CASABLANCA — Jews in Morocco stand in front of 2,000 years of history, and some more recent events.
Seventy years ago, some 300,000 Jews lived in the country, which was then the largest Jewish minority in the Arab world. Today only about 5,000 Jews live here – the others have migrated for a variety of reasons, to different countries around the world.
But right now, in the midst of the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah, there are an estimated tens of thousands of Jews in the country on a pilgrimage to the Muslim country. They are making the trip despite warnings from Israel and other countries about the possibility of extremist attacks.
For many, it's a chance to visit the land of their forbearers, to celebrate the Jewish Festival of Lights, which continues until December 24. According to Moroccan figures, up to 140,000 Jewish tourists from the United States, Canada, Israel and other countries come to the north African kingdom each year to visit ancient synagogoes and the many graves of notable Jewish historical figures, and sometimes their own ancestors, from Morocco.
“They want to know everything about the history of Jews in Morocco,” says tourist guide M’Barek in the popular port town of Essaouira on the Atlantic coast, which used to have a large Jewish community. “Sometimes they come with their grandparents who were born here.”
M’Barek says that the number of tourists from Israel is continually increasing and that a number of travel companies have become specialized in Jewish history. It is mainly the major holidays that draw Jewish tourists to Morocco, a country where the king, Mohammed VI, is proud of being a direct descendant of the prophet Mohammed.
Hanukkah (which means "to dedicate" in Hebrew) commemorates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem in 165 BCE. Jewish fighters had freed their country from its Greek-Syrian foreign rule and wanted to reestablish the temple by lighting the menorah which according to the precepts of their faith should never be extinguished. Legend has it that they only had a small amount of holy oil that nevertheless burned a full eight days in the menorah until they were able to get more oil. This is commemorated today during Hanukkah by the lighting on consecutive days of one of the Hannukah chandelier’s eight candles.
Meanwhile some Moroccan artisans have started specializing in making Hannukah chandeliers, selling them to tourists in the bazaars of the country's major cities. Restaurants have also taken note of the growing number of Jewish customers. In Casablanca alone, where most Moroccan Jews live, more 40 restaurants offer Jewish-Moroccan fare.
Casablanca boasts the only Jewish museum in the Arab world. It was funded by the now deceased Simon Levy, a communist, university professor and one of the best-known representatives of Jews in Morocco.
The traditional Jewish neighborhoods, called ullahs, are now mostly home to Muslims. There are hardly any young Jews in Morocco, after decades when many Jews migrated due to the founding of Israel, and the Arab-Israeli wars and their consequences. Those who stayed were mainly the poor with few resources.
In Marrakesh, there are an estimated 170 Moroccan Jews, many of who are over 70 years of age. The president of the Jewish community in Marrakesh and Essaouira, Jacky Kadoch, says: "Moroccan Jews are proud of their Moroccan roots, wherever they may live now."