The Catastrophe That Didn’t Happen

Publié le par Yigal Bin-Nun

The Catastrophe That Didn’t Happen

 Yigal Bin-Nun

The history of the three-way relationship between Israel, the Moroccan government and Moroccan Jewry could be entitled the “catastrophe that didn’t happen.” Carlos de Nesry put it well: “The Jews of this country bring to mind the person who was saved from an explosion and is after­wards surprised to discover that he is healthy and whole. During the days of the protectorate, it seemed to them that independence would be a dramatic revolution with unpre­dictable results. In the end, they saw it as a sort of apoca­lypse in which the peace and quiet, which they knew un­der the French government, could be destroyed forever. The severity of the omens justified this fatalistic fear. When independence was achieved, they learned that it was not all that terrible.”

One anti-Jewish incident which more than any other had left its mark on the Jewish community took place on June 7, 1948 – three weeks after the establishment of the state of Israel and the beginning of its war with the neighboring Arab states. A few days after the declaration of Israel’s establishment, on May 23, Sultan Mohammed Ben Youssef understood what the results might be of a Jewish-Arab war in the Middle East for his country and he ap­pealed to the country with a reminder of his undertaking to protect his Jewish subject. He addressed the Jewish com­munity as well with a plea that they not engage in displays of Zionist solidarity with the new Jewish state. Despite the messages to the Moroccan people from the Sultan, anti-Jewish riots broke out the eastern city of Oujda and in a neighboring town (located 46 kilometers away) Jerrada.

These riots remained strongly etched in the general mem­ory of the population for many years, and they were espe­cially significant because in those days, Oujda served as a transit station for Jews who left Morocco on their way to Israel through nearby Algeria. Since these events took place in 1948, while the Moroccan revolt against the French occupation was already taking place, the Muslims had attacked the French authority’s Jewish “partners” as revenge for Israel’s war against the Arabs. Four Jews were killed in Oujda and a Muslim who attempted to protect them was killed as well. In Jerrada, 36 Jews were mur­dered, among them the community’s rabbi – Moshe Cohen. In May already, the head of Oujda’s Jewish com­munity – Ovadia – had notified the French authorities of agitation against the Jews in the city, but the regional co­lonial governor of the city had left the place one day be­fore. This fact gives rise to a suspicion that the French authorities were involved in planning the attacks on the Jews in order to create friction between different groups within the population. In this aspect as well, the motiva­tion for the attack was connected to Israel and the general Middle East situation and not to local factors.

Another anti-Jewish incident took place on August 3, 1954 in the town of Sidi Qassem (Petit Jean), in which six Jewish merchants from Meknès were killed. This incident had no connection to the Arab-Israeli conflict. No more than approximately 50 Jews lived in this town, and Jews from nearby Meknès also came there to trade. The reason for the massacre was connected to the demand by the Na­tionalist Moroccan Movement to close stores on Fridays, and the opposing pressure from the French authorities who wished to have the stores open, despite the threats. Moroccan demonstrators affixed pictures of the exiled king to the front windows of stores, including those of Jewish businesses. A French policeman who tried to re­move the pictures was saved without being hurt but the mob vented its rage on Jewish merchants who were nearby and who were accused of breaking the strike. The bodies of the six Jews who were killed (after having been cruelly tortured) during the riots were burned by the mob. After­ward, Prosper Cohen, the secretary-general of the Zionist Federation was called in by the representatives of the pro­fessional unions in Morocco to intervene on behalf of those who had been arrested.

This tragic event was not mentioned in contemporary Israeli newspapers, even though the Foreign Ministry had received pictures and a report from the field. However, the political instability and uncertainty regarding the future and the administra­tion’s declarations of arabization, reminded many of the two events and pushed them to leave the country that could offer them no guarantees of security.

