Psychosis or an Ability to Foresee the Future?
The contribution of World Jewish Organizations
The history of the Jewish community during the early years of Moroccan independence is a story of continuous and constant worries regarding an unclear future - as well as fears of possible impending disaster. During this period, the Jewish community was forced to deal with several critical questions, the answers to which would ultimately determine the future of Moroccan Jewry as well as the future of individual Jews in the community. While the struggle for independence had been waged without much involvement on the part of the Jewish community, the removal of the yoke of colonialism presented each Moroccan Jew with various options, and the choice to be made between them was a fateful one – whether to seek personal and communal success within a democratic progressive country or to escape from the country out of fear of a possible disaster.
The Moroccan monarchy also had to make a choice between continuing its connection to the democratic West, to France and its culture and language, or the alternative of aligning Morocco with the countries of the Middle East, with their pan-arabist policies and their negative relations with their own Jews. At the time, the future of the country’s government and the fate of the Jews’ legal status were not at all clear. The Jewish community as a whole had to decide whether it would demand the rights of an ethnic minority and receive the isolation that went along with such status, and to experience life in a state within a state while preserving their separate ethnic identity, or whether it should seek to be absorbed by the new society, its culture and its language, up to the point of total assimilation, like the Jewish communities of Western Europe. The first option had few supporters, since its potential backers simply preferred to go to Israel, and the second option was the preferable one for only a relatively short period of time among the educated Jewish class. This group was soon forced to deal with an unpleasant truth, as it quickly became clear that what was true for the Jews of France after the French Revolution and for all of Western Europe’s Jews afterwards did not conform to the reality of a new Arab-Muslim state in the twentieth century, even one that had just emerged from a period of French colonial control that had lasted for a little over forty years. Most of Moroccan Jewry chose a path, which was midway between a search for complete community autonomy and an attempt at cultural assimilation. This “golden mean” was most strongly supported by the community’s official leader of that period, David Amar.
Despite many public declarations that they were being fully integrated into Moroccan politics, society and to a certain degree its culture (which was itself in the middle of being formulated) most of the community’s leaders chose to preserve the clearly ethnic public institutions which went beyond any religious function and were more connected to the social, educational and cultural spheres. These were the kind of institutions, which give a community an ethnic identity different from that of the general population. The Jews of Morocco thus had a triple set of loyalties – their first being formal loyalty to the Moroccan homeland, the country in which their fathers had lived even before the advent of Islam, along with faithfulness to its language, society and royal house. At the same time, the Jews preserved their Jewish identity, not just in religious terms, but with regard to ethnicity and culture as well, and this brought along with it a hidden emotional connection to the state of Israel and a certain pride in its successes. Along with these two national and ethnic loyalties, the Jews of Morocco continued to develop their connection to French cultural, educational and linguistic values, all of which were a guarantee of social advancement.
Three principles guided the leadership of the State of Israel in their relations with the Jewish community in Morocco, and they determined the basic guidelines of the Zionist understanding of the situation: first, that antisemitism is timeless and universal, next, that the ingathering of all of Diaspora Jewry in Israel must eventually be accomplished in order to defeat this eternal antisemitism, and finally that Israel must take the responsibility for having the Jews brought to Israel preemptively in order to overcome the demographic fear stemming from the regional situation and to strengthen the Jewish base within it. After the Holocaust in Europe, the Jews of North Africa and especially the community in Morocco became the most important Jewish bloc in the world for American Jewry, which wished to mark the tradition of maintaining Jewish existence in the face of the danger of assimilation. They were also an important group for the Jews in Israel, who were interested in this area as a source of emigration and as a potential supplier of human resources for the strengthening in Israel of the economy, and for its industry, agriculture and defence.
The Jewish population of Morocco
and emigration after 1948
In the two years following Israel’s declaration of independence a total of 22,900 Jews left Morocco for Israel. Between 1948 to the independence of Morocco, 108,243 Jews immigrated to the young state at an average rate of 3,000 Jews per month. During all of the years in which the Jewish Agency’s Qadima organization functioned in Morocco, approximately 110,000 Jews left the country and about another 120,000 had left by 1961. Altogether, almost 237,813 Jews came to Israel from Morocco in the years 1948-1967.
