Casablanca, Morocco: At Narcisse Leven, the Jewish elementary school in Casablanca, about a quarter of the 200 students are Muslim.
Every student there studies Arabic, and the Muslim students, along with the Jews, study Hebrew, though Muslims don’t participate in Jewish religious studies.
And at the city’s Jewish high school, Maimonides, half the 298 students are Muslim. The schools’ demographics reflect two realities in Moroccan life: a Muslim population that, in an age of Islamic fundamentalism and Arab anti-Semitism worldwide, is uniquely moderate: and a vanishing Jewish population.
Take Arielle Ohnona, a 17-year-old senior at Maimonides. On the Sunday before Rosh HaShanah she joined her friends in the Jewish scouts at the city’s Jewish youth center to welcome a visitor from New York.
Standing in two rows, with Israel’s and Morocco’s flags at the end of the column they formed, about 20 Jewish children wearing scout uniform shirts tucked into their jeans sang "Shalom Alecheim" in welcome.
Ohnona is one of the scout troop’s leaders. Now in her last year of high school, she plans to go to college in the U.S. or France, and one day hopes to work in medicine or be a lawyer, she said at the youth center.
She doesn’t think she’ll return to Morocco to live."I’ll stay [outside of Morocco] because there is no future here for jobs," she said. "My older sister is in Paris and my older brother is in Israel. My mother is afraid and crying because I want to leave, but that is the rule of life here."
She will be part of an exodus that has moved some 98 percent of Morocco’s Jews outside of their home country, mostly to France, Canada, the U.S. and Israel. Today generous estimates of Morocco’s Jewish population put it at 5,000 people out of a total of nearly 33 million. At the time of Morocco’s independence in 1956, there were an estimated 275,000 Jews there.
The Jews who remain are eager to show visitors that they are citizens of a uniquely moderate Muslim country that values its Jewish population.
Monique elGrichi was born and raised in Casablanca, where she still lives with her 15-year-old son. Her 20-year-old daughter lives in Paris, where she is a law student.
"We are few Jews here now," said elGrichi, who is a leader of Morocco’s developing advertising industry. "We feel completely Moroccan and are considered completely Moroccan," she said.
In fact, her daughter’s first encounter with anti-Semitism was in Paris. "She is completely astonished" by the anti-Jewish sentiment there, said elGrichi. "She was told she must not wear her Magen David" necklace when she is in public in Paris. That kind of fear is foreign to Moroccan Jews, she said. "I’m more afraid of the Muslims in France than the Muslims here," she said.
The integration of all things Jewish into Moroccan life was emphasized by Morocco’s minister of cultural affairs, Mohammed Achaari, in an interview in his office in Rabat. "We believe the Jewish population is an essential element of Moroccan culture," he said, sipping sweet mint tea out of a tiny glass, while being interviewed in his office, which is lavishly appointed with contemporary Moroccan art.
Though the Moroccan Jewish community today is small in size, its influence is felt on Moroccan society in many ways, he said.
"There are certain aspects of Jewish cultural memory which are not part of our past, but are in the present," he said, citing the popularity of Jewish singers at Muslim Moroccan weddings, and the fact that most Moroccan jewelers are Jewish. "Today we have Jewish artists and writers here. A number of our politician and human rights advocates are Jewish," he said.
His ministry funds restoration projects of synagogues, Jewish cemeteries and the mellahs, or Jewish ghettoes, now emptied of the living in Fez, Tetouan and other Moroccan cities that once boasted thriving Jewish communities.
"One of the things I really want to point out is that Jewish holy places here have never been desecrated, even during difficult times," Achaari said.
Why is Morocco unique among Arab countries in this regard? "This is a different country. We have the Atlantic on one side, the Mediterranean on another and the desert on another. It is a country always open to people in transit, and has a spirit of openness and hospitality," Achaari said. "We have had Africans, Arabs, Jews, Phoenicians, Romans. Everyone has passed through Morocco."
"The Jewish community here has remained profoundly Moroccan," said Achaari. While Morocco has a remarkably warm and welcoming culture, fundamentalist Islam is a rising threat there as it is seemingly everywhere today. Since al Qaeda-linked terrorists conducted simultaneous suicide bombings around Casablanca in 2003, the government has taken a harder stance against suspected sympathizers. Just a week before my visit to Morocco, in fact, several were arrested.
The fundamentalist Saudi influence on Islam worldwide is resented by Moroccans, several said, because Morocco is struggling to preserve its moderate Muslim identity in an increasingly polarized world.
Ahmed Kostas, the regional director for Islamic affairs in Rabat, the country’s capital, said that Islam in Morocco is "a sifted Islam, sifted from all the fanaticism that goes on" elsewhere.