A conviction that a disaster was coming after the French left Morocco and independence was obtained was what fed the policies adopted by Israeli leaders and the activi­ties of its emissaries. Many Jews in Morocco also had a fear of an apocalypse that would damage the Jews’ status and their future in the country. But the disaster did not happen but the fear of it took its toll. Those who foresaw only the negative were convinced that the disaster had only been delayed for a limited time and that it would un­doubtedly still take place were forced to acknowledge that independence had not hurt the Jews but had only opened a new era for them that reminded some of the golden age in the relations between Jews and Muslims. Among the edu­cated classes, the euphoria was predominant. The mistakes made by the Israeli government and its emissaries burst this bubble and ended the social-political-economic flow­ering from which all the Jews were beginning to benefit. The Jewish community of Morocco was comforted by the fact that even though Israel had unintentionally upset their social advancement in the short run, it gave them a sense of security in the long-term and a clearer sense of their future.

There are many answers to the critical question as to why the Jews of Morocco left. Some of the reasons were substantive and were based on matters of fundamental importance, and some were circumstantial – resulting form the specific time at which the Jews left during the early 1960’s. The Jewish community, the international Jewish organizations and the State of Israel were all concerned because, despite all the calming declarations put out by the Moroccan authorities, it was impossible to deny the basic fact that the independent Moroccan state was defined by its constitution as an Islamic state. But the problem was not connected to legal definitions alone. Post-colonial Moroccan society was characterized by a lifestyle in which religion played an important role and all of its cul­ture was based on the Muslim experience. This socio-cul­tural situation did not leave any room for those who were not Muslims, or for those who were secular in the style of many West European societies since the French Revolu­tion.

With this as a starting point, any attempt to overcome the problem of the existence of a Jewish community within a Muslim society was doomed. It is true that some of the Jewish intelligentsia tried to ignore the problem for a time while the initial excitement generated by independence continued, but they were forced to face reality only soon enough. It was true that the leadership of the independent state had for some time been torn between its wish to adopt the progressive principles of the democratic West on the one hand, and on the other - its sense of kinship with the flag-bearers of the pan-arabist ideology then sweeping the area and Morocco as well. Despite the leadership’s early wavering, it became obvious that the pan-arabists had won the day shortly after independence was achieved.

Morocco joined the Arab League, cut off its postal ties with Israel, and began a process of moroccanization and arabization of the government administration, all of which, together, tipped the scales for the Jews, and eliminated the possibility that the status of the country’s Jews would be similar to that of the Jews in the secular democratic coun­tries of Western Europe.

The Arab-Israeli conflict only aggravated a problem that would have existed anyway. The fear of a loss of the advantages given them by their education as a result of the Arabization process put the Jews into a state of chronic discomfort and uncertainty, which only increased with time. Since Morocco could not offer any guarantee that the future would be better for its Jewish citizens in an Arab-Muslim state, the Jews had no choice but to leave.

It is true that the Middle East conflict – which was one of the reasons for the urge to emigrate – was an important element in the deterioration of relations between Jews and Muslims. The conflict raised concerns on both an emo­tional and a religious level. But sooner or later the con­flicts between the Jewish and Muslim communities within Morocco would have become much more critical and the Jews’ status within society would have been seriously weakened. The experience of Jews in other Arab countries did not encourage the development of good neighbourly relations between Jews and Muslims in Morocco.

Along with the intrusion of the Middle Eastern conflict into the Jewish-Muslim relationship in Morocco, another concern arose regarding the loss of the advantages, which the Jews had enjoyed in the past, relative to the Muslim public. The ending of these advantages was due to the country’s adoption of the arabization process which was to cause the Jews’ to lose the preferences they had previously enjoyed in terms of obtaining management positions, pref­erences which came from their having benefited from French education. Financial shocks, which flowed from the departure of the French, also impacted on the Jewish merchants and artisans. A fear grew among the Jewish bourgeoisie and among the free professionals that they would indeed have to choose between French language and culture, to which they had been so open in the past, and the process of expected arabization, which would bring along with it Muslim cultural baggage in which the Jews would be at a disadvantage. Many of Morocco’s Jews understood that it would not be possible to hold onto France and the artificial imposition of its culture in the post-colonial independent state. The formal Jewish leader­ship remained relatively weak because of its dual loyalty to both France and Morocco. David Amar, for example, was forced to say one thing and then the opposite so as to avoid conflict with the authorities while still following his true wishes as a Jewish leader. The Hebrew-Israeli option was not ideal from this perspective, but it was still better than a Jewish future in an Arab-Muslim state, which was attempting to determine its future character.

