congregants recite evening prayers at Temple Beth El, the Muslim call to prayer
rings out from minarets across the city and into the courtyard, a mix of Arabic
and Hebrew filling the dusk sky with praises to God.
And as the
yeshiva students file out of Beth El (literally, House of God), Mohammed, the
gatekeeper, kneels down in Muslim prayer at the synagogue’s entrance.
This is not
a mirage; this is Casablanca.
decades of economic migration and geopolitical tensions that reduced North
African Jewish communities from hundreds of thousands to a few thousand people,
hope is being rekindled in Morocco and Tunisia that as Jews keep the light of
their communities alive, so too does the region’s unique model of Muslims and
Jews living side by side.
For even in
a time of global polarization, Moroccans and Tunisians are proving that historical
bonds bind, rather than divide, Jews and Muslims, whose shared past they say
paves the way for a shared future.
Hearings Day One: Two Perspectives
to modern-day Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria some 2,000 years ago, with the
largest migration arriving shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem’s Second
Temple in 70 CE.
a country that is 99% Muslim whose monarch carries the title “commander of the
believers,” a distinct Hebrew culture nevertheless permeates practically every
town today: Arabicized Hebrew street names, historic synagogues, Jewish
quarters, or maleh, Jewish cemeteries, and Berber and Arab jewelry inspired by
will be quick to tell you that this is not only Jewish heritage, but Moroccan
Jewish life from the cradle to the grave in Morocco,” says Zhor Rehihil, an
anthropologist specializing in Moroccan Judaism and curator of Casablanca’s
Museum of Moroccan Judaism.
never cut ties with the diaspora even during the Israeli-Arab wars, because
they were a part of us, and when they left, for us Moroccans it was as if part
of us had left.”
We Need To Preserve”
Mohammed VI has promoted the return of the Moroccan Jewish diaspora and Israeli
tourism to the country, funding the preservation and renovation of 162 ancient
Jewish cemeteries and several synagogues across the country. Under Moroccan
law, anyone with Moroccan Jewish ancestry can claim citizenship.
preamble to Morocco’s 2011 post-Arab Spring constitution enshrines Moroccan
Jews as integral to the national fabric, stating that Morocco “is a sovereign
Muslim state … whose unity is nourished and enriched by its African,
Andalusian, Jewish, and Mediterranean constituents.”
where many Jews across the country have migrated in recent years, has emerged
as the de facto capital and epicenter of modern Jewish life in Morocco.
roadside vendors stack freshly cut palm reeds and leaves at busy intersections
to sell to Jewish residents constructing palm-leaf canopied sukkah huts for the
hosts four Hebrew schools, 15 active synagogues, rabbinical judges, no fewer
than five kosher restaurants, and multiple caterers providing services for
weddings and bar mitzvahs.
Arabs and Israelis see the atmosphere in the streets, signs in Hebrew, Jewish
and Muslim families living together in the same apartment building, and they
can hardly believe it,” says Serge Berdugo, secretary-general of the Council of
Jewish Communities of Morocco and a community leader.
fact is, it is not a slogan or some dream, it is daily life for us, and that is
a model we need to preserve for the world.”
community has dwindled from 300,000 in the 1940s to a mere 3,000; the diaspora
abroad stands at around 1 million.
13th-floor office overlooking downtown Casablanca and the King Hassan II
mosque, the 80-year-old Mr. Berdugo works tirelessly to “highlight and preserve
Moroccan Jewish heritage.”
d’Union kosher restaurant and supper club, Mr. Berdugo chats with friends over
lunch of beef tongue tagine and salads – Moroccan Jewish culinary staples.
always looking for ways to keep our community vibrant,” he says.
Kosher In Tunisia
to the Punic era, and having constructed what is believed to be the oldest
synagogue in Africa, Tunisian Jews once numbered more than 100,000, but now
number around 2,000.
island of Djerba grabs headlines and tourists for its large Jewish community,
Jews are very much part of the pulse and lifeblood of Tunis.
streets of the bustling capital, passers-by will point you to the kosher
restaurant in the port of La Goullette, the Jewish nursing home, the towering
national synagogue, or the historic synagogues marked by menorahs carved into
their wooden doors.
for kosher meat – seen as even more meticulously prepared than by Islamically
halal butchers in the capital – is high among Tunisian Muslims as well as Jews.
On a rainy
Friday this October, men and women lined up at the kosher butchery of Amran
Fennech, the store name in Hebrew and Arabic, red spicy merguez sausage hanging
from the storefront.
in central Tunis; hands down, Amran has the best cuts in town.
gets the best beef and lamb,” says Rehab, as she walks away with 2 pounds of
the number of Jewish customers has dwindled, Mr. Fennech says Muslim clientele
and the return of the Tunisian Jewish diaspora in the summer keep him busy; he
also prepares tuna for export across Europe.
