Shared values. Mutual trust. Common interests. Strong friendship.
These were some of the phrases that U.S. President Barack Obama used late last month following a meeting with King Mohammed VI of Morocco.
The two countries share a historic relationship, one that began in the 18th century and continues to thrive.
What is more fascinating than the strong relations between this predominantly Muslim country and the U.S. is the peaceful relations Morocco enjoys with the state of Israel. And, while the Jewish population in Morocco is small (only about 4,000 people), it is strong and thriving, at least according to Ambassador-at-Large Serge Berdugo, president of the Jewish community of Morocco and former minister of tourism, who accompanied the king on his visit to the States.
In a meeting, Berdugo reaffirmed the country’s strong ties with the United States — “we cooperate, politically, against terrorists, we collaborate in all areas where peace is in danger” — but also waxed optimistic and confident about the state of the Jewish people in Morocco. He said the Jews of Morocco have been living there for more than 2,000 years. At one time, the population was much larger, but a series of incidents and emigration reduced that number by thousands.
What didn’t happen, however, was Morocco (like many other Muslim states) kicking out its Jews with the founding of Israel.
“The Muslims here let the Jews live their way,” said Berdugo.
However, many Jews did leave in 1948. This was because they wanted to fulfill the Zionist dream, Berdugo said.
“That is the phase we can call Messianic,” he said.
Another wave left Morocco in 1953 when King Mohammed V was exiled; the Jews feared there would be persecution. In 1956, when Muslim rule returned and the remaining Jews were used to French culture, a number again left. But the greatest number fled the country in 1961, after the first conference of the Arab League in Casablanca. At that meeting, explained Berdugo, Morocco opted to adopt the resolutions of the league and this meant (at the time) no communication with the state of Israel.
“It meant Jews in Morocco could not talk to their family in Israel,” he explained.
Half of the Jews went to Israel then. The other half to Canada. He said Montreal got thousands of Moroccan Jews.
But even as the population shrank, the people remained stable.
“In Morocco, the king sees it as an obligation to protect the Jews,” Berdugo said.
This obligation comes from the way the country interprets Islam. In that same meeting, Dr. Ahmend Abbadi, secretary general of a council of religious scholars established by the king, who works closely with Ambassador Berdugo on issues of religious tolerance, diversity and interfaith cooperation, explained that Morocco never adopted “the values of Damascus,” but rather maintained a belief in Sufi Islam, an Islamic philosophy that values peace, “rejoicing and happiness.”
Abbadi said he believes one of the reasons for this is because Morocco was separated from the rest of the world by “three great series of mountains and this protected us from interactions with other countries.” Because the values of self-rule, democracy and tolerance have over the years become so ingrained in Moroccan culture, he said, as extremists try to infiltrate — and they have — they receive little following.
Abbadi said Morocco is not prey to dogma, but common sense.
This is likely the reason Morocco is a trailblazer in Muslim-Israeli relations, one of the only connectors between Israel and the Arab world. The two countries cooperate in areas of mutual benefit, including technology and defense.
Also, Morocco serves as a voice of reason in regard to the peace process. Berdugo said Morocco (and Moroccan Jews) would like to see a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel, but that the country will not assist at the table until it feels both parties are ready to move forward.
“We are not trying to waste our time in discussion,” he said. “If you want to talk together and do something, we are there. If you don’t want to, we are not there.”
Berdugo said Morocco has always been “a player of goodwill, trying to do our best to promote peace and two states with security and dignity — security for one, dignity for the other.”
In recent months, the king of Morocco has taken additional steps to safeguard the country’s Jewish history. For example, a cemetery restoration project has restored and beautified 167 cemeteries, 48 retaining walls, 200,000 square meters of pavement and some 12,000 tombs across the country.
Similarly, the king has been instrumental in preserving synagogues and schools. Berdugo noted that there are 15 synagogues in Morocco.
“If you go out at 7 a.m., you can see the Jews going to synagogue. No one takes a look at them; they are part of the context,” he said.
Additionally, there are five Jewish schools, some of which have as much as a 25 percent Muslim student population. There, the Jews learn Arabic and Hebrew, and the Muslim students do, too.
“It is not a matter of quantity, it is a matter of quality,” said Berdugo of the Jewish population.
The message both Berdugo and Abbadi said they wanted to make clear is that while in the States people tend to view Morocco as just as part of the Middle East, it does not view itself in the same light as nations like Syria, Lebanon, etc. Rather, said Abbadi, “We are more Occidental than Middle East … and we want to be recognized like that.”
Maayan Jaffe is editor-in-chief of the Baltimore Jewish Times, Washington Jewish Week’s sister publication.