Journey Into Morocco’s Past through The New York Center For Jewish History

Norman L. Greene

  New York /  Morocco Board News- Sometimes a museum exhibit invites us to inquire further and uncover a body of knowledge that was always there, that others have studied for decades (if not centuries), and that changes the way we look at things.  The small but well-designed museum exhibit, Looking Back: The Jews of Morocco held at the Center for Jewish History in New York City, running through April 18, 2011, is one of these “inviting” museum exhibits.

Taken together with the masterful and lyrical opening night keynote address by University of Oklahoma Professor Norman A. Stillman introducing it on October 14, 2010, the exhibit is recommended for all who are interested in the subject of Jews in Morocco or the Sephardic Jewish experience in North Africa.[1]  This article will give an overview of the event and add context with supplemental sources. 

Integration of Jews in Morocco for Centuries

 The museum provides a selective history of the Jews in Morocco from their arrival in Morocco around 586 B.C.E. (the period of the destruction of the First Temple) to the present.  A series of panels covers their experience and contributions from the earliest Jewish settlements in pre-Islamic times, through the arrival of Arab populations and thereafter, and through the era of the French protectorate (commencing in 1912) and World War II; Moroccan independence in 1956; and the mass Jewish emigration from Morocco. 

 A key theme of the exhibit is the integration of Jews into Moroccan society. The first panel entitled “Introduction of Moroccan Jewry” notes that “Jews settled among the Berber population [in Morocco] in the pre-Islamic period, and some Berber tribes are said to have converted to Judaism.” Another adds: “A symbiotic relationship between Berbers and Jews was rich and enduring over the centuries.  Conversant in Berber dialects, Jews dressed like Berbers, practiced saint worship like them, and participated in … [their] celebrations.”[2]   According to a separate essay by Yaelle Azagury, “[i]n some regions of the Atlas Mountains, Jews lived so close to traditional Arab tribes that one could hardly tell the difference: They looked like Arabs, spoke only Arabic, and possessed a limited awareness of the modern world.”[3]  To the same effect, Professor Daniel Schroeter observed in another source that in “Berber-speaking regions, Jews were usually bilingual, speaking Berber with their Muslim neighbors, and Judeo-Arabic at home.  In a few of the most isolated communities of the High Atlas, some Jewish communities spoke Berber only.”[4] 

An early panel notes that “[i]n small towns and villages, Moroccan Jews” were “merchants, traders and peddlers” and “craftsmen” and filled “an important economic niche in society.” According to Professor Schroeter, the “role of Moroccan Jews as merchants made them the primary intermediaries between Morocco and Europe.”[5]  Many Jews came to Morocco after their expulsion from Spain in 1492 along with Muslims, and the exhibit features a statement by a Turkish Sultan to the effect that Spain’s loss of “its” Jews impoverished Spain and enriched Turkey where many Jews emigrated (in addition to Morocco).[6]  The implication is that this proposition is equally applicable to Morocco upon the Jews’ expulsion from Spain and their arrival in Morocco.  “From the Sa’adian period of the sixteenth century, and continuing in the Alawid period (beginning in the seventeenth century), the majority of Moroccans conducting trade with Europe were Jews.”[7] 

In his keynote address, Professor Stillman sounds the same theme, observing that Jews were well integrated in the country, settling in tiny villages and even in “Berber hinterlands” where they spoke Berber as well as major towns and cities.  There was even a Judeo-Berber Hagadah.  He added that Jews were “everywhere” and “they were part of the stones of the soil,” referencing their long history there. (He distinguished Morocco from Egypt, for instance, where Jews came in recent times and from someplace else.) 

Sadoun Synagogue in fes Morocco.

To the same effect, author and Sefrou native Driss Benmhend observed that the “town [of Sefrou] was a melting pot of culture as Jewish Berber Moroccans and Algerians had been settling there for many centuries.  Before most Jewish Moroccans left the country when the French departed during the [nineteen] sixties and seventies, a third of Sefrou’s population was Jewish.”[8]  In his comprehensive website, Visiting Jewish Morocco, Rick Gold noted that Sefrou “was known as Little Jerusalem due to its high percentage of Jews and its well-developed religious life.”[9]  Tim Resch, President of Friends of Morocco, added that he “was privileged to be a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1970s in Ouezzane, Morocco bordering the Rif Mountains and the Gharb plain.” “I saw first-hand the cultural mix defining Morocco, seeing Amazigh (Berber), Arab, Muslim, Jew, Christian, French and Spanish influences in daily life.”  “The blend of languages, beliefs, culture and cuisine was a challenge to understand but attempting to understand the component parts was an enjoyable intellectual journey for me and my Moroccan friends.”[10]


