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Longing for Jewish-Muslim co-existence in Morocco

Kamal Hachkar’s film, ‘Echoes From the Mellah,’ looks at Morocco’s history, which not long ago included Jews and Muslims living together in peaceful co-existence, and serves as an important resource for building a vision of a shared Jewish-Palestinian existence.

By Ronit Chacham (translated by Noam Benishei)

The January 6 screening of Kamal Hachkar’s “Tinghir-Jerusalem: Echoes From the Mellah,” at the opening of Doc Aviv Festival in Yeruham, and the following screening at Ben-Gurion University, were first and foremost an opportunity to broach a subject that is at the heart of our lives: Muslim-Jewish relations. This time, however, it was done through the prism of Morocco. While the Jewish community in Morocco was one of the largest and most ancient communities in the Arab world, its magnificent history is not taught as part of Jewish history by Israel’s educational system.

Kamal Hachkar, the maker of this film, is a history teacher. Born in the Atlas town of Tinghir, he immigrated to France with his parents as a baby. He grew up between different identities and, according to him, with no identity at all — neither French nor Berber nor Moroccan. Every summer he visits his grandparents in Tinghir, where among signs of absence, among “memorials” for the Jews that vanished and their still-empty homes, he finds a whole cultural world that remains alive in many people’s memory, Muslim and Jewish alike. It is a world now gone, though present in its absence, through the longings thereto.

As an exile, as a man in search of a home, Hachkar sets out to observe those who left and those who were left behind — who still share the common thread of one language and many memories. The destroyed home remains a monument to a memory that has not faded. Hachkar, who is no filmmaker, takes along (Jewish) cinematographer Philippe Bellaiche to record these recollections, extracting it from his grandparents and other elders of their age who have preserved the memory of a world shared by the Jewish Berbers and Muslim Berbers that once lived in Tinghir, as well as from the Jewish Berbers who immigrated to Israel.

Still from Kamal Hachkar's film 'Echoes From the Mellah.'

Hachkar and his grandfather in the heart of Tinghir’s Mellah (Jewish Quarter). (Still from Kamal Hachkar’s film ‘Echoes From the Mellah.’)

“All of a sudden they were called to leave, and so they did,” the elders of Tinghir recount the story of the Jews’ departure in the 1960s. “They cried, they didn’t want to go,” report the elders, feeling deserted, “we cried too.” Perhaps they recount what Hachkar wishes to hear, perhaps not. But judging by his grandmother’s facial expressions when she speaks about the Jews, it is clear that this wistful longing is not shared by everyone. In the home of one resident, a couple of young, hijab-donning women walk in, asking: “Isn’t it dangerous talking about this?” before leaving the room in a haste. Much to Hachkar’s credit, the picture that emerges has many faces to it.

When Hachkar meets the natives of Tinghir who immigrated to Israel, introducing himself as a Muslim Berber, he receives a warm, cheerful welcome. One cannot help but wonder how he would be accepted by the third-fourth generation in Israel who have not been exposed to the historic depth of these relations or their rich culture. In front of the camera, the Jewish Berbers painfully recollect how “one night we just took everything and left… we left everything behind… they told us to come quickly…” The scenes the carry with them an almost surreal sense of sudden departure in the footsteps of a naïve belief that would lead them to Israel after thousands of years marked by co-existence.

Hachkar also meets a former World Zionist Organization emissary, who recounts how he used to go around villages to register the Jews and issue provisional passports, so that they could leave but never return, after the king and government had been under pressure to encourage their immigration. The WZO emissaries portrayed an idyllic picture of Israel – the motherland they should return to. But as soon as these Jews arrived at the desired motherland, disillusionment and disenchantment ensued. “We didn’t know where we were heading to,” recounts one female interviewee, “we were naïve.” Another interviewee recounts how when they arrived at Beit She’an (a small development town in the north) in a bus that had picked them from the airport, new immigrants that had been brought there previously were waiting for them, advising them to stay on the bus. One of the interviewees testifies: “we lived here in shame and disgrace.” Another women sing about the experience of exclusion and humiliation. Thus emerges the tragic aspect of the Jews’ departure from Morocco on their relations with the Muslims.

“It was good. We really lived with them. There were no problems,” recounts a Tinghir-born woman whom Hachkar meets in the town Yavne. “Where did all this joy go?” she asks and goes on to explain how the Muslim Berbers’ attitude towards their Jewish neighbors changed with the establishment of the State of Israel. “They stopped saying good morning, but they didn’t drive us away,” says the woman. There was no anti-Semitism in Morocco, but “over here every one kills each other. Why fight over land? The land remains put. It belongs to us all,” she says. “Everybody has to live in it, them and us.”

What emerges from the discussions with both Muslim Berbers in Morocco and Jewish Berbers in Israel is that this issue, repressed for years both here and there, remains fraught. Many of the third/fourth generation of the detachment from Morocco, like Hachkar himself and many others like him in Israel, are not familiar with the shared history that preceded the current Israeli-Arab conflict. Quite astonishingly, some youth interviewed by Hachkar in Tinghir have learned that the Jews once lived there from their parents, rather than from their history textbooks.

