Since Jewish traders settled in the Land of the Berbers more than 2,000 years ago, Moroccan Jewry has had a unique culture, mingling Jewish and North African influences. It also constitutes one of the most successful models of political and religious coexistence in the Islamic world. But with the upheavals of the twentieth century, the question is whether Moroccan Jewry will retain its character and identity into the twenty-first century.
Routes of Exile
traces the history of this branch of Jewry – from the first “Berber Jews” to the vast migration and new tensions set off by the creation of the State of Israel. The film takes a particularly probing look at the most recent stage of the journey – social and political changes in Israel, the struggle for identity in France and Canada, and the increasing isolation of the remnant that remains behind in Morocco.
“Especially with today’s tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims this exhibition is of utmost importance,” Janrense Boonstra, director of the Biblical Museum said. “I expect a lot of Moroccan visitors to come and I think the exhibition will be a surprise for them.”
The vast majority of Dutch Moroccans are Muslims and have a Berber-background. What the Dutch Muslims usually don’t know is that Jews and Berbers were living peacefully together in Morocco. There was even an important mutualcultural exchange for centuries before the arrival of Arabic culture and with the Arab conquest during the 8th century.
“For many centuries the Jewish community
formed the most important minority in Morocco,” Boonstra said. “Based on their culture, this community can be divided into two separate groups. The first one is the native group, the toshavim in Hebrew, who have been living in rural areas for ages.”
The second group is the dispelled group, the Megorashim, who mainly lived in the cities. The Megorashim, expelled from Spain and Portugal in the fifteenth century where rich and literate.
“The difference between these two can be clearly seen in the exhibition,” he said.
The exhibition was set up among others with the help of the Dutch-Moroccan Jew Sami Kaspi. Rabat-born Kaspi created the Foundation Maimon seven years ago to promote Moroccan-Jewish culture and to foster the good ties between different religions.
It was Kaspi that brought the Biblical Museum into contact with Paul Dahan from Brussels. Most of the objects used in this exhibition are from the private collection of Dahan, who owns one of the largest collections of its kind in Europe.
“Most Moroccan Jews, like Kaspi, have a very strong, eternal bond with their tradition and heritage which is completely intertwined with the history of Morocco and the Moroccan-monarchy. That’s what we want to show,” Boonstra said. “Compare them with the Russian Jews for instance. They wouldn’t think about returning to the former Sovjet Union. Moroccan Jews though return often from Israel or France to visit the graves of famous rabbis for instance.”
There are many of them in Morocco. More than 120 graves of righteous Jews are alsoworshipped by Muslims.
“That makes this shared history so special,” he said.
Although Morocco’s monarchs, including the current king, have traditionally sworn to protect the country’s Jews, the community has fallen from 350,000 to 3,500 in half a century. Most young Jews have emigrated
either to Europe or to Israel, where some 700,000 people claim
Morocco held local elections last Friday, in which the country’s main legal Islamic party, the Justice and Development party, made modest gains, despite a campaign against it by Moroccan authorities and the pro-government press, which have accused it of “moral responsibility” for the May 16 attacks.
Jews claim to have been present in the Maghreb since the synagogue at Djerba, Tunisia, was founded around 586BC. Their numbers were multiplied many times over when Spanish Jews were expelled from their country in 1492.
The Jewish community in Tunisia, reduced from 100,000 to 2,000 in 50 years, has also been attacked. The Djerba synagogue was attacked by a suicide bomber who killed 21 people in April 2002.