food / travel

A Hanukkah Trip Home For Morocco's Jewish Diaspora

The Lazama Jewish Synagogue in Marrakesh
The Lazama Jewish Synagogue in Marrakesh
Abdel Mohsin el-Hassouni

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."

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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