Moroccan Opposition to Vichy French Oppression During World War II

According to the exhibit, “it was [historically] the personal obligation of the Sultan to protect the Jews; a failure to do so would underscore the weakness of the state itself.[11] Rick Gold notes that “Jews and Arabs lived a symbiotic existence until the middle of the twentieth century.  Moroccan kings protected the Jews from harm and helped some of them develop the wealth that sustained the monarchy for many years.”[12] In the 19th through the mid-20th  centuries, however, according to the exhibit, Jews  experienced sporadic episodes of anti-Semitism, although anti-Semitism was not Moroccan state policy.  The most notorious example occurred during World War II, when discrimination was imposed against Moroccan Jews by the French Vichy government, over Moroccan royal opposition.[13]  As Professor Stillman wrote, Sultan (and later King) Mohammed V “demonstrated his personal distaste for Vichy’s anti-Semitic laws;” “expressed his view that the French-imposed statutes were illegal and that in his eyes all of his subjects, Jews and Muslims alike, were equal;” and assured Moroccan Jewish leaders “that he himself would never lay a hand ‘upon either their persons or their property.’”[14] Professor Stillman also said in his keynote address that there was documentary evidence that the Sultan withheld his seal from some French-imposed discriminatory legislation; and the seal would have been customary had he approved it.  The Sultan’s withholding of the seal, he said, was “itself an act of heroism” and “worthy of” Jewish gratitude.   


Casablanca Conference, 1943

Similarly, historian Robert Satloff wrote that the Sultan provided “vital moral support to the Jews of Morocco” in the face of French oppression of Jews, despite the fact that Morocco was a French protectorate during the war; [15] that “Moroccan Jewish lore celebrates Sultan Muhammad V as a savior, one of the finest, fairest, and most tolerant rulers Jews had ever known;” and “[h]is reputation has taken on mythic proportions….”[16] “Thanks to testimonies, archives, memoirs, and sometimes, sheer serendipity,” Robert Satloff observed, “we are privileged to know the names of some of those Arabs who helped save Jews from pain, injury, and perhaps death.  The most famous was Sultan Muhammad V of Morocco….”[17]  The exhibit does not evaluate the effectiveness of Moroccan resistance to fascist oppression or, specifically, in blunting the impact of the Vichy laws.   These laws disturbingly continued in place in Morocco – with the acquiescence of the Allies – during a period of over four months after the Allies liberated Morocco from Vichy.[18]  


The exhibit references King Mohammed VI as continuing this supportive tradition, among other things, by quoting the King as stating “that the German destruction of the Jews ‘was one of the most tragic chapters of modern history,’” and he “has endorsed a program aimed at educating Muslims on this [holocaust] history.” The King’s stance is contrasted in the exhibit and otherwise to that of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who has dismissed the Holocaust.[19]

Emigration of Moroccan Jews from Morocco After World War II 

The exhibit indicates that Jews feared for their future after Moroccan independence in 1956, noting selected anti-Jewish pronouncements in the nationalist press and among fundamentalist Muslim leaders and tensions related to the establishment of Israel.  According to Professor Stillman, although there were efforts made by King Mohammed V to reassure the Jewish community, other events and trends undermined the confidence of most Jews regarding their future in Morocco.[20]  

Morocco’s policy preventing Jewish emigration might have also led them to consider themselves singled out and vulnerable. The exhibit includes a 1957 letter from a Moroccan Jew to the Rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York (referenced in the letter as a “Portuguese Spanish Synagogue”) expressing anxiety and seeking help, specifically “assurance of our security and freedom” from the King of Morocco who was expected to be in the United States around the time of the letter, and objecting to emigration and travel restrictions that Moroccan Jews were facing in leaving Morocco.[21]   

The exhibit does not take a position on whether on balance the conditions facing the Jews in Morocco were sufficient to explain their decision to emigrate, bringing a pre-emigration population of Jews in Morocco from nearly 300,000 to a post-emigration population of under 4000.   Rick Gold’s website does provide a number of explanations.[22]  But he cautions that “the explanations given for the departure of Moroccan Jews sometimes depend on the purpose of the person giving the explanat[23] “One might be attempting to make the conditions in Morocco at the time of emigration look better than they were in order to achieve one purpose or even worse than they were in order to achieve another.”[24] 

The exhibit does not describe what circumstances Moroccan Jews faced in Israel – the destiny of many Moroccan Jews -- after they emigrated there.  Nonetheless, other sources, including author Fatima-Zahra Belkady, indicate that their adjustment to life in Israel was not easy.[25] Challenges resulted from various obstacles, including language differences, lack of political power and employment, and the difficulties of fitting in as a North African as opposed to being a European Jew.[26]   


