“We’re Still Here”: Memory, Preservation, and Politics in Morocco’s Waning Jewish Community

Featured image: Framed portraits and family photos, most of them depicting nameless Jewish community members, cramp the walls of Edmond Gabbay’s Museum. 


By Gabriel Roy


[dropcap]M[/dropcap]agid Edrisi, a local guide whose hunched back and gaunt features belie surprising energy, beckons me through the impressive archway of an ancient Islamic college. Excitedly, he points a quivering finger at an ornate mosaic column bearing elegant Arabic lettering and, to my astonishment, an inconspicuous Star of David. “You see these tiles? This is the work of eleventh-century Jewish artisans.” He pauses, then adds, “Can you believe it? Jews and Muslims, right here, living peacefully together.”

Grabbing my hand, Edrisi drags me through the streets of Salé, Rabat’s unfrequented twin city. Edrisi abounds with colorful stories of the past, revivifying the history of a thriving Jewish community: “I remember well as a child seeing the Star of David above this very building, once a synagogue. Across the street, that was a Jewish school!”

We duck into a claustrophobic corner store where a shopkeeper who Edrisi assures me “knows the whole world” might help me identify Salé’s remaining Jewish families. As Edrisi converses with the shopkeeper, I watch my guide’s smile and bubbling enthusiasm fade.

Morosely, the aging man I’d befriended turns to face me. “They’re all gone—the last of Salé’s Jews left 20 years ago. You’re too late, my friend.”


From lively medinas to dusty hinterlands, Jewish people have populated Morocco for nearly 3,000 years. Numbering a robust 300,000 in the late forties, the Jewish community saw a dramatic transformation following the creation of the State of Israel. Today, only 4,000 Jews remain —aging and concentrated in Morocco’s largest cities. Some argue that this approximation of Moroccan Jewry is almost too generous; the striking demographic decline of Morocco’s Jews persists, as young Jews, in a worrying brain-drain, seek educational and career opportunities abroad.

The community’s rapid depopulation raises a few questions: how will Morocco’s Jewish heritage be remembered, to whom does the responsibility of cultural preservation and demographic retention belong, and how will endeavors to revive Jewish culture and community be ethically and transparently funded? Whisperings of political corruption and financial mismanagement sully the ostensible commitment of the Moroccan government and Moroccan Jewish bureaucrats to conserve Jewish legacy and life.

Despite these concerns, Morocco has a compelling, historically precedented claim to defending the Jewish way of life. As Amir al-Mu’minin (Commander of the Faithful), Morocco’s kings charge themselves with the responsibility of protecting all religious subjects, despite the country’s Muslim majority. During the Holocaust, King Mohammed V resisted the Nazism of its protectorate governor, Vichy France, and stymied the inventorying of Jewish assets and the assignation of the yellow star. More recently, the preamble of the revised 2011 Moroccan Constitution explicitly acknowledges Morocco’s Jewish heritage as an integral component of its national identity.  

“Where else in the Arab world can you see rabbis at seven in the morning going to the synagogue with the tefillin? In what other country has the King decided to rehabilitate Jewish cemeteries?” asks Serge Berdugo, Ambassador at Large for the King of Morocco and Vice-President of the World Jewish Congress.

We sit in a posh office on the fourteenth floor of a Casablanca highrise with sweeping views of the city. Ambassador Berdugo is referring to King Mohammed VI’s immense restoration project, announced in 2010, to renovate 167 Jewish cemeteries. Proudly, Berdugo hands me a heavy promotional book chronicling the King’s initiative; the literature boldly pronounces its mission to honor Jewish sanctuaries “from the most central areas to the most remote, in mountains and in urbans areas.”

Though eager to speak about the various restoration initiatives of the Moroccan government, Berdugo equivocates about the urgency of the Jewish community’s demographic decline. “I don’t think about the numbers. I make a difference between residence, nationality, and membership. We have one million Moroccan Jews all over the world; it’s important to have Moroccan Jews living here, but more important is their link to Morocco.”

Through Ambassador Berdugo’s praise of Moroccan exceptionalism and the universality of Morocco’s national identity, a discordant narrative emerges about Muslim-Jewish relations: “Though here is better than everywhere else for the Jews, our story is not always one of wine and roses.” Indeed, while recorded incidents of public anti-semitism are relatively few and often dismissed as “out of character,” Moroccan Jews are well acquainted with religious animus. Berdugo, however, did not elaborate further. Pivoting to a tired refrain, he added, “One thing is sure: we are all mobilized to preserve our Jewish heritage. We have foundations, we have a museum, we have rehabilitated a lot of cemeteries.”


Dr. Vanessa Paloma Elbaz sitting in her office, which doubles (temporarily) as the KHOYA headquarters.


“That’s not the preservation of Judaism,” responds Dr. Vanessa Paloma Elbaz, scholar of Judeo-Moroccan music at Cambridge University, founder of KHOYA, and activist in the Moroccan-Jewish community. With the same impressive view of the Casablanca cityscape, we sip Maghrebi mint tea and discuss the waning Jewish population and her efforts to create an archive of Moroccan Jewish music and oral history (KHOYA)—a task she describes as a “race against the clock.”

