Casablanca 2: Jews ponder uncertain future

May 21, 2003

* This is a follow up to the dispatch titled, Terror in Morocco: Malaysian PM says Israel should be blamed (May 17, 2003)

* "Casablanca today might still be as Jewish as New York..."

 

CONTENTS

1. "Moroccan Jews see attrition as the enemy" (Los Angeles Times, May 20, 2003)
2. "Jews welcome the support of Muslims" (London Times, May 19, 2003)
3. "Jews in Casablanca ponder meaning of attacks" (New York Times, May 20, 2003)
4. "Casablanca's Jewish community in decline" (Middle East Online, May 18, 2003)


“IF THEY HAD ATTACKED ANOTHER DAY AND KILLED JEWS, IT WOULD HAVE BEEN THE END OF THE WORLD FOR US”

[Note by Tom Gross]

This is a follow-up to last Saturday's dispatch about the five suicide attacks in Casablanca, which were largely aimed at Jews and Jewish institutions, although did not manage to kill any Jews. I attach four articles (with a summary first) concerning Jews in Morocco in the aftermath of the attacks:

1. "Moroccan Jews see attrition as the enemy" (Los Angeles Times, May 20, 2003). The article notes that "Morocco, an ancient kingdom on the northern African coast, has long prided itself as a tolerant, multicultural society where Muslims and Jews have coexisted with an ease unequaled in the Arab world." ... Now the remaining 5,000 Moroccan Jews are being urged by their families in Israel and France to leave... and many are planning to. "An estimated 600,000 Moroccan Jews live in Israel."

2. "Jews welcome the support of Muslims" (London Times, May 19, 2003). "Grisly remains still clung to the demolished entrance to a Jewish social club, a reminder of the horrific attacks launched here on Friday evening. Jews here have been heartened, however, by expressions of support from their Muslim fellow citizens expressing anger and outrage over the attacks... Less than 100 years ago the Sephardim – which means "from Spain" in Hebrew – could count themselves in their hundreds of thousands, a legacy of the expulsion of the Jews by [Spain] in 1492... Casablanca today might still be as Jewish as New York, but the Arab-Israeli wars reduced their numbers to little more than 6,000."

"A year ago, a Jew was stabbed in the Lusitania, the area of central Casablanca where most Moroccan Jews live. Since then the wearing of the skullcap in public has all but ceased... The complacency, or in many cases a passive hostility, of Moroccans to the plight of the Jews is what Aboubakr Jamai, Editor of Le Journal, calls simply "a tragedy for the country... Jews in Morocco, like Christians, were treated as dhimmi, a protected minority, but one subject to special restrictions and taxes to remind them of their subservient status."

3. "Jews in Casablanca ponder meaning of attacks" (New York Times, May 20, 2003). Serge Berdugo, the president of the Jewish Community of Morocco, said Casablanca's Jewish social club, destroyed in the bombing, will open again in no more than three months... There were no Jews among the 28 victims of the attacks. In the members-only Jewish sports club in the center of town, that was called nothing less than wondrous. Just two nights earlier, more than 200 people had come to the club for its weekly kosher Chinese dinner... "If they had attacked another day and killed Jews, it would have been the end of the world for us," said the manager of the kosher restaurant at the club... Casablanca remains home to five main synagogues, six kosher restaurants and a kosher liquor store, Jewish schools and butcher and bakery shops. A new synagogue was inaugurated last year and there is a new Jewish museum."

4. "Casablanca's Jewish community in decline" (Middle East Online, May 18, 2003). The former head of Israel's Moroccan liaison bureau says Casablanca's old and once thriving Jewish community does not feel it has future in kingdom. "There are still three Jewish high schools in the city, but a third of their students are Muslims who attend for the high level of education."



FULL ARTICLES

“WE HAVE TO RECONSIDER EVERYTHING”

Moroccan Jews see attrition as the enemy
The community has coexisted with Muslims, but its youth seek opportunities abroad
By Tracy Wilkinson
May 20, 2003

Michel Meyer Edery, a Jew who has lived his entire life here, received two sets of phone calls in the hours after suicide bombers launched deadly attacks across his city and at the Jewish community center he frequents.

