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Moroccan Jews return to their roots with pilgrimage to Meknes

Visit this week was first of its kind since the 1960s, after the Muslim kingdom restored the city’s Jewish cemetery

A member of the Jewish community lights a candle at a Jewish cemetery in Morocco's northern city of Meknes on May 18, 2022. (Fadel Senna/AFP)
A member of the Jewish community lights a candle at a Jewish cemetery in Morocco's northern city of Meknes on May 18, 2022. (Fadel Senna/AFP)

MEKNES, Morocco (AFP) — Dozens of Jews traveled to the Moroccan city of Meknes this week for the first pilgrimage of its kind since the 1960s, after the Muslim kingdom restored the city’s Jewish cemetery.

Their return to the graveyard, which bears witness to a centuries-old Jewish presence in the North African country, came a year and a half after Rabat restored ties with Israel, which has a large community of Moroccan Jews.

The pilgrims, including many with Moroccan heritage, took part in ceremonies under heavy security on Wednesday and Thursday to honor “tzadikim,” prominent rabbis, buried at the site.

“It’s a huge source of pride to come to Meknes in the footsteps of my ancestors who rest here,” said one young rabbi who was visiting Morocco for the first time.

French-Moroccan worshiper Andre Derhy, 86, said he was lost for words.

“It’s wonderful to return to the city of my birth after so many years,” he said.

The cemetery was founded in 1682 for Jews of the Meknes mellah, or Jewish quarter.

Members of the Jewish community pray at a Jewish cemetery in Morocco’s northern city of Meknes on May 18, 2022. (Fadel Senna/AFP)

It 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.

By the 1940s, the community numbered some 250,000 — but a mass exodus after the founding of Israel in 1948 reduced it to just 3,000.

That is still the biggest in North Africa.

Many of Israel’s 700,000 Jews of Moroccan origin have kept close ties with the country.

This week, those links were visible as 100 or so candle-bearing pilgrims walked among the white tombstones.

Some prayed fervently at the shrine of Rabbi Raphael Berdugo, a 19th-century “master of the Torah.”

A member of the Jewish community at a Jewish cemetery in Morocco’s northern city of Meknes on May 18, 2022. (Fadel Senna/AFP)

“This gathering is proof that you can turn a field of ruins into a place that keeps alive the memory of Moroccan Jews,” said Serge Berdugo, head of Morocco’s Jewish council.

Rabat’s normalization with Israel prompted only muted protests in Morocco despite widespread public support for the Palestinian cause.

Yousseph Israel, from the northern city of Tetouan, said Morocco “has always been an example of religious co-existence.” He is a judge at the Hebrew court in Casablanca; Jews in Morocco are allowed to have family cases settled under Jewish law.

Israelis were allowed to visit the kingdom even before relations were reestablished. Morocco is now hoping that newly-established air links with Israel will boost the number of Jewish visitors from around 60,000 per year to as many as 200,000.

Members of the Jewish community gather at a Jewish cemetery in Morocco’s northern city of Meknes on May 18, 2022. (Fadel Senna/AFP)

Gilles Berdugo, an Israeli citizen originally from Meknes, said he was returning to the country for the first time since he left in 1970 at the age of 11.

“All my memories came back, it was like I’d never left the country,” he said.

For his son, Avishai, it “is like we’ve finally found a missing piece of the family puzzle.”

Members of the Jewish community light candles at a Jewish cemetery in Morocco’s northern city of Meknes on May 18, 2022. (Fadel Senna/AFP)

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