A KING’S GIFT TO MOROCCAN JEWRY

By: Yehuda Azoulay

Moroccan Jewry – A Brief History

Jewish communities have existed in Morocco since as early as 70 CE. It was during the end of the Second Temple era when the first group of Jews moved to North Africa, and a second large wave of migration from the Iberian Peninsulaoccurred in the period leading up to and following the Spanish Inquisitionin 1492.

For many centuries, the Jews and Muslims in Morocco enjoyed, what was for the most part, a peaceful coexistence. The juxtaposition of the two cultures is believed to be largely responsible for the numerous similarities between Moroccan Jews and Muslims.

But while the Jewish communities were generally safe, there were also periods when the Moroccan Kingdom vigorously enforced the laws pertaining to the second class dhimmi[1]status of its Jewish citizens. Urban Jews were forced to live in ghettos called mellahs, a name derived from the Arabic word for salt. Muslims in these periods would force Jews to salt the heads of executed prisoners before their public display, and thus the urban Jewish quarters became known by this name. As it turned out, the Jews only benefited from this policy of segregation. Living apart enabled them to practice their religion more freely without the interference of troublesome neighbors. It also minimized, to a large extent, the level of anti-Semitism, as the saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind.”  

The Moroccan monarchy established a unique relationship with this essential, dhimmi minority, one which remained in place even until recent times. In fact, during World War II, King Muhammad V refused to implement the anti-Semitic laws imposed upon his province by the Vichy regime in France that ruled parts of Morocco at that time.

Moroccoand the State of Israel

Upon becoming an independent state in 1948, Israel followed a periphery doctrine in its foreign affairs, seeking ties with regional countries – including Morocco – that were on the margins of the ongoing conflict with its Arab Neighbors. In the years following their independence, both Israel and Morocco needed Western assistance to deal with domestic challenges and foreign threats, especially communism and pan-Arabism. Therefore, for many years, Jerusalem and Rabat developed a strong secret relationship in three areas: emigration, intelligence and diplomacy.

Moroccan-Israeli ties further strengthened in 1959-1960, and then even more so upon the crowning of King Hassan II in 1961. The Mossad (Israel’s foreign intelligence agency) offered to train Morocco’s royal bodyguards, and Israel was also involved in training some of the kingdom’s intelligence services, which was regarded as largely disorganized at the time. Over the years, this secret connection between the two countries continued to thrive, and Israel remained active in supplying Morocco with weapons and intelligence. In the late 1950’s, King Hassan II shocked the Arab world during a visit in Lebanon when he publicly argued that the only solution for the enduring conflict was to make peace and incorporate Israel in the Arab League.

The ties between the two nations have proved exceptionally profitable for both populations. Economic trade between Morocco and Israel is today estimated at $100 million a year. Few people are aware of this special bond between the Jewish State and its Arab ally.

In the early twentieth century, Moroccan Jews held prominent positions in the royal government of Morocco and enjoyed respect and admiration. Even today, Jews continue to play a notable role in Morocco; in fact, the king retains a Jewish senior advisor, a position presently filled by Andre Azoulay.

For generations, the Moroccan royal family has extended generosity and kindness to the Jewish community and granted full religious freedom to its Jewish subjects. Morocco’s treatment of its Jewish citizens is beyond comparison in the Arab world and, indeed, in much of the world generally. The Jewish historic and religious sites in Morocco, including synagogues and cemeteries, are protected through the efforts of the Jewish communities, but the guards themselves are almost all Muslims, and this job is often proudly passed down through Muslim families.

Ancient Traditions in the New World

After the Jewish State’s founding in 1948, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism inevitably increased everywhere in the Arab world, including in Morocco. Most of Moroccan Jewry left Morocco at this time. With the help of the French Alliance, the largest percentage went to Israel, but tens of thousands moved to France and Canada was another popular haven for Moroccan Jews, large numbers of whom settled in Montreal and Toronto.

The North African Jewish community of Toronto, a major, multicultural metropolis, numbers over 8,000 people. Moroccan Jews have lived in the city for over 50 years. The community has founded and maintained a very impressive network of over a dozen Sephardic synagogues, mikva’ot, their very own Kashrut supervision agency and a Sephardic School (Or Haemet). They have succeeded in transplanting the glorious, centuries-old tradition of Moroccan Jewry in 21st-century North America.

In September, 1997, the beautiful Sephardic Kehila Centre (Abir Yaakob) opened its doors and began serving Toronto’s Moroccan community. The magnificent building holds a school, banquet hall, mikveh, gym and other recreational rooms, but it is the synagogue that is the focal point of the building. The magnificent prayer hall features a mix of Moroccan and Spanish architectural touches that adorn every corner of the building.

