from the Western Sahara, leaving the region under joint management of Morocco and its neighbor to the south, Mauritania, which eventually pulled out. Over the years, Morocco has claimed sovereignty over the entire region, which is rich in phosphate, one of Morocco’s primary exports to the world. But a local resistance movement called the Polisario Front sprang up, with the support of Algeria, a geopolitical rival to Morocco.
“In response, Morocco decided to settle 100,000 of its citizens there, in what was considered a grab for sovereignty over the disputed territory,” says Vaknin-Yekutieli. “That generated many refugees who fled to Algeria, and each side accused the other of violating human rights.
“As far as Morocco is concerned, there is no violation here because it is their territory. For their part, they are offering the locals, who call themselves Saharawis, full citizenship under the Moroccan regime. All they have to do is accept Moroccan sovereignty over the region and they can become regular citizens.”
In 1991, a cease-fire was signed between the two sides. At that point, Morocco ruled over two-thirds of the Western Sahara, while the Polisario ruled one-third. Morocco built a large wall on the border.
There have been arguments over a referendum to determine who would rule the region, but two decades ago the king of Morocco declared that option was off the table. The intervening years have been marked by sporadic riots, but were mostly quiet, until a recent Polisario blockade at the border set off a new round of armed conflict.
Vaknin-Yekutieli provides the connection between the clash and the normalization agreement. “War does not take place in a void,” she explains. “It’s possible that the Moroccans did something earlier than they were supposed to, and initiated something because they knew they could bargain for American recognition of their claims in the Western Sahara, in exchange for a few gestures on their part, including normalization with Israel.”
So Trump came, and as he is wont, he reshuffled the deck. The announcement that the US is recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara was a serious blow to the morale of the Polisario Front. It has waged a decades-long battle for control of the Western Sahara, but American’s announcement has buried that dream.
According to Vaknin-Yekutieli, the exchange of the normalization deal with Israel for US recognition of sovereignty over Western Sahara allows Morocco to fend off international pressure over a series of incidents in recent weeks in the disputed region. The deal also reduces opposition from sectors in Morocco who did not look kindly upon ties with Israel. They could take consolation from the fact that a top national priority was now being recognized by America.
The Jewish Angle in Western Sahara
There is, of course, a Jewish angle to the conflict in Western Sahara. One of the big supporters of the Saharawi cause was a Casablanca-born Jew named Avraham Sarfati. He became a Communist activist and supported the calls of the Saharawis for independence. He also opposed Zionism and supported the establishment of a Palestinian state. He spent decades in prison for his activities, which were deemed subversive against the Moroccan regime. He was exiled to France, and returned to Morocco only after the new king, Mohammed VI pardoned him. He passed away about ten years ago.
“In his memoirs,” Dr. Vaknin-Yekutieli says, “he wrote that once when he was a boy, he went with his father to a synagogue, and the Zionist representatives came. His father told him, ‘Beware of them.’ His father was not a Communist, but he feared that Zionists were going to dismantle the delicate fabric of relations between Jews and Arabs. The actual establishment of the State of Israel generated tensions, but the locals made the distinction between Zionists and Jews.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 840)
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