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A Muslim country that honours its Jewish heritage

Morocco is a place where East meets West, Arab meets Amazigh, Jew meets Muslim, the baguette meets the tagine, and the stork meets the satellite dish.
Deborah Stone
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Synagogue with Islamic art

A synagogue in Sefrou, Morocco, decorated in Islamic style (Deborah Stone).

Published: 3 June 2024

Last updated: 27 June 2024

Leaving the tiny synagogue of Rabbi Chaim Pinto in the Moroccan town of Essaouira, Melbourne Jewish educator Paul Forgasz bumped his head on a low beam.

When he sat down to nurse the bruise, a Muslim woman in traditional dress approached and placed her hand on his head, giving him a Jewish blessing to heal through the merit of the righteousness of the long-dead rabbi.

It was a quintessentially Moroccan moment.

The woman at the Pinto synagogue is part of a Muslim family that has cared for the synagogue and the Jewish cemetery for generations. She is just one example of a long tradition of close relationships and respectful coexistence that seem almost idyllic in the current global climate of interfaith tension.

I recently joined a tour led by Forgasz exploring Morocco’s Jewish history. It was a fascinating and remarkably uplifting experience.

Morocco offers what Arthur Miller called “a view from the bridge”. It is a place where East meets West, Arab meets Amazigh, Jew meets Muslim, the baguette meets the tagine, and the stork meets the satellite dish.

Pinto synagogue in Essaouira, Morocco.
Pinto synagogue in Essaouira, Morocco.

In the old city of Marrakech, a door is marked with both the scar of a mezuzah and shape of a hamsa, which Muslims call the Hand of Fatima. The double signifiers are evidence of a house where Muslims and Jews lived together.

The two communities lived peaceably – not always, but often, for about 1700 years. Muslim rule did not offer equality until very recently but it gave Jews far more protection and freedom than they experienced in Christian Europe.

Morocco is a place you can see geometric Islamic tile art developed for mosques reproduced in synagogues – uncannily appropriate because both religions reject representative art in religious contexts.

It is a country where there is an Arabic newspaper with a French name (Le Matin) that still includes the Jewish date in its masthead.

It is a place where, despite Nazi pressure, not a single Jew was sent to the death camps, because when the Vichy government demanded Jews, King Mohammed V responded that there were “no Moroccan Jews or Moroccan Muslims, only Moroccan citizens”.

A once-great community

There are only about 5,000 Jews in Morocco today, but they are the remnant of a large and important Jewish community. The first Hebrew grammar and the first digest of Talmudic law were written in Fez, the latter a foundation for Maimonides, who in turn lived in Morocco for several years.

Al Quaraouiyine, where Maimonides once studied, claims to be the world's olderst university.
Al Quaraouiyine, where Maimonides once studied, claims to be the world's olderst university.

Jewish merchants built strong international trading links based in Morocco and became a significant economic force in the country.

By the mid-20th century there were about 300,000 Jews in Morocco. Most left in the 1950s and 1960s when the country’s move to independence and tensions around Israel prompted fear of hostility. The majority went to Israel, under a covert aliyah program.

But Morocco still has synagogues, Jewish schools, kosher restaurants, and a strong, tourism-driven attachment to its Jewish heritage.

A preamble to the 2011 constitution acknowledges the sovereign Muslim state is “nourished and enriched by its African, Andalusian, Hebraic and Mediterranean influences”.

The current King Mohammed VI has invested heavily in the restoration of synagogues and Jewish neighbourhoods. Among his closest advisers is Andre Azoulay, a Jewish diplomat who has spearheaded Morocco’s involvement in various Arab-Israel peace processes and the normalisation of relations with Israel in 2020.

Casablanca hosts the only Jewish Museum in the Arab world­­ – run by a Muslim director with a passion for Jewish history. The exhibits include a Torah where the decorations are carved in a traditional Amazigh design.