A census held in November of 1957 showed that the Moroccan Jewish community as a whole numbered 164,216 people, who made up 1.8% of the general population, and that seventy-five percent of them lived in 12 cities or villages. The remaining Jews (a group which numbered at varying times approximately 80,000 people in total) lived in smaller groupings in over 150 communities. In 1956, most of the Moroccan Jewish community lived in cities, with only 40,000 Jews living in 145 small villages. Families were large, and the population was relatively young - the average Jewish family had six family members and children under the age of 16 made up 50.7% of the Jewish population. Only 10.6% of the community was elderly. The Jews were mostly in the cities of Casablanca, Fès, Marrakech, Meknès, Rabat, Tanger, Sefrou, Qenitra, Oujda, Tétouan, Midelt and Erfoud.
The situation three years later was not much different, although the size of the Jewish community had already begun to shrink. In July of 1960, the official Moroccan Ministry of the Interior’s first census was completed, and the Jewish population was given at 160,032, making up only 1.4% of the general population. 71,175 Jews lived in Casablanca alone, where the general population numbered 965,000. Half of the Jews were under the age of 20 and most of the Jewish population was urban. The Jews made up only 2% of the actual population, but they constituted 8% of the country’s industrial workers and artisans, ten percent of all merchants and 5% of the members of the free professions and of those employed in managerial positions. Thirty percent of the general Moroccan population worked in modern industries, while 99% of Jews were employed in such fields. By June 30, 1963, 60,017 Jews had come to Israel from Morocco, which is why it is assumed that 110,000 Jews remained in Morocco as of that date.
Between 1957 and November of 1961, when the government began to permit Jews to leave under collective passports, 29,472 Jews left legally or through various paths of illegal emigration organized by the Israeli security services. If those leaving in 1957 are discounted – a year in which most Jews left the country with legal passports – it appears that the number who left in the context of Misgeret, the Israeli Secret Service’s illegal immigration program, came to a little less than 10,200 Jews. From November of 1961 through the end of 1963, more than 72,500 Jews left Morocco legally. By 1964, when the Yakhin campaign ended, a total of 83,707 Jews had left. In 1965, 55,000 Jews remained in Morocco, but by 1972 no more than 30,000 were living there. By 2003 the community numbered under 5000. Because of the limitations created by Israel’s policy - adopted in 1953 - of only allowing “selected” Moroccan Jews to emigrate, there was a negative balance in terms of immigration to Israel during the year of the policy’s adoption: the number of Jews who returned from Israel to Morocco was greater than the number who immigrated to Israel.
The disputes regarding emigration
The subject of Jewish emigration from Morocco, or as it has been coined by the two parties, the right to freedom of movement, troubled the leaders of the Jewish community who were concerned regarding the difficulties that the authorities were creating for Jews seeking to obtain passports. However, this issue was no less troubling for the leaders of the World Jewish Congress, the government of the State of Israel, the Jewish Agency, or the agents of the Misgeret who worked secretly on behalf of the Mossad in Morocco. Liberal circles within the Moroccan leadership rejected the idea of Jewish emigration because with the advent of Moroccan independence, they wished to create the appearance of a progressive country in which all citizens - regardless of their religion - enjoyed equal rights so that none would have any desire to leave. They also opposed emigration because of a concern that if the Jews left the country, the economy would suffer. On the other hand, pan-arabists in the conservative wing of the Istiqlal were not happy that wealthy Jews from Morocco would immigrate to Israel, thus strengthening the Zionist forces there against the Arab nation.
The disputes regarding emigration caused divisions not only between the Moroccan government and the Israeli emissaries and the World Jewish Congress - they also arose between World Jewish Congress on the one side and the leadership of the Mossad and the Israeli government on the other. Although the WJC acknowledged that Zionism and the State of Israel were the life-blood of the Jewish people, they nevertheless argued that the Jews who still lived in the Diaspora should not be forgotten and that their welfare should continue to be a cause of concern. The WJC leaders saw their primary goal, as being the preservation of the spiritual lives of the Diaspora Jews, since, no matter what Israel would not be able to absorb all of Diaspora Jewry. The WJC leadership therefore decided to establish cultural and other activities within North African Jewish communities. They set for themselves the goal of “increasing the Jewish presence” by exerting pressure on the community’s leadership and by responding to every attack on the community’s special rights that might emanate from government sources. To strengthen its position, the WJC maintained continuous contact with the government authorities, and even provided them with certain services. Even if the WJC representatives were not always optimistic regarding the outcomes of their activities, they continued to meet with government ministers and senior officials frequently, so as to maintain an unbroken connection with the authorities. They complained that Israel did not help them with their work, even though they saw themselves as Israel’s unofficial ambassadors in places where the State did not have diplomatic contracts. This was the reason for their harsh criticism of Misgeret’s underground work involving clandestine emigration. They claimed that not only was such activity insufficient to solve the problem of restrictions on emigration, it would also damage the WJC’s diplomatic efforts and their chances for reaching an agreed arrangement with the government leadership.
