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Jewish Journal

Morocco Bombings Shock Emigres

by Philip Carmel

May 22, 2003 | 8:00 pm

Casablanca's old city as seen in a 1999 photo. As the Moroccan Jewish community has dwindled from 250,000 to several thousand, Casablanca has retained the nation's most active Jewish population.

Casablanca's old city as seen in a 1999 photo. As the Moroccan Jewish community has dwindled from 250,000 to several thousand, Casablanca has retained the nation's most active Jewish population.

For most Parisian Jews with roots in Casablanca, the news that their home community had been targeted by Islamic terrorists came like a bolt from the blue.

"Sure, it's happened in every other Arab country, in Egypt, even Tunisia, but we never thought it would happen in Morocco," Valerie Ben-Chimon exclaimed as she brought her children to school. "People there said they thought it was a gas explosion or an earthquake. Nobody ever imagined it was a bomb."

Ben-Chimon left Morocco for France in 1987, but her parents still live in Casablanca. They recently visited her in France for Passover.

Her father returned to Morocco just after the holiday, but Ben-Chimon's mother returned May 18, two days after five suicide bombings in Casablanca -- four of them aimed at Jewish targets -- killed 29 people.

"Of course it's worrying," she said, "but you know, there's no security anywhere -- not in France, not in Israel either."

Ben-Chimon and other Jews born in Casablanca felt more shock than anger after the attacks.

"People there have always had enormous faith in the king to protect the Jews," she said.

The head of Morocco's 4,000-strong Jewish community, Serge Berdugo, was minister of tourism under Hassan II, father of the present monarch, Mohammed VI. One of Mohammed's most trusted advisers, Andre Azoulay, is a Jewish banker.

"We are deeply shocked, but we are not afraid," Berdugo said. "People here know it is a global fight against the terrorists, the same for Muslims as for Jews. There were no victims from our own community, but this has come like a bolt from the blue."

Even in Paris, there was a sense of disbelief. One man, who described himself as "50-50" -- half-Moroccan, half-Tunisian -- said "they can't have been Moroccans, they must have been Islamists from outside the country."

But Ben-Chimon corrected him, saying sadly, "They were Moroccans."

According to Simon Attias, president of the Society of Former Moroccan Jews, the king's visit to the scene of the attacks was important "to send the right message" to the Moroccan people.

"But why didn't he do anything before the attacks?" Attias asked.

Morocco is "a tolerant country," he said, and the terrorists were "as much against Moroccan Muslims as Jews."

Asked about the community's future, Attias said things had been going downhill steadily since Morocco ceased to be a French protectorate in the 1950s.

"There's no future for the Jews there," he said. "Virtually everyone has left for Israel, France or Canada."

Nevertheless, for many of those who left Casablanca -- the site of Morocco's largest Jewish community -- the feelings toward Morocco remain strong.

"The king sent soldiers to protect us in Casablanca during the" 1991 Persian Gulf War, "and I remember how he spoke on television during the Six-Day War" in 1967, said Solange Rumi, who still has family in Casablanca. "He said that the Jews were Moroccan citizens, just like everybody else, and no Jew was touched."

"My brother said they congratulated King Mohammed on the birth of his son when he visited the Cercle d'Alliance after the bombing," Rumi said.

The targeting of the Cercle d'Alliance showed that the aim was to kill as many Jews as possible, Ben-Chimon said.

"This is a community where everyone knows everyone else, and everyone goes to the cercle," she said. "It's a miracle. If they had bombed the Cercle d'Alliance on any day other than Shabbat, many more people would have been killed."

The same is true for Casablanca's Safir Hotel, another target.

"There are lots of Moroccan Jews living in Israel who go there for the hilula," Ben Chimon said, referring to the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, which is marked on Lag B'Omer. "But they hit the hotel too late, because they come for only about two days or so to Casablanca, then head off for Marrakech to celebrate the hilula."

Ben-Chimon said her parents would stay in Casablanca, adding, "We have always been treated well there. It's very special, really, 'la belle vie.'"

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