Several months ago, on December 10th, 2009, the Sephardic Kehila Centre received a special gift that significantly enhanced its captivating, Spanish-Moroccan décor – a gift granted by His Majesty King Mohammed VI of Morocco.

A Royal Gift

For many years, King Mohammed entertained the thought of presenting a gift to Moroccan Jewry as a symbol of the strong bonds of affection between his nation and the Jewish People. A visit to the Kehila Centre by Mr. Muhammad Ameur, Minister of Morocco Abroad, led to the burgeoning Torontonian community’s selection as the beneficiaries of the king’s kind gesture.

The Minister attended a special dinner that was held in December, 2007 at the synagogue as part of the community’s plans for its May, 2008 congregational trip to Morocco. He spoke to the guests about the past and present of his country and warmly invited the synagogue’s membership to visit. During the event, Mr. Ameur was enamored by the building’s spectacular architecture, and especially its distinctly North African design. He shared his reaction with his Moroccan associates and with the king himself, and the idea was proposed to send a royal gift to the congregation.

Mr. Simon Keslessy, a leader of the congregation and Morocco’s Canadian Jewish representative, explained in an interview why he chose a mosaic fountain: “Ever since this gorgeous Moroccan sanctuary opened, I envisioned a mosaic fountain in the lobby of the synagogue. Many synagogues in Morocco had fountains outside in the courtyard, and I dreamt of having one here in Toronto.”

After a year of planning, the decorated fountain finally arrived at the Kehila Centre this past autumn. It was delivered to Canada accompanied by three artists from Fez, Morocco who came especially to install it without damaging its decorations. The three men worked painstakingly for nearly a month to complete the project.

A Day to Remember

The dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony on December 10, 2009 was attended by guests wearing traditional Moroccan outfits, and accompanied by Moroccan music. Approximately 300 members of Toronto’s Moroccan Jewish community participated in the unique and memorable event, and witnessed the unveiling of the colorful fountain which is situated in the synagogue’s foyer. Among those in attendance was Morocco’s Ambassador to Canada, Mrs. Nouzha Chekrouni, who cut the ribbon to unveil the magnificent structure.

“This gift is a tribute to all of you,” Chekrouni said. “Whenever you come to the Kehila Centre, please take a second and stop near the fountain and feel through the flow of water, the everlasting love that links you to your country wherever you are.”

Maurice Benzacar, Executive Vice President of the Sephardic Kehila Centre, noted that the first wave of Moroccan Jews began settling in Canada 50 years ago. “Since then, we have remained committed to preserving the customs and traditions of our Moroccan heritage,” Benzacar said, adding, “This is a very special gift, a gift that is a testament to the strong cultural ties between the Toronto Moroccan Jewish community and the land of our heritage.”

Chief Sephardic Rabbi Amram Assayag, who immigrated to Toronto from Morocco at the age of 15, called the dedication a “historic event,” and said it “brings back the wonderful memories of our childhood as we walk into a building with such a majestic feature.”

Hacham Amram said that his community was “privileged” to live in Morocco.

“Our kings were full of understanding and mercy… Moroccan Jewry flourished in a way that very few Diasporas have flourished.”

Sephardic Kehila Centre president Elias Toby said that while the Jewish community in Morocco has dwindled over the past 50 years, “Jewish synagogues and schools continue to receive government subsidies.” He added that “after half a century of separation, the Jews of Morocco are finding their way home. Many of us have recently visited Morocco, and through those visits, we recall and better understand the culture and dimension of being a Sephardic Jew.”

Centre president Simon Keslassy spoke of the strong bonds that connect the community’s members with their country of birth, and recalled how King Mohammed V did not cooperate with the Nazi authorities. When he was asked how many Jews are in his country, he said, “My country has no Jews, only Moroccan citizens.” Keslassy also noted King Hassan’s efforts to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians, which received appreciation from both sides. He warmly thanked the king for the special gift.

The beautiful addition to the Kehila Centre serves as a vivid symbol of the rich, glorious legacy of Moroccan Jewry. It is a living testament to the link that binds today’s Moroccan communities to their ancestors and to the benevolent kingdom that allowed them to grow, prosper, and develop a unique spiritual heritage that has left an indelible imprint upon the entire Jewish Nation.

Yehuda Azoulay is the author of A Legacy of Leaders, a groundbreaking English series containing biographies and stories of Sephardic hachamim.



[1]The Arabic word “dhimmi” literally means “protected citizen.” The formal status of dhimmi to which Jews in Muslim lands were assigned was an official and legalized state of second class citizenship.

