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December 29, 2020 5:59 am

The Unique Benefits of the Israel-Morocco Relationship

avatar by Joshua Shushan


People walk on a street, in Rabat, Morocco. Photo: Nawalbennani via Wikimedia Commons.

Yet another Muslim country has formalized peace with Israel: Morocco.

The move has been applauded internationally, with Egypt, the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, and other Arab nations calling King Mohammed VI of Morocco to congratulate him on this courageous leap forward into a new Middle East. With the assistance of the Trump administration, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and now Morocco have all normalized ties with Israel in recent months. Yet of all these tremendous achievements, it is perhaps Morocco that holds the greatest emotional significance among Israelis.

In the years following Israel’s independence, life became untenable for the Jews of Arab lands (Mizrahim). Facing increased hostility and violence, over 850,000 Jews fled their homes, many emigrating to the nascent state of Israel.

This is often forgotten among pundits of the Israeli-Arab conflict, who focus solely on the Palestinian refugee issue. The difference between these two refugee groups is that Israel embraced the Jews of Arab lands, while Arab countries largely refused to integrate Palestinian refugees.

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As many as 300,000 Jews left Morocco; while many emigrated to Canada or France, the majority arrived in Israel. These new citizens experienced considerable prejudice. The suppression of Mizrahi heritage, which was considered inferior and equated with the culture of Israel’s Arab “enemies,” led, in the early 1970s, to the formation of Israel’s own “Black Panther” movement, which aimed to bring the challenges of Mizrahi populations into the public sphere. Sadly, discrimination was commonplace, but Israel is slowly trying to rectify this poor legacy.

Despite these challenges, Moroccan Jews have carved out their place in modern Israeli history, contributing leaders to the military, politics, science, and the arts. It is estimated that about one million Israelis have at least partial Moroccan heritage. Moroccan music and cuisine have permeated the once Ashkenazi-dominated Israeli culture. The Moroccan custom of Mimouna, the eating of leavened bread after its prohibition during the week of Passover, has become a widely celebrated holiday in Israel. Many scholars attribute this to the ascension of the Likud Party, which was seen as much more supportive of Mizrahi emigres. Others point to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem as the beginning of a thaw in monocultural dominance. The excitement over the Arab leader’s visit caused a newfound interest in the culture and heritage of the wider Middle East, and by default, Morocco.

As with Sadat’s famous visit, normalization with Morocco signals the crumbling of walls shunning and isolating Israel from the rest of the Middle East. Nationally, it is an opportunity to celebrate Moroccan Jewry’s rich heritage, but it is much more than just that. It has often been hoped that Jews from Arab lands would be the natural bridge builders to the wider Arab world. This is the moment in history to elevate Moroccan Israelis to embrace this role.

Furthermore, the national euphoria over normalization must be our catalyst to finally address the social injustices experienced by Mizrahi Jews. With the establishment of direct flights, Israelis with Moroccan backgrounds will be able to freely visit the cities and towns of their grandparents, and the gravesites of great rabbis and family members. We should expect to see a renaissance of Moroccan Jewish culture, as educational and family trips become commonplace. The rediscovery of historical roots will result in an empowerment of those who have often felt marginalized, and lead to a psychological and emotional healing, the importance of which cannot be overstated.

The normalization of relations with Morocco has tremendous significance not only for Moroccan Israelis, but also for the wider population. It can be anticipated that visits to Morocco will lead to an interest and appreciation of Maghrebi culture — not only while touring Rabat, Casablanca, and Fez, but also when travelers return home to Jerusalem, Tiberias, and Hadera.

While there are obvious trade, defense, and intelligence-sharing benefits, a fundamental yet under-appreciated factor is that Israelis with Moroccan ancestry can now proudly explore their heritage and fortify their cultural identity.

Successful peace agreements require more than the opening of embassies and direct flights. They can only take root if and when the respective populations take an active interest in each other. We are already seeing signs of this, and should welcome further initiatives to bring Israel and the wider region closer to a lasting peace.

Joshua Shushan moved to Israel and enlisted in the IDF in 2013, where he served in the Golani infantry brigade. He served on the northern border, in Judea and Samaria, and during Operation Protective Edge (2014) on the Gaza Front. He was selected for and completed the IDF class commanders course, and concluded his service at the rank of sergeant. He continues to serve in the IDF Reserves.

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