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The ‘Nakba’ of Morocco’s Jews

Lela Gilbert

Imagine a frightened six-year-old girl trying to catch her balance in the stifling and cramped hold of a violently tossing ship. She is not alone on the turbulent sea – her parents and sibling are nearby. But fear is in the air, along with the sight and smell of terrible sickness. The child understands little about her circumstances. She is aware that she is going to a place called Israel, where three of her brothers now live. She realizes that she is saying good-bye forever to her Morocco home. But that’s all she knows about her journey.

Meanwhile her present misery, and that of her beloved family, eclipses all else. The girl’s name is Dina Gabay. The year is 1955. Dina, her parents – Avraham and Rachel – and the family are fleeing ever-increasing dangers in their town of Sefrou, near Fez.

Only in later years did Dina come to appreciate the constant pressure her parents had endured before their departure. There were small things—insults and ceaseless intimidation. For example, her father, who owned a large and successful butcher shop, was at the mercy of local thieves, who sometimes simply walked into his business and demanded that he give them whatever they wanted – at no cost. “Not once and not twice,” Dina explains, “but whenever they wanted something. These were our good Muslim neighbors, you know?”

Avraham knew better than to argue. “If you said something they didn’t like, you were in danger,” Dina recalls. “Most of the time everybody got along. But when you are in a lower place in society, you don’t dare to stand up for yourself.”

There were bigger threats too, including mysterious disappearances. First her father’s best friend vanished. Then one of Dina’s cousins, a remarkably beautiful 14-year-old girl, also disappeared, never to be seen again. In the Moroccan Jewish community, such things weren’t exactly unusual. And they happened more and more frequently after 1948, when Israel declared itself an independent state. At that moment, the centuries-long, low-grade oppression Jews experienced in their role as dhimmis under Muslim rule was ignited into ugly confrontations, humiliation and random attacks. These episodes sometimes exploded into full-blown pogroms in which hundreds were killed or wounded.

An article in Commentary magazine published in September 1954 described the difficult circumstances of Morocco’s Jews during the early years of Dina Gabay Levin’s life. “In disputes with Muslims, or on civil commercial and criminal issues among themselves, Jews are almost entirely subject to Islamic courts… even under the best of circumstances [the courts] regard Jewish litigants as unclean, inferior beings.”

While Dina’s family felt increasing pressure from the surrounding Muslim community, Morocco itself was in political upheaval over French colonialism. As has often happened in anticolonial independence movements, Jews were stigmatized as enemies of the surging nationalist factions. Again, they paid the price.

In 1954 and 1955, Morocco’s Jews were attacked by pro-nationalist forces in Casablanca, Rabat, Mazagan and Petitjean, with numerous deaths and injuries. Throughout the country property was seized, and arsonists attacked Jewish schools. In the five years following Israel’s independence, around 30,000 Jews made aliya; the numbers increased in subsequent years.

Historian Heskel M. Haddad wrote, “The major cause of the Jewish exodus from Morocco is the two pogroms that occurred in 1948 and 1953. Within a few years, several thousand Moroccan Jews immigrated to Israel. But mass immigration of Jews from Morocco occurred in 1954 when it became clear that France intended to grant Morocco full independence. Tens of thousands of Jews left Morocco, thereby betraying the typical anxiety of Jews in an independent Arab country.”

“We left all of our property,” Dina remembers, “our house and my father’s business. We couldn’t take anything with us. We left in the night and rushed to the ship. All kinds of people were fleeing. In fact some of those that went to Israel were wealthy. My uncle, for example, was very rich. He was a carpenter and had a large factory. He had also built a school for Jewish children, which he owned. When he decided to go, he left everything behind – his home, his factory and the school.”

AS IN many Jewish communities that fled hostility in Muslim majority nations in the 20th century, numerous Jews who left Morocco had been leaders in their communities; they were wealthy, successful and comfortable in their way of life. Doctors, lawyers, merchants and bankers were among the frightened masses that sailed away from their homelands. The day of their departure has often been described as their Nakba – the Arabic word for catastrophe that is often used by Palestinian activists to describe Israel’s Independence Day. In their catastrophic departures from their homes – many families had lived in North Africa since the 15th century and some even before – most of the Jews of the Maghreb lost everything but the clothes they wore. In a stunning riches-to-rags reversal, they found themselves among the poorest of the poor.