Torah decorations in the style of traditional Indigenous Moroccan art.
Torah decorations in the style of traditional Indigenous Moroccan art.

Many ordinary Moroccans are nostalgic about the Jewish presence and its contribution to the culture. The University of Ifrane, south of Fez, has a Jewish culture club with an enthusiastic list of Muslim members.

Why here?

Painted on a wall in Sefrou, home of Morocco’s oldest Jewish community, is a phrase which explains much of Morocco’s distinctive culture of co-existence.

“Morocco is a tree whose roots lie in Africa and whose leaves are in Europe,” reads the quote from King Hassan II, father of the current king.

Sefrou wall.
Sefrou wall.

As the closest point in Africa to Europe, the country has been squabbled over by the Indigenous Amazigh and invading Arabs, the Spanish, Portuguese, English and French. (The Amazigh reject the term ‘Berber’, an outsider label related to the word "barbarian".)

It was the refuge for thousands of Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal, developing two largely separate Jewish communities – the Toshvim or settled Jews with their strong links to the Amazigh and Arab communities, and the Sephardi Mgorashim or migrant Jews.

Visiting the surprisingly lavish Jewish club in Casablanca, you can run your eye down the committee list at the Jewish country club and see the history in the names: Chokrouns and Alfassis with their Arabic roots, Toledanos and Castellanos betraying Spanish origins.

Some aspects of Moroccan Judaism feel unfamiliar and even shocking. I was stunned to see graves in Essaouira with representations of human figures, a taboo in both Jewish and Islamic contexts. Forgasz says such images are rare but occur in certain Sephardic communities who brought the influences of Christian imagery when they fled Europe.

It was hard too to get my head around the veneration of holy rabbis, imbued with miraculous healing powers. In Essaouira, diaspora Moroccans make pilgrimages to Rabbi Pinto’s grave and have recently funded a lavish memorial room dripping with carved stucco and a glistening chandelier. It feels more like a ballroom than a modest Jewish grave and the idea that visiting it would heal the sick seems more the stuff of Catholic saints' graves than Jewish cemeteries to me.

Forgasz points out that such veneration occurs in Eastern Europe too – think of the Chasidim who make pilgrimages to the grave of Rabbi Nachman in Ukraine.

But mostly Jewish Morocco has an uncanny familiarity beneath these foreign surfaces: the same Hebrew texts on the walls, the same Torah in the ark, the same mikvah down the tiny winding stair in the abandoned Jewish quarter.

We visited the cemetery at Essaouira on Yom Hazikaron, Israel's Remembrance Day, and recited kaddish, echoing the words that generations of Jews have said in this place.

Most Moroccan Jews no longer live in Morocco, but they retain a strong attachment to the country and the specific type of Jewish culture it produced. Moroccan Judaism persists, most strongly in Israel but also in France and Canada, where significant communities live.

In Israel, Mimouna is celebrated enthusiastically, preserving a custom which started when Moroccan Muslims laid on a feast of Pesach-forbidden foods for their Jewish neighbours after the festival.

Moroccan Jews return to visit too, whether as pilgrims or to show their children the treasures of a place where their people flourished for generations.

“You get a sense that Jews who lived here have a second exile. They have a real longing for this place,” Forgasz said.

Paul Forgasz will run another Jewish history tour of Morocco in November. For details, contact him on paul.forgasz@monash.edu.

All photographs: Deborah Stone

About the author

Deborah Stone

Deborah Stone is Editor-in-Chief of TJI. She has more than 30 years experience as a journalist and editor, including as a reporter and feature writer on The Age and The Sunday Age, as Editor of the Australian Jewish News and as Editor of ArtsHub.


  • Avatar of Ruth Ramone Rosen

    Ruth Ramone Rosen3 June at 09:50 am

    Beautiful summary of a memorable trip that gave me so much more than just sights and sounds of Morocco and its astounding Jewish past – thank you Deborah!

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