Co-existence: A Jewish History of Islamic Morocco
Words by Rachel Trevarthen
The current political narrative of Jews and Arab Muslims dates back only 100 years. There is an older story, a richly complex and more peaceful one begging to be told.
Sitting in the shadows of today’s narrative of animosity and hatred is a story of a thriving co-existence between Jews and Arabs. This is Morocco’s Jewish history.
Jewish life in Morocco is over 2000 years old. From the 7th Century Jews lived as a protected minority under the Islamic principle of tolerance, holding high positions in society.
In the first part of the 20th century, there were over 300 000 Jews in Morocco, the largest population in the Muslim world. However, amidst fears of the holocaust during WWII, rising Arab nationalism and promises of a better life in Israel, the Jewish exodus began, leaving only 3500 Jews today.
Within this aging population of Jewish Moroccans, a very powerful story of co-existence and respect exists. Today Muslim guardians protect and care for thousands of Jewish sites throughout the country; synagogues, cemeteries and the tombs of Holy Jews or Sadik that remain sites of holy pilgrimage.
Aaron Vincent Elkaim, a Canadian photographer with a Jewish Moroccan family history, captured the series and brought this powerful historical story from darkness into the light.
How did you come to tell this story?
My father is Jewish, he is Moroccan from Marrakesh.
When I got out of college, I wanted to do a documentary style story. As I was heading overseas with my Dad, we talked about going to Morocco and spending a couple of weeks there travelling around.
I started doing some research and I realised that I was quite ignorant in regards to the history of the country and its Jewish Moroccan history. While 300 000 Jews once lived there, there were 5000 left there and how long they would remain was unknown.
I didn’t realise this was such a massive part of the history of this country and part of my ancestry so it was something I wanted to explore.
How did the idea of co-existence come about?
Initially, I thought about focusing the story on the last Jews of Morocco. People are inherently attracted to the cliché idea of the last of something and it sounded enticing. Upon arrival in Morocco and meeting the people, this idea quickly changed.
I asked myself if I really wanted to mythologise their story into the last of something? Did I want to do that to these people?
I remember the moment when the idea of co-existence emerged after visiting an active synagogue in Marrakesh and the woman living there as caretaker of the space.
I snapped a photo of her posing in the kitchen doorway of the synagogue which she cared for, with a Mezuzah, (a parchment with religious texts), next to her head and that’s when I realised, this is powerful.
There is a Muslim woman living here in the synagogue whose job it was to care for this sacred Jewish space, making sure everything was clean and kosher.
It just didn’t fit with the narrative that I had come to know about Jews and Arabs; a narrative so burdened and influenced by events of only the last 100 years.
When I came to Morocco I started to see such remnants of the past were so different from today’s political narrative; one that never felt right to me.
What I witnessed was history that was 2000 years old and it was moving. So over the next two years, I went back to Morocco a couple of times and spent a few months. I realised that I wanted to talk about the history of Jews and Muslims in Morocco.
What was it like for you, going on this journey?
This was really a personal, spiritual journey for me.
What is amazing about documentary photography and this kind of storytelling is that you really have to put in the time in these places. For me to go to this place, where my history is from, and spend that kind of time and travel along this route to all these holy places was incredible, not just in a sense of travel, but more from a sense of serendipity, the people I met, how one thing led to the next, how one door opened my eyes to another and this sense of a spiritual journey.
For me, I felt very much like I was on a path that I had to walk and it all came together. It wasn’t just about the story, it was about a personal pilgrimage that created that insight and narrative.
Can you tell us about the experience of visiting the sites?
Most of the old Jewish sites are throughout the country, in mountains and small villages all over the place so I had to travel all over Morocco to find them. I found myself going to Jewish sites of pilgrimage, sacred sites that Jews would come to every year because Sadiks (famous Rabbis) were buried there.
One of the largest pilgrimages takes place in Ouezzane, in the foothills of the Rif Mountains where Rabbi Amran Ben Diwan is buried. People make pilgrimage to this site every year, some for spiritual reasons and others because they have strong ties of family and tradition to this place.
Just to be there at these sites of pilgrimage was something I would never have experienced if it wasn’t for the desire to explore this narrative.
As it was part of my own personal history, it made it all the more powerful.
Can you tell us about the Muslim guardians who have been honouring commitments to protect these sites for decades?
I found caretakers honouring these long-held promises in multiple places. I met a Berber Muslim named Harim Hassad who had cared for the blue doored synagogue in Arazan since Jews left in 1962. He was handed the key by the last Jew to leave for Israel and has kept the place clean, ensured it wasn’t vandalized and when you walked in, it was like walking into a relic.
The duty is often held for life and passed down through the family.
Then there is the story of Abdullae Abudssif and his father, Abas, the 85-year-old Muslim gardener of the Jewish cemetery in El Jadida.
Abas was asked to care for this cemetery in 1955 for a close Jewish friend who left to live in France. Despite being mostly abandoned and unsupported by the Jewish community, he has held that promise his entire life and is proud of what he has done.
His son Abdullae was more bitter. He felt they had been abandoned by the Jewish community, as his father was still poor and they had received nothing in return for their honouring of this commitment. They had resorted to raising animals on the cemetery grounds for a living.
Abas wasn’t making a good living yet he had dedicated his life to living in this cemetery, based on a promise to a community he was once a part of and a place he identified with.
What does that mean in today’s world to see people honouring lifetime commitments to a community that no longer exists?
Each site I visited had a different situation and it’s hard to say for certain what every person’s motivations were, with certain people receiving more support than others. But I what found was this long-standing commitment in most places.
No one abandoned these places. Some sites hadn’t been visited by Jews in decades but were being protected and cared for regardless.
It made me question whether this kind of friendship and respect exists in today’s day and age – to dedicate your life to honouring and caring for a place because you had a close relationship to a person and community that asked you to do it. And for potentially nothing back in return?
That level of respect for history and community, where the person you promised is probably dead but you uphold your word regardless, is powerful.
In today’s society, we are much more self-centered and communities are more fragmented so to make that kind of life promise is rare.
How did it feel being openly Jewish in Islamic Morocco?
In general, I never had a bad experience telling anyone there I was Jewish.
This is not to say that there might not be animosity amongst certain people in different situations but what it says I guess is that what the media says and what people assume isn’t a lie per se, it’s just not the whole truth.
Going into an Arab society as a Jew doing a story would typically make many people nervous. But what I found was when I told people that, when I said who I was and why I was there, they welcomed me and treated me with respect. They told me about the history as they knew it.
If you live within only a presented truth, you’re not going to experience the actual reality of the world. You’re going to walk around with fear and see people as ‘the other’ and what’s needed in situations like this is openness. In return, you will be welcomed and respected. The person walking around with fear is not going to get such an experience because they aren’t going to allow it.
That’s what informs the narrative I’m telling.
What can we take from this story?
This story of Jewish Morocco is an amazing, if not forgotten, part of religious and cultural history. It is evidence of Judaism thriving; thriving, moreover, within an Islamic country. These people were free to travel to Israel. The Rabbis were revered for performing miracles. This is important to know and remember.
This story is for anybody who has looked at the Middle East and the questions of Israel/Palestine in a certain black and white way. It’s for those who are open to realising that history isn’t black and white, neither is hatred or this complex relationship and here is some evidence to prove that.
The history of Judaism isn’t where we are now. It’s much more complex. It’s one of co-existence really, in this place and many other places.
What is great about this story is that it stays relevant. It’s a relevant story for today’s Muslims, today’s Jews and people interested in a world where religious tolerance and respect triumphs over division.