Morocco’s Public Primary Schools to Teach Jewish History

Hebrew inscriptions on a tomb at the Jewish cemetery in Fez. Photo: Amine Bakkari/Morocco World News

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Rabat – King Mohammed VI has approved a decision to teach Jewish history and culture in the Arabic-language curriculum for public primary schools in Morocco. 

A joint statement from the American Sephardi Federation and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (CoP) commended the decision on November 12.

Malcolm Hoenlein, the vice chair of the CoP, and Jason Guberman, the executive director of the American Sephardi Federation, said the move is “the latest assertive action by King Mohammed VI to perpetuate the Judeo-Moroccan legacy as an integral part of the Moroccan identity.” 

The two leaders have worked closely with Morocco and its Jewish community, according to the statement. 

The King’s approval of the curriculum represents his “enduring commitment to recognizing a pluralist past and assuring continuation in the future,” the statement continued. “At the core of this effort is enhancing understanding and fostering the connection between Muslims and Jews.”

The joint statement quoted King Mohammed VI as writing to the UN that anti-Semitism “is not exclusively a problem for the Jewish people. Rather, anti-Semitism represents the sickness of a society racked by ‘failure, inadequacy, and [an] inability to coexist.’” 

“Ensuring Moroccan students learn about the totality of their proud history of tolerance, including Morocco’s philo-Semitism, is an inoculation against extremism,” said the joint statement.

Read also: Morocco’s Legacy of Jewish-Muslim Coexistence

Morocco’s Jewish history

Morocco was once home to the largest Jewish community in the Muslim world, reaching a population of 300,000 at its height. 

The Jewish presence in Morocco dates back to the time of the Phoenician Carthaginian state, more than 2,500 years ago and long before the Arabs arrived from the Middle East in A.D. 680. 

Today, fewer than 2,000 people comprise the North African country’s Jewish community, primarily living in Casablanca. Jews from all over the world regularly travel to Morocco for pilgrimage.   

Historians and international observers largely credit Morocco’s exceptional religious tolerance and appreciation of its Jewish history to the late King Mohammed V, who asserted his country as a bulwark against the anti-Semitism that plagued Europe during World War II. 

King Mohammed V’s stand against Nazism

Morocco was a French protectorate during the war. The Nazi-controlled Vichy government demanded that King Mohammed V impose anti-Jewish legislation upon his people and deport the country’s 250,000 Jews to extermination camps in Europe. 

But the King refused to enact discriminatory measures against the Jewish population, such as forcing them to wear yellow stars, stripping them of their citizenship, and seizing their property.

“There are no Jewish citizens, there are no Muslim citizens,” King Mohammed V told the Nazi regime. “They are all Moroccans.”

During Moroccan throne celebrations in 1941, after Vichy France ruled that Jews be banned from public functions, King Mohammed V invited all the rabbis of Morocco and other senior Jewish figures to the ceremony. 

He told French officials during the throne celebrations: “I absolutely do not approve of the new anti-Semitic laws and I refuse to associate myself with a measure I disagree with. I reiterate as I did in the past that the Jews are under my protection and I reject any distinction that should be made amongst my people.”

The late monarch’s earth-shattering rejection of anti-Semitism and Nazism set the precedent for his successors’ respect for the country’s Jewish heritage and people. 

Morocco’s relationship with the Jewish community today

Like his grandfather, King Mohammed VI has close ties with Morocco’s Jewish community and respect for this aspect of the country’s heritage. 

He launched the “Houses of Life” program in 2010, restoring 167 Jewish graveyards and 12,600 graves in 40 provinces throughout the country.

When Morocco adopted a new constitution the following year, King Mohammed VI insisted on acknowledging the role of Judaism in Morocco’s history. 

The preamble to the 2011 Constitution says Morocco’s unified national identity “is forged by the convergence of its Arab-Islamist, Berber and Saharan-Hassanic components, nourished and enriched by its African, Andalusian, Hebraic, and Mediterranean influences.”

In January, King Mohammed VI presided over the inauguration of Bayt Dakira, or the “House of Memory,” in Essaouira. Dating back to the 19th century, the museum, synagogue, and research center commemorates the role of Judaism in Morocco’s national heritage. 

Andre Azoulay, the president of the Essaouira-Mogador Association and Jewish senior adviser to the King, said the monarch’s visit to Bayt Dakira symbolized the imprint of “our secular and millenary Morocco that has been able to protect the very great diversity, which is the central wealth of our country.” 

Read also: In Photos: Remembering Moroccan Jewry at the Fez Jewish Cemetery