Jewish Marrakech

Posted by admin | April 18, 2010 0

Many visitors to Morocco are surprised at the Jewish areas known as Mellah in towns such as Marrakech and Essaouira. Mellah is from the Arabic word for salt as Jews in Morocco were often traders using their contacts in the Jewish Diaspora to set up the trade and banking relationships helped by the fact they often spoke several languages. Long protected and respected as “people of the book” they have been an integral part of Moroccan society and as well as traders have been respected as craftsmen and educators.

Indeed it was the Moors who brought Jews to Al-Andalus, Spain and Portugal and frequently welcomed them when they suffered persecution elsewhere. Morocco has an ancient Jewish population which dates back to at least the dissolution of the Jewish state by the Romans around 70 AD. Jews were long an integral part of the Moroccan social landscape and even unintentionally prepared the Berber mindset to embrace Islam in later centuries.

Hand of Fatima – Mellah

Since the advent of Islam, Jews in Morocco were, with the exception of the puritanical al-Mohad era with its forced conversions, tolerated and prospered as tribute-paying zhimmis (protected minorities). Spanish and Portuguese Jews – aka Sephardim – began to flee persecution at the end of the 14th century after a bloodbath in Seville. Following the fall of Granada in 1492, this flow became a flood. The Mellah, east of the Medina, used to be the Jewish quarters in Marrakech. It was here that Sultan Abdullah Al-Ghalib moved the Jews to his protected Kasbah in 1558.

The royal family appreciated the talents of the Jewish community of traders, jewellers and bankers who spoke many languages. This protected quarter was surrounded by walls and entered by two gates. The Mellah looks distinctly different from the rest of the Medina, almost a town in itself – supervised by rabbis, with its own souks, gardens and synagogues. The present Mellah is today almost entirely inhabited by Muslims as most of the Jewish community in Marrakech have either moved to Casablanca, France or Israel. However, the quarters are distinct and still worth a visit. Do not miss the local Jewish cemetery, the Miaara, with its brilliant white tombs stretching into the distance. The oldest synagogue in Marrakech, Rabbi Pinhas, on Rue Talmud Torah is still in use.

Prior to the creation of Israel, there were nearly 300,000 Jews in Morocco. Then, following the partition of Palestine in 1948, the tide turned when anti-Israeli rioting killed nearly 50 Jews. That same year, 18,000 Jews migrated to the newly created state. When this occurred and until 1956 Morocco was subject to a much resented colonial relationship as a French “Protectorate.” With the growing bitterness of the Israeli-Arab conflict, gradual immigration to Israel continued, until the number of Jews dwindled to an estimated 5-8,000 today. Nevertheless, the Jewish community still enjoys some prominence in Morocco. The king has a Jewish senior adviser, Andre Azoulay, and Jewish schools and synagogues receive government subsidies.

Jewish Council Marrakech 1949

Jews have been living in Morocco since the time of Antiquity. Prior to WWII, the Jewish population of Morocco reached 225,000. Although, Jews were not deported during WWII, they did suffer humiliation under the Vichy government. In 1940, the Nazi-controlled Vichy government issued anti-Semitic decrees excluding Jews from public functions. Sultan Mohammed V, the present King’s Grandfather, refused to apply these racist laws and, as a sign of defiance, insisted on inviting all the rabbis of Morocco to the 1941 throne celebrations. Mohamed V, refused to allow the Vichy Government to register Moroccan Jew and no Jews were deported from Morocco. This and the fact that Jews were (after a hiatus) allowed to emigrate to Israel explains why (despite the ludicrous Arab League boycott) Israel and Morocco enjoy a de facto cordial relationship. The Israeli President has visited Morocco and the King is often used as an honest broker.

The Miaara – Jewish Cemetery

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.

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

“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.”

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. 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, and finance, maintenance of holy places, youth activities, and cultural and religious life.

Rabbi Hanania Benisty, Chief Rabbi d.1953

“The Jews no longer reside in the traditional Jewish Mellah, 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.”

Marrakech’s Jewish flavour is alas no longer quite as pungent as it once was. But wander through the Mellah, the old Jewish quarter beyond the Place des Ferblantiers, and you still find the embers of a more haimishe time hanging over the Mellah, where the streets, enclosed and brooding, retain their distinctive and utterly beguiling air of days gone by. Several small synagogues remain, though only a few still reverberate to the sound of prayer, and those that do are mighty hard to find, largely because they look like – and indeed are – private houses. But meander along these narrow lanes on a Friday evening and the odds are you’ll spot a knitted kippah. A friendly word and you’ll be welcomed with open arms to a true Moroccan Shabbat.

Jewish Students, Marrakech 1946/47

On closer inspection, the true nature of the Mellah, the Jewish quarter – in essence, the Moroccan version of the ghettos of European cities – becomes clear. Many of the homes are still decorated with mezuzot and a wealth of other sacred Jewish symbols. Today, Marrakech is home to 300 Jews out of the 5,000 in the whole of Morocco. Marrakech’s Mellah, once a vibrant shelter to those expelled from Spain after 1492, recalls an era in which both Jew and Muslim were involved in the salt and spice commerce, and both lived and prayed within the medina’s thick paprika-red walls.

