Moroccan Jews In Israel: Discrimination In The New Homeland Analysis Eurasia Review – Eurasia Review

Posted By on August 31, 2021

Since their expulsion from Eretz Yisrael, Jewish people around the world have called out in their thoughts and prayers for a return to their Homeland in Israel. In 1948, with the founding of the State of Israel after one of the worst crimes against humanity in history, this dream was fulfilled. Millions of survivors of the Holocaust, and Zionists from around the world, made their way to live a life that their ancestors could have only imagined.

Along with the millions of Jews of European origin, the Ashkenazim, came the Sephardim, Jews of African, Latin American, or Spanish origin. Among these were hundreds of thousands of Jews from Morocco, a thriving Jewish community that had existed for thousands of years.(1) In Morocco, there had been two major immigrations of Jews, the first of which being in the first century C.E. This group of Jews mainly settled in the mountains with the Amazigh/Berber population, where many of their new neighbors converted from their native religion to Judaism.

The Moroccans began their migration to Israel in 1948 when the Israeli state was established, and 30,000 of the 260,000 Jews living in Morocco packed their bags to go to their designated homeland. This is not only because of their Jewish identity, but also largely has to do with the oppression that was beginning to close in. Anti-Semitic sentiment had begun to creep into Moroccos borders because the Moroccan Arabs were loyal to Palestinian Arabs. This anti-Semitic sentiment only grew as the years passed, and in 1959 swastikas were dubbed in major cities like Casablanca and Rabat. Four years earlier a Zionist underground organization was created to illegally smuggle Moroccan Jews out of the country, because in 1956 their efforts to emigrate were banned by the government. As the years passed more and more Jews moved from Morocco to Israel, and by the 90s, the Jewish population in Morocco was down to 6,000.(2)

This proved to be one of the biggest migrations of Jews to Israel. They fled there because of their Jewish identity, yet once there, that is not the only identity they held on to. The Eastern European Jews, or Ashkenazim, had established their dominant position in society by subordinating the North African and Eastern Jews, or Mizrahim. This was a divide between eastern and western Jews; a classic orientalist perspective. Since Moroccan Jews fell under the category of Mizrahim, they did not get as many social and economic benefits as the Ashkenazim. This must have felt strange to the Moroccan Jewish identity, which also connects to the Sephardic Jewish identity. At one point in history the Jews living in Morocco relied on their western heritage to gain a higher position in the Moroccan social ladder, and deliberately separated themselves from the existing Amazigh/Berber Jews. Now it was happening to them, and they werent sure how to handle it.

As a result, they didnt exactly isolate themselves as they were isolated in Morocco by the government and society, but rather they enhanced a sort of sense of community in order to strengthen themselves from within. It brought back to them the memories of success in Morocco and how prominent the roles they played in business and trade and society, and thus it allowed them to draw from their Sephardic roots and separate themselves from the orientalist label Eastern European Jews were sticking to their foreheads. So it is not just the Moroccan culture and identity that Moroccan Jews in Israel were clinging to, but also the Sephardic identity that made them so prosperous in Morocco upon their initial migration there from Spain in 1492 after the Reconquista.

In order to fully understand the community of the Moroccan Jews in Israel, two essential factors must be taken into account:

The First factor: one needs to recognize how Jews were living in Morocco before they migrated to Israel. They had a deep history of culture in Morocco that they heavily influenced, and despite generally favorable treatment from the government, they had always been the other in the social setting, whether it be through physical isolation in the mellahs,(3) political isolation through dhimmi status,(4) or social isolation through Arab discrimination. Despite these factors they blossomed as a culture and community, and when they left they took remnants of their culture with them.

The second factor: in need of recognition is the mental status of Jews already in Israel. This brings up the fear of Orientalism gripping Israeli subconscious, and the fear of anything that is not western. This found the Moroccan Jews at the lower end of the social ladder, and thus affected the way they interacted with society and the different cultural ties they drew from their low status. Actually, the reason for their attachment to Moroccan culture and identity is due not only to the fact that they are once again being isolated and thus their community became more dependent on their similar cultural roots, but also because they want to look back to their prosperous roles in Morocco as businessmen and traders and artisans and such in order to push their way up the social ladder.

