Reporter's notebook

Hearing the cantor sing the prayer for IDF soldiers… in Morocco

It’s easy, and not entirely wrong, to be cynical about Jerusalem’s newfound ties with Rabat. But there’s something earnest about them, owing to a deep cultural connection

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Cantor Gabriel Deri recites prayers during a visit by Defense Minister Benny Gantz to the Talmud Torah synagogue in Rabat on November 25, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Cantor Gabriel Deri recites prayers during a visit by Defense Minister Benny Gantz to the Talmud Torah synagogue in Rabat on November 25, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

RABAT, Morocco — It is not every day that you hear the prayer for the well-being of Israel Defense Forces soldiers in an Arab country, especially not when there are IDF soldiers in uniform standing alongside you.

But so it was on Thursday when Defense Minister Benny Gantz visited the Talmud Torah synagogue in Rabat, a once larger community that is now down to double-digits, unable to regularly put together the 10-man quorum needed to hold Orthodox prayers.

As it happens, two of the three IDF soldiers in uniform had Moroccan roots, as did a Knesset member who was part of the delegation, Shas’s Ya’akov Margi, who was born in Rabat, and so were a number of other people on the trip, including some journalists.

“When I heard him singing the psalm, it was the same tune as the piyutim from my grandfather’s synagogue in Beersheba,” the Walla news outlet’s Amir Bohbot said during the flight back to Israel, referring to a traditional form of liturgical poetry that is popular among Mizrahi Jews. “That got to me, but it was when he sang the prayer for the well-being of IDF soldiers, that’s when I broke and started tearing up,” he said, recalling his Moroccan grandfather saying the prayer in Israel in the 1980s.

Unlike the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, the other two countries that Israel normalized ties with last years as part of the so-called Abraham Accords, many Israelis are from Morocco, with anywhere between 250,000 to nearly a million having roots there, depending on how you count. And that’s not trivial.

Even before normalization, there was a bustling industry of “roots tours” of Morocco by Moroccan Israelis, going to visit their families’ hometowns and communities. This is expected to increase now, with a direct flight between the two countries and a clear edict from King Mohammed VI to Moroccans to accept Israel and Israelis.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, meets with top Moroccan defense officials in Rabat on November 24, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

That warm embrace was on full display during Gantz’s visit, with all his meetings — save for the one with the head of Morocco’s intelligence service — being open and public. His trip was widely covered by the local press, including front-page op-eds in Arabic and French in Moroccan outlets.

The visit by an Israeli defense minister, a former head of the IDF, garnered exceedingly little opposition in Morocco — a protest was held outside the parliament but with exceedingly few participants — indicating some combination of public acceptance of the new open ties with Israel and the restrictions on free speech in the kingdom.

An open, festive visit

This was my second time visiting the Moroccan capital as part of an Israeli delegation, the first being with then-national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, himself of Moroccan extraction.

That trip, last December, was a whirlwind tour in which the Israeli delegation spent less time on the ground than it did in the air, rushing to sign a number of agreements with Morocco in order to make it back to Israel before a national lockdown went into place amid a major coronavirus outbreak. To limit the amount of time that the delegation would have to spend in quarantine upon returning to Israel, the participants were kept in a “bubble,” forced to stay together without outside contact.

This visit — also coming after Israel’s vaccination campaign and amid a relative lull in the pandemic in Morocco — was far more relaxed, with a few hours to explore Rabat’s market, as well as the visit to the local synagogue.

Last December, Morocco was also inclined to differentiate itself from the UAE and Bahrain, maintaining at the time that it was not truly part of the Abraham Accords as it had maintained ties to Israel in the past and was not normalizing ties from scratch but more realigning them. And as a result, that trip lacked the fanfare of this one.

This time around, Morocco had the opposite inclination, seeing that trumpeting its ties to Israel — well regarded in the world for its military prowess and advanced weaponry — could serve as a show of force toward its neighbor Algeria, with whom it is feuding over Algeirs’ support for the Polisario Front, a separatist movement that calls for an independent state in the Western Sahara, which Rabat claims as its own.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, center, poses for a photograph with top Moroccan defense officials in Rabat on November 24, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

In many ways, Gantz’s visit exemplified Israel’s newly normalized ties with Morocco, a country that it already had a decades-long relationship with, albeit one largely managed by the countries respective intelligence services.

The first day of the trip was more directly focused on the military and strategic aspects of the relationship, which after years of being kept in the shadows, was now fully coming to light. Gantz met with his Moroccan counterpart, signing a memorandum of understanding that is meant to make it easier for the countries’ militaries, defense ministries and arms-makers to speak to one another, to exchange intelligence and know-how, and, maybe, to hold joint exercises.

The defense minister also visited the headquarters of the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces (RMAF), meeting the entire high command for tea and exquisite pastries, followed by a lunch catered by a local kosher restaurant — my personal thanks again for that, RMAF — of the finest Moroccan fare: roasted lamb, a whole fish covered in vegetables and spices, couscous with dried fruits and fried cigars. Yum.

The second day was focused on the Jewish community, with the extended visit to the Talmud Torah synagogue. The building itself was a relatively modest affair, with an interior that wouldn’t seem out of place anywhere in Israel: signs in Hebrew telling people not to talk during the services, a board listing the times for prayers, a red velvet covering on the ark, a women’s section behind a cloth curtain.

Cantor Gabriel Deri, left, recites prayers during a visit by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, at the Talmud Torah synagogue in Rabat on November 25, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Speaking at the synagogue, Gantz noted that Moroccan culture is a deep part of Israeli culture, and this extends to synagogue designs as well. If not for the random smatterings of French, the two large portraits of the king and the Moroccan flag by the ark, you wouldn’t realize the synagogue was located abroad.

Speaking to reporters after the visit to the synagogue, Gantz told us to “not be cynical” about the importance of Israel’s newfound relationship with Morocco, that this was not just an alliance to fatten the pockets of Israeli weapons makers or to advance a discrete policy objective, but something with social and cultural implications. And he’s not entirely wrong.

Though from Rabat you could practically hear Israel’s defense industry salivating as it eyed the newly opening market and the hundreds of millions of dollars in arms sales they expected to make with it, Morocco does also represent the rare Arab country from which vast numbers of Jews fled in the years after the founding of the State of Israel and to which they could now freely go back and visit. It is also a rare Arab country that still maintains a Jewish community — albeit a small one — and all the trappings that come along with it, including spectacular kosher food.

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