Though some Jews seem to have arrived in Morocco with the Phoenicians shortly after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, the earliest hard evidence of a Jewish presence dates to the Roman period. Volubilis, near present day Meknes, was a very large city that followed the typical Roman layout, and dates to the first century. It allowed the Romans to control the fertile valleys between the coast and the Middle Atlas mountains which helped make North Africa a breadbasket for the empire. In the ancient cemetery, archaeologists have found a Jewish gravestone, which may mark the burial site of one of the many Jewish refugees exiled to the far reaches of the empire after the unsuccessful Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 CE.
On a totally separate note, neighboring Meknes became an important imperial city under Moulay Ismail, whose reign began in 1672. Driven in part by deep paranoia, his building program was extremely ambitious, and included tremendous city walls, a huge granary and reservoir to defend against lengthy siege, and a stable for 12,000 Arabian horses. This is the breed that enabled the Muslims to conquer so much territory so quickly. Today, the descendants of those proud horses can be found giving rides to tourists in the town market. The owner of the horse in the picture below gave him the fine Arabic name of Mario.
Jewish participation in Moroccan society goes back a very long way. When the Arabs arrived in the 9th century, many Jews were silversmiths. When the Arabs arrived, they introduced gold, and the silversmiths became goldsmiths. Thanks to their metalworking abilities, they were commissioned to mint the money. When they asked what symbol should be on the back, they were told, “something lucky,” so they put the magen David, the six-pointed star. This “lucky symbol” was part of the Moroccan flag until the French colonialists insisted on removing it. Today the flag has a five-pointed star, representing the pillars of Islam
Under most – though not all- Moroccan dynasties, Jews have fared well, or at least better than in other Arab countries. The Jewish quarter in most cities, the melah, was next to the palace. Here in the capitol, Rabat, the area still exists, but all of the city’s 110 Jews live in a newer part of town, near their synagogue.
During WW II, Morocco fell under the collaborationist Vichy government. The Nazis had two labor camps built near Rabat to gather Jews, and they delivered a shipment of yellow stars. King Mohammed V was told that they were for his Jewish citizens. He said, “we have no Jewish citizens; in our country we have only Moroccans.” When pressed further he said, “however many yellow stars you have, make fifty more for me and my family.” The Jews of Morocco never wore stars, and none were deported. His grandson, Mohammed VI requires school children to learn about the Holocaust, and students in Casablanca visit the Jewish museum (the only one in any Arab country) to learn of the 2000 year-old Jewish presence. We made that visit today, and saw artifacts from 62 different communities, including a Torah scroll from an 1100 year-old synagogue in the Sahara!
All this evidence of Jewish-Muslim co-existence gives me hope that one day it could be recreated throughout the Middle East.
After an uneventful flight on an aging Royal Air Maroc plane, we arrived early this morning. Once settled at the hotel, we went out for a stroll, and ended up in the Ancienne Medina (the Old City). Wandering in the souk (market), my eye caught this sign (below) down a small alleyway, marking the home of a 19th century rabbinic scholar. It’s evidence of the long-standing relationship between Jews and Muslims here in Morocco. More about that tomorrow. The Jewish community here dates back 2000 years, and now includes descendants of Berber tribesmen who were attracted to Judaism. A second major wave of immigration – about 40,000 people – came from Spain with the retreating Muslims in the 1480’s. It should surprise no one that there was conflict between the original Jews and the new immigrants, and the separation between the two remains.
From a high of about 350,000, the current Jewish population of Morocco is 5000, of whom 3500 live in Casablanca. This city boasts 28 functioning synagogues, 6 kosher restaurants, 18 kosher butchers, a network of Jewish schools, and old-age home and more. I’ve been here only 14 hours, and I’m very impressed!
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