His brothers in Israel and France called to tell him it was high time to leave Morocco.

And Edery's many Moroccan friends – Muslims – called to make sure he was safe and to tell him how appalled they were at what happened.

"I gave him a big kiss when I saw him again and saw that he was OK," said Mohammed Ouhane, a Muslim who has been Edery's friend since the two middle-aged men were teens. The pair surveyed the damage at the community center, where blood dappled the interior walls and broken glass and masonry covered the floors.

Morocco, an ancient kingdom on the northern African coast, has long prided itself as a tolerant, multicultural society where Muslims and Jews have coexisted with an ease unequaled in the Arab world.

Jews first arrived here with Phoenician traders two millenniums ago, and the community thrived through thick and thin for centuries. While the population has dwindled in the last 50 years, it remains a uniquely vital Jewish presence among Muslims.

But today, Moroccan Jews are faced with new questions about their survival, haunted by a sudden sense of vulnerability. The targets in Friday's bombings, in this country unaccustomed to political violence, included a Jewish cemetery, a hotel where Israeli tourists were staying and a Jewish-owned restaurant, in addition to the community center, itself the heart of the old Jewish Quarter in downtown Casablanca.

"We have to reconsider everything," Serge Berdugo, president of the Moroccan Jewish Community, said in an interview Monday. "Not just Jews but all Moroccans. Our mistake was to think we were immune."

The Moroccan Jewish community numbered 290,000 in the early 1950s, according to Berdugo; today there are fewer than 5,000. Most are in Casablanca, where, like other Moroccans, they migrated over the decades as the city became the economic center of the country. At today's rate of attrition, there is a real concern that the community will die out over the next generation.

Some Jews are convinced the synchronized string of bombings, which authorities blame on radical Islamists from Casablanca's slums, was aimed specifically at Jewish interests; others think the larger goal was to destroy the secular way of life and moderate form of government represented by Morocco under King Mohammed VI.

"We are starting to panic a little," Edery, who owns a small garment factory, said Monday. "The government will tell us that we can open up our clubs and they will give us security, but it will never be completely peaceful again. There is fear."

Edery, 41, has decided to follow thousands of Moroccan Jews before him and will leave the country. It's a decision he says he made before Friday's attacks, and it has more to do with economic opportunity and the future of his children than worries about security.

His six brothers and sisters have already left; they last came home for their mother's funeral 10 months ago. His apartment building on Rue Galilee was inhabited by 15 Jewish families 10 years ago; today, five Jewish families remain.

"The Jewish community here is disintegrating," he said. "I've lived my life, I'm fine and not worried about myself. But I have to give my kids a platform where they won't suffer."

Jewish youth here customarily finish their high school exams and then must go abroad to university. And most don't return, building their lives in other countries, usually Israel, France, the United States or Canada, where jobs and potential spouses are more readily available.

Edery's eldest son is almost 18 and will take his exams in a few weeks. Then the family will move to Israel, where Edery said he will be given an apartment, a job, some cash and be taught the language.

Israel actively encourages Jews from other countries to move to Israel, to fortify the state and the collective Jewish identity.

An estimated 600,000 Moroccan Jews live in Israel, Berdugo said, having taken with them their brand of mystical Judaism and colorful foods, dress and customs. Unlike immigrants to Israel from Iran, Syria and a host of other Muslim countries, however, Moroccan Jews readily return to Morocco for vacations, to visit the graves of their ancestors, or to pay homage to Jewish martyrs, saints and revered rabbis.

Edery and other Moroccan Jews here say they have not felt inhibited in the practice of their faith. Edery lives a couple of blocks from the community center, in a neighborhood that counts no fewer than 30 synagogues, all tiny, and several kosher butchers.

He prays every morning and attends service every Shabbat.

Yaakov and Rosette Ruimy keep their menorah and Shabbat candles on a small table near their front door. He keeps several dozen velvet skullcaps in a chest of drawers. The couple, born and raised in Casablanca, have been married for 27 years, and they say they have no intention of leaving Morocco.

"When something like this happens, we all get together, Jews and Arabs," Yaakov Ruimy, 47, said. "It's against the kingdom, an attempt to destabilize the kingdom. We are all Moroccans."

