By Yossef Ben-Meir
Early in 2015, Jacky Kadoch, President of the Jewish community of Marrakesh-Essaouira, set out his ideas for a national blueprint for Morocco’s 4,000-strong Jewish community. This took place during a wide-ranging conversation in Marrakesh with Dr. Yossef Ben-Meir (President of the High Atlas Foundation – a US-Moroccan NGO – and a friend of Mr. Kadoch for two decades).
Moroccan Jewry is noteworthy and newsworthy. Present in the region, in cities and rural places, for two millennia without interruption – albeit experiencing somber as well as tranquil periods – the vast majority now resides beyond the Kingdom’s shores.
A distinctive and significant grouping within the world Jewish community (of which between half to one million claim Moroccan descent), this diaspora enjoys a cordial – and officially reciprocated – relationship with its former host country. Indeed, it is frequently stated in public that the nation would welcome the return en masse of its Jewish community.
As well as the small, resident Jewish population, an important tangible and intangible legacy remains, forming part of the multicultural national patrimony to whose maintenance and restoration Morocco is committed, ideally within the framework of human development. In addition, the Jewish cultural contribution, lauded in the country’s 2011 Constitution, forms the subject of a conversation that has begun to take place among some of the younger generation of Moroccan Muslims, curious about an aspect of their country’s heritage to which they have little first-hand access.
Admiration – wonder even – is expressed at the community’s continued survival – and at its legitimization, alongside Christianity, in this almost exclusively Muslim state. At the same time, the economic and cultural reasons for its dismantling from within have been voiced for over a decade and a recent New York Times article poignantly questions who will be left as custodians of this important shared history and urban fabric.
The coming years constitute a critical time for the community, in terms of its demographic, its finances and the care of its heritage, as well as in the broader context of the MENA region and indeed, of global affairs.
Towards a New Architecture
To meet this challenge, which also bears the seeds of potential, Mr. Kadoch (whose late father, the highly esteemed Mr. Henri Kadoch, was one of the leaders of Moroccan Jewry in Marrakesh and on the national stage) proposes a two-pronged approach. Essentially this would involve the complete centralization of the Jewish community and – perhaps counter-intuitively, building afresh.
In logistical terms, it has come to the point where a decentralized system, which served the Jewish population so well when it was both numerous and distributed across Morocco, is no longer viable.
In Casablanca then, the effective center of Jewish life and administration since the Thirties, a central committee and a single presidency are envisaged, with regional representatives in other Moroccan cities with small but active congregations (of which there are currently six: Agadir, Fez, Marrakesh, Meknes, Rabat and Tangiers). A further committee would be formed to oversee the care of 267 official cemeteries and over 600 more rural sacred sites (the latter to be found particularly in traditional Amazigh areas). Two museums of Jewish heritage would be created in the north and south of the country. Currently one exists in Casablanca – the sole such in the Arab world; the location for the second might well be Marrakesh, traditionally viewed as the southern capital and whose Mellah, dating from the sixteenth century, forms the largest non-Muslim residential quarter in the Arab world. Finally, a central archive would be opened in Casablanca to house collections of documents, of inestimable cultural value, currently scattered across Morocco.
The financial rationale for the proposal rests on the decreasing numbers of the Jewish community, traditionally the provider of funds for communal endeavors. Mr. Kadoch (noting that he personally pays stipends to caretakers of certain rural cemeteries) estimates that in four years at most the coffers will be empty; further, that his community in Marrakesh will cease to function in ten to fifteen years and that of Casablanca itself in double that time.
To provide funds, he proposes a survey of remaining Jewish communal property, with Casablanca empowered to sell off what is not needed in order to preserve and restore noteworthy sites as well as to provide for the needs of the existing community (for example care for the elderly and youth education).
At a point when the organized Jewish community in Morocco ceases to exist, a combination of local trust and central partnership should ensure the continued protection of cultural patrimony. Mr. Kadoch highlights the need to draw up preliminary plans within the coming two years to find partners, Moroccan and international, including foundations acting on behalf of Moroccan Jewish communities around the world.
“We are losing our history … we are losing our soul”
Alongside this pressing need lies a feeling of responsibility – in line with the directive of HM King Mohammed VI – to proclaim the unique cultural value of the Jewish experience in Morocco to its own faith community and to the world at large, as well as a sense of sadness at treasures irretrievably lost.
Broadly, if its communal land ceases to contain anything distinctively Jewish, then it automatically reverts to the Moroccan state and the particular heritage value disappears.
This has already been the fate of up to 40 percent of antique archival material, either as a result of irreparable damage in situ or through being secreted out of the country by unscrupulous dealers.
In remote rural burial sites, notwithstanding continuing local respect, tombstones need to be restored and caretakers employed, partly to prevent local people taking over and living on the land, virtually guaranteeing the disappearance of graves. In this respect the Moroccan government is already active, having completed most of a scheme to build protective walls around the official Jewish cemeteries.
Where productive arable land is available alongside Jewish sacred sites, this can be used to produce trees and medicinal plants for the benefit of local Muslim farming communities, as in the case of the House of Life project led by the High Atlas Foundation. In this way, the communal relationship continues and the cemetery itself benefits from a further measure of protection.
The Need to Think Ahead
Despite the urgency, Mr. Kadoch notes a lack of momentum in the process due to the semblance of continuity; the Jewish community is active, represented in the media, particularly on festive occasions, swelled by many visitors, often with family connections to Morocco, and even welcoming on a long-term basis expatriate families, together with their children.
In essence, what may be in the process of being created within the Kingdom is a two-tier Jewish community comprised of one segment that is ageing, traditionally-minded and more likely to attend communal events, and another, younger, less attached than the first, but certainly aware of its heritage. Perhaps it is the case that alongside the creation of architectural structures, a fresh conversation involving the participation of as many Jewish residents of Morocco as possible should be initiated as a means to ensure that this new blossom may flourish to the full.
Finally, an imponderable – it could be that, due to the coalescence of any number of national and international factors (particularly unease within European Jewry as well as the granting of passports to descendants of Jews expelled from the Iberian peninsula five hundred years ago) the Jewish population of Morocco, encouraged by the government, actually increases in the coming decades.
In seeking to centralize existing structures and build anew, Mr. Kadoch is in effect preparing for a number of eventualities, for the benefit of the Jewish community and all those interested in the possibility of dialogue and coexistence.
Dr. Yossef Ben-Meir, based in New York, is a sociologist, former Peace Corps Volunteer to Morocco, and co-founder of the High Atlas Foundation.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]