The Aftermath of Jewish Emigration

Graduates of Alliance Girl's School, Tetuan, Morocco, c. 1925,   Paris, Bibliotheque et Archives
de L'Alliance Israelite Universelle

The exhibit notes that the exodus of Jews led to their cultural diminishment in Morocco – for example, the loss of established Jewish institutions, including schools, synagogues and media, because of the lack of Jews to operate and patronize them.   Mostapha Saout of McLean, VA, a community outreach specialist, noted the difference in Morocco after the emigration of Moroccan Jews to Israel and elsewhere.  "Moroccan Jews were an integral part of Moroccan society for centuries, and their departure left an enormous void. It is like losing part of your heritage,” he said.[27]  “Given their centuries of integration into Moroccan society and their contributions, how could it be otherwise?"[28] Professor Aomar Boum quotes Ibrahim Nouhi, a resident of Southern Morocco, that when the Morocccan Jews left, “we, as a nation, lost a very dynamic social group which could have contributed to our young nation state.”[29]

As for the current influence of Jews in Morocco, the exhibit states that “[d]espite their current small numbers, Jews continue to play a notable (if small) role.  The King retains a Jewish cabinet minister,” Jews are represented by a “small number in politics and culture,” and “schools and Jewish synagogues receive government financial support.”  As for the ongoing relationship between the Moroccan Jews living outside Morocco and Morocco itself, Fatima-Zahra Belkady observed that Moroccan Jews living in Israel retain many important customs from Morocco, including striking similarities in their weddings.  Among other things, she noted, their weddings have included such things as the henna ritual and common dances, music and rhythms, and food (although some food names have changed); and they are proud of their Moroccan customs.[30]  According to author Oumama Aouad Lahrech, the bond between Moroccans Jews living abroad and Morocco is “remarkable” and reflective of a “fundamentally happy common history, despite the recent travails.”[31] 


Looking Back introduces an important subject which extends not only to Jews in Morocco, but also to Jews in Arab lands and Sephardic Jews generally.  As in my case, it may lead visitors to explore this body of knowledge in greater depth and uncover past, present and future links between Moroccan Jews and their country of origin and thus inspire further scholarship, and, in the final analysis, enhance cultural and interfaith understanding.

January 2, 2011

          Copyright © Norman L. Greene (2011).  The author, who is an attorney residing in New York, N.Y., is planning a conference on Morocco on rule of law and related themes.   His previous work on Morocco includes Norman L. Greene, Provocative, Fast-Moving Conference Held in Washington on Women’s Empowerment in Morocco, March 23, 2010, available at   Special acknowledgements to Fatima-Zahra Belkady (including for reviewing an earlier draft of this article), Professor Aomar Boum, Rick Gold, Tim Resch, Mostapha Saout,  and Professor Norman Stillman for their helpful conversations or sharing of research;  Dr. Loren Wissner  Greene for her common interests and editing; and many others for their inspiration and support over the years.  With respect to all these people, see SYLVIA BROWNRIGG, THE MORALITY TALE 76-77 (2008) (quoting a character to say, “The universe doesn't make mistakes. People come into your life for a reason, even if it doesn't all work out perfectly.”)

the Center for Jewish History in New York City  (


[1] The event is presented by the American Sephardi Foundation under the patronage of the Kingdom of Morocco. Professor Stillman’s presentation is available at

[2] The panel references Mordechai Nisan, Ph.D.   Dr. Nisan is a Professor of Middle East Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.   Berbers are also referenced as Amazigh, pl. Imazighen.

[3] Yaelle Azagury, A Jewish Moroccan Childhood, in Women Writing Africa: The Northern Region (Fatima Sadiqi, Moha Ennaji, et al., eds.), 2009, p. 389.

[4]Daniel J. Schroeter, Jewish Communities in Morocco: History and Identity, in  Daniel J. Schroeter, Ami Bouganim, Oumama Aouad Lahrech, Harvey E. Goldberg, and Moshe Idel, Morocco: Jews and Art in a Muslim Land (2000), p. 39.

[5] Daniel J. Schroeter, Jewish Communities in Morocco: History and Identity, in  Daniel J. Schroeter, Ami Bouganim, Oumama Aouad Lahrech, Harvey E. Goldberg, and Moshe Idel, Morocco: Jews and Art in a Muslim Land (2000), p. 39.

[6] The exhibit panel quotes Turkish (Ottoman) Sultan Bayezid II (1481-1512).

[7] Daniel J. Schroeter, Jewish Communities in Morocco: History and Identity, in  Daniel J. Schroeter, Ami Bouganim, Oumama Aouad Lahrech, Harvey E. Goldberg, and Moshe Idel, Morocco: Jews and Art in a Muslim Land (2000), p.  39.