Jews and we are Tunisians – we have specific cuisine, a specific dress, and a
specific way of life – you can’t separate one from the other,” Mr. Fennech says
as he pulls out a beef carcass from his iron fridge.
say the high-water mark of Jewish-Muslim relations may have been over a
millenium ago at the time of Al-Andalus, or Islamic Iberia, when the Muslim
empire stretched across the Mediterranean to modern-day southern Spain.
Muslims had become an intertwined community that was a beacon of science,
philosophy, art, and enlightenment while much of Europe was in the Dark Ages.
They flourished as the leading scientists and writers: philosopher Moses ben
Maimon (Maimonides), diplomat and physician Abu Yusuf ibn Shaprut, poet Moses
was a model for interfaith harmony and coexistence that we can still learn from
today,” says historian Habib Kazdaghli, dean at the University of Tunis-Manouba
and an expert on religious minorities in Tunisia.
Europeans re-conquered southern Spain, Jews and Muslims fled together back to
North Africa, forming their own distinct “Andalusian” neighborhoods in towns
and villages in modern-day Morocco and Tunisia, distinguished from their fellow
countrymen who had never left Africa.
Tunisia’s Jews, communal tensions arose in the second half of the 20th century
amid regional crises and the birth of Israel.
nationalism and anger over wars with Israel stoked occasional outbursts of
vandalism against Jewish properties and stores in Tunis. Violence erupted
during the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, and the 1991 Gulf War.
there was a war in the region, tensions would increase and certain people would
direct their anger toward their Jewish neighbors,” says one 50-year-old Jewish
resident, preferring not to speak in the name of the community.
But in the
21st century, particularly after the 2011 revolution, Jewish Tunisians say they
have noticed a marked difference.
Tunisian political freedoms, Israel – and by extension Jews – are no longer the
main contentious issue or used as a misdirection by an autocratic regime to
steer attention away from its abuses at home.
Jews say they are back to being neighbors and fellow citizens.
time of the revolution, there were bigger issues than the Jewish community and
the question of Israel; the troublemakers left us alone,” says Mr. Fennech, the
butcher. “Now we are all living in a new Tunisia together.”
sentiment was on display at a cafe in downtown Tunis Oct. 23, as dozens sipped
their morning espresso watching the swearing-in ceremony of recently elected
President Kais Saied.
television cameras cut away to focus on the front-row dignitaries, Tunisian
Rabbi Haim Bittan sitting next to Grand Mufti of Tunis Othman Battikh and
Archbishop of the Tunis Archdiocese Ilario Antoniazzi, some cheered.
We have a rabbi, alongside an imam, alongside a priest because they all
represent Tunis,” said cafe-goer Mohamed Ben Hassine, pointing at the screen.
“We are a
democratic state that chooses to embrace and respect all of our components of
society, not divide them.”
“I am not a
Minister René Trabelsi serves as the only Jewish minister in the Arab world,
and the first in Tunisia since the 1950s.
Tunisians credit Mr. Trabelsi with successfully turning around Tunisia’s
tourism – which once accounted for over 20% of gross domestic product – after
being hit with years of instability and ISIS attacks.
important is that I am the right man for the job of state minister, who happens
to be Jewish. I am not a quota; this is voluntary and from the people,” Mr.
Trabelsi says from his office, flipping through Sukkot holiday text greetings
in Hebrew from his Muslim friends and colleagues.
fact that the Tunisian people chose an Arab Jewish minister to lead a critical
ministry is a message to the world that we are a country of harmony and
factor shrinking the Moroccan and Tunisian communities – migration of young men
and women to Europe and Israel for better economic opportunities – continues
communities are aging, and renewed campaigns to rekindle interest in their
ancestral homelands have yet to lead to significant returns of Moroccan or
there are no diplomatic relations between Morocco and Israel, forcing Israeli
visitors to receive visas in a third-party country such as Spain. Israeli
tourists to Tunisia must fly to the island of Djerba; there are no direct
flights to Tunis.
and European Jewish tourism to Morocco and Tunisia is on the rise; as is the
demand for kosher foods and Jewish religious tourism experiences.
good of the community, for the good of the world, for the good of Morocco, and
for the good of Judaism, we must remain to maintain this link between peoples,”
says Mr. Berdugo, the Moroccan community leader.
Headline: Where an ancient Jewish-Muslim
Source: The Christian Science Monitor