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Terrorist Strikes Jeopardize Morocco's Religious Tolerance

Extremist attacks erode the nation's climate of diverse but compatible communities. Diversity itself could be doomed if many Jews leave.

November 30, 2003|Angela Doland | Associated Press Writer

CASABLANCA, Morocco — Harry Amar worries that his little sister will never know the Morocco he grew up in, a land where Jews and Muslims lived comfortably side by side.

Three-year-old Audrey's Jewish preschool was evacuated a few weeks ago in a bomb scare, and she has to cross a police barrier every day to get to class.

"I'm afraid about what it's going to do to her psyche," Harry, 26, said during a break at his office supplies import business. "It's tough ... especially if you're just a child."

This kingdom in northwest Africa was long held as an example of Jewish-Muslim coexistence, a sign of hope that peace was possible between Israelis and Palestinians. But Morocco's ancient Jewish community -- the largest in the Arab world -- has become a target.

Suicide bombers killed 45 people -- including 12 attackers -- in Casablanca on May 16. No Jews were killed, but three of the five bombs targeted symbols of Morocco's Jewish presence: a cemetery, a community center and a Jewish-owned restaurant.

In September, two Jewish men were slain, one stabbed on his way to synagogue, the other shot point-blank by masked assailants. Police believe that one killing was carried out by extremists, but say the motive for the other is unclear.

The attacks have stunned Moroccans, who pride themselves on tolerance and had been largely spared from terrorism.

Now Jews are pondering whether it is safe to stay. Many are determined to stick it out, saying it would be a disaster for Morocco if the few remaining Jews packed their bags.

After decades of emigration, 3,000 to 5,000 Jews live in Morocco, down from 280,000 in 1948. Many went to Israel. Others fled 0o find a better life elsewhere.

Amar says only a few of his childhood friends are still here. All his aunts and uncles moved to Israel or France.

"If I had the choice, I wouldn't be here," said Amar, who has spent time in Britain and Israel. Now he dreams of New York.

Joe Kadoch, who runs the restaurant targeted in the May bombings, says Morocco's Jews have lost their lightheartedness since the attacks. "There is a before and after," he said. "Before, it was Morocco. We had confidence in the future.... I think all that has collapsed."

With the dwindling of the Jewish community, Muslims have less and less contact with Jews, Kadoch says, so there are fewer chances to break down stereotypes and hate.

Before the mass departures, "every Moroccan guy had a Jewish buddy. It's not like that anymore," Kadoch said at his quiet Italian restaurant. The elegant entrance hall, decorated with mirrors and chandeliers, was wrecked in the bombing.

Kadoch reopened two weeks later. He says he needed to get on with life, and he plans to make that life in Morocco. "If the [Jewish] community disappears, a history of thousands of years would crumble."

The first Jews settled in Morocco 2,000 years ago, about six centuries before the Arabs brought Islam to North Africa.

Although there have been dark chapters -- such as the expulsion of Jews from some Moroccan cities in the 18th century and deadly anti-Semitic riots in 1948 -- the lot of Jews here was better overall than in Europe, community leaders say. While the Inquisition raged in Spain, for example, Spanish Jews found refuge in Morocco.

During World War II, when the Nazis came hunting for Jews in the then-French territory, Morocco's sultan told them: "There are no Jews, only Moroccans."

Morocco's government supported the Arab-Israel peace process from the earliest stages. The late King Hassan II welcomed Israeli leaders for talks when other Arab leaders shunned them, and the kingdom was the venue for the secret talks that led to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977.

Today, one of King Mohammed VI's most influential advisors, Andre Azoulay, is Jewish -- unthinkable elsewhere in the Muslim world.

In Casablanca, a city of more than 3 million people, kosher butcher shops sit on streets lined with Arab groceries. There are more than 30 synagogues in a city where the call to Muslim prayers echoes over the dilapidated rooftops from the minarets of several hundred mosques.

Many Moroccans are proud to have a Jewish community. Soon after the May bombings, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in Casablanca, waving banners that read, "Say no to hate!" About 1,200 Jews, including children, felt safe enough to join in.

"Everyone applauded us and kissed us," said Serge Berdugo, president of the Jewish community's council. He believes Muslim extremists aren't targeting Jews specifically, but rather Morocco's tolerant society.

There is a growing Islamic fundamentalist movement. It has won support by distributing food, paying hospital bills for the destitute and teaching reading in a nation where one of two people is illiterate.

When police staged a terrorism crackdown after the Casablanca bombings, among those rounded up were extremist Muslim preachers who told followers that killing a Jew is not a sin.

Simon Levy, who heads a foundation to preserve the country's Jewish heritage, believes that Jews must stay in Morocco to provide a lesson in tolerance that will fight the spread of Islamic extremism.

Levy's Foundation of Judeo-Moroccan Cultural Heritage restores crumbling, abandoned synagogues. At those that cannot be saved, treasures like hammered-silver chandeliers and ornate pulpits go to a museum.

Levy has a double mission: He's putting relics on exhibition to record Jewish life in Morocco, in case the Jews disappear. At the same time, he's trying to show people the value of that life to keep them here.

"As long as we have a small community here, we are not just history," he said. "It's easy to leave; you just have to buy the plane ticket. It's harder to stay. That's more beautiful and more meaningful."

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