The Moroccan Parliament is considering two bills that would criminalize any association or business dealings with Israel.
Five political parties including the leading Islamic Justice and Development Party, offered the bills in November 2013. The bills would ban Israelis from traveling to Morocco and prohibit Moroccans from dealing directly or indirectly with Israeli organizations and business. Failure by Moroccan citizens to comply with the proposed laws could result in heavy fines and even jail time.
Pressure is creeping up on the moderate King Mohammed VI to put an end to the discussion.
If the bills pass, there is a strong likelihood that King Mohammed VI will indeed exercise his veto to prevent them from becoming law. The King has very progressive views on relations with Jews and Israel. He has provided government resources to restore synagogues, recognized Jewish contributions to Moroccan identity, and maintained active relations with Israel.
However, if the King does indeed come to the rescue and prevent a breakdown in Morocco’s relations with Israel and global Jewry, it will likely be viewed as yet another example of a moderate Arab leader overriding the will of his people to maintain strategic diplomatic and military relationships with western states.
This would be a grave mistake in perception. I traveled to Morocco for two weeks in January and was very open about being an Israeli Jew. What I found was more than openness, but true acceptance. Following this experience, I can attest that I’ve never encountered citizens of an Arab country as welcoming and open to my nationality and religious background as the Moroccan people.
Throughout Morocco, the mellahs, or Jewish quarters, of major cities are some of the most prominent attractions. Synagogues, cemeteries, and old buildings with Hebrew writing inscribed on them are kept in impeccable condition. Unlike other Arab countries with an abundance of Jewish sites (Egypt and Syria for example) tourists need not fear asking locals for help in finding them. This is because these sites are considered just as Moroccan as they are Jewish.
Speaking with everyday Moroccans in shops, cafes, and restaurants, I was surprised by people’s knowledge of Israel and their lack of hostility. Members of a Muslim family that maintain the old synagogue in Sefrou were aware that Israel had experienced a great deal of war, but told me she prayed for peace “speedily in our days.”
In Fez, a young engineering student I met in a shopping mall explained he’d read books about the Jewish religion and people. He said the books he read were widespread. To prove it, he took me to two different bookstores and found the very books he was talking about.
Even amongst people with very little formal education I found a genuine openness. While camping in the Sahara desert near Merzouga in a Berber tent, I asked a couple of the tour operators where they were from.
“Tel Aviv,” they answered jokingly. With a smirk, I asked them where in Tel Aviv they lived. They made up some gibberish answer and started laughing, but then recounted every single Hebrew phrase they knew from working with Israeli tourists, most of which, as expected, were highly inappropriate.
Furthermore, I learned that Moroccans believe that being Jewish can make it easier to sell as well. A number of shopkeepers who peddled Jewish artifacts claimed to be Jewish in order to prove more authentic and to win my business. After asking a few basic questions about the Jewish religion, it became clear they were not.
One shopkeeper tried to convince me that his mother lived in Tel Aviv. He showed me a picture of himself supposedly with his mother in her Tel Aviv home. After a close look, however, it was clear the woman and her children were European tourists of some kind and that the picture had been taken in that man’s actual shop. Still, it was interesting to see that he thought his being Jewish would be endearing to tourists.
A basic conclusion I drew from my visit was that it’s not just the Moroccan King who favors maintaining relations with Israel and the wider Jewish world. Many ordinary Moroccans have positive views of Jewish people and of Israel, or at the very least are ignorant to both and not overtly hostile. The Moroccan Parliament’s efforts to pass anti-Israel measures are nothing more than an attempt to divert attention away from domestic troubles that Parliament members remain unable to solve.
Morocco suffers tremendous wealth differential between rich and poor, extreme corruption, and high youth unemployment – areas the Moroccan Parliament has failed to make progress on.
If King Mohammed VI does choose to veto the passage of the Parliament’s anti-Israel measures, it should be known that he will be doing so not as an absolute monarch, but as a representative of the people’s will.