US Muslim, Jewish Groups Celebrate New Morocco-Israel Relations

US Muslim, Jewish Groups Celebrate New Morocco-Israel Relations

Muslims and Jews of Moroccan origin in the United States praise their shared history, and hail the US decision to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara region.

Prominent groups representing the Moroccan American community are celebrating the partial normalization agreement between Israel and Morocco — a deal that permits direct flights between the two nations and promotes increased business ventures.

Alexander Rhalimi, president of the largest non-governmental organization representing Moroccan Americans, the Moroccan American Congress (MAC), said his group has high hopes for the December 10 pact.

“This deal will lead to more opportunities for both Israel and Morocco, courtesy of the United States, and our organization celebrates the peace that accompanies this normalization,” he said.

Simo Elaissaoui, leader of the Moroccan Americans in New York organization (MANY), similarly supports this international development.

“We are so happy for this improvement in relations, and we hope that it will not only help to bring peace in the Middle East, but that it will benefit both countries with great opportunities,” Elaissaoui said.

The American Sephardi Federation’s 20th New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival, Opening Night Pomegranate Award Ceremony in March 2017 (Courtesy/Chrystie Sherman)

Both Rhalimi and Elaissaoui acknowledge that this deal is not only the result of diplomatic action, but is also the culmination of a long-standing relationship between Moroccan Jews and Muslims. Unlike recent Israeli normalization agreements with Arab countries such as Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, there is a long history of an established Jewish presence in Morocco, beginning as early as the first century CE.  Morocco is the second-largest country of ancestral origin among Israeli Jews, with as many as 900,000 to 1,000,000 Israeli Jews today claiming Moroccan ancestry.

According to Elaissaoui, this connection between many Israeli Jews and their Moroccan ancestral heritage was influential in bringing about the normalization, since the “experience of Jews in Morocco is different than any other Arab country.” Both Elaissaoui and Rhalimi commend Moroccan royalty for their relationships with their Jewish community, most notably that of King Mohammad V, who saved the lives of approximately 250,000 Moroccan Jews during the Holocaust.

Rhalimi lauds the current Moroccan king, Mohammed VI, for the continued respect shown to the small Jewish community remaining in Morocco, exemplified by the “thriving Jewish community in Casablanca.” The Museum of Moroccan Judaism in Casablanca is “an historical and ethnographic institute dedicated to the past, present, and even future life of Jewish life in Morocco,” he said, adding that it is the only museum dedicated to Jewish history in North Africa and the Arab world.

There are about 3,000 Jews living in Casablanca and another some 3,500 Jews across the country, Serge Berdugo, secretary-general of the Council of the Jewish community of Morocco, an affiliate of the World Jewish Congress, told the WJC in March. There are also three Jewish schools with about 600 students, and five kosher restaurants, he said.

Rhalimi explains while this centuries-old relationship between Jewish and Muslim Moroccans is significant, so is the past – and often covert – sporadic cooperation between Morocco and the state of Israel. “Most Moroccans were not surprised about the establishment of diplomatic relations … as for over sixty years, the two countries have worked together closely on military and intelligence matters, and migration of Jews to Israel,” he said.

Overjoyed by King Mohammed VI’s Decision to Forge a Better Future

While the vast majority of the roughly 100,000- to 400,000-strong Moroccan American population is Muslim, an estimated five to ten percent are Sephardic Jews – a term used to denote the descendants of the Jews who fled to North Africa in 1492 to escape royal persecution in Spain and Portugal.

Jason Guberman, executive director of the American Sephardi Federation (ASF), the largest national body representing Sephardic Jews, said that with the partial normalization he is looking forward to “the King’s calls for accelerating cultural, technological and entrepreneurial cooperation” with Israel in addition to formal diplomatic relations.

“At the King’s initiative, Morocco has become a world leader in perpetuating its pluralist past – including the kingdom’s Sephardic Jewish history; cultivating the cultural connection between Moroccan Muslims and Jews; countering anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial; and building a peaceful and prosperous future,” Guberman said. He points to Morocco allowing nearly 60,000 Israeli tourists to visit the country annually through indirect flights as evidence of the King’s appreciation for the Jewish Moroccan diaspora. Guberman and the ASF also praise King Mohammed VI’s inauguration last year of the Bayt Dakira in Essaouira, Morocco, which he calls “an extraordinary center for Judeo-Moroccan research, study, prayer, dialogue, celebration, and symbol of the Moroccan renaissance.”

Cooperation Between Jewish, Muslim Communities in the US

All three Moroccan-American groups call the close relations between Moroccan Jews and Muslims in the United States symbolic of the spirit of the deal between Morocco and Israel.

Guberman said that MANY was the first Muslim-majority organization to join the Combat Anti-Semitism movement, a global movement dedicated to fighting all forms of anti-Semitism. In addition, ASF itself brings together Jewish and Muslim Moroccans for communal meals during Mimouna, a uniquely North African Jewish holiday.

Prominent rabbis belonging to ASF have been lauded by Muslim Moroccans for their public recitations of the prayer for the Moroccan king. Rabbi Raphael Benchimol of the Manhattan Sephardic Congregation was knighted by King Mohammed VI in 2012.

MANY and MAC also note their close ties with the Moroccan Jewish community in the US. MANY is the only Moroccan American organization to have both Jews and Muslims on its executive board, and it hosts monthly dinners bringing together Muslim Moroccan young professionals with Jewish community leaders. MAC has led numerous initiatives aiming to display the shared ties between Jewish and Muslim Americans of Moroccan origin, most recently celebrating the United States, Morocco and Israel with “Drive for Peace” processions in cities, such as Orlando and Washington D.C., with large Moroccan-American populations.

 Question of Western Sahara

Accompanying partial normalization between Morocco and Israel is the first-ever American recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara region, an area which the United Nations does not recognize as Moroccan territory. Conflict between the Moroccan military and regional rebels has continued sporadically in the region since Spain withdrew in 1975, with Sahrawi rebels fighting on behalf of the Polisario Front, a group at times aided by the Soviet Union, Mauritania and Algeria.

Both Jewish and Muslim Moroccan American groups welcome this change in U.S. policy, with the ASF celebrating the decision as a “correction to the historical and legal injustice done to the Kingdom of Morocco by colonialist and communist countries.” MANY’s Elaissaoui supports this notion since, he said, “American recognition furthers the chances for peace in a region which has served as a staging ground for attacks in the past decades.” Rhalimi said that MAC is “willing to keep the lines of communication open with President Biden to keep this historical recognition that Sahara is Moroccan and will remain Moroccan.”

Geopolitical Interests Vs. Historical Ties

Some geopolitical analysts see the deal between Morocco and Israel as being motivated more by such geopolitical interests than by the historical ties between religious communities in Morocco. Dr. Yasmina Abouzzohour, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center and a senior fellow at the Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis, characterizes the deal as being “motivated by diplomatic, economic, and security interests … including business and security incentives,” in the form of “a potential arms deal with the United States, three billion dollars in US aid for private sector projects, and a reduction in preliminary duties on phosphate exports from Morocco.”

While acknowledging the “special history given long-term peaceful cohabitation between Moroccan Muslims and Moroccan Jews,” Abouzzohour said the deal should be seen in terms of realpolitik, or politically expedient policy.

There are numerous benefits that Mohammed VI’s regime is able to gain through this deal, without having to sign a complete normalization, “that could have risked significant domestic upheaval,” according to Abouzzohour. These include increased economic ties with the Gulf states and American recognition of the Western Sahara as Moroccan territory, she said.

Philip Rapoport is a student in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program.

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