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Moroccan Jews See Attrition as the Enemy

The community has coexisted with Muslims, but its youth seek opportunities abroad.

May 20, 2003|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

CASABLANCA, Morocco — Michel Meyer Edery, a Jew who has lived his entire life here, received two sets of phone calls in the hours after suicide bombers launched deadly attacks across his city and at the Jewish community center he frequents.

His brothers in Israel and France called to tell him it was high time to leave Morocco.

And Edery's many Moroccan friends -- Muslims -- called to make sure he was safe and to tell him how appalled they were at what happened.

"I gave him a big kiss when I saw him again and saw that he was OK," said Mohammed Ouhane, a Muslim who has been Edery's friend since the two middle-aged men were teens. The pair surveyed the damage at the community center, where blood dappled the interior walls and broken glass and masonry covered the floors.

Morocco, an ancient kingdom on the northern African coast, has long prided itself as a tolerant, multicultural society where Muslims and Jews have coexisted with an ease unequaled in the Arab world.

Jews first arrived here with Phoenician traders two millenniums ago, and the community thrived through thick and thin for centuries. While the population has dwindled in the last 50 years, it remains a uniquely vital Jewish presence among Muslims.

But today, Moroccan Jews are faced with new questions about their survival, haunted by a sudden sense of vulnerability. The targets in Friday's bombings, in this country unaccustomed to political violence, included a Jewish cemetery, a hotel where Israeli tourists were staying and a Jewish-owned restaurant, in addition to the community center, itself the heart of the old Jewish Quarter in downtown Casablanca.

"We have to reconsider everything," Serge Berdugo, president of the Moroccan Jewish Community, said in an interview Monday. "Not just Jews but all Moroccans. Our mistake was to think we were immune."

The Moroccan Jewish community numbered 290,000 in the early 1950s, according to Berdugo; today there are fewer than 5,000. Most are in Casablanca, where, like other Moroccans, they migrated over the decades as the city became the economic center of the country. At today's rate of attrition, there is a real concern that the community will die out over the next generation.

Some Jews are convinced the synchronized string of bombings, which authorities blame on radical Islamists from Casablanca's slums, was aimed specifically at Jewish interests; others think the larger goal was to destroy the secular way of life and moderate form of government represented by Morocco under King Mohammed VI.

"We are starting to panic a little," Edery, who owns a small garment factory, said Monday. "The government will tell us that we can open up our clubs and they will give us security, but it will never be completely peaceful again. There is fear."

Edery, 41, has decided to follow thousands of Moroccan Jews before him and will leave the country. It's a decision he says he made before Friday's attacks, and it has more to do with economic opportunity and the future of his children than worries about security.

His six brothers and sisters have already left; they last came home for their mother's funeral 10 months ago. His apartment building on Rue Galilee was inhabited by 15 Jewish families 10 years ago; today, five Jewish families remain.

"The Jewish community here is disintegrating," he said. "I've lived my life, I'm fine and not worried about myself. But I have to give my kids a platform where they won't suffer."

Jewish youth here customarily finish their high school exams and then must go abroad to university. And most don't return, building their lives in other countries, usually Israel, France, the United States or Canada, where jobs and potential spouses are more readily available.

Edery's eldest son is almost 18 and will take his exams in a few weeks. Then the family will move to Israel, where Edery said he will be given an apartment, a job, some cash and be taught the language.

Israel actively encourages Jews from other countries to move to Israel, to fortify the state and the collective Jewish identity.

An estimated 600,000 Moroccan Jews live in Israel, Berdugo said, having taken with them their brand of mystical Judaism and colorful foods, dress and customs. Unlike immigrants to Israel from Iran, Syria and a host of other Muslim countries, however, Moroccan Jews readily return to Morocco for vacations, to visit the graves of their ancestors, or to pay homage to Jewish martyrs, saints and revered rabbis.

Edery and other Moroccan Jews here say they have not felt inhibited in the practice of their faith. Edery lives a couple of blocks from the community center, in a neighborhood that counts no fewer than 30 synagogues, all tiny, and several kosher butchers.

He prays every morning and attends service every Shabbat.

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