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Jews in Islamic Countries: Morocco

Jewish Population
1948: 265,000    |    2019: 2,1001

Jews have been living in Morocco since the time of Antiquity. Prior to World War II, the Jewish population of Morocco reached 225,000. Morocco’s King Mohammed V met with representatives from Nazi Germany and Vichy France during the Holocaust to discuss the issue of Jews in Morocco. The Moroccan King famously stated at the meeting that in his country, there are no Jewish citizens, there are no Muslims citizens, they are all Moroccans. The Jews of Morocco were not sent away to concentration camps, and were not subject to the full brunt of Nazi evil. Although Jews were not deported during the war, they did suffer humiliation under the Vichy government. Following the U.S. landing in 1943, a few pogroms did occur. In June 1948, bloody riots in Oujda and Djerada killed 44 Jews and wounded scores more. That same year, an unofficial economic boycott was instigated against Moroccan Jews.

In 1956, Morocco declared its independence, and Jewish immigration to Israel was suspended. In 1963, emigration resumed, allowing more than 100,000 Moroccan Jews to reach Israel.2

In 1965, Moroccan writer Said Ghallab described the attitude of his fellow Muslims toward their Jewish neighbors:

The worst insult that a Moroccan could possibly offer was to treat someone as a Jew....My childhood friends have remained anti-Jewish. They hide their virulent anti-Semitism by contending that the State of Israel was the creature of Western imperialism....A whole Hitlerite myth is being cultivated among the populace. The massacres of the Jews by Hitler are exalted ecstatically. It is even credited that Hitler is not dead, but alive and well, and his arrival is awaited to deliver the Arabs from Israel.3

Nonetheless, before his death in 1999, King Hassan tried to protect the Jewish population, and at present Morocco has one of the most tolerant environments for Jews in the Arab world. The constitution recognizes the Jewish community as an integral component of society.

According to the State Department, A separate set of laws and special courts govern personal status matters for Jews, including functions such as marriage, inheritance, and other personal status matters. Rabbinical authorities, who are also court officials, administer Jewish family courts. According to the law, a Muslim man may marry a Christian or Jewish woman; a Muslim woman may not marry a man of another religion unless he converts to Islam.3a

Moroccan Jewish emigres, even those with Israeli citizenship, freely visit friends and relatives in Morocco. Moroccan Jews have held leading positions in the business community and government. The major Jewish organization representing the community is the Conseil des Communautes Israelites in Casablanca. Its functions include external relations, general communal affairs, communal heritage, finance, maintenance of holy places, youth activities, and cultural and religious life.4

“The Jews no longer reside in the traditional Jewish mellahs, but intermarriage is almost unknown. The community has always been religious and tolerant....The younger generation prefers to continue its higher education abroad and tends not to return to Morocco. Thus the community is in a process of aging.”5

In early 2004, Marrakesh had a small population of about 260 people, most over the age of 60. Casablanca had the largest community, about 3,000 people. There are synagogues, mikvaot, old-age homes, and kosher restaurants in Casablanca, Fez, Marrakesh, Mogador, Rabat, Tetuan and Tangier. In 1992, most Jewish schools were closed, but Casablanca has experienced a bit of a renewal and now 10 schools serve 800 students there.5a

“The Jewish community developed a fascinating tradition of rituals and pilgrimages to the tombs of holy sages. There are 13 such famous sites, centuries old, well kept by Muslims. Every year on special dates, crowds of Moroccan Jews from around the world, including Israel, throng to these graves. A unique Moroccan festival, the Mimunah, is celebrated in Morocco and in Israel.”6

Morocco is perhaps Israel’s closest friend in the Arab world. King Hassan often tried to be a behind-the-scenes catalyst in the Arab-Israeli peace process. In July 1986, he hosted Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres in an effort to stimulate progress. Two months later, Hassan met with a delegation of Jews of Moroccan origin, including an Israeli Knesset member. In 1993, after signing the agreement with the PLO, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin paid a formal visit to Morocco.

In May 1999, King Hassan organized the first meeting of the World Union of Moroccan Jews, in Marrakech.

