Rabat – Since ancient times, Morocco has been a safe haven for Jews. Throughout its history, Morocco has protected its Jewish population in times of conflict and persecution in the world. Now in the 21st century, Morocco’s reformed constitution of 2011 recognizes Jews as one of Morocco’s national identities and core constituents, making Morocco a unique model of co-existence and religious diversity in the Arab world.
Estimates and historical references indicate that Jews lived in Morocco during the reign of the Phoenicians in . However, the biggest influx of Jews to Morocco dates back to the fifteenth century when Granada fell into the hands of Queen Isabella of Spain in 1492, and Spain forced 165,000 Jews to convert to Catholicism or face expulsion.
The protected status of Jews in Morocco remained unchanged during the French protectorate years of the 20th century as the number of Moroccan Jews increased to 250,000 in 1940, when they represented 10 percent of the country’s citizens. In the 1950s, the number of Moroccan Jews expanded to 300,000 citizens who enjoyed the freedom to practice their religion and social customs.
During the French occupation of Morocco, the late King Mohammed V adamantly rejected the pressure of France’s Vichy government to discriminate against Jews. His response to requests by that government to turn over Moroccan Jews to the Nazis was,“There are no Jews in Morocco. There are only subjects.” It was also reported that he hid some Jews from the Nazis in his palace during the rise of anti-Semitism in World War II. His intention was to preserve Morocco’s security and safety, and ensure that there was no distinction between Morocco’s citizens on the basis of religion or creed.
Morocco historically has also recognized the religious practices of the Jewish community. Three decrees were issued in May 1918, February 1925, March 1928, and March 1957 to reorganize the Hebrew courts in various regions of Morocco that address matters of personal status, inheritance, marriage, pluralism, divorce, and the inheritance system for Jews. The courts still operate under Jewish law.
The atmosphere of respect and coexistence among religions in Morocco has contributed to the emergence of a Jewish elite who have occupied important positions in Morocco’s economic, scientific, diplomatic, and cultural arenas. Dr. Leon Ben-Zaken, for example, was the personal doctor of King Mohammed V. He was appointed Minister of Telegraph and Communication after Morocco’s independence in 1956 where he remained until 1958. Serge Berdigo is one of Morocco’s contemporary high ranking Jews, having held the position of Minister of Tourism in 1993 in the government of Abdul Karim Amrani. Andre Azoulay, was the economic adviser of the late King Hassan II, and he continues his service to Morocco as a senior advisor to the current King Mohammed VI.
The Kingdom of Morocco has historically preserved and protected the religious freedom of Moroccan Jews and their places of worship. The government recently rehabilitated 167 Jewish sites, including a number of cemeteries and synagogues, to preserve the heritage of Moroccan Jews. In 2011, Simon Levy founded the Jewish Museum in Casablanca. The historic site remains a culturally important monument in Morocco connecting the Arab and Islamic world’s past with the present, and highlights Morocco’s legacy of religious tolerance and diversity.