Photo Credit: Yehuda Azrat
Yehuda Azrat

Yehuda Azrat is sometimes called “Mr. Morocco.” Born in Israel to Moroccan parents, Azrat established The Union of Communities and Synagogues of Moroccan Olim and founded the newspaper Dorot, which features articles on the culture, history, and religious traditions of Moroccan Jewry.

His five-year-old business, Casablanca Tour Lines, has sent thousands of people on glatt kosher tours to Morocco, the majority of whom, surprisingly, come from chassidic communities in New York.

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The Jewish Press: What’s the significance of the recent Israel-Morocco normalization agreement for Jews like yourself.

Azrat: To understand the significance, you have to recognize the unique historic relationship between the Jews of Morocco with the ruling authorities, which differs greatly from the relationship Jews experienced in other Arab nations, where they were largely persecuted.

Historically, the Jews of Morocco were favored by the king. If there was a problem in the royal family or the country, the king would ask the Jews to pray for them. The sultans of Morocco had a tradition that if they wanted to safeguard their kingdom, they had to safeguard the Jews. Thus, the Jews were permitted much freedom. They prospered financially and were awarded official positions.

Jewish communities enjoyed Jewish life to the fullest, with magnificent synagogues, thriving yeshivot, and Torah sages everywhere. All the Jews were religious. There wasn’t such a thing as a secular Jew. They were respected by the Arabs, and anti-Semitism didn’t exist.

Matters didn’t stay that way, though.

No, upon the establishment of the State of Israel, the situation changed for the worse as Arab states united against the new Jewish state in their midst. Several restrictions were placed on the Jews in Morocco, and acts of terrorism occurred, carried out by a fringe element of radical groups.

But the great majority of Moroccan Jews came on aliyah for Zionistic reasons, not because they had to flee a hostile birthplace. To illustrate this point, whenever I lead a tour to Morocco, locals ask me, “Why did you Jews leave the country? Come back! It’s your homeland. You Jews brought blessing to the country. We want you here with us.”

Is it true that Moroccan Jews were treated improperly when they arrived in Israel?

Some 40,000 immigrants came to Israel in the early years of Medinat Yisrael, bringing with them their rich traditions, unique cuisine, style of dress, music, and religious way of life. Unfortunately, their dream of the golden shores of the Promised Land encountered a harsh and traumatic welcome when the ruling Ashkenazi elite didn’t spread out a royal red carpet for them.

Instead, they were herded into “ma’abarot” tent camps in remote undeveloped areas with the most basic living conditions. They were treated like third-class citizens, and a conscious effort was made to strip them of their customs and religious traditions. In effect, they were turned into slaves.

For a great many of the olim, it was a case of “riches to rags.” The majority of new immigrants had been well-to-do in Morocco. My grandfather was an affluent merchant. He didn’t lack anything. He came to Israel gladly, out of his belief in the Torah. But the [government] loaded his family onto a truck and dumped them in a muddy village of tin shacks in the middle of nowhere.

The racist-like reception brought forth resentment and national division which continues to today. No wonder many of the young people grew up with chips on their shoulders, dropped out of Ashkenazi schools, and became criminals. Others took off for Los Angeles. But for the most part, their love for Zion and their belief in the Torah and the words of the prophets never left them.

Things only began to change for the better when Menachem Begin reached out to the Sephardi community and rode their support to take over the government from the Labor Party in 1977.

So Moroccan Jews came to Israel in the 1950s?

After Morocco’s independence from France in 1957, King Mohammed V proclaimed that he wanted the Jews to remain in Morocco and granted them full citizenship. Nonetheless, the League of Arab States pressured the Moroccan government to outlaw Zionism and emigration was made a crime. Nevertheless, a flow of illegal aliyah continued, orchestrated by the Mossad.

Then, in 1961, Hassan II of Morocco agreed to let the international Jewish community pay a per-capita bounty for every Jew who emigrated from the country. By 1967, some 250,000 Jews from Morocco were living in Israel.

Today, there are over a million, and thanks to an educational revolution speared by the Shas Party, children usually grow up with a strong sense of pride in being Moroccan Jews, preserving, to one extent or another, the historic customs and traditions of their ancestors and maintaining a tight-knit community.

How do Moroccan Jews in Israel today regard the country they left?

While Morocco is not sanctified in their eyes like the Holy Land, the parent generation of Moroccan Jews in Israel generally have strong and fond memories of their Moroccan heritage, which is seen in their reverence for the great Moroccan rabbis of the past, their loyalty to the Shas party, and in their eagerness to visit places where there were vibrant Jewish communities, such as Casablanca, Marrakech, and Fez – where the Rambam lived for six years – and to make pilgrimages to the kivrei tzaddikim around the country like the famous indoor shrine of Rabbi Shmuel Abuhatzeira in Erfoud.

For them, the diplomatic agreement between Israel and Morocco will inspire renewed ties to their heritage, lead to a new burst in Moroccan pride, and serve as an irresistible magnet to visit Morocco, vacation there, and re-encounter their roots.

For example, there are many, many people like me who were born to Moroccan parents in Israel who enrolled their children in the Talmidei Torah of the Ashkenazim because that’s all there was when I was young and because Moroccan olim were brainwashed to believe their own North-African Sephardi culture was vastly inferior to world of Orthodox European Jewry.