Paloma is skeptical of the various preservation projects about which Jewish bureaucrats like Berdugo wax poetic. “These are cemeteries in places where there are no more Jews for thousands of miles—and some of these cemeteries didn’t even have marked boundaries,” she comments of the King’s vaunted cemetery restoration initiative. Projects such as this one reveal the superficial nature of popular efforts at cultural preservation: their emphasis is not always on Morocco’s living community of Jews, but on relics of the past.

Moreover, they show that at the core of the Moroccan government’s commitment to defending Moroccan Judaism are shrewd political calculations.

“Everything that has to do with the Jews here is political,” Paloma declares. The preservation of Judaism, she adds, enables Morocco to project a carefully curated image of tolerance: “It has to do with the way Morocco sees itself in the world, and the way it sees itself in the Muslim world. By showing and establishing the religious complexity in Moroccan society, and by continuing to ensure it far from where it even exists anymore, you can push back radicalism. It’s a way of saying, this is who we are and who we’ve been forever— radicalism is not welcome here.”

“Another part of that is showing it to the international community,” Paloma remarks. She chuckles to herself, recounting the time when she and other peeved mothers arrived to collect their children from Casablanca’s Jewish school to find its doors locked. Inside, Ambassador Berdugo was leading a tour for diplomats from over 20 different countries. “It’s like it’s not really about the Jews, not the people living in the community,” Paloma continues.

Accompanying this political performance are issues of financial transparency, which implicate Ambassador Berdugo and various American Jewish lobby organizations. In early May, an open letter circulated among the Moroccan Jewish community denouncing Berdugo’s role as itinerant ambassador to King Mohammed VI—a position some claim serves only to connect the Palace to the American Jewish lobby for the unspecified financial needs of the state.

The Moroccan government does not only fail to publicly disclose the sources and applications of some of its international aid — it neglects its own commitment to a human development strategy pairing cultural projects with progressive social initiatives.

Dr. Yossef Ben-Meir is the co-founder and president of the High Atlas Foundation, a nonprofit which works to build economic independence in Morocco’s poor rural communities. Ben-Meir suggests that, without a corresponding emphasis on human-development programs, Morocco’s restoration of Jewish architectural and cultural sites is a misspent opportunity to meet the basic needs of the Jewish community. 20 million dollars went into restoring the Jewish quarter (mellah) of Marrakech, he reports, “But at the same time there’s no women’s association or cooperative. There simply hasn’t been the implementation of human-development projects alongside the mellah’s refurbishment,” Ben-Meir remarked.

Moreover, democratic methods of community project planning inscribed in Morocco’s Municipal Charter are largely ignored. “Community members [of the mellah] are supposed to be involved in the identifying and the prioritizing process that leads to plans for projects, but they can’t point to any project that they controlled, or [where] the benefits were for them,” Ben-Meir added.  “Yes, the mellah on its surface was brought back, but what about sustainable jobs, how many people are experiencing improved education and security, what of better policing and clean water?”


Vanessa and Ben-Meir aren’t the only members of the Moroccan Jewish community raising concerns about its nebulous bureaucracy and ambiguous political and financial interests. I visit Yael Nacache, an activist and foreign-born Jew who, fearing retaliation, requests anonymity (a pseudonym has been assigned). She encourages me to attend a local synagogue’s services, where I sit among 10 Jewish men, all no younger than 60 — a sobering testament to Morocco’s rapidly aging Jewish demographic. Afterwards, Nacache invites me to lunch at her apartment, far removed from the cacophony of a tourist market just blocks away.

Between servings of challah and tomato tapenade, Nacache explains how financial mismanagement threatens the tenets and spiritual growth of the Jewish community: “According to Jewish tradition, after say 120 years of life, the first question upon spiritual assessment by a ‘heavenly court’ is not ‘did you keep Yom Kippur’—it’s ‘were you honest in your business dealings.’ If that’s how important financial ethics are in Jewish law, then surely it should be part of our community.”

In her interactions with the Jewish community, she has noticed a certain “defensiveness” when it comes to financial issues: “People who have tried to talk about these problems have been kicked out, not helped by the Jewish community, and, frankly, borderline abused.”

Nacache is well acquainted with the politics she decries: she was sidelined for critiquing the practices of the Jewish community, was told repeatedly to leave Morocco, and has experienced corruption exercised by various routes, including via Morocco’s rabbinical court system. There, she was denied financial assistance she was rightfully owed. “People who express the view more openly than I do—that they have proof of, frankly, corruption—are ostracized,” Nacache said, adding that even those who freely associate with “whistleblowers” risk their reputation and security.