The Ruimys' eldest son left eight years ago for Israel. Their daughter left 2 1/2 years ago for the U.S. Their 19-year-old left six months ago. Eight-year-old Avishai, a precocious and friendly boy, is the last child at home.

"They've made their lives abroad," Yaakov Ruimy said. "It makes me very sad. It's a shame The kids are leaving and the old ones are dying."

Rosette Ruimy's brother was the only Jew hurt in Friday's attacks: He broke a leg when he was caught a few yards from the community center. No Jews were among the 42 people killed. If the bombers had attacked a night earlier, hundreds of people would have been caught inside the center. But on Friday, it was closed.

Berdugo said the special place of Jews in Morocco is rooted in history. Jews were here long before the Muslims and both were driven from Spain by the Catholic monarchs during the Inquisition. There were periods when Jews were forced into ghettos or persecuted. During World War II, however, Morocco harbored Jews and others fleeing the Nazis. Later, Morocco, unlike other Arab countries, did not expel its Jews, he noted, and Jews who left could retain citizenship and property.

As Arab countries go, Morocco has had good relations with Israel and worked behind the scenes to promote peace between Israel and Egypt and then the Palestinians.

Although then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel led a large delegation to King Hassan II's funeral in 1999, official relations soured after the intifada broke out, and Israel's trade office in Rabat, the Moroccan capital, was closed in November 2000, amid huge anti-Israel demonstrations.

A former tourism minister whose family came to Morocco in 1492, Berdugo said he remains confident that there is a future for Jews in Morocco.

A number of Moroccan Jews are well connected. One of the most powerful men in the country is Jewish: Andre Azoulay, a key advisor to the monarchy for more than a decade.

"In numbers, we are not so big," Berdugo said, "but in a symbolic way we are very important for Morocco. We are proof that this is a tolerant and open country."

Still, the specter of radical Islam has become a concrete threat. Central Casablanca is a cosmopolitan place of palm-lined boulevards where French is heard at least as readily as Arabic. But drive a few miles to northern slums like Sidi Moumen, described by authorities as a breeding ground for radical Islam and home to most of last week's suicide bombers, and the picture changes.

"In our neighborhoods, in the center of the city, Jews and Arabs mix. We grew up together, there is no anti-Semitism," Edery said. "But if you go to the suburbs, where it's all Muslim, the people don't understand what a Jew is."

 

JEWS WELCOME THE SUPPORT OF MUSLIMS

Jews welcome the support of Muslims
By David Sharrock in Casablanca and Adam LeBor
The London Times
May 19, 2003

Grisly remains still clung to the demolished entrance to a Jewish social club yesterday, a reminder of the horrific attacks launched here on Friday evening and a talisman of ill fortune for Morocco's dwindling Sephardic community.

Jews here have been heartened, however, by expressions of support from their Muslim fellow citizens expressing anger and outrage over the attacks.

Victor Mamane, a leader of Casablanca's Jews, said: "Many Muslims have telephoned us to show their solidarity, to say that they are with us. We feel reassured by the authorities' response to this attack, and we have every confidence in them."

Less than 100 years ago the Sephardim – which means "from Spain" in Hebrew – could count themselves in their hundreds of thousands, a legacy of the expulsion of the Jews by the Roman Catholic King Fernando and Queen Isabel of Castille and Aragon in 1492.

For centuries the Maghreb was a refuge for the Ladino-speaking Jews – although many moved on to Turkey and the Balkans – but the creation of the state of Israel changed everything.

Casablanca today might still be as Jewish as New York, but the Arab-Israeli wars reduced their numbers to little more than 6,000 – and the figure is falling.

Many Moroccan Jews opted to emigrate to Israel and now constitute the bedrock of support for Likud, the party of Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister. These right-wing, predominantly working-class Israelis, who mainly oppose a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians, draw on their "folk memory" of living under Arab rule to justify their intransigence. Other Moroccan Jews departed for Europe, the United States or Canada.

With their departure, historic buildings and disused synagogues in Morocco are being turned into tourist attractions.

Then, a year ago, a Jew was stabbed in the Lusitania, the area of central Casablanca where most Moroccan Jews live. Since then the wearing of the skullcap in public has all but ceased.