After the terrible voyage – she can’t remember how long it took but it seemed interminable – Dina and her family were taken from the ship to a squalid tent city – one of many ma’abarot, where tens of thousands of refugees from the Maghreb were kept in almost unlivable conditions upon their arrival in Israel. The young nation, not yet 10 years old, was ill-prepared for such an influx of displaced people. The Gabay family felt utter desolation. “Every night we just wanted to run away, but there was nowhere to run.”

A Jewish Agency report describes the ma’abarot of the time.

The structure of the camps was essentially similar: Families lived in small shacks of cloth, tin or wood, no larger than 10 square meters to 15 sq.m. each. Other shacks housed the basic services: kindergarten, school, infirmary, small grocery, employment office, synagogue, etc. The living quarters were not connected to either water or electric systems. Running water was available from central faucets, but it had to be boiled before drinking. The public showers and lavatories were generally inadequate and often in disrepair. A paucity of teachers and educational resources severely hindered the attempts to provide the camp children with suitable education. Work, even relief work, was not always available.

There were tens of thousands of Moroccans in the ma’abarot, but they weren’t the only ones. A wholesale exodus was under way across the Maghreb. Soon the vibrant Jewish populations of North Africa would dwindle to almost nothing.

In 1948, Algeria had around 140,000 Jews. By 2008 there were none.

In 1948, Libya had more than 35,000 Jews. Today there are none.

In 1948, Tunisia had as many as 105,000; today there fewer than 2,000

And as for Morocco, there were around a quarter of a million Jews in 1948. Today there are fewer than 6,000.

DESPITE THEIR trauma, however, many Moroccans distinguished themselves in their new Israeli society. Author Yehuda Grinker wrote of them, “These Jews constitute the best and most suitable human element for settlement in Israel’s absorption centers. There were many positive aspects which I found among them: First and foremost, they all know [their agricultural] tasks, and their transfer to agricultural work in Israel will not involve physical and mental difficulties. They are satisfied with few [material needs], which will enable them to confront their early economic problems.”

After three months in the absorption center, the Gabays were reunited with Dina’s three brothers, who had made their way to Israel at 13, 15 and 17. By then, the boys were in their 20s and had served in the Hagana during the War of Independence. Once the family was back together, they went to live together in Rishon Lezion.

As a child, she could hardly have imagined such a turn of events, but like others among her homeland’s émigrés, Dina married, had a family and proved herself more than suitable to life in Israel. In fact, she grew up to become deputy mayor of Rishon Lezion, a role in which she served until 2007. Today she remains a spokeswoman for the city and for the Moroccan Jews in Israel.

For over half a century, the flight of more than 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands has led to controversy both inside Israel and internationally. More Jews were forced to flee from Muslim persecution than the approximately 762,000 Palestinian Arabs, who left their homes in the newly declared State of Israel. The full story has rarely been told, except among dedicated organizations like justiceforjews.com, jimena.org, and the David Project, which produced a powerful documentary, The Forgotten Refugees in 2005. For reasons too complex for brief analysis, Israel did not, as one writer tactfully said, “put the catastrophe that overtook the Arab Jews on its international public relations and national agenda…”

But all that changed in February. After years of effort, and by a majority of votes, a bill to seek compensation for Jews from Arab countries was passed in the Knesset. Zvi Gabay (no relation to Dina Gabay Levin), a reporter for Yisrael Hayom, writes, “For the first time since the establishment of the state the rights of the Jews from Arab countries are receiving legal recognition in Israel. Up until now, Israeli administrations have chosen to ignore the issue, even as the topic of the Arab refugees and their rights have been front and center on the public dialogue in Israel and the world, under the code name the ‘right of return.’ The time has come to rectify the situation.”

According to the bill, a “Jewish refugee” is defined as an Israeli citizen who left one of the Arab states, or Iran, following religious persecution. The landmark declaration – long awaited by those who lobbied for its passage – specifies that the question of compensation must be included by the government in all future peace negotiations.

Dina Levin, like so many others, finds this turn of events very gratifying. She says, “The new declaration is a very important historical step for the people of Israel, especially for the Jewish communities from Muslim nations. I hope this bill will be put into action and will not stay only as a declaration. That way, finally there will be justice for the tremendous number of Jews who left their property behind in the Muslim nations when they immigrated to Israel.”

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