By Yehuda Azoulay
By |

Moroccan Jewry – A Brief History

Jewish communities have existed in Morocco since as early as 70 CE. It was during the end of the Second Temple era when the first group of Jews moved to North Africa, and a second large wave of migration from the Iberian Peninsulaoccurred in the period leading up to and following the Spanish Inquisitionin 1492.

For many centuries, the Jews and Muslims in Morocco enjoyed, what was for the most part, a peaceful coexistence. The juxtaposition of the two cultures is believed to be largely responsible for the numerous similarities between Moroccan Jews and Muslims.

But while the Jewish communities were generally safe, there were also periods when the Moroccan Kingdom vigorously enforced the laws pertaining to the second class dhimmi[1]status of its Jewish citizens. Urban Jews were forced to live in ghettos called mellahs, a name derived from the Arabic word for salt. Muslims in these periods would force Jews to salt the heads of executed prisoners before their public display, and thus the urban Jewish quarters became known by this name. As it turned out, the Jews only benefited from this policy of segregation. Living apart enabled them to practice their religion more freely without the interference of troublesome neighbors. It also minimized, to a large extent, the level of anti-Semitism, as the saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind.”

The Moroccan monarchy established a unique relationship with this essential, dhimmiminority, one which remained in place even until recent times. In fact, during World War II, King Muhammad V refused to implement the anti-Semitic laws imposed upon his province by the Vichy regime in France that ruled parts of Morocco at that time.

Moroccoand the State of Israel

Upon becoming an independent state in 1948, Israel followed a periphery doctrine in its foreign affairs, seeking ties with regional countries – including Morocco – that were on the margins of the ongoing conflict with its Arab Neighbors. In the years following their independence, both Israel and Morocco needed Western assistance to deal with domestic challenges and foreign threats, especially communism and pan-Arabism. Therefore, for many years, Jerusalem and Rabat developed a strong secret relationship in three areas: emigration, intelligence and diplomacy.

Moroccan-Israeli ties further strengthened in 1959-1960, and then even more so upon the crowning of King Hassan II in 1961. The Mossad (Israel’s foreign intelligence agency) offered to train Morocco’s royal bodyguards, and Israel was also involved in training some of the kingdom’s intelligence services, which was regarded as largely disorganized at the time. Over the years, this secret connection between the two countries continued to thrive, and Israel remained active in supplying Morocco with weapons and intelligence. In the late 1950’s, King Hassan II shocked the Arab world during a visit in Lebanon when he publicly argued that the only solution for the enduring conflict was to make peace and incorporate Israel in the Arab League.

The ties between the two nations have proved exceptionally profitable for both populations. Economic trade between Morocco and Israel is today estimated at $100 million a year. Few people are aware of this special bond between the Jewish State and its Arab ally.

In the early twentieth century, Moroccan Jews held prominent positions in the royal government of Morocco and enjoyed respect and admiration. Even today, Jews continue to play a notable role in Morocco; in fact, the king retains a Jewish senior advisor, a position presently filled by Andre Azoulay.

For generations, the Moroccan royal family has extended generosity and kindness to the Jewish community and granted full religious freedom to its Jewish subjects. Morocco’s treatment of its Jewish citizens is beyond comparison in the Arab world and, indeed, in much of the world generally. The Jewish historic and religious sites in Morocco, including synagogues and cemeteries, are protected through the efforts of the Jewish communities, but the guards themselves are almost all Muslims, and this job is often proudly passed down through Muslim families.

Ancient Traditions in the New World

After the Jewish State’s founding in 1948, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism inevitably increased everywhere in the Arab world, including in Morocco. Most of Moroccan Jewry left Morocco at this time. With the help of the French Alliance, the largest percentage went to Israel, but tens of thousands moved to France and Canada was another popular haven for Moroccan Jews, large numbers of whom settled in Montreal and Toronto.

The North African Jewish community of Toronto, a major, multicultural metropolis, numbers over 8,000 people. Moroccan Jews have lived in the city for over 50 years. The community has founded and maintained a very impressive network of over a dozen Sephardic synagogues, mikva’ot, their very own Kashrut supervision agency and a Sephardic School (Or Haemet). They have succeeded in transplanting the glorious, centuries-old tradition of Moroccan Jewry in 21st-century North America.

In September, 1997, the beautiful Sephardic Kehila Centre (Abir Yaakob) opened its doors and began serving Toronto’s Moroccan community. The magnificent building holds a school, banquet hall, mikveh, gym and other recreational rooms, but it is the synagogue that is the focal point of the building. The magnificent prayer hall features a mix of Moroccan and Spanish architectural touches that adorn every corner of the building.