[8]  Driss Benmhend, What Happened in Sefrou, available at (2007).  Sefrou is a Middle Atlas town about 28 kilometers southeast of Fez in central Morocco. Id.  See also Driss Benmhend, The Amazigh Revival in Morocco, available at

[9] Rick Gold, Visiting Jewish Morocco, Sefrou, available at 

[10] Source:  Tim Resch, December 17, 2010.  Mr. Resch added that Ouezzane is “an ancient holy city for Sufi Muslims…and Jews make pilgrimages there to venerate the tomb of several marabouts (Moroccan saints). 

[11] The exhibit quotes Professor Daniel Schroeter, who is separately identified as the exhibit’s “consulting scholar,” and who is frequently cited in this article as well.

[12] Rick Gold, Visiting Jewish Morocco, available at (last visited November 14, 2010).   Although not addressed in the exhibit, in the pre-colonial period in Morocco, Jewish equality in Morocco was restricted, according to Abdellah Hammoudi, Master and Disciple:  The Cultural Foundations of Moroccan Authoritarianism, (1997), p. 60 (“The law of dhimma  maintained a clear separation between Jews and Muslims, sanctioning the Jews’ subordination and limiting their legal and political capacity.  But many important economic, political and social ties crossed the line between Jews and Muslims.”) (footnote omitted). 

[13] See Rick Gold, Visiting Jewish Morocco, What factors triggered the massive emigration of Moroccan Jews?, available at (“Morocco’s experience under Vichy France from 1940-42 convinced Jews that the Sultan could not protect them, even if he wanted to.”)

[14]  Norman A. Stillman, Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times, pp. 128-29 (1991, 2003). 

[15] Robert Satloff, Among the Righteous:  Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach Into Arab Lands (2006), p. 110.  The book details heroic stories as well as troubling examples of complicity with fascists in North Africa in oppressing Jews.  It is an account of the effect of the Holocaust in North Africa generally, not Morocco in particular.

[16] Robert Satloff, Among the Righteous:  Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach Into Arab Lands (2006), p. 111.

[17] Robert Satloff, Among the Righteous:  Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach Into Arab Lands (2006), p. 109.  


[18] Norman A. Stillman, Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times, pp. 133-137 (1991, 2003).   See also Robert Satloff, Among the Righteous:  Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach Into Arab Lands (2006), pp. 37-38. 

[19]  See also  Associated Press, Morocco’s Holocaust recognition rare in Islam, July 25, 2009, available at

[20] Norman A. Stillman, Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times, pp. 172-3 (1991, 2003).   

[21]  The letter states in part:
We cannot leave Morocco unless to have a special permit from the authorities, and this permit is not so easy to be obtained.  Other Jews can never have a passport and those which abtain [sic] it, cannot leave the country.

[22] See Rick Gold, Visiting Jewish Morocco, What factors triggered the massive emigration of Moroccan Jews?, available at

[23] Interview of Rick Gold by author, November 23, 2010.

[24] Interview of Rick Gold by author, November 23, 2010.

[25] With respect to North African Jewish emigrants to Israel, see Fatima-Zahra Belkady, Maybe the Ends Do Justify the Means: The Problem of Mizrahim Integration (2009), p. 3 (unpublished paper).  Ms. Belkady is presently a graduate student at New York University in political science specializing in security and conflict resolution in the Middle East-North African region and particularly Morocco.

[26] See the recent film Where Are You Going Moshe (2007), described at (last visited November 14, 2010), recently showed in New York City at the Moroccan Film Festival sponsored by the High Atlas Foundation in October 2010.  The film referenced, among other things, unemployment problems experienced by Moroccan emigrants in Israel and discrimination directed to non-European Jews upon their arrival in Israel.   See also Norman A. Stillman, Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times, p. 167 (1991, 2003) (mentioning prejudice against North African Jews).

[27] Interview of Mostapha Saout by author, November 19, 2010.

[28] Interview of Mostapha Saout by author, November 19, 2010.

[29]Aomar Boum, “From Little Jerusalems” to the Promised Land:  Zionism, Moroccan nationalism, and rural Jewish emigration, The Journal of North African Studies, 15:1, 53 (2010).

[30]  Interview of Fatima-Zahra Belkady by author  (December 1, 2010).

[31] Oumama Aouad Lahrech in  Esther and I: From Shore to Shore in Daniel J. Schroeter, Ami Bouganim, Oumama Aouad Lahrech, Harvey E. Goldberg, and Moshe Idel, Morocco: Jews and Art in a Muslim Land (2000), p. 81. 

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