Jewish community enjoys ‘safe space’ in Morocco

The following are excerpts from remarks by Jack Kadoch at an inter-religious forum in Tokyo on May 16.

It is a great honor to come to this great city to speak with you about the life and experience of the Moroccan Jewish community.

This is because of the special nature of the Kingdom of Morocco, lying at the tip of Africa, close to Europe and with a population that is almost entirely Muslim. It is “a country that has been, and continues to be, in both its leadership and its people, an inspiring example of the protection of the rights of religious minorities”.

Jacky Kadoch at public event near Marrakesh, Morocco in January.
Jacky Kadoch at public event near Marrakesh, Morocco in January.

Ladies and gentlemen, the sentence I have just read is taken directly from the Marrakesh Declaration, drawn up in January this year at the end of a groundbreaking conference of Islamic scholars and intellectuals from over 120 countries to clarify and restate at this critical time the Islamic viewpoint on the rights of religious minorities in predominantly Muslim majority countries.

This was convened under the patronage of His Majesty King Mohammed VI of Morocco in the light of the turmoil facing many parts of the Muslim world.

This situation, as we know all too well, has seen the weakening of legitimate government rule and the issuing of edicts in the name of Islam which actually misrepresent its fundamental principles. This has resulted in cruel violence, affecting Muslims and religious minorities alike. Further, not only is the image of Islam in danger of being distorted but with that, the perception of life for religious minorities living in the Muslim world.

The truth is that, Moroccan soil has been a haven for one of the most important Jewish communities in the Arab world for 2,000 years without interruption, in rural as well as urban settings across the Kingdom. It has sheltered tens of thousands of Jewish as well as Muslim refugees, who together fled religious persecution in Spain and Portugal 500 years ago.

Today, members of the Jewish (and Christian) communities live mainly in a few large cities and probably make up less than 1 per cent of the total population of the country, yet both faiths are officially recognized in modern Morocco.

As President of the Jewish community in the Marrakesh region I can attest that Moroccan Jewish identity and life is openly acknowledged and supported within society. The majority of the Jewish community left the Kingdom during the last century, yet Jews of Moroccan heritage around the world maintain a warm association with the country that is expressed in different ways, on a public and a personal level. All of this stands out as something special within Jewish culture and history as well as in a global context.

In these critical times, how do we continue to express the values that make this possible? The starting point surely lies in the text of the Marrakesh Declaration itself, which sets out, from an Islamic perspective, the appropriate response to the current situation.

Based on this, various practical calls to action are outlined, directed at various groups – scholars, intellectuals, educationalists, politicians and innovators, Muslims and those of other faiths. One of these directs us “to rebuild the past by reviving this tradition of conviviality, and restoring the mutual trust that has been eroded by extremists using acts of terror and aggression”.

This is the essence of my role, which includes the privilege of experiencing daily life with Moroccan Muslims in a mutually respectful manner and the responsibility of preserving and sharing the Kingdom’s Jewish history and culture. As a developing country, cultural preservation is linked with vital human development projects in a progressive model for change set forward by His Majesty King Mohammed VI.

For example, we possess archive material of global importance, remaining neglected and uncatalogued in locations throughout Morocco. What better than to organize an archive project that not only involves established Jewish scholars, but also the Moroccan public, especially its youth?

We have the opportunity of utilizing historic synagogues and over 600 Jewish burial sites dotted across the Kingdom to publicize the Jewish historical presence and the positive aspects that arise as a result. One of these is a distinctively ‘Moroccan’ way of Jewish prayer and celebration that has points in common with our Muslim neighbors.

In this spirit, Jewish space could also be utilized for the benefit of the general community. For example, since 2012, in a village just south of Marrakesh, we have been in partnership with the High Atlas Foundation, an American-Moroccan non-profit organization, to allow them to plant organic fruit trees on land next to Jewish cemeteries. Once mature, the trees are handed over to disadvantaged local Muslim farming communities as part of a national initiative to overcome subsistence agriculture. At the same time, it happens naturally that the cemetery itself and the need for its upkeep gains publicity.

The intangible benefit is the trust that is established and reinforced, between different groups. This happens ‘on the ground’ and radiates out, via global media, with far reaching implications.
Perhaps – who knows – such initiatives may also have the effect of attracting and sheltering greater numbers of Jews living in Morocco in future generations. Yet it is clear that in general terms, all can benefit from such examples. To come full circle, the trust of which I speak has deep roots in Morocco because of an ancient, shared spiritual outlook that often transcends ethnicity and faith. Today I invite all present, of whatever culture, to join in partnership with this great enterprise.

The Moroccan Jewish community serves as a role model in several ways: its continuity of existence in a particular place; its preservation of traces of its past; its ability to integrate into general national life, to regenerate its institutions and act as a standard-bearer for its historical legacy as well as open up new avenues for the future.

It is also a model by virtue of its fidelity to the principles of tolerance and moderation, understanding and peace that characterize the often-noted ‘Moroccan exceptionalism’.

This loyalty and sense of belonging was captured beautifully in the words of the new Moroccan Constitution of July 2011, which includes the term ‘Hebraic’ in its definition of Moroccan national identity.

The Jewish community within Morocco, anchored firmly in its historical and geographical heritage, has always favored the dynamic of healing and attachment to diaspora Moroccan Jewish communities. In this respect, it continues to be a link, a bridge and a point of opening and dialogue for peace.

Just as successive Moroccan kings have never denied their care to Jewish communities, so those Jewish communities have never denied their attachment to their Moroccan identity, whether they live in the Maghreb or under other skies.

The Kingdom of Morocco has neither denied nor forgotten her children, whether they live in Israel, Europe or the Americas. Likewise, more than a million Moroccan Jews have never cut the umbilical cord with their community and their country of origin where they return regularly, motivated by a strong emotional attachment and sense of belonging. Morocco can count on the active loyalty and employment of talent of Moroccan Jewish communities worldwide.

Dear friends, I should like to conclude by reiterating, on behalf of the entire Jewish community of Morocco, as well as from myself personally, our sincere wishes for the excellent health and long life of our beloved King,

His Majesty Mohammed VI;
may God glorify his name and may he find fulfilment in his son,
His Royal Highness Crown Prince Moulay Al Hassan.

May The Almighty protect you and bless all peoples, united in peace. AMEN

Thank you for your kind attention.
Shalom Älékhém wa Salam Äléykou wa Rahmatou ALLAH wa Barakatouh

Jacky Kadoch was born and raised in Marrakesh, Morocco and completed his education in Geneva. He has served as President of the Jewish community of Marrakesh-Essaouira since 2002 and in this role is active in the field of intercultural dialogue.