The Jews had established a sizable population, and respect in the region, when the second Jewish immigrant population arrived to Morocco after their expulsion from Spain during the Inquisition in the late fifteenth century.(5) These Jews contributed to the groundwork that their predecessors had laid, and became prominent in business and government. Yet when tensions increased in the middle of the twentieth century, many Jews decided to leave Morocco, their home of so many centuries and generations.

Now, Moroccan Jews find themselves in a new kind of diaspora, far from their adopted Homeland with its unique culture and practices, even though some of them may be in Israel, their religious Homeland. Many major challenges faced outright Moroccan Israeli immigrants, highlighting social, economic, religious, and political issues. In Israel, Moroccans faced discrimination and spiritual conflicts.

The overlying issue in the case of Moroccan Israelis is a case of identity: where in Morocco, Moroccan Jews were defined by their Judaism, they are now distinguished in Israel by their ethnicity. This shift in self-definition, from religious distinctions to ethnic differentiation, has made Moroccan Israelis a minority within this new homeland, as the new narrative of Jews, since the foundation of Israel, is one dominated by Ashkenazi history, while Sephardic heritage is left by the wayside, not to say debased.

This narrative has shifted over the years, and old Moroccan practices are now on the rise in Israel, yet the damage done by Israeli racism, and the streamlining of Jewish history to the detriment of Moroccan Jews, seems to be enduring, although only time will tell if Moroccan heritage will be reborn fully.

Henriette Dahan-Kalev talks about her experience of a Jewish child from Morocco in a Camp in Israel and the discrimination she endured from the Asheknazi she had to deal with at an early age:(6)

You are so prettyyou dont look Moroccan. I grew up hearing this sentence from the time my parents brought me from Morocco in 1949 to the immigrant camp Shaar Aliyah and to the Maabara [transit camp] Pardes Chana. I heard it from the white uniformed nurse, who came to our tent in the immigrant camp to tell my mother how she should raise me, my sister, and my baby brother, who was born in that tent. This nurse spoke of raising children as if it was something Zionists invented. The tall silver-haired Yekke [German Jew] kindergarten teacher also used this sentence. This teacher then took my nameHenriettefrom me and gave me in its place the awful name Ahuva. She did this because Henriette is difficult to pronounceboth for me and the other children.

Upon immigration to the Israel, Moroccans faced discrimination, as they found themselves outside of the ideal narrative of European Zionism. Zionists found themselves torn, since their ideology, being essentially nationalist, in principle required complete equality among the descendants of various Jewish edot, or ethnic groups.(7) In order to make a legitimate claim to a state, Zionists had to maintain that Jewish nationalism applied to all Jews, who shared a common history and destiny.

This ideology, however, was written from the perspective of European Jews, whose diasporic history actually diverged greatly from their brethren in the East. Yet a state shares a common historical heritage, and thus such differences ought not be acknowledged, so as to not weaken the argument for the naturalness of a Jewish State. The claim must be based upon unity of the national group.(8) On the other hand, European Zionists were also influenced by colonialism, which stressed the differences among groups of people living in the same, non-European, area and posited an inflexible hierarchical order. (9) Therefore, the stage was set for interethnic conflict, with the Ashkenazi elite maintaining their dominance over the Sephardic immigrants, while outwardly denying any differentiation amongst Jews.

Unfortunately, the first wave of Moroccan immigration did nothing to alleviate this ideological conflict, since these immigrants were from the lowest classes of Morocco. Not only did these classes have the least to lose, and the most to gain, from a new country, but also the wealthy elite, from Morocco, were reluctant to leave behind their wealth due to risky political conditions.