However, he said, Moroccans distinguish between Jews (who are accepted) and Zionists, even if most Jews don’t make any distinction between the two labels themselves.
Still, an eye-opening interview with the regional head of religious affairs in Fez, Ammor Abdel Hay, made it clear that not all Moroccan Muslims embrace (or even understand) Jews and Judaism.
A small group of journalists was in Abdel Hay’s office to meet with four women who are working in a new job in Morocco. They have studied alongside men preparing to be imams, and are employed by the government to work as teachers and counselors to women in and around mosques. The program, which produces scholarly women who are called mourichidates, is part of the government’s effort to introduce moderate elements into religious culture, and to enhance the status of women.
These women function in roles similar to those of the madrichot ruchanit who work as religious educators and guides in a few Modern Orthodox Jewish congregations here in the States, like the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. Before the interview with the mourichidates could get underway, however, the meeting was nearly derailed when Abdel Hay (whose is in an influential position in the Fez region) said that the Torah states that Eve is the source of all evil in the world because she gave Adam the forbidden apple. He also stated that the Torah prohibits alcohol and that the Torah has been altered. When told that his statements were incorrect, he reiterated his view.
Even if perspectives like Abdel Hay’s are more the exception than the rule, leaders of the country’s Jewish community acknowledge its inexorable decline.
"It is over here. It’s finished. The children all leave and don’t come back," said Rafael Ribido, a father of three and a manufacturer of plywood and wood veneers who lives in Casablanca, at a dinner party at the elegant villa of Serge Berdugo, who is the secretary-general of the Moroccan Jewish community, an advisor to King Mohammed VI and a former tourism minister.
Another Jew, Andre Azoulay, is currently an economic adviser to the king.
But most Moroccan Jews see few prospects for themselves here. And the shrinking Jewish population makes for some unique situations here, a country that is proud of its Jewish history even as it loses its Jews.
Such as the half-Muslim Jewish schools.Last year, said principal Shimon Cohen, Maimonides had 320 students. For the past two or three years half the student body has been Muslim, he said. And though many Muslim families want to send their children there, the community has capped the percentage of non-Jews in the school at half. Narcisse Leven’s principal, Sylvie Ohnona, has been in the position for six years. She is a doctor, "but it’s difficult for a woman in Morocco to be a doctor," she says, so she returned to her alma mater, which when she was a student there had 500 students. "Every year we have fewer students," she said. Since 2003, when al Qaeda-linked terrorists simultaneously bombed several sites in Casablanca, including the Jewish community center, killing 41 people and injuring over 100, the school has had security guards patrolling outside its gates. Guards are also in evidence outside the Maimonides high school. Sabrina Elbaz and Ghita Laraki are seniors at Maimonides and best friends. Elbaz is Jewish. Laraki is Muslim. She attends Maimonides "because they have good-level studies here," said Laraki.The best friends do the things that teenage girls everywhere like to do. "We do homework together, we go shopping," said Elbaz. But there is a line that this pair, like most Jews and Muslims in Morocco, doesn’t cross. "We don’t talk about politics," Laraki said.
A visitor wondered whether Muslim and Jewish students ever date, or even marry. Intermarriage in Morocco is rare, said several people. "The Arabs don’t want Jews [as marriage partners] and the Jews don’t want Arabs," said Cohen. It does occasionally happen, though, evidenced by a controversial Moroccan film last year, "Marock," which was written and directed by a Moroccan Muslim woman who is married to a Jew, and has a plot revolving around a similar couple.
But even if marriages don’t often happen across religious lines in Morocco, cultures have a way of permeating each other nonetheless.
Narjisse Dubois is a charming 16-year-old Muslim high school student in Casablanca, where she lives in a villa with her mother, a clothing designer whose fashions blending traditional Moroccan and contemporary Western styles are popular in Europe.
One day a friend from the Maimonides school, which is across the street from Dubois’ own French high school, invited her to a family wedding. Dubois fell in love that night: not with a Jewish boy, but with the song "Hava Nagilah." She bought herself a compact disc of Jewish music on the Internet and today listens to it every morning on her way to school. One evening in September in the week before Ramadan began, Dubois and her friends modeled her mother’s clothes for a group of friends and visiting journalists who had gathered at her home, just past Casablanca’s chic beach area, for a pre-holiday party.
A henna tattoo artist painted intricate designs on guests’ arms in the living room while a live band played traditional Moroccan music in the dining room, where a lavish dinner was served and wine and champagne were poured.
"Ma pitom? (What’s happening?) Ma nishma? (How are you?). Tov (good)," Dubois said, giggling a little as she showed off some of the Hebrew words that she has picked up from her Jewish friends.