From the perspective of the Jewish Agency’s representatives, the activities of the WJC leaders had both positive and negative aspects. The WJC leadership saw themselves as working to achieve peace and quiet for the North African Jews by ensuring relief from occasionally renewed anti-Jewish regulations, the World Zionist Organization and the government of Israel had a different perspective. They rejected the very possibility of peaceful life in the Diaspora and saw a need for radical action in order to change the situation. According to Baruch Duvdevani, who ran the Immigration Department of the Jewish Agency in Europe: “Our perspective was a Zionist one. We did not avoid difficult and dangerous decisions, because we were persuaded that there was no future for Jews in Morocco and that their only hope was in emigration to Israel. And we felt the pressure of time very clearly. The WJC felt differently - they worked to achieve temporary solutions and an easing of the situation on the spot […] Nevertheless, it should be said to their credit, that their friendly connections with many government officials was what prevented bloodshed on the Jewish street during the times when control of the government was transferred from one group to another. These connections also contributed to the easing of the situation in the transit camp next to Casablanca.”
Isser Harel, the director of the Mossad at the time, also understood that the Jewish side was divided schematically into two separate camps. In one camp were those who supported mass emigration, which was to be minimally funded, and in the other were those who supported the path of quiet diplomacy, of lobbying and adopting a patient approach with respect to the Moroccan authorities. This second camp minimized the importance of Harel’s organization’s work in getting Jews out of Morocco. According to him, the first camp included Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, Foreign Minister Golda Meir, and S. Z. Shragay, while the leader of the other camp was Nahum Goldmann, the President of the World Jewish Congress. In reality, the division was more complicated and many other elements were also involved - elements that related not only to emigration and Israel’s ability to absorb immigrants, but also to the estimated degree of danger which the Jews could expect in Morocco and the two sides’ respective views regarding the proper way to persuade the Moroccan authorities to allow the Jews to leave.
On the Moroccan side, the leadership’s various arguments against Jewish emigration reflect the differences in political culture that existed among the factions making up that leadership. Thus, there were several different reasons for their opposition:
- The paternalistic-traditional approach, which characterized the King’s attitude, saw the Jews of the community as having been placed under the personal protection of the ruler. The monarchy saw itself as being obligated to “protect its Jewish sons” as it had done for generations. This approach involved a certain degree of sentimentality, which was of any realpolitik.
- Another argument against emigration flowed from the view that the Jews’ exit from the country immediately upon its attaining independence would de-stabilize the country in terms of its public administration and commerce and economics. This argument was based on the factual matter of the important economic and administrative role played by the Moroccan Jews as a group. Another version of this argument was one that emphasized that such a mass exodus of Jews would certainly be covered in the international media and would create the impression that the young state was collapsing economically. Furthermore, those putting forth this argument feared that such coverage would portray Morocco as a country governed by intolerant rulers.
- Others argued that allowing the Jews to leave en masse would expose Morocco to world public opinion as an undemocratic, non-progressive country whose government was unable to provide its non-Muslim citizens with the conditions necessary for proper integration into Moroccan society.
- An additional reason given for opposing Jewish emigration was that most of the Jews would immigrate to Israel, and their departure from Morocco would therefore impact on Morocco’s relations with the Arab countries which it needed for the sake of stabilizing its political condition as its struggle against colonial France came to an end.
- Finally, the argument was made that the massive emigration of young Jews to Israel would strengthen the Israeli Defence Forces in its war with Morocco’s fellow Arab countries.