In early 2004, Marrakech had a small population of about 260 people, most over the age of 60. Casablanca has the largest community, about 3,000 people. There are synagogues, mikvaot, old-age homes, and kosher restaurants in Casablanca, Fez, Marrakech, 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.

The Lazama Synagogue – founded 1492 upon the expulsion of
Jews from Spain

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.

Jewish Scout Troop Marrakech 1949

In April and May 2000, the Moroccan government sponsored a series of events and lectures promoting respect among religions. Andre Azoulay, royal counsellor 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.

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.

If you’d like to explore the Mellah, then you can enter through the Place des Ferblantiers, which was once referred to as the Place de Mellah. If you are having a hard time finding the area, look for the tin workers who now line the outer edge of the square souk. In this area, you’ll also be able to visit Place Souweka, which is a fountain that marks the centre of the quarters.

A former synagogue which is now a 
Berber Pharmacy

When walking through the souk, attempt to stay on the main passageways through and you’ll come upon the Jewish Cemetery and shrines that are still visited today. The synagogues are also along this same route and the main ones are called the Lazama and El Fasiines. If you’d rather not have a guide for the area, then you’ll have to ask until you reach your destination. Otherwise, a guide is the easiest way to find them. The Mellah has even more synagogues that are all viewable by navigating your way through the somewhat tricky medina alleyways. Two other synagogues worthy of note are the Rabbi Pinhas and Bitoun.

Courtyard of Lazama Synagogue

After viewing the Badi Palace we headed down the Place des Ferblantiers towards the Mellah. As we came upon a busy market place we asked the local policeman for directions to the Synagogue. He called to the locals and two came to us and showed us to a building on the corner. We could tell it was a synagogue by the external decoration but it was not the Lazama Synagogue we were looking for. Rather it was another former synagogue which housed a Berber pharmacy dealing in herbs and natural remedies. We

spent a fascinating time with the pharmacist who showed us the treatment area and demonstrated the herbal remedies and oils. He explained that whilst no longer a synagogue it is being restored and will contain a Jewish Museum and a kosher restaurant.

Lazama synagogue

The Lazama synagogue is not easy to find but if you follow the directions on the map as you get near you will be offered directions by one of the young kids on the lookout for tourists, brought down a long alley to an unmarked door. Entering this door you find yourself in a striking courtyard decorated in the Jewish colours of blue and white and with Hebrew inscriptions on the first floor frieze. The Synagogue is one of a series of buildings constructed around a large, well-tended central courtyard. The eastern side has only recently been embellished by a gallery (ezrat nashim) for women an innovation in Morocco, where women traditionally remained at the entrance to the synagogue or in a separate room. The original wooden movable lectern has been replaced by one of marble along the eastern wall. On the floor above the Lazama synagogue is a Talmud Torah School, a soup kitchen and the community centre.

This synagogue was built in 1492 by the megorashim, or Jews that fled Spain after the Inquisition. When the megorashim first arrived, tensions existed between them and the native Jewish community, who looked like their Arab neighbors and had different religious and cultural practices. They built this synagogue in order to preserve the Spanish methods of Jewish observation, but over the years, the tensions

alleviated as the communities began to integrate. After its construction, it also became a yeshiva or Talmud Torah and recruited religious men from many rural regions all over Morocco to study. The community supported these scholars; each family in the mellah would “adopt” a student and sponsor them during the course of their studies.

Tomb of Rabbi Solomon Bel-Hench in the 
Ourika Valley

“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.”

One particular trait of Moroccan Judaism is the veneration of tzaddikim or holy men. This reverence is shared by Moslems, but for different reasons. Sermons in the synagogues by the spiritual leaders of Moroccan Jewry had considerable impact on their audiences. Even today, pilgrimages made by Moroccan Jews to the tombs of the tzaddikim are linked to these rabbis’ prophesies. The tzaddik is considered according to Kabbalah to be the “foundation-stone of the world”, it is he who hands down judgments made by God. One such place of pilgrimage is only 30km from Marrakech in the Ourika Valley where you will find the tomb of a former Chief Rabbi of Marrakech, Solomon Bel-Hench, which like the tomb of Rabbi Chaim Pinto in Essaouira is still a place of pilgrimage.

Morocco is a place apart, no more so in Marrakech, the city which gave its name to Morocco, with its 70/30 population split between Berber and Arab and with a large expat community. The Rif and Atlas mountains kept it separate and even the colonial interlude seems with hindsight to have had a positive effect in terms of development and self confidence. It was the only country in North Africa not to be ruled by the Ottomans and its status as a Kingdom adds to the sense of difference. Morocco is a tolerant and a more diverse place than you might expect. It was noticeable from the street urchin to the policeman that Jews were only ever referred to respectfully and the Jewish heritage is proudly and openly on display. In this as in other ways there is much about Morocco which is life affirming and we can learn from them how to be good neighbours.

For more background see;

Essaouira – Morocco’s White City

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