Islamic fundamentalists stir the pot occasionally. Recently a leading sheikh launched an extraordinary public attack on Andrι Azoulay, the last Jewish adviser to an Arab leader.

"Jews sympathise with Israel; they cannot be trusted with the affairs of a Muslim state," Sheikh Zimzami said. Mr Azoulay, who is adviser to King Mohammed VI, preferred not to comment yesterday, saying that he was not a spokesman for the Jewish community.

But his silence was mirrored everywhere and the complacency, or in many cases a passive hostility, of Moroccans to the plight of the Jews is what Aboubakr Jamai, Editor of Le Journal, calls simply "a tragedy for the country".

Morocco is one of the few Arab countries to celebrate the heritage and contribution of its Jewish community and it takes pride in a tradition of cosmopolitan tolerance that has its root in medieval Islamic Spain, known as Jewry's "Golden Age", when Jewish writers, thinkers and philosophers wrote in Arabic.

Jews in Morocco, like Christians, were treated as dhimmi, a protected minority, but one subject to special restrictions and taxes to remind them of their subservient status.

 

“ALL JEWS HAVE TO FEEL AFRAID”

Jews in Casablanca ponder meaning of attacks
By Elaine Sciolino
The New York Times
May 20, 2003

For Serge Berdugo, the president of the Jewish Community of Morocco, the terrorists who attacked the Cercle de l'Alliance social club last Friday night left behind a message of hate – but something else as well.

The attack, which badly damaged the two-story white concrete building, was carried out on the Jewish Sabbath, so the three suicide bombers killed no one but themselves.

And in what Mr. Berdugo called "a sign from God," the massive crystal chandelier in the central hall remained intact, the photograph of King Mohammed VI hung in place, and the framed blue and orange declaration that the club was kosher was untouched.

"We are still in a state of shock, but look at this; we still have light, we still have the king and we still have the kosher declaration that defines our belief," he said. "And we promise to be open again in no more than three months."

Mr. Berdugo is a former minister of tourism, a fierce nationalist and a fervent supporter of the king. His family emigrated to Morocco in 1492 when the Catholic King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain.

So it is not at all surprising that he is determined to calm Morocco's small, aging Jewish community and reinforce the official message that Morocco is a nation of tolerance and interfaith understanding.

At least three of the five targets in the terrorist operation – a Jewish social club and restaurant, a Jewish cemetery in the old city and a Jewish-owned Italian restaurant – were aimed directly at Jews. Some members of Morocco's Jewish community believe that even the Hotel Farah was a target because it was often used by Jewish tourists.

But there were no Jews among the 28 victims of the attacks. In the members-only Jewish sports club in the center of town, that was called nothing less than wondrous. Just two nights earlier, more than 200 people had come to the Cercle de l'Alliance for its weekly kosher Chinese dinner.

"If they had attacked another day and killed Jews, it would have been the end of the world for us," said Itah Violette, the manager of the kosher restaurant at the club. "I have to call it a miracle."

The attacks affected a Jewish community that is struggling to stay alive and strong as its numbers decline. Jews first arrived in Morocco after the destruction of the Jewish Temples. In 1948, there were more than 250,000 Jews out of a total of 7 million inhabitants.

Today, out of a population of 30 million, there are at most 5,000 Jews left (some officials say only 3,500), most of whom live in this ocean port city that serves as the country's commercial capital. But most Jewish high school graduates try to go to college and then find jobs abroad because there are so few jobs at home.

There is a strong campaign to revitalize the Jewish community that remains. Casablanca, for example, is home to five main synagogues (and two dozen tiny ones large enough for only 10 worshipers), six kosher restaurants and a kosher liquor store, Jewish schools and butcher and bakery shops. A new synagogue was inaugurated last year and there is a new Jewish museum.

The Jewish community has largely coexisted peacefully and integrated easily with Muslims, and Jews are wondering now whether Friday's attacks were homegrown or the work of international terrorists, as the interior minister, Mustapha Sahel, suggested on television this evening. Mr. Sahel also said that authorities had two of the suspected 14 suicide attackers in custody after 12 people – and not 13, as authorities originally said – had died in the bombings.

