Jewish in Morocco

A weekend with the head of Morocco's Jewish community.

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The winds off the Atlantic whistled through Casablanca's ancient outdoor market as I prepared to visit Serge Berdugo, the ambassador-at-large and head of Morocco's 5,000-strong Jewish community. I didn't initially plan on seeing him. I was actually visiting the coastal city to write for the Financial Times about Morocco's version of Oprah, Nassima el Hor. But my interview with Ms. el Hor was canceled because the month-long Muslim fasting holiday of Ramadan had just ended, and nearly everyone in the city was celebrating the subsequent three-day Eid festival.
moroccan synagogue
Because anything work-related grinded to a halt during Eid, Berdugo, whom I had met on a previous reporting trip, invited me to spend Shabbat with him and his family at his summer home in the ancient city of Marrakech. Before our departure we met in Casablanca's Jewish community center for lunch. Over plates of hummus and carrots doused in cumin, he talked to me about life as a Jew in Morocco. For his part, Berdugo can trace his family's arrival to the Spanish inquisition, when both Jews and Muslims from Spain found refuge in nearby Morocco.

A History of Tolerance

This shared migratory experience, Berdugo explained, helped form a tight bond between the two peoples. And, while the majority of Moroccan Jews have left to reside either in Israel, Europe, or North America, Berdugo sees the role of Morocco's community--the largest of its kind in the Arab world--as one that is emblematic of peaceful coexistence with Muslims. "We are friends here," said Berdugo. "We live together and we are the same. This is an extremely tolerant society."

The kingdom's respect for the minority community was best elucidated during World War II when the pro-Nazi, French Vichy regime attempted to exert its anti-Jewish decrees over Morocco (from 1912-1956 the country was a French protectorate), and King Muhammed V resolutely blocked the initiatives.

On a more personal level, Berdugo was the country's Tourism Minister from 1993 to 1995. In this role, he helped encourage dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis during a multitude of visits to Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. He also coordinated trips for Moroccan Muslims to Mecca for the annual Hajj pilgrimage. A controversial task in the Arab League--having a Jew oversee the most important religious pilgrimage in Islam--but since Morocco has held fast to its role as the country in the Arab world that is most tolerant of its Jewish community, no eyebrows were raised.

During the Oslo Accords, Morocco, which does not abide by the Arab League's boycott, established low-level diplomatic ties with Israel. In 2003, two years after the start of the second Intifada, Berdugo spearheaded efforts alongside the king to re-establish relations with Israel after the monarch decided to play a more active role in resolving the conflict. Though these efforts did not materialize, Moroccan-Israeli diplomatic contacts continue.

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Marisa Mazria-Katz

Marisa Mazria-Katz is a writer based in New York. She has contributed to the New York Times, Washington Post, Financial Times and Time International. For more information: www.marisakatz.com.