The Washington Diplomat / March 2003
By Larry Luxner
Arab-Jewish relations may be at their lowest point in years, but only warmth, friendship and traditional Arab hospitality were evident during a recent gathering of Jews at the home of Aziz Mekouar, Morocco's ambassador to the United States.
The Feb. 12 event — complete with kosher appetizers and Moroccan mint tea — was organized by the D.C. Jewish Community Center. It attracted 40 or so young Jewish professionals eager to hear the eloquent Arab diplomat speak about all aspects of Morocco: its history, politics, economy and culture, and its complex relationship with Israel.
"We have the biggest Jewish community in the Arab world," Mekouar told his audience. "Today there are between 7,000 and 10,000 Jews left in Morocco — mostly in Casablanca, but also in Marrakesh, Tangiers and Rabat."
Stacy Immerman, the DCJCC's director of adult programs and public affairs, said she's organized similar events with many embassies, including those of Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Costa Rica, Israel, Paraguay and Turkey. More are scheduled for April and May.
"Some officials are more well-versed than others," she said, "but I always try hard to pick countries that have some kind of Jewish reference, so that we can look into the Jewish culture as well as a the native culture of that nation."
In Morocco's case, that Jewish history goes back over 2,000 years.
That's when, according to Mekouar, the first great wave of immigration took place, following the Roman destruction of the Great Temple in Jerusalem. A second wave of immigration took place following the Inquisition, when Jews refusing to convert to Catholicism fled Spain and Portugal, finding safe haven among the relatively tolerant Muslims of Morocco.
By 1956, the year of Morocco's independence, the North African country had around 400,000 Jews, many of them middle and upper-class merchants and professionals. But political uncertainties and the attraction of living in a Jewish state eventually lured most of Morocco's Jews to Israel. Today, Israel has an estimated 700,000 Jews of Moroccan descent — making them one of the country's largest ethnic minorities.
Charles Dahan, a close friend of the ambassador and president of the World Sephardic Association of Moroccan Jews, said that unlike the case in Algeria, Iraq or Egypt, the Jews of Morocco never suffered discrimination or violence.
"After independence, there were uncertainties about what would happen, and that uncertainty scared a lot of people," Dahan said. "With the active recruitment of people to populate Israel, it was very tempting to leave. But there was never any anti-Semitic uprisings. King Hassan II was known all over the world for his great relationship with the Jewish people."
Despite the fact that Morocco (population: 32 million) and Israel (population: 6.3 million) do not have diplomatic relations, Israeli Jews of Moroccan descent are free to return to their homeland as tourists and are often welcomed there as long-lost brothers and sisters.
"We are not directly touched by the Arab-Israeli conflict. We are far away from the center," said Mekouar, who speaks fluent English, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian in addition to his native Arabic and French.
"There is of course a distinction between Jews and Israel," he said. "But the Jews are considered completely Moroccan, and are very much encouraged to visit Morocco. In fact, one of the king's advisors [André Azoulay] is Jewish, and we have Jewish ministers in the government. The basis of this national identity is special allegiance to the king. This is why whenever the king travels, one of the first things he does is visit the Jewish community."
Mekouar added that Morocco played a vital behind-the-scenes role in bringing Israel and Egypt together at Camp David in 1979. Later, in 1994, it hosted the first Middle East and North Africa economic conference in Casablanca, in which Israel participated.
"At that time, everyone was full of hope, everything looked just great, everyone wanted to do business with Israel," said the ambassador. "Unfortunately, things have changed, but Morocco tried its best to work for peace."
Mekouar, who's been in Washington for only seven months (previous postings have included Italy, Portugal and Angola), said he's currently organizing an exhibit that will celebrate Moroccan Jewish culture. The exhibit will feature Moroccan artifacts, jewelry, books, literature, clothing and photography, as well as traditional food and music.
"We hope to do it sometime this year, and the Moroccan Embassy will sponsor it," he said. "This exhibition was held in Brussels and at the Jewish Museum in New York, so I have the idea to bring it here too."
In that effort, he will be able to count on Washington's small but active Moroccan Jewish community, which numbers around 150 families.
"I've been away for 30 years, yet I feel as much Moroccan as American," said Dahan. "My kids were born here, and they're very proud of their Moroccan heritage too."