Whatever the reasoning, Morocco was united from one corner of the political spectrum to the other in its opposition to the idea of allowing the Jews to leave the country. Israel’s representatives and the heads of the international Jewish organizations tried to answer these claims with opposing arguments. They pointed out that the financial factor was not that important since approximately 60,000 Jews (out of 160,000 in 1960) were being sustained by aid from the American Joint Distribution Committee. In their conversations with the authorities, the Israeli representatives also pointed out that the emigration of Jewish professionals from the country would create many job opportunities for educated Muslims. As for concerns regarding the response of Middle Eastern Arab countries, the Israeli emissaries responded that even Arab League countries - even those who were in a state of war with Israel - were permitting their Jews to leave for Israel, and that these young immigrants were also serving in the Israel Defense Forces. They were in fact referring to the experience of the Jews of Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Tunisia and even Syria and Lebanon. According to Alexander Easterman, while Nasser was actually encouraging Jews to leave Egypt and even expelled them after the Sinai Campaign in 1957 as part of his struggle for national unity, Morocco was discouraging Jews from leaving as part of a policy of encouraging the maintenance of national ethnic variety. The Israelis also pointed to Tunis’ liberal policy as a positive example, a policy that had been shaped by Habib Bourguiba. Despite his having allowed the Jews of his country to leave freely, they had not stormed the exit gates.
In the eyes of the Moroccan leadership, the Jews’ economic situation was similar to that of the French colonialists. Despite the difference between the two groups in terms of actual statistics, the Jews constituted a considerable consumers’ market and a source of skilled manpower for management positions. According to historian Daniel Rivet, “it would not be an exaggeration to state that the exodus of this community would, from a human perspective, impoverish Morocco more than would the return of all Europeans to the northern coast of the Mediterranean.” But the Jews, from their perspective, were concerned about what might happen once the country overcame the difficulties of adjusting to political and economic independence. Ironically, however, for most Moroccan Jews, the calls by Moroccan and world Jewish leadership for freedom of movement and for the granting of passports were irrelevant. At the most, the freedom to leave the country with individual passports would have served only the needs of merchants and businessmen who could leave for Europe because of their businesses, or for vacations or visits. Positive responses to the demands for passports and freedom of movement would still not have solved the problems of the many village dwelling Jews or of the lower class urban Jewish communities. These groups needed more than just the technicality of obtaining passports to leave – they required the assistance of an organization that could arrange their departure, take care of shipping their goods and deal with their absorption in a new country. Nevertheless, on a practical level, it was better for the Jewish organizations just to mention the two essential demands for freedom of movement and the issuance of passports. They realized that it would be much harder to go further and ask that a foreign country be expressly granted permission to organize - on Moroccan territory - a framework for the departure of Moroccan Jews en masse for Israel.
Indeed, with time, the Moroccan authorities were forced to give up their goal of hermetically sealing the country’s borders against departing Jews. They eventually adopted a policy of more or less ignoring the fact that Jews were leaving, so long as the departures were discrete and not visible to the opposition parties. Since political opposition to emigration had served for so long as a political weapon in the hands of the various parties in their attacks against each other and in their opposition to various royal policies, neither side dared to officially proclaim its agreement to allow the Jews to leave. However, in private conversations, several politicians did not oppose such emigration and did not do anything to block it. Gradually, the king was forced to make peace with reality and to give up his wish to hold the Jews against their will. It was difficult to put up an artificial obstacle to effectively stem the growing desire on the part of the Jews to leave their homeland and to seek their future in new geo-cultural horizons. This change in the king’s attitude had more than one cause. Alongside the pressure of Jewish and non-Jewish world public opinion was the gradual development of a more pragmatic perspective among Morocco’s rulers.
2. The Istiqlal Party – the word means “independence – was established after the publication of the proclamation of independence in Fès. Its 58 signatories made up a group of young people who had already in 1934 formed a group called Action du Peuple, which demanded reforms from the colonial administration. Allal Al Fassi and Ahmed Balafrej headed the party.
6. Report submitted by Hayim Yahil, Deputy Director-General, Israel Foreign Ministry, regarding his conversation with Marcel Stein who had returned from talks in Morocco, November 8, 1957, Israel National Archives, Foreign Ministry II 4317/10.
7. Victor Malka points to a census that was held in 1960 in which 160,000 Jews were counted in the country, as opposed to 230,000 in 1950. V. Malka, “La situation des communautés juives en Tunisie et au Maroc. L’éxemple marocain”. L’Arche, No. 62, March 1962.
8. A. Easterman, speaking at the Fourth General Assembly of the World Jewish Congress Political Department at Stockholm, report for August 1959, M. Laskier, “The emigration of the Jews of Morocco, the Government’s Policy and the Positions of the world Jewish organizations, 1949-56” Shorashim ba mizrah, Research of the Zionist and Pioneering Movement in the Sephardic and Islamic Communities, vol. II, p. 354, (Hebrew).