Several months ago, on December 10th, 2009, the Sephardic Kehila Centre received a special gift that significantly enhanced its captivating, Spanish-Moroccan décor – a gift granted by His Majesty King Mohammed VI of Morocco.

A Royal Gift

For many years, King Mohammed entertained the thought of presenting a gift to Moroccan Jewry as a symbol of the strong bonds of affection between his nation and the Jewish People. A visit to the Kehila Centre by Mr. Muhammad Ameur, Minister of Morocco Abroad, led to the burgeoning Torontonian community’s selection as the beneficiaries of the king’s kind gesture.

The Minister attended a special dinner that was held in December, 2007 at the synagogue as part of the community’s plans for its May, 2008 congregational trip to Morocco. He spoke to the guests about the past and present of his country and warmly invited the synagogue’s membership to visit. During the event, Mr. Ameur was enamored by the building’s spectacular architecture, and especially its distinctly North African design. He shared his reaction with his Moroccan associates and with the king himself, and the idea was proposed to send a royal gift to the congregation.

Mr. Simon Keslessy, a leader of the congregation and Morocco’s Canadian Jewish representative, explained in an interview why he chose a mosaic fountain: “Ever since this gorgeous Moroccan sanctuary opened, I envisioned a mosaic fountain in the lobby of the synagogue. Many synagogues in Morocco had fountains outside in the courtyard, and I dreamt of having one here in Toronto.”

After a year of planning, the decorated fountain finally arrived at the Kehila Centre this past autumn. It was delivered to Canada accompanied by three artists from Fez, Morocco who came especially to install it without damaging its decorations. The three men worked painstakingly for nearly a month to complete the project.

A Day to Remember

The dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony on December 10, 2009 was attended by guests wearing traditional Moroccan outfits, and accompanied by Moroccan music. Approximately 300 members of Toronto’s Moroccan Jewish community participated in the unique and memorable event, and witnessed the unveiling of the colorful fountain which is situated in the synagogue’s foyer. Among those in attendance was Morocco’s Ambassador to Canada, Mrs. Nouzha Chekrouni, who cut the ribbon to unveil the magnificent structure.

“This gift is a tribute to all of you,” Chekrouni said. “Whenever you come to the Kehila Centre, please take a second and stop near the fountain and feel through the flow of water, the everlasting love that links you to your country wherever you are.”

Maurice Benzacar, Executive Vice President of the Sephardic Kehila Centre, noted that the first wave of Moroccan Jews began settling in Canada 50 years ago. “Since then, we have remained committed to preserving the customs and traditions of our Moroccan heritage,” Benzacar said, adding, “This is a very special gift, a gift that is a testament to the strong cultural ties between the Toronto Moroccan Jewish community and the land of our heritage.”

Chief Sephardic Rabbi Amram Assayag, who immigrated to Toronto from Morocco at the age of 15, called the dedication a “historic event,” and said it “brings back the wonderful memories of our childhood as we walk into a building with such a majestic feature.”

Hacham Amram said that his community was “privileged” to live in Morocco.

“Our kings were full of understanding and mercy… Moroccan Jewry flourished in a way that very few Diasporas have flourished.”

Sephardic Kehila Centre president Elias Toby said that while the Jewish community in Morocco has dwindled over the past 50 years, “Jewish synagogues and schools continue to receive government subsidies.” He added that “after half a century of separation, the Jews of Morocco are finding their way home. Many of us have recently visited Morocco, and through those visits, we recall and better understand the culture and dimension of being a Sephardic Jew.”

Centre president Simon Keslassy spoke of the strong bonds that connect the community’s members with their country of birth, and recalled how King Mohammed V did not cooperate with the Nazi authorities. When he was asked how many Jews are in his country, he said, “My country has no Jews, only Moroccan citizens.” Keslassy also noted King Hassan’s efforts to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians, which received appreciation from both sides. He warmly thanked the king for the special gift.

The beautiful addition to the Kehila Centre serves as a vivid symbol of the rich, glorious legacy of Moroccan Jewry. It is a living testament to the link that binds today’s Moroccan communities to their ancestors and to the benevolent kingdom that allowed them to grow, prosper, and develop a unique spiritual heritage that has left an indelible imprint upon the entire Jewish Nation.

Yehuda Azoulay is the author of A Legacy of Leaders, a groundbreaking English series containing biographies and stories of Sephardic hachamim.



[1]The Arabic word “dhimmi” literally means “protected citizen.” The formal status of dhimmi to which Jews in Muslim lands were assigned was an official and legalized state of second class citizenship.

 

By Yehuda Azoulay
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