The Moroccan-Jewish experience and why I have hope for peace in the Middle East

Secretary of State John Kerry has made it his personal mission to revive peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine. Yet … Continued

Secretary of State John Kerry has made it his personal mission to revive peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine. Yet many wonder: after so much loss and pain, can there ever be peace? Can Jews and Muslims ever coexist?

While no one knows for sure how the peace process will unfold, I have found hope in my heritage and the history of the country in which I was born, Morocco.

Jews have lived and prospered in Morocco for at least 2,000 years, and Morocco’s 2011 Constitution officially recognizes the Jewish influences that have “nourished and enriched” the national identity. During World War II, then-King Mohamed V defied the Vichy government’s request to enact anti-Jewish legislation, reportedly saying, “We have no Jews in Morocco, only Moroccans.” More recently, King Mohamed VI has endorsed and supported the preservation and renovation of Jewish heritage sites in Morocco, as well as of Jewish burial sites in Cape Verde, where many Moroccan Jews settled in the 19th century.

These high-level examples of tolerance and respect are undoubtedly unique in the Arab world. But moreover, they are reflective of Moroccan culture as a whole, from the bottom up. I know because I’ve experienced it.

As a Jew growing up in Meknes, a city in the northern part of the country, I attended public school, studying alongside Muslim (and Christian) classmates. To this day I remain friends with many of them, and not once did I feel different from them in anything but our religion. Even then, our traditions were always welcoming, constantly overlapping. Jewish families would often invite their Muslim neighbors for the traditional Shabbat meal on Saturday afternoons, where we served “dafina”—a stew of meat, potatoes, eggs, chickpeas and grains seasoned with favorite Moroccan spices like turmeric and cumin. On Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, I remember that the mayor of Meknes and many government officials, including the chief of police, were invited to receive a special blessing from the rabbis.

My favorite example of these exchanges is Passover. According to Jewish law, households must get rid of all bread products before Passover. In Morocco, we would give these to our Muslim neighbors before the start of the holiday. For eight days, Jews could not eat at Muslims’ homes due to the dietary restrictions. But at the mimouna—the festival meal marking the end of Passover—they joined us for a true feast, bringing sweets as a symbol of hospitality and friendship. Of course we were invited to Muslim holiday celebrations, too. Their holidays were like open houses, where everyone was welcome.

Though I left Morocco decades ago, and life has taken me to France, to Switzerland and now to the United States, where I’ve built a business and raised a family, I travel to Morocco frequently to visit old friends and familiar places. Morocco remains an important part of my identity.

The documentary “Tinghir-Jerusalem: Echoes from the Mellah” captures my experience in many ways. The film recounts the memories of Jews and Muslims who once lived together in the Moroccan Berber village of Tinghir. As Muslim, Moroccan-born filmmaker Kamal Hachkar finds, the Muslims of Tinghir wonder to this day why their neighbors left them; and the Jews, now in Israel, look back fondly on their lives in Morocco, many still identifying themselves as Moroccans.

Recently, the Moroccan American Cultural Center screened the film here in D.C. as a salute to Jewish American Heritage Month. More than 100 people attended—Jews, Muslims, Berbers, Moroccans, Americans— eager to believe in the seemingly impossible. They watched in awe. They laughed when Aisha, a Jewish woman who had left Tinghir at a young age, remembered with nostalgia her time in Morocco, back when there were “no washing machines to give you headaches.” When the filmmaker said in a live Skype interview that what he found in making this film was the humanity that unites us all, they applauded.

Perhaps the audience understood that Morocco can serve as an example of coexistence between Muslims and Jews in the Arab world. I believe it does, and that there is hope for peace.

Sir Charles Dahan is vice president of the World Federation of Moroccan Jewry.

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