Jews in Morocco ‘already packing their suitcases’ for direct Israel flights

Tickets for commercial flights have yet to go on sale, but many in the community look forward to seeing family members with ease

Members of the Moroccan Jewish community pray at the synagogue of Em Habanim in the western city of Casablanca on January 5, 2021 (FADEL SENNA / AFP)
Members of the Moroccan Jewish community pray at the synagogue of Em Habanim in the western city of Casablanca on January 5, 2021 (FADEL SENNA / AFP)

CASABLANCA (AFP) — Fanny Mergui has no doubt: Moroccan Jews “are already packing their suitcases” to board direct flights to Israel after the kingdom normalized ties with the Jewish state.

Morocco, home to North Africa’s biggest Jewish community and the ancestral homeland of some 700,000 Israelis, is also hoping for an influx of Israeli tourists when the COVID-19 pandemic eases.

“I’m very happy” that the five-hour route will be served by direct flights, said Mergui, a Moroccan Jew who lives in Casablanca.

“It’s a true revolution.”

The national flags of Morocco, Israel and the United States on an El Al plane to Morocco flying a delegation to finalize a normalization deal between Jerusalem and Rabat, at Ben Gurion airport, near Tel Aviv, December 22, 2020. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The first direct flight headed from Tel Aviv to Rabat in December to mark the three-way, US-brokered accord, under which Washington also recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara.

But tickets for regular commercial flights have yet to go on sale.

Bureaucratic delays have been compounded by the pandemic, which forced Morocco to mostly close its borders since March and impose a nationwide curfew in December.

Singer Suzanne Harroch, who had to wait 14 hours in transit at a Paris airport last time she visited Israel, called the Israeli-Moroccan rapprochement a “miracle.”

“A lot of my family live there,” said the 67-year-old. “I can’t wait to see them more, and more often.”

Historical ties

Israel had established liaison offices in Morocco in the 1990s during a short-lived diplomatic opening. But they were closed again in the early 2000s during the second Palestinian intifada.

Yet relations quietly continued, with some $149 million in bilateral trade between 2014-2017, according to Moroccan news reports.

The re-opening of the liaison offices could make it much easier for Moroccans to obtain visas to visit Israel.

The national flags of Israel and Morocco are projected on the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, December 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Morocco is also hoping to host more Israeli visitors.

Official statistics show that prior to the coronavirus pandemic, up to 70,000 Israeli tourists used to visit the country annually. Most were of Moroccan ancestry and had kept close ties with their country of origin.

“The majority of Israelis of Moroccan origin are delighted,” said Avraham Avizemer, who left Casablanca as a toddler and has lived for decades in Israel.

The fact their children and grandchildren can return “is huge,” he said.

One Israeli already in Morocco is Elan.

The 34-year-old sat in the library of a Casablanca synagogue, where along with other Israeli Jews, mostly of Moroccan origin, he is receiving religious classes from a Moroccan rabbi.

“Direct flights would make travel easier,” he said.

A picture taken on October 13, 2017, shows a street in the “Mellah” Jewish quarter of the Medina in Marrakesh. (AFP PHOTO / FADEL SENNA)

Morocco’s Jewish community dates back to antiquity.

It was boosted in the 15th century by Jews expelled from Spain, and by the late 1940s reached about 250,000 people — around a tenth of the population. But that figure tumbled after the creation of Israel in 1948, with many of them fleeing local hostilities directed at them over the establishment of the Jewish state.

Today, about 3,000 Jews remain in Morocco.

‘Happy, optimistic’

Businessman George Sebat, 56, said he was “very happy and very optimistic” about Morocco’s normalization, citing positive impacts for tourism and the economy.

Prosper Bensimon, speaking after the evening prayer at Casablanca’s Em Habanim synagogue, agreed.

“Four of my Muslim neighbors want to accompany me on my first visit from Morocco,” he said.

A rabbi gives a sermon at the synagogue of Beth El in the western city of Casablanca on January 5, 2021 (FADEL SENNA / AFP)

But normalization has not been universally welcomed by Moroccans.

Sion Assidon, an academic and prominent left-wing activist who backs the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, is bitterly opposed.

“The latest fad is to justify the shame of normalization by citing Morocco’s historical links with Moroccan colonists,” he wrote on Facebook.

Mergui, a former Zionist youth activist, said she had emigrated to Israel in the 1960s but returned to Morocco after the 1967 Six Day War.

“I could not accept that the Jewish state, which I believed in, should occupy Palestinian land,” she said.

She urged Israel to support “the creation of a Palestinian state.”

But, she added, she welcomes “every step towards peace.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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