On Jan. 5, the Times of Israel reported that the Jewish state will seek $250 billion in compensation for Jews who were forced out of Arab countries. “The time has come to correct the historic injustice of the pogroms (against Jews) in seven Arab countries and Iran,” said Gila Gamliel, Israel’s minister for social equality, “and to restore, to hundreds of thousands of Jews who lost their property, what is rightfully theirs.” According to the report, Israel is in the process of finalizing claims of $35 billion against Tunisia and $15 billion against Libya, with additional compensation to be sought from Morocco, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Iran.
Gamliel’s statements, whether intentionally or inadvertently, placed Morocco on the same defendant’s bench as Iraq and Egypt. In doing so, she not only unjustly accused Morocco of acts that it did not commit, but also weakened the claims that are yet to be brought against the countries that, in addition to confiscating the assets of their Jewish citizens, also revoked their citizenship – as was the case in Egypt under former president Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Ironically, the minister’s statement denies a truth about Moroccan Jewry – their reason for leaving Morocco. Speaking at the Fourth General Assembly of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) in 1959, Alexander L. Easterman, the WJC’s political secretary, said that while Nasser encouraged Jews to leave Egypt – and even expelled them after the Sinai Campaign in 1957, as part of his struggle for national unity – Morocco discouraged Jews from leaving, in order to maintain the country’s ethnic diversity.
Of the 856,000 Jews who lived in Arab countries and Iran, over 257,000 – 30 per cent – lived in Morocco. There, already before the bitter experience with the Vichy period of the French protectorate, a growing segment of pro-Zionist youths had already begun to engage in tsiyonut magshima – active Zionism leading to aliyah. In his book, North African Jewry In The Twentieth Century, Michael Laskier notes that the Charles Netter Association was transformed into an important Zionist organization operated in Morocco from the late 1920s.
On Aug. 15, 1955, Easterman met secretly in New York with Ahmed Balafrej, then director of public relations for Morocco’s Istiqlal political party, to discuss the WJC’s concern for the wellbeing of the Jews of Morocco. After the meeting, Balafrej published the following announcement:
“The Jews need have no concern that they will suffer from any form of discrimination in independent Morocco. The Jews of Morocco, like its Muslims, are both de jure and de facto citizens. They will enjoy the same rights and will be subject to the same obligations. Their religious faith will not be affected. The positive development that they will see will be their release from the burden of colonial control that exploited them as well. Morocco is their independent country and whoever helps the Jews of Morocco helps Moroccan independence as well.”
Just a few months later, on Oct. 30, while the exiled sultan of Morocco, Mohammed ben Youssef (later Mohammed V) was in France preparing his return to Morocco, he received a delegation comprised of Easterman, Joseph Golan and Gerhart Riegner of the WJC, to whom he declared:
“I have always seen my Jewish subjects as completely free citizens, and as Moroccans who are completely equal to my Muslim subjects. This is the policy that I will take in the future. All of my subjects will benefit from equal rights and share equal obligations, without regard to their religious beliefs. You can be certain that my intentions will be fully carried out in practice upon my return to Morocco.”
In parallel, the leaders of Morocco’s Conseil des Communautés Juives met in Rabat to formulate a declaration expressing their great joy at the return of Sidi Mohammed Ben Youssef and his family. They called on their coreligionists to join their Muslim brothers in celebrating his return to the throne. And indeed, on Oct. 26, 1956, Leon Benzaken, a Jewish-Moroccan doctor, was sworn in as a minister in Mbarek Bekkaï’s second government – the same one in which Balafrej would become foreign minister.
And yet, in spite of Morocco’s reluctance under the French protectorate to allow a mass emigration of its Jewish subjects, and later the reassurances by Balafrej and the king’s declaration, 108,000 Jews made aliyah between 1948 and Morocco’s independence in 1956. According to Israeli historian Yigal Ben-Nun, 237,800 Jews immigrated to Israel from Morocco between 1948 and 1967. Most did so out of a strong Zionist conviction, while the others longed for better economic conditions.
To claim, however, that the Moroccan Jews who made aliyah were refugees denigrates them by distorting the historical facts and denies that they were ardent Zionists. As for the other 20,000 Moroccan Jews who immigrated to France and Canada, where they established thriving communities, it would be likewise preposterous to call them refugees, especially since many continue to maintain strong economic, cultural and academic ties with Morocco. Indeed, unlike other countries, Morocco has never stripped its Jewish citizens of their citizenship.
It therefore behooves those of us who have experienced our own voluntary departure from Morocco – whether by making aliyah to Israel, or by immigrating to other countries – to preserve our moral integrity and to defend the truth about Jewish emigration from Morocco.