Kaouthar Oudrhiri (AFP)
Meknes, Morocco ●
Sun 22 May 2022
Dozens of Jews traveled to the Moroccan city of Meknes this week for the first such pilgrimage since the 1960s, after the Muslim kingdom restored the city’s Jewish cemetery.
Their return to the cemetery, which bears witness to a centuries-old Jewish presence in the North African country, came a year and a half after Rabat reestablished ties with Israel, which has a large community of Moroccan Jews.
The pilgrims, many of them of Moroccan descent, took part in ceremonies under tight security on Wednesday and Thursday in honor of the “tsadikim”, eminent rabbis, buried at the site.
“It is an immense pride to come to Meknes in the footsteps of my ancestors who rest here,” said Israeli Rabbi Niddam, 31, who was visiting Morocco for the first time.
Franco-Moroccan stalwart André Derhy, 86, said he was at a loss for words.
“It’s wonderful to return to my hometown after so many years,” he said.
The cemetery was founded in 1682 for the Jews of the mellah of Meknes, or Jewish quarter.
He was one of 160 across Morocco to benefit from a renovation program since 2010.
Morocco, which had had a Jewish community since antiquity, was one of the main destinations for Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal at the end of the 15th century.
In the 1940s, the community numbered some 250,000 people, but a mass exodus after the founding of Israel in 1948 reduced it to just 3,000.
It is still the largest in North Africa.
Keep memories alive
Many of Israel’s 700,000 Jews of Moroccan descent have maintained close ties to the country.
This week, those ties were visible as around 100 candle-carrying pilgrims walked among the white headstones.
Some prayed fervently at the shrine of Rabbi Raphael Berdugo, a 19th-century “master of the Torah.”
“This gathering is proof that you can transform a field of ruins into a place that perpetuates the memory of Moroccan Jews,” said Serge Berdugo, president of the Jewish Council of Morocco.
Rabat’s normalization with Israel has drawn only moderate protests in Morocco despite broad public support for the Palestinian cause.
Yousseph Israel, from the northern city of Tetouan, said Morocco “has always been an example of religious coexistence”.
Israel is a judge in the Hebrew court of Casablanca; Jews in Morocco are allowed to settle family matters under Jewish law.
Israeli Rabbi Niddam said that even before restoring ties after a decades-long hiatus, “Morocco and Israel have always had peaceful relations. Many Israelis have visited the kingdom without any problems.”
Morocco now hopes newly established air links with Israel will boost the number of Jewish visitors from around 60,000 a year to 200,000.
Gilles Berdugo, an Israeli citizen from Meknes, said he was returning to the country for the first time since leaving in 1970 at the age of 11.
“All my memories came back to me, it was like I had never left the country,” he said.
For his son, Avishai, it is “as if we had finally found a missing piece of the family puzzle”.