I attended the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak and learned a great deal, but I had a feeling that something was missing. Gradually over the years, I encountered the Torah world of the Sephardi community and its rich history and culture and a prayer liturgy that reverberated in my heart. It was as if I had discovered my soul. The more I visited Morocco, the more I came to know who I was.

Today, at family simchas like bar mitzvahs, hennot, and seudot Shabbat, I wear our traditional, full-sleeved, djellabah robe. The food is Moroccan, as are the musical instruments and the dancing.

Do you think Moroccan Jews in Israel will visit Morocco more often now?

Yes, first- and second-generation Moroccan Jews in Israel are going to flock to visit the “old country” to experience their past firsthand.

Until now, a visa was required to enter Morocco, and there were no direct flights from Israel. Now the gates will be opened, making a trip to Morocco a relatively short hop away. Instead of a 12-hour shlepp via Paris or Instanbul, direct flights will take only five hours.

Since the signing of the UAE Accords, some 50,000 Israelis have flown there to visit. In my opinion, Morocco will draw even more.

How will Moroccan Jewish tourists from Israel be received in Morocco?

Like kings. Not merely because they will be spending money in the country, which is in need of an economic boost, but because of the tradition of respect for the Jews which dates back hundreds of years. For the past decade, about 40,000 Israeli Moroccans traveled to the country each year and they were received with open arms. I walk around with a kippah wherever I go. There are no security problems whatsoever.

To give an example of the honor Morocco accords Jews: When the League of Arab Nations forced Morocco to adopt a hostile attitude to the creation of a Jewish state, the streets named after Jewish sages – such as Rechov Chaim Ben Atar in the Jewish neighborhood of Marrakesh –were changed to Arab names. A few years ago, the king changed all the names back to what they were.

The government also outlays significant sums to preserve the old synagogues, Jewish cemeteries, and gravesites of tzaddikim.

How many Jews live in Morocco today?

Approximately 2,000, most of whom reside in Casablanca.

Why don’t they move to Israel?

They have a good life there. They all have profitable businesses or professions, with large villas, and two or three house servants. Most of them insist they will make aliyah soon, but with the luxury life they are living, they don’t feel any rush.

Do you think Moroccan Jews in Israel will decide to return there to live?

G-d forbid! There may be a handful, but nothing significant. We are lovers of Eretz Yisrael and dedicated Zionists. People will enjoy visiting Morocco to forge a deeper connection with their roots, but you have to understand that when a Jew in Morocco – generation after generation – said, “Next year in Jerusalem,” he meant it with all of his heart.

Some hotels in Dubai announced recently that they would be offering glatt kosher food. Do you think Moroccan hotels will do the same?

Most likely, in time. Right now, to meet the glatt kosher demands of our clients, whenever we have a charedi group touring Morocco, we set up a kosher kitchen in Casablanca with top quality kosher supervision. Then we transfer the kitchen to a big truck which travels with them around the country.

Your tours to Morocco are apparently very popular among charedi communities in New York. How do you explain that?

First of all, Morocco is a truly picturesque country with high mountains, rushing rivers, exotic casbahs, summery seashores, and the Sahara Desert. If you’re looking for a place to vacation with a rich Jewish history and a scenery different from Europe, Morocco is the best choice – after Israel, of course.

The old Jewish cemetery in Marrakesh is filled with gravesites of famous Jewish sages. The small mountain town of Sefrou, near Fez, was once known as “Little Jerusalem.” The Em Habanim and Bet-El Synagogues in Casablanca are breathtaking, and the city boasts the only Jewish museum in the Muslim world.

In addition, there are no security problems in the country. Charedi Jews can stroll about freely in their usual garb and they won’t hear a nasty remark. In the coastal town of Safi, when tour groups of Jews visit the shrine of Rabbi Avrahan Ben Zmirro, local Muslim leaders gather to join them in prayer. During the annual four-day celebration of Rabbi Chaim Pinto’s hiloula in the small port of Essaouira, the local governor and emissaries of the king of Morocco are always present.

But one of things that attracted the most interest, I think, was that in my initial advertisements, in describing the revered gravesites of the tzaddikim, I mentioned the story of Soulika, the beautiful young Jewish maiden from Tangier who refused to marry the king of Fez and convert to Islam in the early 19th century.

In one version of the story, when the king orders that she be tied to a horse and dragged through the city until she dies, Soulika requests that she be given metal clips, like heavy safety pins today, which she dug into her flesh and tied to her garment so that her naked body wouldn’t be exposed to the public.

Her great sense of Jewish honor and modesty made her into a local martyr, like Joan of Arc of France, respected by Jews and Muslims alike. Poems, songs, books, and paintings have been created based on this story. Her shrine in the Fez cemetery is said to possess healing powers, especially for young women and children who are sick.

I publicized the story in the charedi community in New York, along with a short video in Yiddish. The tour promotion attracted the attention of the Satmar community in Williamsburg, and we organized a trip for them. Word of mouth did the rest.

Since then, in addition to a steady flow of Sephardi, Dati-Leumi, and Modern Orthodox Jews, we have accompanied about 50,000 charedi tourists to Morocco on complete mehadrin tours, catering to whatever kashrut requirements they prefer. Once the corona pandemic ends, we will gear up for thousands and thousands more.

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Tzvi Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Creativity and Jewish Culture for his novel "Tevye in the Promised Land." A wide selection of his books are available at Amazon. His recent movie "Stories of Rebbe Nachman" The DVD of the movie is available online.