Casablanca native says Jewish community thriving in Arab nation

Picture a modern city with 28 synagogues, 18 kosher butcher shops, Jewish day schools and a bustling Jewish community of 4,000. Now imagine that city lies in the heart of a Muslim Arab nation.

Raphael David Elmaleh says his hometown of Casablanca, Morocco, bucks the anti-Semitic trend when it comes to Jews in Arab lands.

Emaleh was in the Bay Area recently, speaking before Jewish audiences to share his knowledge – and love – of Morocco’s 2,500-year-old Jewish community. He is the only person in Morocco who gives guided tours of its Jewish community.

“We are only 1 percent of the population,” he says in a lilting French-Arabic accent, “but we’re still proud to be Jews and go to synagogue on Shabbat. Everybody knows us. Morocco is the only Arab country where the governor comes to read a letter to wish us a happy High Holy Days.”

Jews first came to Morocco after the fall of the First Temple 25 centuries ago. More came after the destruction of the Second Temple and, in Elmaleh’s family’s case, after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in the 15th century. Today, according to Elmaleh, the Moroccan Jewish community numbers 5,000, though some estimates run as high as 17,000.

Because of its distance from the heart of Islam and its relatively tolerant Berber heritage, Morocco never developed the same degree of antipathy toward Jews as other Arab countries.

Not that it was a paradise. There has been anti-Jewish sentiment, with Jews treated as dimmi (a Muslim concept of inferior peoples). Elmaleh remembers as a child being taunted for wearing his kippah. He eventually left his homeland, living in England for 17 years (where he says he experienced far worse anti-Semitism).

In 1995, his ailing mother begged him to come home. Elmaleh reluctantly returned to Morocco, initially just for a visit. But after landing a job as a social worker for the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, he decided to stay permanently. His work led him to remote villages all over the country.

“I started to do my own research on the Jewish heritage of Morocco, a history lost for 2,500 years. It made me fall in love.”

He recalls arriving in a Moroccan village to inspect an abandoned synagogue. Handing over the keys, an aged Muslim caretaker said, “What took you so long?” When asked how he would feel if more Moroccan Jews returned home, the old man said, “I would welcome them.”

With support from the JDC and the Moroccan government, Elmaleh expanded his scope. He restored several Jewish sites and opened a Jewish museum in Casablanca. Today, a steady stream of Jewish tourists visits Morocco, including many Israelis.

“I have authorization to go everywhere I want for the Jewish museum,” he says. “We have thousands of Muslim kids coming from all over, schools and universities. The new King Muhammad VI sends people.”

A previous king, Muhammad V, refused to enforce anti-Jewish laws decreed by the fascist Vichy government that ruled Morocco during World War II. Morocco was home to more than a quarter-million Jews, but after the birth of Israel, most left the country.

These days, Elmaleh guides visitors all over Morocco to explore its Jewish past and present. He also travels to Europe and North America, boosting his country’s image and urging Jews to visit.

And for those who doubt an Arab nation could harbor such friendly feelings toward Jews, Elmaleh returns to the tale of his encounter with the Muslim caretaker guarding the abandoned synagogue.

Upon meeting him, Elmaleh asked the old man why he did this job. The man replied that he been given a blessing.

Recalls Elmaleh, “This man who gave me the key, he still remembered the Jewish words: Sh?ma Yisrael.”

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