Morocco underscores ‘special’ ties with Israel, unique history with Jews

Bourita, highlighted Morocco’s enduring connection to Israel through its domestic Jewish community and the estimated 700,000 Israeli Jews of Moroccan descent.
Monday 14/12/2020
Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita attending a news conference in the capital Rabat, last January . (AFP)
Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita attending a news conference in the capital Rabat, last January . (AFP)

RABAT--Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita revealed Sunday that his country’s relations with Israel are “unique” in the Arab world and that bilateral ties were “already normal” before diplomatic normalisation was announced.

Morocco on Thursday announced a “resumption of relations” with Israel, shortly after US President Donald Trump tweeted that Rabat and the Jewish state had “agreed to full diplomatic relations.”

Morocco closed its liaison office in Tel Aviv in 2000 at the start of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

Morocco’s announcement is widely seen as making it the fourth Arab country this year to unveil plans to normalise ties with Israel through a US-brokered deal, following the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan.

Incomparable relations

In an interview with Israel’s Yediot Ahronot newspaper published Sunday, Bourita said “Israel’s relations with Morocco are special and can’t be compared to the relations that Israel has with any other Arab country.”

“From our perspective, we aren’t talking about normalisation because relations were already normal,” Bourita was quoted as saying by the paper.

“We’re talking about (re-formalising) the relations between the countries to the relations we had, because there have been relations the entire time. They never stopped,” he added.

Moroccan King Mohammed VI (C) during a visit to the “Bayt Dakira” (House of Memory) museum, in the Atlantic coastal city of Essaouira, last January. (Moroccan Royal Palace)
Moroccan King Mohammed VI (C) during a visit to the “Bayt Dakira” (House of Memory) museum, in the Atlantic coastal city of Essaouira, last January. (Moroccan Royal Palace)

A palace statement last week said King Mohammed VI had agreed to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel with “minimal delay.”

That followed Trump’s recognition of Morocco’s contested sovereignty in Western Sahara, infuriating the Algerian-backed Polisario Front, which controls about one-fifth of the vast, arid region.

A special history with Jews

Bourita, in the interview, highlighted Morocco’s enduring connection to Israel through its domestic Jewish community and the estimated 700,000 Israeli Jews of Moroccan descent.

“Morocco has an important history with the Jewish community, a history that is special in the Arab world,” he told the paper.

US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, who met Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Sunday, echoed Bourita’s view that normalisation with Morocco was “special” given the number of Jews of Moroccan heritage.

“Morocco will benefit from support from the Moroccan Jewish community,” O’Brien said, also highlighting the number of “Israelis who trace their ancestry through Morocco.”

Netanyahu said none of the normalisation deals “would have been possible” without the Trump administration.

Israel’s former United Nations ambassador Danny Danon said the Palestinians needed to “understand that today there is a new paradigm.”

The Arab model of no ties with Israel until the Palestinian conflict is resolved has been cast aside, he argued.

“The new paradigm is first we are forging ties with the Muslim world, with the Arab countries, and together with them we can approach the Palestinians,” Danon said, suggesting that future peace talks could include delegates from other Arab states.

Culture to counter extremism

Jewish history and culture in Morocco will soon be part of the school curriculum — a “first” in the region and in the North African country, where Islam is the state religion.

The decision “has the impact of a tsunami,” said Serge Berdugo, secretary-general of the Council of Jewish Communities of Morocco.

It “is a first in the Arab world,” he said from Casablanca.

The decision to add Jewish history and culture to lessons was discreetly launched before the diplomatic deal was announced.

Part of an ongoing revamp of Morocco’s school curriculum since 2014, the lessons will be included from next term for children in their final year of primary school, aged 11, the education ministry said.

The move aims to “highlight Morocco’s diverse identity,” according to Fouad Chafiqi, head of academic programmes at the ministry.

Land of ancestors

For years, although the kingdom had no official relationship with Israel, thousands of Jews of Moroccan origin visited the land of their ancestors, to celebrate religious holidays or make pilgrimages, including from Israel.

Morocco’s Jewish community has been present since antiquity and grew over the centuries, particularly with the arrival of Jews expelled from Spain by the Catholic kings after 1492.

At the end of the 1940s, Jewish Moroccans numbered about 250,000 — some 10% of the population.

Many left after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, and the community now numbers around 3,000, still the largest in North Africa.

Jewish presence in Moroccan culture now appears in the primary-level social education curriculum, in a section dedicated to Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah, known as Mohammed III.

The 18th-century Alawite ruler chose the port of Mogador and its fortress, built by Portuguese colonists, to establish the coastal city of Essaouira.

Under his leadership, the diplomatic and commercial centre became the only city in the Islamic world counting a majority Jewish population, and at one point had 37 synagogues.

“While there was a Jewish presence in Morocco before the 18th century, the only reliable historical records date back to that time,” Chafiqi said.

Promoting tolerance

Two US-based Jewish associations — the American Sephardi Federation (ASF) and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations (COP) — said they “worked closely with the Kingdom of Morocco and the Moroccan Jewish community” on the “groundbreaking” academic reform.

“Ensuring Moroccan students learn about the totality of their proud history of tolerance, including Morocco’s philo-Semitism, is an inoculation against extremism,” leaders of the two organisations said in a statement published on Twitter last month.

Also in November, Education Minister Said Amzazi and the heads of two Moroccan associations signed a partnership agreement “for the promotion of values of tolerance, diversity and coexistence in schools and universities.”

The accord was symbolically inked at Essaouira’s “House of Memory,” which celebrates the historic coexistence of the city’s Jewish and Muslim communities.

Among those present was Andre Azoulay, a member of the local Jewish community who is also an adviser to King Mohammed VI.

Moroccan Jews participate in a religious ceremony to observe the holiday of Sukkot (the Feast of the Tabernacles) at a synagogue in the Mellah Jewish quarter of the Medina in Marrakesh. (AFP)
Moroccan Jews participate in a religious ceremony to observe the holiday of Sukkot (the Feast of the Tabernacles) at a synagogue in the Mellah Jewish quarter of the Medina in Marrakesh. (AFP)

The king has pushed for a tolerant Islam that ensures freedom of worship for Jews and foreign Christians.

In September 2018, at a UN roundtable, he emphasised the role of education in the fight against racism and anti-Semitism.

Morocco “has never erased its Jewish memory,” said Zhor Rehihil, curator of Casablanca’s Moroccan Jewish Museum — the only one of its kind in the region.

History teacher Mohammed Hatimi said introducing Jewish identity into Morocco’s education programme would help nurture “future citizens conscious of their diverse heritage.”

The move will also be part of a revision of the secondary school curriculum set for next year, according to Chafiqi from the education ministry.