At the time of Israels founding, Morocco was still under the rule of the French, who barred emigration and raised obstacles for Jews who tried to leave for any destination whatsoever, and therefore bourgeois families were more reluctant to leave than the poor Moroccan Jews, who undertook the illegal emigration, having no property or business to lose and more to gain from a new homeland. (10)

Therefore, Moroccans, and their Sephardim counterparts, were not only ethnically and culturally distinct from Ashkenazim, but also were economically inferior and had an overall lower level of education. As undesirable as Moroccans were to the Ashkenazi nationals, their immigration was not to be stopped, since it helped bolster the Jewish demographic lead over Arabs in the region, and such an action would contradict Zionisms united, nationalist ideology on the international stage. As such, the stage was set for discrimination, as these lower-class Jews disrupted the Ashkenazi Zionists dream and cultural eiquette, but there was no way to stop their immigration.

Faced with this concern, the early, Ashkenazi-only government had to attempt to change Sephardim, and bring them closer to Israeli culture, which was Ashkenazi culture established by the original Zionist settlers. According to a 1949 Haaretz article, written by Aryeh Gelblum, immigrants from North Africa pose a serious and threatening question, as they were a people whose primitiveness sets a record, their level of education borders on ignorance. (11)

Aryeh Gelblum stated in the same article that:(12)

In the corners of the living quarters of the Africans you will find the filth, card games played for money, residents getting drunk, and prostitution. The Africans bring this way of life with them when they migrate, and it is no wonder that crime in the country is on the upswing. Young women and even young men are again not safe going out on the streets alone after dark.

In order to ignore the nationalist problem that such an ethnicity perceived as inferior and culture posed to their nationalist ideology, Moroccans were pushed into the underbelly of society by Israeli bureaucratic systems, outside of the legislature, so as to not be officially discriminatory. Moroccans were directed by Israeli government officials to new villages and development towns then being established in outlying regions of Israeli territory, where their housing was poor, [and] they earned relatively low incomes from unskilled and semi-skilled work, which, again, reinforced the negative stereotypes already in place. (13)

Moroccan Jews, who had come to this Homeland in search of a better life, found overcrowded Sephardi ghettos, discrimination against non-Ashenazim at the employment lines, and a lack of secondary school education in many of their communities.(14) As such, Moroccans, who had been an oppressed minority in Morocco for their religion, now found themselves as an oppressed minority in Israel for their ethnicity.

The bureaucratic discrimination that the Ashkenazi elite set upon Moroccan immigrants was reinforced in daily culture and the educational system. In textbooks in early Israeli schools, Sephardim were described as dirty, poor, contagious with infectious diseases, spiritually impotent, lacking in moral capacity, ignorant, violent, and lazy .(15) Only Ashkenazi history was taught in schools, as the nationalist narrative of Zionism only left room for one Israeli culture, without the incorporation of the diverse traditions that Sephardim carried with them.

Moroccan students were left with an educational and cultural system that squashed everything and left no room for any self- development outside of that of a distorting Ashkenazi, Zionist, Israeli, and European hegemony.(16) In addition to the streamlined, biased narrative implicit in early Israeli educational systems, several academics took on the Moroccan problem.

Academic studies, such as those notably conducted by the Ashkenazi Karl Fuerstein in his book The Children of the MelahThe Cultural Retardation among Moroccan Children and Its Meaning in Education,(17) served to prove the inferiority of Moroccan Jews, which purportedly proved retardation of one to two years, and very often even more, in comparison with youth of similar age in Europe. (18)

Faced with oppression imbedded in the Israeli bureaucracy and educational system, many Moroccans dealt with internal identity conflicts, as they struggled to fit into an Israeli society that pushed them to the margins. Both the educational system and the academic studies of the inferiority of Sephardim highlight the Ashkenazi self-conscious need to establish superiority, as their history is the one worthy of history books, and their ethnicity is the one worthy of higher intelligence.