It is important to note that the Jews’ departure from Morocco was also part of a social process that had begun long before Moroccan independence. This historical trend toward migration was an integral part of a natural demo­graphic process that had been going on for a long time within the Moroccan population in general and even more within the country’s Jewish community. The strength of this movement among the Jews was due to the socio-eco­nomic status, which they enjoyed. The process existed in the 18th and 19th centuries and was accelerated even more during the period of French control. This demographic change was basically a trend, which began with the aban­donment of villages in the direction of a nearby town, and then progressed to the move from towns to the medium-sized cities and the largest cities. With the transformation of Casablanca in a most important economic center, vil­lagers began to migrate directly from their distant and remote homes to this new center. It should be recalled that the villagers numbered more than 30,000 people out of a total population of 250,000 Jews. Along with the exodus from the villages and the small cities to Casablanca, there was also a movement of Jews out of Morocco, even before the establishment of the State of Israel. The Jews of Mo­rocco moved not only to France and Spain but also to Brazil and to Venezuela, British Gibraltar, Great Britain, United States and Canada.

The departure from Morocco to more attractive locations that promised, in the long run, an improved quality of life was thus a part of an eternal demographic process that grew in strength with the pas­sage of time. The migration to Israel, France, Canada and South America should thus be seen in this historical demographic perspective which itself took place as part of the process of educational and cultural development which France had brought to the Jews of Morocco. Within a relatively short time, the Jewish community had so ab­sorbed the advantages of French civilization that a large gap between them and their Arab-Muslim geo-social envi­ronment was created, a fact that motivated them to con­tinue the migration process in the direction of new hori­zons. The relative backwardness of Moroccan society would sooner or later have pushed the Jews out of inde­pendent Morocco. It was an inevitable process for the country’s Jews, who sought to improve their social status and to be concerned about their children’s cultural future.

The assistance offered by the emissaries of the Mossad to the Jewish community should not be discounted either. This led to a sense of obligation, which the emissaries succeeded in creating among part of the community’s leadership. An entire generation of young Jews which experienced the DEJJ (Département Éducatif de la Jeun­esse Juive of Charles Netter Association), youth move­ment, the Jewish scouts, the Alliance schools and the Israeli youth movements absorbed a great affection for the young State of Israel. The young Jewish state enlivened their imagination through its victories, its scientific achievements and the almost magical sense with which terms like qibbuts, moshav, TSAHAL, halutsim (pioneers), “Jerusalem” and others lit up their imaginations. On this foundation, a few sentences from the Jewish prayers and from Scripture were mixed up with abstract mystical longing for the Holy Land. Thus, fertile ground was laid for a departure to a foreign land, even if the push for such a departure was somewhat mixed with longing for a homeland in which generations of ancestors had been buried.

Regarding the circumstances of the departure which took place in the period between November 1961 (in the wake of the “Compromise Agreement” which was reached with the Moroccan authorities in august 1961) and the Six-Day War, it should be noted that the conditions of the departure themselves created a strong sense of having been aban­doned – a sensation which was felt by many Jews. Since during this period those who left did so in an atmosphere of secrecy, no one person in the community knew the ac­tual size of the migration. For obvious reasons, no one was interested in publicizing the statistics regarding the num­bers of those leaving, so that the “Jew-on-the-street” knew only what he saw with his own eyes and what he felt as fear in his own heart. In the minds of the individual Jews, the pace of the migration reached proportions that were so high they caused each person to believe that all his rela­tives and acquaintances had left, and that he was the only one who had stayed behind. Those who had not yet left sensed that, sooner or later, they would also be going.

