In the Jewish quarter of Marrakesh, Morocco, people of all ages hurry along the ancient twisted streets, making their way to the synagogue. Men in traditional flowing robes cast anxious looks at the bright, sunny sky, which has become a source of gloom for Moroccans praying for the heavens to darken with storm clouds. The rainy season began months ago, but the weather has been anything but rainy.
Serge Berdugo, head of the local Jewish community, checks the forecast one more time on his phone before entering the synagogue. Yes, his phone. This is not a scene out of Talmudic times but a contemporary story.
Just last week, King Mohammed VI asked his people to pray for rain after learning that his country may suffer a drought this year. In response to the king’s plea, the Council of Israelite Communities in Morocco issued a statement asking “worshippers to pray in all the synagogues in the kingdom” so that G-d may “spare our country and help His Highness the King.”
The Moroccan Jewish population once numbered over 300,000; today, only 3,000 Jews remain. But the small Jewish community feels a debt of gratitude to one of the few Arab countries that did not join the Arab League boycott against Israel. The intelligence services of both countries have also enjoyed a good relationship over the years, including instances in which Israeli tips foiled plots against the royal family. The Moroccan government’s positive relationship with the Jews actually predates the Israeli-Arab conflict by many years. In the early years of the Second World War, Morocco was controlled by the pro-Nazi French authorities, known as the Vichy regime. It is quite clear that King Mohammed V resisted the antisemitic decrees of the French authorities, refusing to impose restrictions similar to those in France. In fact, in 1941 he openly flaunted the Nazis by inviting Morocco’s rabbis to the traditional throne ceremony, a major event held annually in the royal palace.
However, much of the history remains anecdotal or mythological, such as the claim that the king asked French authorities to bring him yellow stars for his family to wear.
Complicating the story is the fate of thousands of Jewish refugees who fled Europe to relative safety in Morocco. The French-language Moroccan magazine TelQuel published an article a few months ago about the existence of French forced- labor camps in Morocco where 2,000 of those refugees were imprisoned. The paper raised doubts about the king’s attitude toward Jews of other countries, suggesting that his non-discriminatory policies were limited to his citizens.
Despite the attitude of the royal family, the Jews of Morocco have experienced the same persecution that has plagued their co-religionists in so many countries over the centuries. They have been attacked and vilified by the general population, usually during times of national crisis. It was primarily these dark episodes that have spurred mass emigration to Israel and other countries. However, Jewish schools, community centers, and even kosher restaurants still exist in several Moroccan cities.
On a more personal level, Moroccan Jewry is of special interest to me. Morocco is home to one of the only Jewish museums in the Islamic world. On a quiet street in an upper-class neighborhood in Casablanca is the Musйe du Judaпsme Marocain de Casablanca, the Museum of Moroccan Jewry. Although most taxi drivers don’t know where it is, the museum’s very existence is a source of pride to local Jews and Muslims alike.
On the surface, the Moroccan museum bears little resemblance to its Western counterparts. The simple structure houses an eclectic collection of historical pieces, and the style is a world apart from the modern blend of light, sound and the gleaming halls of metal and glass that we have come to expect.
But although the Kleinman Family Holocaust Education Center building will differ from the one in Morocco, at the core we have much in common. The heart of every museum are the artifacts that are carefully presented to create an educational and inspiring visitor experience. Every museum tells a story, whether it’s the story of Moroccan Jewry or the Holocaust, and that story is kept alive as long as people choose to come and learn.