A saga of alternating tolerance and terror over thousands of years of Moroccan Jewish history makes for a complicated academic conference.
“There are these competing narratives now,” said Jason Guberman, executive director of the American Sephardi Federation. “There’s the narrative of wonderful coexistence, that everything was great, and there’s the narrative that everything was horrible.”
Knocking down the notion that history is one-dimensional, 40 academics and artists from around the world presented their work on Moroccan Jewry at the “Uncommon Commonalities: Jews and Muslims of Morocco” conference, held over June 17-19 at the Center for Jewish History. The conference was organized by a partnership between the American Sephardi Federation and the Association Mimouna, an organization of Moroccan students working to preserve Jewish history.
“What we push for — the Association Mimouna and the ASF — is to reject the myths,” Guberman said. “Reject narratives. And focus on the complexity of the history.”
The conference also had an undertone of rejecting common American, mostly Ashkenazi-centered Jewish narratives. Drora Arussy, the director of ASF’s Institute of Jewish Experience, recalled in opening remarks on Tuesday, June 18, the time it took for her to bring the Sephardi Jewish community into her work as an educator.
“It slowly dawned on me, as I was growing up and as I was getting my bachelors and my masters,” she said.
“We’re teaching about the Rif, and the Ran [the first compilers of Jewish law], and where are these people from? These are different communities. These are not the communities that I learned about growing up in a Jewish day school in Chicago and Cleveland.”
Though the conference started and ended with musical performances, all of Tuesday was devoted to the academics and artists presenting their work.
Multiple presenters were in each session, and sessions were held concurrently. This forced curious attendees to choose between such topics as “Jewish Relationships with Islam, 12th-17th Century” and “Muslims and the Jews who Left.”
“Jewish Relationships” included presentations on forced conversion to Islam in Morocco, an analysis of Maimonides’ writings on forced conversion (which the famed scholar had been subject to in Morocco), and a deep dive into the history of a shared Islamic-Jewish song, “Al-Fiyashiyya.”
“I really like studying old texts that have religious significance,” said Emma Walker, 23, one of the youngest conference attendees on Tuesday. “And it’s cool to get context for a lot of things we saw while we were there.”
Walker was at the conference with a friend, Sofia Hecht. In college they’d studied abroad in Morocco, and the conference gave a new dimension to their experience.
“We saw a lot of [Moroccan Jewish history], but while we were there we didn’t study it academically,” said Hecht, 24, “and we’re trained to study things academically, so it’s interesting to be here and see it in that regard.”
In the afternoon, the mood became more intense during a packed session entitled “The Holocaust and Its Reverberations in Morocco.”
Professors Daniel Schroeter, from the University of Minnesota, and Aomar Boum, from UCLA, discussed King Mohammed V’s actions during World War II, based on their soon-to-be-published book on the subject.
Mohammed V is often attributed with protecting Moroccan Jews from Vichy France’s Holocaust agenda. But not much is known about the Holocaust in North Africa, and many details are disputed — including the extent of Mohammed V’s protection. Schroeter and Boum argued, based on documents from American, French, Moroccan and German archives, that the King did indeed protect Jews. But according to the researchers, his rationale was not that he was protecting Jews from the Holocaust, but rather that he was protecting Morocco from French colonial demands. Only after the war did the story change to the King explicitly protecting Jews from the Holocaust.
Which raises the question: Were Jews in North Africa survivors of the Holocaust, or just colonialism? Schroeter and Boum weren’t sure. The next speaker was.
Professor Yitzchak Kerem, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, presented work based on tens of thousands of interviews with Moroccan Jews in Israel, who are suing Israel to be considered Holocaust survivors and receive reparations.
Kerem’s version of the Holocaust in Morocco was bleaker than Schroeter and Boum’s. He shared the testimony of Moroccan Jews about labor camps in Morocco and Algeria that were specifically for Jews. (Boum disputed this, insisting documents show there were only camps for political prisoners, of which some happened to be Jews.)
The debate after Kerem’s presentation was terse. After all, Muslims had also been in North African labor camps.
“Can we regard people who are in camps as victims of the Holocaust?” Schroeter said to Kerem. “Was this the result of German influence, or was it part of a larger colonial regime, which included thousands and thousands of Muslims as victims of colonialism. How do you disentangle these things from the larger context of history?”
“You’re right: You have to look at colonialism, that’s the base,” replied Kerem.
And yet, Kerem added, “This is part of the Holocaust historical narrative. Vichy is an accomplice of Nazi crimes … to say that this is not the Holocaust and only a continuation of colonial activity is a historical misnomer.”
Guberman, executive director of the American Sephardi Federation, said these kinds of debates are exactly why the Uncommon Commonalities conference is important to have.
“If people are not given an opportunity to address these issues, then they’re just going to simmer and cause conflict in the future, or contribute to misunderstandings,” he said. “Maybe they didn’t resolve the issue there but it was a constructive debate.”
The session was made more unique with the attendance of Morocco’s ambassador to the U.N., Omar Hilale.
“For me, it’s not something new, it’s something that I knew already,” Hilale said afterwards, commenting on Jewish-Moroccan history and the conference.
“Because it’s our history. The part of Jewish Morocco is part of any Moroccan citizen’s history. So I’m very glad that this kind of history is known now, explained to others to know that in Morocco [there are] not Muslims, Christians and Jews, there [are] only citizens.”
He referenced King Mohammed V, and added: “We cannot build a better future for [the] next generation if we don’t know what happened in the past, and if we don’t build on [the] basis of values, respect, tolerance, coexistence.”
Arussy, the director of ASF’s Institute of Jewish Experience, says that now the work begins to distill the conference presentations into online courses and educational material for schools. Some academics and artists will also appear in the ASF’s newsletters, the Sephardi World Weekly and Sephardi Ideas Monthly.
It was “really beautiful to see all the different groups sharing experiences, having the academic debates,” Arussy said, recalling the end of the conference on Wednesday evening.
“A few people at dinner came over and said, ‘I really need to be involved in this institute. How are we going to move forward?’ That’s the point, to move forward,” she said.