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In a Region of Hate, Morocco Is the Land of Harmony

October 25, 1995|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CASABLANCA, Morocco — In the stately old Union Club, amid chandeliers and dark paneled walls, Gabriel Harrar, a 33-year-old dentist, was explaining what had brought him back home to Morocco after 13 years in France.

"It was a business opportunity," Harrar was saying. "I never intended to stay more than six months. So now six months have become six years, and I can't imagine ever leaving. I have a wife and baby now and my life is here. I feel completely secure."

His three friends nodded, knowing there was nothing unusual about an Arab coming home from Europe or the United States under those circumstances.

But what makes Harrar's return journey interesting is that he is a Jew, and the Union Club where he had met his friends for evening tea is an exclusively Jewish club.

At the royal palace in Rabat, Andre Azoulay, who gave up a 30-year career as a senior bank executive in Paris to return home in 1991, seldom puts in fewer than 12 hours a day as the country's key economic and political planner--an ironic reversal of roles for a man who, as a young leftist newspaper editor here in the '60s, was arrested several times as a troublemaker.

When his phone rings these days, as likely as not King Hassan II is at the other end.

"I feel very comfortable in my position, comfortable knowing I'm trying to do the best I can for Morocco," Azoulay says.

Nothing unusual about that either, except that Azoulay is the king's closest adviser and he, too, is a Jew--the only senior Jewish adviser to any head of state in the Arab world.

David Dadoon has come home too, though in a different way. He left Morocco in 1966 for a new life in a new homeland and now is back, with the rank of ambassador, as the head of the recently opened Israeli Liaison Office in Rabat.

And Marc Ginsberg, the U.S. ambassador to Morocco, spent his teen-age years in the 1960s in Israel.

*

The four men are, each in his own way, symbolic of a Moroccan social experiment that stands in extraordinary contrast to the general intolerance that has blighted the Middle East landscape: Here, where Judaic history dates back 2,000 years, predating the birth of Islam, the relationship between Jew and Arab is marked by harmony, mutual respect and an integration at all levels of society, from government to business.

"If you look at it historically, it's better to have been a Jew in Morocco than in Europe," says Serge Berdugo, a contractor and former minister of tourism. "First of all, we were protected in World War II. The king saved us from the Holocaust. And two, in Morocco today, and I hope forever more, we lead full and free lives, with all the traditions and values of being a Jew."

Although the Moroccan Jewish community is a shadow of its former self after shrinking from 350,000 in 1950 to about 10,000 today, it is the largest and most secure Jewish community remaining in the Arab world, and it retains all the institutions of Jewish life, including synagogues, a home for the elderly, schools, clubs, kosher restaurants and a Hebrew-speaking culture.

When combined with the nearly 1 million Moroccan Jews scattered throughout the world, including 650,000 in Israel, the Jewish community here gives Hassan influence far beyond his own borders. For nearly 20 years, he has played a key off-stage role in the Middle East peace process, arranging the secret meetings between Egyptians and Israelis that led to President Anwar Sadat's dramatic visit to Jerusalem in 1977 and continuing to host meetings that bring Israelis and Arabs together at senior levels.

"What we hope," says George Berdugo, a lawyer who sees no contradiction in being an Arab nationalist with strong spiritual ties to Israel, "is that others in the region will understand that although the situation in Morocco is unique, it can also be normal. Jews and Arabs can live together."

The changing climate in the Middle East is eroding, if ever so slowly, old psychological and physical barriers.

With the opening nine months ago of the Israeli Liaison Office--an embassy in all but name--trade between Morocco and Israel, once conducted covertly through third countries, is up 50%. Last year, Israel bought Morocco's entire crop of tomato seeds.

Tourism is booming, and nearly 30,000 Israelis of Moroccan descent are expected to visit this year. Weekly charter flights, still routed for political reasons through Spain, are booked solid until January. Hotels in Casablanca are full of Hebrew-speaking guests, a onetime oddity that no longer even turns a head or raises an eyebrow.

"For me, what is happening is marvelous," says Azoulay, the king's adviser. "We are just starting the process of coming out of a century of hatred and death and violence of Jews and Muslims.

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