As Moroccans faced prejudice in their Israeli Homeland, many fired back in social and political protests, changing the path of Moroccan-Israeli history. In the early 1970s, a group of Moroccan Israeli youth came together to form the Black Panthers of Israel, a group inspired by the American Civil Rights Movement. (19) The Black Panthers claimed that Ashkenazi elite had committed a crime in their efforts to destroy the culture of an entire people, and thereby rendering [them] without culture and without faithsuspended in a cultureless vacuum. (20)

On this particular point, Ella Shohat (21) wrote:(22)

Prenant peu peu conscience du caractre politique de leur infriorit , les militants des Black Panthers torpillrent le mythe du melting pot en dmontrant que ltat juif abritait non pas un seul mais deux peuples.

[Gradually becoming aware of the political nature of their inferiority, Black Panther activists torpedoed the myth of the melting pot by demonstrating that the Jewish state was home to not one but two peoples.]

While the Panthers began in the slums of Jerusalem, they gained popularity amongst large groups of Sephardim, as they ripped open an ethnic conflict that had been obvious, but left unsaid throughout the States history. (23) Although they disbanded quickly, their outspoken protests spurred increased consciousness of the issues faced by Moroccan immigrants and other Sephardim.

Their social movements pressured the Israeli government to increase welfare funding and engendered a renewed sense of communal pride among Sephardim, whose activists still look to the Panthers for inspiration.(24) While there is still a clear socioeconomic division between Ashkenazim and Sephardim in Israel, Moroccans continue to make progress, touting a growing number of Israeli-Moroccan mayors and Knesset members . (25)

In 1977, Moroccan, and other Sephardi support helped to overthrow the Ashkenazi political elite, and push the Likud party into power. Although Moroccan status is certainly on the rise, their culture seems to be irreversibly damaged, and they continue to make up a significant portion of the lower class. The social and political repression also leaked into the Israeli spiritual sphere, as Moroccan Judaism was repressed, but, like Moroccan sociopolitical status, is seeing regrowth.

From a country where religious life was intertwined with all public spheres to a state that claimed Western culture and valued secularism, while repressing Eastern culture, many Moroccan Jews felt that they had to choose between their Judaism and their Moroccan heritage. In their new homeland, religious Moroccan Jews had to confront the split between secularism and religion even as they are torn from their cultures, and, most significantly find a place in an Israeli society which positioned itself as fundamentally opposed to any hint of the Arab world. (26)

Faced with such a choice between their regional history and their religious identity, many Sephardim chose to to embrace Ashkenazic Orthodoxy in an effort to keep their families from becoming too assimilated into secular cultures, and to keep their traditional practices alive, practices which many early Israelis did not follow.(27)

Henriette Dahan-Kalev,(28) a Moroccan Jew who immigrated to Israel as a child, exemplifies this point. Upon her familys arrival in Israel, her mother became a maid. (29) After her first day of work on an elite Israeli home, Dahan-Kalevs mother was appalled by the complete disregard for Kashrut amongst the bourgeois. When she arrived home, she proclaimed to her family, Theyre not Jewish! since they do not uphold on of the most sacred of Jewish laws. (30)

Moroccans traditionalism and culture were both foreign, and deemed inferior, to that of the secular Ashkenazi Zionists. Faced with a struggle to preserve their Moroccan Judaism as they had once known it, many Moroccans fell into step with the Ashkenazi Orthodox community, especially in response to aggressive outreach from Ashkenazi Orthodox communities toward the Sephardi immigrants. Regardless of these challenges, Sephardim were often unable to continue their own practices in Sephardic synagogues anyway, since they failed to find a critical mass of people able to support such an establishment.(31) European Israelis chose to marginalize Moroccans along the lines of ethnicity, so Moroccans countered by holding on to their religiosity, in absence of their rich, ancient culture.

Social discrimination forced Moroccan Jewish religious practice to the fringe, but, like their political and economic status, Moroccans have attempted to recover and bolster their unique religion. Although many rituals were lost upon their conversion to the European Orthodox community, some Moroccan Jews have continued to hold onto their traditions. In recent years, have spawned innovations to bring practices from their Homeland of old to their current Homeland. After their emigration, Moroccans were ripped away from their multitude of sacred spaces.

