When a Muslim MK beseeched Israel to fund a Moroccan synagogue
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'I, the Arab Muslim citizen, am asking the government of Israel to maintain the holy sites of Jews in the diaspora'

When a Muslim MK beseeched Israel to fund a Moroccan synagogue

In impassioned plea, Zouheir Bahloul says Jewish state has 'duty' to support upkeep of holy places abroad; local community 'surprised' by request, says it doesn't 'fit with the reality'

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Zionist Union MKs Zouheir Bahloul (R) and Yael Cohen Paran and Kulanu MK Akram Hasson in Marrakech, Morocco in November 2016 (Courtesy)
Zionist Union MKs Zouheir Bahloul (R) and Yael Cohen Paran and Kulanu MK Akram Hasson in Marrakech, Morocco in November 2016 (Courtesy)

Fresh upon his return from the Marrakech Climate Change Conference, an Arab Israeli lawmaker last week imparted what he described as a pressing plea from Morocco’s Jewish community: They desperately need money for the upkeep of their synagogues, the Muslim Knesset member said in the plenum, and the Israeli government has a “duty” to intervene.

But the Council of Jewish Communities of Morrocco said it was “surprised” by the claims presented by Zionist Union MK Zouheir Bahloul, insisting the statements “do not fit with the reality” on the ground and rattling off dozens of Jewish heritage preservation projects backed by the crown. Meanwhile, Israel’s Diaspora Ministry, responding to a query from Bahloul on the dearth of funding, said it does not have the budget to support the maintenance of synagogues abroad.

Bahloul took to the plenum podium twice last Monday to declare that Jews overseeing the synagogue in Marrakech’s mellah quarter were mired in financial straits.

“Obviously, it receives support, as a Jewish community, from King Mohammed VI. In any event, the good Jews of the Jewish community, who are trying to uphold their rights and obligations in their holy places, cannot afford to do so,” Bahloul said.

Sportscaster and potential political candidate Zouheir Bahloul (photo credit: Renee Ghert-Zand/Times of Israel)
Zouheir Bahloul (photo credit: Renee Ghert-Zand/Times of Israel)

“They are crying out [that they are struggling] to observe the rituals of the Jewish religion in that place. They asked us to convey, in any way possible, this message to the Israeli government.

“And I, the Arab Muslim citizen of Israel… am asking the government of the Jewish and democratic state of Israel to maintain the holy sites of Jews in the diaspora — because it is your right and your duty to do this,” he said.

An inside view of the Lazama Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in the mellah of Marrakech. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
An inside view of the Lazama Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in the mellah of Marrakech. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)

Speaking to The Times of Israel, Bahloul described the situation as “critical.”

The local Jewish community said the king was supportive of their religious institutions, but maintained they were nonetheless struggling to finance the day-to-day upkeep and renovations, Bahloul said.

“So then I told them I am taking responsibility, taking on the challenge. And when I got to the Knesset [last week], I gave two speeches and made this request that the Israeli government allocate resources and budgets to preserve the synagogues of Jews abroad,” he said.

Bahloul said he penned a letter to Diaspora Minister Naftali Bennett appealing for funding for the ministry to restore the synagogue.

A view of a small, nondescript synagogue (in tan) near the mellah in Marrakech. A Jewish family still owns the synagogue, but it's no longer open to the public. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
A view of a small, nondescript synagogue (in tan) near the mellah in Marrakech. A Jewish family still owns the synagogue, but it’s no longer open to the public. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)

“But I am also appealing to the prime minister that he take this matter into his own hands. The two-year budget will be approved soon. And I think that allocating several million to maintain synagogues abroad would be wise,” he said.

“Just as I expect from the Israeli government that it preserve the holy sites of other communities and religions in Israel, I think it is its duty to preserve synagogues of the Jews. Because whoever does not respect their own religion and holy places, I can’t expect that they will respect my holy places. And therefore, I think this is a remarkable moral issue, and this is the responsibility of the government of Israel and State of Israel.”

The Lazama Synagogue is a testament to Morocco's rich Jewish history. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
The Lazama Synagogue is a testament to Morocco’s rich Jewish history. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)

In response to Bahloul’s letter, a spokesperson from the Diaspora Ministry said it does not have a budget to fund synagogues abroad.

Jewish umbrella group ‘surprised’

Approximately 3,000 Jews are living in Morocco, a North African monarchy that had been home to a large and thriving Jewish community for centuries. Unlike many Arab countries with once sizable Jewish communities, Morocco has taken wide-ranging steps to preserve its Jewish history. The Casablanca Jewish museum was restored, the small but colorful 17th century synagogue in Fez was renovated, and dozens of former Jewish schools and more than a dozen synagogues were rehabilitated with funding from the crown.

In 2011, the Moroccan constitution was changed to note that the country has been “nourished and enriched … [by] Hebraic influences,” among others. In June 2015, local media reports said the government was set to sink $20 million to restore the Jewish quarter of Marrakech, known as the mellah. In the mellah, there are currently two-three active synagogues, according to the local Jewish community’s website.

An old Torah scroll on display at the Marrakech Museum. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
An old Torah scroll on display at the Marrakech Museum. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)

Citing the various government-backed Jewish heritage preservation efforts, the Council of Jewish Communities of Morocco was dismissive of Bahloul’s concerns in a statement issued to The Times of Israel.

It noted that “since 1995, the Council of Jewish Communities of Morocco has established the Moroccan Jewish Cultural Heritage Foundation (FPJM : Fédération du Patrimoine Culturel Juif Marocain) to rehabilitate the synagogues and places of worship throughout the country. This Foundation is recognized as being of public utility by the Moroccan government, and has achieved the renovation of nearly 15 synagogues in Fez, Meknes, Tetouan, Ighil O’gho, Agouim, Tangier, Casablanca etc…”

It also touted the “extraordinary and exceptional” restoration of 167 Jewish cemeteries across the country in cooperation with the government, building “40,000 meters of walls, 200,000 square meters of pavement, 150 doors and the rehabilitation of 12,000 graves!”

The Ibn Danan synagogue is open to the public but not used often anymore. It was once the only synagogue inside Fez's old city walls. A Muslim family lives below the sanctuary, and escort visitors to the premises for a small fee. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
The Ibn Danan synagogue is open to the public but not used often anymore. It was once the only synagogue inside Fez’s old city walls. A Muslim family lives below the sanctuary, and escort visitors to the premises for a small fee. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)

“This non-exhaustive list of achievements and actions undertaken to safeguard the Jewish holy places is proof that in the Morocco of Mohammed VI, the Jewish Heritage is an integral part of the National Patrimony, is preserved and that the memory of the deceased is respected,” said Serge Berdugo, the secretary-general of the organization.

“By the grace of God, our community has always benefited from the high solicitude of His Majesty the King and of the support of the high authorities of the country to carry out all useful and necessary restoration work,” he said. “We are therefore surprised that a member of Knesset can put forward claims that do not fit with the reality. It would have been useful for him to take the time to visit some of these places to get a first-hand [sense] of the actual situation.”

A representative from the Marrakech Jewish community did not respond to a request for comment.

JTA contributed to this report.

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