Morocco's Jews in Pivotal Role Long History Helps Forge Ties between Arabs, Israelis

Article excerpt

The ancient Jewish community of Morocco is providing a crucial link between Israel and the Arab world. In the process, it may be saving its own life.

Business and political leaders from the Middle East and North Africa gathered in Casablanca recently to find ways to boost development of their region. For the first time, Israelis were included in such a meeting.

The Jews' 2,500-year legacy in this westernmost outpost of Islam goes a long way toward explaining why Morocco, rather than any other Arab country, played host to the conference.

Many of the Jews in North Africa are descendants of those expelled by Spain in 1492, when both Jews and Muslims were forced either to convert to Christianity or leave the country. But Jews have been living in Morocco since they began dispersing across the Mediterranean with the Phoenicians after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.

In recent centuries, Moroccan sultans not only took personal responsibility for protecting the nation's Jewish minority, but also relied on its members to fill the posts of ambassadors, treasurers and advisers.

That privileged role appeared to be lost forever, first when the French and Spanish colonized Morocco in 1912, and then as independence returned in 1956 in the midst of a wave of Arab nationalism and conflict with Israel.

Though popular backlash was minimal and there was no official repression, Morocco's Jews left in droves for the new state of Israel. The number of Jews dropped from about 250,000 to the current estimate of 8,000. Except for a Moroccan Jew who briefly served in the first post-colonial government, the special role of Jews had ended.

But now, the peace between Israel and the Palestinians is thrusting Morocco's Jews back into prominence.

A key figure in the organization of the Arab-Israeli development meeting was Andre Azoulay, a Jew who recently became the chief economic adviser to Morocco's King Hassan II. …