Moroccan Jews recall how the grandfather of the current king refused to deport Jews during World War II. In the aftermath of Friday night's attacks, there is a determination to keep the peace.

"We have always lived, eaten and worked together with the Muslims," said Moise Amou, who heads Casablanca's Jewish community. "All of us together; we cannot let down our guard and do nothing in the face of these attacks. If we do that, the other side is going to win."

At the sports center, groups of men lingered over a kosher lunch and argued over the bombings.

"The goal wasn't to kill Jewish people," said Salvador Bentolila, a 55-year-old printer. "It was symbols of the Jews they wanted to strike."

Marc Abitbol, a 60-year-old business executive, disagreed, saying, "They just made a mistake. They got the wrong night. All Jews have to feel afraid. We were the target even if no Jews were killed."

A 65-year-old corporate director, who declined to give his name, spoke of an undercurrent of anti-Jewish feeling because of American foreign policy. "Everyone thinks the Jews are supported by the Americans, and people are very anti-American," he said.

Some thought the downtown hotel was attacked because it often had Jewish clients. But others felt the attack was directed against rich, Westernized Gulf Arabs. "There were many Kuwaitis, many Saudis who came there for, excuse me, debauchery," said David Benarroch, a corporate executive. "They came to drink and watch belly-dancing. And it was known that many prostitutes came there."

There was talk of creeping Islamization in everyday life, and the dramatic increase in the number of women, especially young women, covering their hair with scarves.

"I have a secretary – she's very modern and normal – and one day she arrived in a blue scarf," said Mr. Abitbol. "I thought maybe she was sick or maybe her hair wasn't in good shape that day. But then she came in wearing a different scarf. When I asked her what was happening, she lowered her eyes and said, 'I decided to wear a scarf because of my religion.' And here she's married with kids, modern. In a scarf, a curtain."

The men say they must walk a careful line when it comes to foreign policy. There are subjects the men say they never discuss – like Israel's policies toward the Palestinians. Morocco and Israel formalized a relationship in 1994 when Israel opened a liaison office in the Moroccan capital, Rabat. But Morocco closed the office shortly after the Palestinian uprising in September 2000.

"We avoid talking about events in Israel," said one man who did not give his name. "We don't want to mix events in Israel with events in Morocco." Said another, "We talk about it – among ourselves."

The same goes for the war in Iraq. "Officially, we were against the war, like all the people in Morocco," said one man. "But in our hearts, as Moroccan Jews, we were for it. Saddam for us was a terrible threat for all the Jews."

 

CASABLANCA’S JEWISH COMMUNTIY IN DECLINE

Casablanca's Jewish community in decline
Middle East Online
May 18, 2003

The former head of Israel's Moroccan liaison bureau says Jewish community does not feel it has future in kingdom.

Casablanca's old and once thriving Jewish community feels increasingly alienated, with many Jews preferring to move overseas, the former head of Israel's Moroccan liaison bureau said Saturday.

"The precise numbers are not known, but there are a few thousand Jews in Casablanca, the largest segment of the Jewish population in Morocco," Gady Golan said here following bomb attacks in Casablanca that killed at least 41 people overnight.

Among the blasts' targets were a Jewish cultural center and cemetery.

"There are still three Jewish high schools in the city, but a third of their students are Muslims who attend for the high level of education. Actually, once they've obtained their diplomas, most young Moroccan Jews go abroad," Golan said.

"The less wealthy families send their children to Israel, others generally send theirs to France and Canada. The Jewish community does not feel it has a future in Morocco, even if a leading member, Andre Azoulay, is an economic advisor to King Mohammed VI," he added.

Golan, who was Israel's top representative in Morocco, closed the liaison office shortly after the Palestinian intifada against Israeli occupation in broke out in September 2000.

Azoulay, a banker, also founded the cultural group Identity and Dialogue in 1976, promoting Moroccan Jewish culture and helping build closer ties between Israel and Morocco under the late Moroccan king Hassan II.

Morocco's Jewish community numbered roughly 250,000 people in 1948, the year Israel declared independence and began attracting large numbers of emigres.


All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.