In April and May 2000, the Moroccan government sponsored a series of events and lectures promoting respect among religions.7 Andre Azoulay, royal counselor and a leading Jewish citizen, spoke about the need for interfaith respect and dialogue. In October 2000, two Moroccan youths tried to vandalize a Tangiers synagogue. King Mohamed VI publicly declared in a televised speech on November 6, 2000, that the government would not tolerate mistreatment of Morocco’s Jews. The youths were subsequently sentenced to one year in prison.8

On May 16, 2003, a series of suicide bombers attacked four Jewish targets in Casablanca, and a fifth attack was made against the Spanish consulate. No Jews were hurt in the attack because it occurred on Shabbat when the buildings were empty of Jews. Twenty-nine Muslims were killed. Though the bombings affected the Jewish sense of security, they were viewed by most Moroccans as assaults on the country’s social and political order, and a test of the young king’s power, rather than an act of anti-Semitism. King Mohammed VI visited the site of one of the attacks the day it occurred and urged the Jewish community to rebuild. The government subsequently organized a large rally in the streets of Casablanca to demonstrate support for the Jewish community and the king reasserted his family’s traditional protection for the country’s Jews.9

During the pope’s visit in March 2019, the king announced that he interpreted his title “Commander of the Faithful” as “the Commander of all believers… [including] Moroccan Jews and Christians from other countries, who are living in Morocco.”

The State Department reported that on August 27, 2019, authorities in the Al Houz region outside Marrakesh demolished a partially constructed installation described by its builder, German artist Olivier Bienkowski, as a “memorial dedicated to the murdered Jews in Europe and standing against the persecution of minorities such as the Sinti and Romani (Eastern Europe), Muslim Uigurs (China), and gays,” for failing to obtain the necessary permits. Bienkowski wanted to construct the first Holocaust Memorial in northern Africa “for educational purposes and to memorialize forced labor camps in the nearby desert during World War II where Jews and others were confined.” The government ordered Bienkowski to leave the country and local authorities disputed his version of events.3a

By law, all publicly funded educational institutions must teach Sunni Islam in accordance with the teachings and traditions of the Maliki-Ashari school of Islamic jurisprudence and Muslim students constituted a significant portion of the students at Jewish schools in Casablanca. Private Jewish schools may teach Judaism. Jews complained, however, that high school curricula did not include mention of the historical legacy and current presence of their groups in the country. Meanwhile, in 2019, the government continued to fund the study of Jewish culture and heritage at state-run universities.

In 2019, the monarchy continued to support the restoration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries throughout the country, efforts it stated were necessary to preserve the country’s religious and cultural heritage and to serve as a symbol of tolerance. In April 2019, the king launched the construction of a new Jewish cultural museum in a building that was once a school near the historic Jewish neighborhood and cemetery in Fez. The government also continued to disseminate information about Judaism over dedicated state-funded television and radio channels.3a

During the annual commemoration of the anniversary of the king’s reign, the king bestowed honors on the Grand Rabbi of Casablanca and the heads of the Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, and Russian Orthodox churches in recognition of their contributions to religious tolerance in the country.

The State Department also reported that “Jewish citizens continued to state that they lived and attended services at synagogues in safety. They said they were able to visit religious sites regularly and to hold annual commemorations. Several Jewish citizens, however, reported increased perceived societal intolerance, particularly when news media gave prominent coverage to Israeli-Palestinian issues.”3a

1. Sergio DellaPergola, “World Jewish Population, 2019,” in Arnold Dashefsky and Ira M. Sheskin (eds.), The American Jewish Year Book, 2019, Volume 119. Dordrecht: Springer, (2020).
2. Maurice Roumani, The Case of the Jews from Arab Countries: A Neglected Issue, (Tel Aviv: World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries, 1977), pp. 32-33.
3. Said Ghallab, "Les Juifs sont en enfer," in Les Temps Modernes, (April 1965), pp. 2247-2251.
3a. 2019 Report on Religious Freedom: Morocco," U.S. State Department, (June 10, 2020).
4. U.S. State Department Report on Human Rights Practices for 1996; Jewish Communities of the World; U.S. State Department Report on Human Rights Practices for 1997.
5. Jewish Communities of the World.
5a. Jewish Telegraphic Agency, (March 17, 2004).
6. Jewish Communities of the World.
7. U.S. Department of State, 2000 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Washington, DC, (September 5, 2000).
8. U.S. Department of State, 2001 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Washington, DC, (October 26, 2001).
9. Jewish Telegraphic Agency, (March 17, 2004).