For Nacache, these conditions have inspired a general malaise, alongside the feeling she’s been designated “persona non grata.” Mechanisms of discrimination perpetuate from within the Jewish community, meaning Jewish population’s contraction is, in part, self-driven. According to Nacache, Jewish officials have a tendency to exclude and “other” foreign Jews, such as herself, who briefly visit or choose to live in Morocco. Further, these officials often allegedly describe the Moroccan Jewish community as isolated and atomized, and lacking in resources and infrastructure. When visiting Jews are told there’s “nothing here for them,” it is to Nacache part of “a deliberate attempt to negate the existence of a viable Jewish community in Morocco.”

“Therefore, money that’s pouring in, is…well, we don’t know,” Nacache added.

The Jewish community’s patriarchal structure is yet another factor pushing young Jewish women out of Morocco. Paloma studies the way centuries-old Moroccan Judaeo-Spanish music functioned to curtail women’s transgression of social and sexual mores. Even today, Paloma identifies resonances between the songs she studies and the practices and norms of the modern Moroccan Jewish community. Anxieties about “predation” of Jewish women by Muslim men preclude career opportunities for women in the Muslim-dominated professional world.

“These songs functioned as a complete restriction of women’s behavior, but social worlds are still split down lines of gender and these restrictions are operating constantly. Many young Moroccan Jewish women just can’t wait to get out of the country,” Paloma said.


“The Jewish cemetery? Where’s that?” I hand my phone to the cab driver and point to a location he swears is a vacant lot. We set off, weaving through heavy congestion and dodging absent-minded pedestrians. The Israelite Cemetery of Fez gleams an eerie, luminous white under the midday sun. It is but one of the 167 graveyards carefully restored under the government’s initiative to rehabilitate Jewish cemeteries.


The Israelite Cemetery of Fez vacant at noon.


Next to the cemetery is the home of Edmond Gabbay, an 84-year-old businessman and one of the few remaining Jews of Fez. I find Gabbay looking ruefully out onto the cemetery from his small studio, cluttered with bric-a-brac and the blaring, chaotic sound of radio static. He leads me into the cemetery’s adjoining “museum,” of which he is the curator and manager. The space is teeming with miscellaneous artifacts the 22,000 Jews of Fez left behind: family photos, children’s drawings, shoes, suitcases, cameras, and toys.

Fez was once a site of community, legend, and profound faith for Morocco’s Jews. Today, there is almost nothing left.  “I don’t have hope for a resurgence in the community, to the way things were before. The community was numbrous. Now, there are no marriages, there are no young people, and Jews who come are only visiting,” Gabbay confessed.


While Gabbay laments the decline of his community, Moroccan diplomats, activists, cultural actors, and other notables gather for an evening of celebration at Le S.O.C., a posh Jewish club in downtown Casablanca. The event, Le Ftour Pluriel, is a pluralistic Ramadan break-fast honoring promoters of interfaith dialogue and uniting representatives of the three Abrahamic faiths. André Azoulay, a Moroccan-born Jew and the senior advisor to King Mohammed VI, is the guest of honor.


Edmond Gabbay, 84, resting in his small studio, which overlooks the Jewish cemetery of Fez.


“We are united here out of respect—not out of our differences, but out of our shared Moroccan identity,” Azoulay said during his closing remarks before the brief, silencing interruption of the adhan, or call to prayer, echoing from a nearby minaret. Following his speech, a rabbi, imam, and Vatican envoy assemble on the stage to recite blessings; they each embrace before exiting.

In a private interview, Azoulay denied knowledge of issues of financial transparency with respect to Jewish cultural preservation projects. Like Ambassador Berdugo, Azoulay underplayed the apparent urgency of the Moroccan Jewish community’s demographic decline.

“We don’t need to create incentives for Moroccan Jews. If you want to stay, you’re more than welcome. But being a Moroccan Jew is not just working on the Moroccan soil, it’s what is in our minds,” Azoulay remarked.

For most community members, though, the decline of the Jewish population warrants thoughtful planning about the group’s future.

“Third generation Moroccan Jews don’t feel Moroccan anymore,” Paloma said, summarizing sociological research on Jews of Moroccan background living in Canada. “There is something here [in Morocco] that is not the same with Moroccan Jews in Canada or Miami or wherever they are.” That’s why an incentive program, Paloma added, might be appropriate: “If the Palace would get behind a project to support young Jews professionally and the professional development of Jewish women, maybe the Jewish community would not diminish so quickly. Maybe it would inspire Jews to stay, or for young Jews to come back.”

For Kati Roumani, a historian and Jewish resident of Marrakech, the more concerning issue is the community’s self-enforced isolation: “We have a need to make ourselves accessible to other Jews. We should make ourselves much more visible, organized, and effective at performing the King’s mandate of attracting Jewish people to come here.” This begins with an acceptance of Jewish people who are foreign or not observant, she elaborated.

To many members of the community, fatalistic narratives about the future of Moroccan Judaism present a more immediate concern. Such a perspective shifts the emphasis from the reality to the memory of the Moroccan Jewish experience.

“If we really want to tell the Jewish story we can’t just have synagogues and cemeteries that are empty of people,” Paloma says. “We have to have voices, the stories, the thoughts, the complexity and humanity. We have to hear the messy nature of society.”


Gabriel is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. You can contact him at gabe.roy@yale.edu.