In Morocco as in Israel, the discussion regarding the shared history was pushed aside. The very screening of Hachkar film in the Morocco Film Festival was met both with great objection and a public discussion on the issue. The angry responses probably stemmed from the fact that the film touches on something that is buried deep, unresolved. The context of this discussion, needless to say, is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the issue of normalizing relations with Israel, as well as the debate between the Islamists and seculars in present-day Morocco. One way or the other, the relations with the Jews’ issue touches a raw nerve. The many films made over the last few years, such as Hassan Benjelloun’s “Where are You Going Moshe?” (2007), are surely a testimony that the memory of a shared life surfaces time and again, posing questions underlying for the present tension.

In this context, it is worth noting the 2007 founding of the “Mimouna Club” by non-Jewish students at Al Akhaway University in Ifrane, encouraged by King Hassan II and established by chapters in other cities. The club seeks to celebrate the history and tradition of Moroccan Jews, particularly around the Mimouna holiday (a traditional Maghrebi Jewish celebration held the day after Passover), as it stands for the promise and hope for salvation. The Mimouna Club, too, attracted criticism in Morocco.

One project dedicated to changing the fabric of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel is directed by Hagar Association: Jewish-Arab Education for equality. Recently, the organization initiated an anthology of stories in Hebrew and Arabic that serves to lay out the principles and values behind the holidays celebrated by members of the three major religions living in Israel. As we set out to write the program, we tried to think of a way to create a horizon of shared cultural life. The most important example we could find was the Mimouna as was celebrated in Morocco: a model for life marked by partnership, alongside religious differences. This is a far cry from its reshaped form in Israel.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that the history of the Jewish-Muslim relations is part of Morocco’s history, to cite Aomar Boum, Moroccan-born anthropologist, who lectures at the UCLA and the International University of Rabat, and researches the history of Jews in Morocco, their role in its history and the inter-generational differences in Muslim attitudes toward them. His book, titled “Memories of Absence – How Muslims remember Jews in Morocco,” was published in 2013 in Stanford University Press. The subject of Boum’s study is considered taboo in Morocco, since anyone who explores it is automatically suspected of being a Zionist. (His lecture on the Holocaust memory in the American institutional and public discourse can be watched here.)

Hachkar’s film paints a complex, thought-provoking picture. Despite its failure to fully grapple with all the questions it raises, the film calls for an important discussion over a model of existence in which cultural partnership can be found alongside religious differences. Most of all, it offers a glimpse of a repressed history, perhaps due to the very fact that it presents an option for co-existence.

The unrecognized history of Morocco’s Jews may offer a source of inspiration for changing the face of society and culture in Israel. Hachkar’s fascinating and inspiring film can be seen as an invitation to turn to the Jewish-Muslim cultural world as an important resource for building a vision of shared Jewish-Palestinian existence.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets.

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    1. Jello

      I saw the movie and it is impossible not to like Kamal Hachkar. He seems like a genuinely nice guy. He met ex-Moroccan Jews in Israel that remember with nostalgia their lives back in Morocco. There is a running joke in Israel about how it would seem that the grandfather of every Moroccan Jew in Israel was an adviser to the King of Morocco. Also touching was the reaction of Berbers to the Jews that left.

      And yet, there are now more Moroccan Jews in Brazil, Venezuela, Canada, France and obviously Israel than in Morocco where the community numbers less than 2,500. One can’t really argue with nostalgia but it seems legitimate to ask why, with such an illustrious model of partnership and tolerance, so few Jews are left in Morocco. So I looked up Moroccan Jews in Wikipedia and it doesn’t seem like life in Morocco was all that rosy. Immigration to Israel (and other places) was not a one-time event. It started in the 1940s and lasted on a large scale for well over 20 years and still continues at a smaller scale. It is very hard for me to come to terms with an argument that Jews were well-off in Morocco when so many chose to leave. Less than 1% of the Jewish population stayed in Morocco. Nor does the argument that the ‘Zionists’ lied to the Moroccan Jews to get them to move make much sense given that the migration was not sudden (like in Iraq), nor was it limited in any way to Israel alone. Perhaps there was either deeper in causing the emigration from Morocco and the immigration to Israel?

      There was this fine and instructive gem in the wikipedia article: “This edict of emancipation was confirmed by Mohammed IV’s son and successor, Moulay Hasan I, on his accession to the throne 1873 and again on September 18, 1880, after the Conference of Madrid. Such edicts and promises of a similar nature made from time to time to the Alliance Israélite Universelle, even if they are seriously intended, are, however, absolutely meaningless, since they are not executed by local magistrates, and if they were they would reignite old, deeply rooted hatreds of the Jewish population. Thus, for example, the sultan Sulaiman (1795–1822) decreed that the Jews of Fez might wear shoes; but so many Jews were killed in the streets of that city as a result of the edict that they themselves asked the sultan to repeal it. According to a statistical report of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, for the years 1864–80 no less than 307 Jews were murdered in the city and district of Morocco, which crimes, although brought to the attention of the magistracy upon every occasion, remained unpunished.”

      It would appear that whatever ‘tolerance’ existed in Morocco was confined to the highest social classes and was in force only as long as Jews stayed in ‘their place’. Everything else seems like the nostalgia of children who went through a traumatic process which is almost always a part of immigration to a new place.

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      • Ed

        An interesting and compelling complementary documentary is Ben Loeterman’s Seeds of Confict.

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