Their change in physical space led to a painful separation from the saints whose tombs had been left behind, as sainthood, and worship at tombs of such important personages, was a pivotal aspect of the distinct Moroccan Jewish practice.(32) Following the Jews departure from Morocco, hagiolatry underwent a process of diminution and decentralization without these central spaces of worship. To pray with the aid of a saint, a Moroccan Jew ought to pay homage to the burial site. While such practices did not completely disappear, their practice was reduced into small-size, domestic affairs, moderately celebrated at home or in the neighborhood synagogue.(33)

The faithful attempted to adapt and adjust their hagiolatry practices, but, in the absence of the actual space, such rituals were less observed.(34) Although they had faced a sharp decline, the incorporation of saints into Moroccan practice has been on the rise. Moroccan Jews have incorporated more saints into the fold, including some who lived and died in Israel, paving the way for new shrines and holy sites. Furthermore, some significant saintly tombs have been annexed into Israel, either via physical movement of the tomb, or via a recreation of the site.(35)

As such, hagiolatry practices have been preserved despite the new physical distance from the crucial point of worship.(36) This rebirth of Moroccan Jewish practice has received opposing remarks, as some have hailed it as a praiseworthy manifestation of authentic Jewish Maghrebi cultural traditions, heretofore shunned and suppressed by the hegemonic Ashkenazi mainstream, while others have declared the revival as a symptom of backwardness and de-modernization which would eventfully lead to the disasporization of Israel.(37) Although Moroccans gain a sense of identity in strength in political, economic, and religious spheres, there is still much forward movement to be made, to make up for the damage of the early States prejudice.

The plight of Moroccan Jews at the outset of their time in Israel is reflective of the frequent contradictions and issues within a political philosophy and the policies to which a state commits on paper and in its speech. The very existence of Moroccan Jews undermined a large part of Zionist ideology. This theory was based on the common history and suffering of Jews throughout the world. Yet the definition of a Jew could not be religious, since many European Jews were fully assimilated into their host cultures, and, thusly, were fairly secular.

The founding principles of Zionism were based in history and politics, and were not always religious in creed. Therefore, the commonality by which Jews could lay claim to a state was their shared ethnicity. Under this guise, secular Jews, who were endangered along with the religious, could fit into the Israeli narrative. Yet if Jews are to be an ethnicity, then Moroccans, and their fellow Sephardi, pose a significant problem, as they are very obviously racially and ethnically distinct. Zionism had to ignore this distinction. To erase the tension bore by such contradictions between the stated Zionist ideology and the actual demographics of worldwide Jewry, Israelis had to absorb the Sephardi into their cultural and religious circle.

The path by which Ashkenazi elite chose to address this problem was with bureaucratic and social prejudice, influenced by the European Colonialism, a prominent ideology in the regions from which they fled. Yet Middle Eastern and North African Jews posed an even grander problem to the founders of Israel, as they hoped to posit themselves with an identity unique and distinct from their Arab neighbors. The fact that there are Jews of Arab descent is impossible, since the concept of an Arab Jew is a paradox. Therefore, Moroccans and other Jews from Arab nations posed a threat to Israeli common identity, as defined against their regional aggressors. Moroccans had to be forced to abandon their foreign, and especially their Arab, distinguishers, religion, and ties, and assimilate into European Jewish culture, in order prove the legitimacy of the Zionist call to the shared identity of Jews throughout the world.

In conclusion, Moroccan Jews are so attached to their culture while living in Israel not only because they are somewhat singled out by the dominant Ashkenazim living there, but also because they are relying on their Sephardic identity to hike their way back up the social ladder. This shows that they arent withdrawing into their culture, but are rather proudly practicing their culture because they know how successful they were, and they are proud of it. Thus, Moroccan Jewish culture in Israel will continue to flourish in light of the internal separation that has and is still occurring within Israeli society.

You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on twitter: @Ayurinu


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Moroccan Jews In Israel: Discrimination In The New Homeland Analysis Eurasia Review - Eurasia Review

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