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Moroccan Muslim scholars of Jewish law co-host conference in Israel

11-person delegation is first academic group to arrive since Abraham Accords; Morocco’s envoy calls Jewish heritage ‘the foundation of the relationship with Israel’

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Dr. Abdellah Ouzitane (left), Dr. Shimon Ohayon, and Moroccan envoy  Abderrahim Beyyoud iat Bar-Ilan University, November 8, 2021 (Peleg Levy/Bar-Ilan University)
Dr. Abdellah Ouzitane (left), Dr. Shimon Ohayon, and Moroccan envoy Abderrahim Beyyoud iat Bar-Ilan University, November 8, 2021 (Peleg Levy/Bar-Ilan University)

The first academic delegation from Morocco since the signing of the Abraham Accords participated in a conference on Moroccan Jewish culture and law on Monday in Ramat Gan.

The two-day Bar-Ilan University conference, titled “Jewish Culture and Law in Morocco,” was co-hosted by Israeli and Moroccan research centers — the Aharon and Rachel Dahan Center for Culture, Society and Education in the Sephardic Heritage at Bar-Ilan University, and the Center for Studies and Research on Hebraic Law in Essouiara, Morocco.

“This conference comes from the dream of the preservation of Jewish heritage,” Abderrahim Beyyoudh, head of Morocco’s diplomatic mission in Tel Aviv, told The Times of Israel. “The Moroccan Jewish heritage is the foundation of the relationship with Israel.”

Beyyoudh refused to comment on when Morocco would open a full embassy in Israel.

Morocco became the third Arab state to normalize ties with Israel in 2020 under US-brokered deals, joining the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. In return, then-US president Donald Trump fulfilled a decades-old goal of Morocco by backing its contested sovereignty in Western Sahara, what Rabat refers to as its “southern provinces.”

Israeli and Moroccan officials sign a bilateral agreement at the royal palace in Rabat, Morocco, December 22, 2020. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The 11-strong delegation is made up of professors — all Muslim — from the universities of Fez and Rabat, and from the Hebraic Law center.

“I asked my colleagues, are we ready to go to Israel? Are we sure?” said Abdellah Ouzitane, the Moroccan scholar who founded the center on Jewish law in Essouiara. “One hundred percent, they said. It’s historic for me as a person, it’s historic for me as a professor.”

Ouzitane signed a memorandum of understanding on future cooperation with Dahan Center director Shimon Ohayon.

Ohayon, born in Marrakesh, said that he had hosted individual Moroccan scholars in the past, but this was the first time he hosted an official delegation from an Arab country.

“There’s a big difference now,” he said. “One, the size of the delegation, and two, that it is official, and three, the subject — Jewish law.”

The Moroccan scholars landed in Israel on Thursday for a one-week visit. An Israeli delegation is slated to visit Essouiara in April.

They visited Jaffa, Tel Aviv, Ashkelon, and Ashdod, and will visit Jerusalem’s Old City on Wednesday.

“When we were visiting Tel Aviv we were speaking in Arabic,” recounted Ouzitane. “Many people stopped us and said, ‘You are Moroccan. I want a picture with you.'”

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (right) inaugurates Israel’s Liaison Office in Rabat, Morocco, on August 12, 2021, alongside Moroccan Deputy Foreign Minister Mohcine Jazouli (center) and Welfare Minister Meir Cohen (left). (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

They also met with Minister in the Finance Ministry Hamad Amar and  Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai on Sunday, and are slated to meet with Essouiara-born Welfare Minister Meir Cohen on Tuesday and Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion on Wednesday.

Ohayon said he hopes that the growing academic ties will result in access to the royal library in Morocco. “We want to search for manuscripts we didn’t know about,” he said. “We don’t know what’s there and what isn’t.”

A unique heritage and experience

Ouzitane decided to open his Jewish law center after a conversation with colleagues during a conference in Essouiara.

“We were with some friends, some professors from the university of Rabat,” he said. “We have a unique heritage, we have a unique experience in the world, not only the Muslim world, but the entire world. Why not create a research center on the Hebrew law?”

The Hebraic Law center is housed in Bayt Dakira, the spiritual and museum site that aims to preserve Jewish history in Essouiara, once a majority-Jewish city. King Mohammed VI inaugurated Bayt Dakira in person in January 2020, months before the Abraham Accords.

In this file photo taken on December 14, 2019, Andre Azoulay, adviser to the Moroccan king, poses for a picture at the “Bayt Dakira” (House of Memory) Jewish museum, in Morocco’s Atlantic coastal city of Essaouira (FADEL SENNA / AFP)

“This is a message of peace, this is a message to encourage us to work together with our Israeli brothers,” said Ouzitane.

Though the Abraham Accords are important, he said, the study of Jewish history in Morocco does not depend on them.

“Moroccan culture, and history, and also Moroccan memory — and the presence of the Jewish community in Morocco — is more than 2,000 years old,” he said.

Morocco is home to North Africa’s largest Jewish community, which has been there since ancient times and grew with the arrival of Jews expelled from Spain by Catholic kings starting in 1492.

Morocco’s envoy to Israel Abderrahim Beyyoud speaks to Times of Israel diplomatic correspondent Lazar Berman (Bar-Ilan University)

It reached about 250,000 in the late 1940s, 10 percent of the national population, but many Jews left after the founding of Israel in 1948, many of them fleeing local hostilities directed at them over the establishment of the Jewish state.

About 3,000 Jews remain in Morocco, and the Casablanca community is one of the country’s most active.

Israel, meanwhile, is home to over 700,000 Jews of Moroccan descent.

There has been no blowback from opening a center to study Jewish law, said Ouzitane. “No negative reaction. We were impressed by this.”

“We are going back home to deliver to the Moroccans the message of the Israelis, our brothers, our friends,” he said, “and to tell them that everyone there is waiting for you.”

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