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Morocco film searches out Jews who left for Israel

Tuesday - 2/26/2013, 6:40am  ET

Kamal Hachkar, director of the documentary “Tinghir to Jerusalem” gestures from a balcony in Casablanca , Friday, Feb, 15, 2013. Once home to some 300,000 Jews, the largest population in the Arab world, Morocco is increasingly taking a fresh look at its long history with Judaism. (AP Photo/Abdeljalil Bounhar)

PAUL SCHEMM
Associated Press

RABAT, Morocco (AP) -- Hundreds of members of Islamist and left wing political groups demonstrated outside the Tangiers Film Festival earlier this month against a documentary about Moroccan Jews living in Israel. They claimed that director Kamal Hachkar was promoting "normalization" with the Jewish state.

But Hachkar was not expelled from the artists' union, nor was his film banned, and he wasn't ostracized from Morocco's intellectual class, as has happened in similar cases in Egypt and elsewhere. Instead, directors and actors circulated a petition of support, and his film went on to win best work by a new director at the festival.

Once home to some 300,000 Jews, the largest population in the Arab world, Morocco is increasingly taking a fresh look at its long history with Judaism and is spurning the flat rejection of all things Hebrew found in so many other Arab countries.

In the film, "Tinghir-Jerusalem: Echoes from the Mellah," Hachkar talks to people in Berber villages high in the Atlas mountains about their memories of the Jews suddenly leaving for Israel in the 1960s. He then travels to Jerusalem and finds many of these Jews, still speaking Moroccan Arabic and the Berber language, fondly reminiscing about the land they left behind.

"It tells the story of a forgotten part of Morocco's history, a history that is not taught at school," Hachkar told The Associated Press. "My goal is to tell the human story and to defend the plurality of Moroccan history and identity."

The director, who was born in Tinghir but left to live in France with his father at the age of 6 months, has toured all over Morocco showing the film to what he says were packed houses. Most people were initially suspicious, but warmed to the subject when they saw Jews speaking Moroccan Arabic and even the Berber dialect of the High Atlas, he said.

According to Zhor Rehihil, the curator of the Museum for Moroccan Judaism in Casablanca -- founded in 1997 and unique in the region -- Jews have been part of Morocco since Jewish merchants came to North Africa with the Phoenicians hundreds of years before the birth of Christ.

For centuries they were found in the mountain villages alongside Morocco's Berbers -- the original inhabitants of North Africa -- who mostly converted to Islam with the arrival of the Arab tribes in the 7th century.

Morocco's Jewish population was invigorated in 1492 when Spain expelled Muslims and Jews, most of whom fled to Morocco and brought with them the sophisticated urban culture of Andalucia.

"The Jews in Morocco were everywhere, in the cities, in the small villages. It was a country with a large and vibrant community of Jews and with their departure, Morocco lost a large part of its history," said Rehihil.

At its peak in the 1950s, there were an estimated 300,000 Jews in Morocco out of a population of some 8 million.

With the establishment of Israel and the encouragement of Zionists, Morocco's Jews left. Some went for religious reasons to seek the long promised land, some for a better life than in economically troubled post-colonial Morocco, still others who feared persecution.

Unlike elsewhere in the Arab world, the creation of Israel did not spark widespread animosity or attacks on Jews. There were isolated incidents but no national campaign. Many Jews left, however, after being told by Zionist agents they were in danger, said Rehihil.

"Each time there was an Arab-Israeli war, there would be tensions and the Jews would become afraid and some more would leave," she said, adding that most had left by the 1973 war.

Some 5,000 now remain, almost all in Morocco's commercial capital of Casablanca.

As in the rest of the region, however, there has been a heavy focus in Morocco on the plight of the Palestinian people and many Moroccans have started equating Jews with Israel. In May 2003, a series of al-Qaida-inspired bombings in Casablanca attacked, among other targets, a Jewish cemetery and a community center, which was empty at the time.

Protests against Israeli military actions are a regular occurrence, the most recent in November over the latest clashes in Gaza. Tens of thousands marched through Casablanca and Rabat in demonstrations attended by members of the governing moderate Islamist party.

"It's not a matter of denying the history of Moroccan Jews nor attacking freedom of expression, but defending one of the principal foundations of the nation, which is to say, no to normalization with the Zionist entity," said Mohammed Khiyi, a member of parliament with the Islamist Party for Justice and Development who demonstrated against Hachkar's film on Feb. 5.

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