Moreover, and paradoxically, the very same Moroccan authorities that had sought to prevent it created the depar­ture psychosis. The more they made the Jews’ emigration difficult and tried to seduce them into staying, the greater was the Jews’ desire to leave before it became impossible to go. Since independence, the Jews were concerned by the question of whether Morocco could, in the long run, be tolerant of their presence. Even though there was no actual injury was done to them, the doubt regarding the future was sufficient to ignite the push to depart. The doubt, the fear and the panic transformed faithful citizens into emi­grants, primarily as a result of the obstacles the govern­ment had placed in the way of their departure.

Since the Jews of Morocco were not able to receive French citizenship as the Algerian Jews did, Israel was one of the significant destinations to which Jews turned. The heroic image of the Israeli sabra society that had devel­oped in the Jewish state, its victories over the Arab armies, worked a charm on the Jews of Morocco and was a major attraction for the younger generation. Israel thus provided an available and appealing alternative to other possible destinations, despite the economic difficulties that those who arrived there could expect. The thought of a new life and a source of hope in Israel became the antithesis of a fear of an uncertain future in Morocco.

As to the cardinal question of why the Jews left Morocco, there is a short answer: a psychosis of aban­donment had been created. Since, during this period, emi­gration took place in an atmosphere of secrecy, no one in the community knew what the levels of emigration ac­tually were. As a matter of course, no one was interested in publicizing statistics regarding this subject, so that eve­ryone was informed only by what he saw and what he feared in his heart. In the minds of the Jews, the rate of emigration had reached proportions that caused everyone to feel that all of his relatives and acquaintances had left and only he had remained behind. Even those who had not left knew that sooner or later, he would leave. Thus, para­doxically, the psychosis of departure was created not only by Israel’s agents who wished to instigate it but also by the Moroccan government, which wished to stop it.

The more they made it difficult for Jews to leave and tried to persuade them to stay, the desire on the part of the Jews to leave as soon as possible before it became impossible to do so only grew. From the time that independence was achieved, the Jews were bothered by the question of whether Morocco could be tolerant of their existence for the long run. Although there was never an actual attack on the Jews, this doubt was sufficient to incite the desire to leave. Doubt, fear and panic turned loyal citizens into a source of emigration, due to the obstacles with which their departure was blocked.

Were it not for the emigration psychosis, the Jews could have taken full advantage their preferred status and used it for economic and social purposes. This process would no doubt have weakened when educated Muslims completed their studies and began to seek positions in the country’s administration, commerce and economy. Friction might have developed between the long-time Jewish bureaucrats and Muslims who wished to take for themselves various public positions. But this would have happened gradually, and only after a period in which the Jews would have been able to exploit the advantages given to them by their rela­tively high level of education. Had it not been for the overly rapid acceleration of emigration, it could be that the Jews of Morocco would have reached to Israel with their economic-educational status much improved.

At the same time, the state of Israel would have been better prepared to absorb them. The departure from Morocco could have been spread over a longer period of time. Had that hap­pened, it might have been possible to avoid the social cri­ses that developed in Israel, and which were expressed in the riots in Wadi Salib and in those led by the “Israeli Black Panthers” among whom there were so many Moroccan immigrants.





1.        C. de Nesry, Les Israélites marocains à l’heure du choix, (Tanger 1958), p. 18.

2.        H. Saadon, “The Palestinian Element in Islamic Countries,” Peamim 63 (Hebrew). In this article, Saadon stresses the connection between the Oujda and Jerrada incident and the topic of the Middle East, the establishment of the State of Israel and the emigration from Morocco to Israel via Oujda. A. Ben-Haim, “The Eretz Israel Mission to North-Africa: First Period, 1943-49, The Organization of Underground Activists in North Africa, Vol. 1, (Tel Aviv 1994). p. 13. In his book, Yaakov Caroz notes that the number of those killed was 39 and not 36 – of whom 10 were children – and that there were 25 wounded. Caroz, The Man With Two Hats, (Hebrew), p. 66. See also Prosper Cohen, La grande aventure, p. 54.


3.        Y. Tsur, A Torn Community, (Hebrew), pp. 394-96.


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