Young Israelis, Moroccans visit each other’s nations to deepen person-to-person ties

Local youth group spearheads program to teach Israelis about Morocco and vice versa; the World Cup has certainly helped

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

Israeli and Moroccan youth celebrate Morocco's victory over Portugal in the World Cup in a youth center in the northern town of Isfiya on December 10, 2022. (Courtesy)
Israeli and Moroccan youth celebrate Morocco's victory over Portugal in the World Cup in a youth center in the northern town of Isfiya on December 10, 2022. (Courtesy)

The group had been supposed to learn about Druze culture on Saturday night, but Morocco’s World Cup quarter-final was on, so instead the young Moroccans and Israelis gathered in the northern Druze town of Isfiya’s HaNoar HaOved VeHaLomed clubhouse to watch the match.

Morocco, of course, stunned with a 1-0 win, marking the first time an Arab country has ever made it to the World Cup semifinals.

“When the goal went in, everyone was dancing and hugging. Everyone forgot who was Israeli, who was Moroccan, who was Muslim, who was Jewish, who was Druze. Everyone just joined in the celebration,” said Abdou Ladino, the head of the Moroccan organization Mimouna, which looks to strengthen Jewish-Muslim ties in the country. Mimouna was founded in 2007 at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco and has since expanded to become a nationwide organization.

The group of 30 young people — half Israelis, half Moroccans — was the brainchild of Tom Vizel, the head of HaNoar HaOved VeHaLomed’s education department. The left-leaning youth group has members from across Israeli society, Jewish and non-Jewish, and has for years done joint programming with European and Palestinian youth groups.

With the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, Vizel told The Times of Israel he saw an opportunity for the organization to further expand its international cooperation both for its own sake and in an effort to deepen the “person-to-person” ties between the countries, to flesh out the government-to-government normalization deals.

The organization began this effort with its Morocco collaboration, but Vizel said he has plans to extend this to the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa under an umbrella program known as “Youth4MENA” (MENA means Middle East and North Africa).

In October, a group of 15 young Israeli men and women, most Jewish but some Arab and Druze, traveled to Morocco, meeting with 15 Muslim Moroccans. This month, the Moroccan participants came to Israel, spending six days in the country, mostly in Jerusalem but also in Haifa and Isfiya.

HaNoar HaOved VeHaLomed, literally “The working and studying youth” (often referred to by its acronym NOAL), is principally an organization for teenagers, but it was logistically complicated to put on this program for Moroccan minors, particularly as it is a pilot program. So instead, the Israeli participants were recent graduates who are still involved in the organization.

Tom Vizel, right, from the HaNoar HaOved VeHaLomed youth group, who helped organize a program for Israeli and Moroccan youth poses for a photograph with his Moroccan counterpart, Abdou Ladino, in the Old City of Jerusalem in December 2022. (Courtesy)

The goal of this first trip, which was supported by the Foreign Ministry and the Regional Cooperation Ministry, was both to lay the groundwork for future delegations and to get the participants to serve as ambassadors and to teach more people from their countries about the other.

This was not an abstract aim but was an actual assignment for the participants: to come up with a programming idea for how they could connect at least 10 people from their communities to the other country, thus growing the number of people influenced by a single program from 30 to 300.

The Moroccan participants were recruited by Mimouna, sometimes by Ladino personally, with a special emphasis on people who grew up in historically Jewish areas, whose one-time residents left or fled the country, mostly moving to Israel. Ladino said he was focused on finding people from those areas who were unlikely to develop relationships with Jews or Israelis on their own.

“My vision was to bring people who have never had an opportunity to meet a Jew, let alone an Israeli,” Ladino said. “I wanted them to be proud, to not be ashamed of their neighborhoods.

“A lot of the participants have never left Morocco before — and now their first destination was Israel!” he said.

An exception to that was Laila, who grew up in the Mellah quarter of Rabat, which once contained a large, thriving Jewish community but is now home to only a few dozen Jewish families. Laila asked to only be identified by her first name.

Laila said she’d had many interactions with Jews over the years. She had long been aware of her neighborhood’s history and even once taught Moroccan Arabic to a Jewish Israeli singer. “Jews, mostly from Israel, would always come to visit. There were synagogues, mikvehs (ritual baths), cemeteries, a kosher communal oven,” she said.

Due to that connection, Laila jumped at the chance to get involved when she saw Mimouna’s post about the initiative. She said she was excited to show the visiting Israelis that they would be welcome in Morocco.

“I didn’t know what it would be like in Israel,” she said.

Laila said she was struck by the close physical proximity of the different religions in Israel: that the Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are all next to one another. “I didn’t realize that all of the religions were so close to each other,” she said.

Though she’d learned about the Holocaust before, the group’s visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center was also revelatory.

Israeli and Moroccan youth visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem in December 2022. (Courtesy)

“I had always thought of the Holocaust as a one-time event. I hadn’t really realized that it occurred over the course of many years,” she said.

Laila recalled breaking down in tears upon seeing a photograph of Jews digging their own mass grave before they were executed.

“I understand why Jews needed a refuge,” she said, referring to Israel.

“But I would think that people who went through the Holocaust would look to avoid more wars,” Laila added, referring to Israel’s ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was frequently discussed by the participants, both in general terms and more concrete ones.

After the terror attack in Jerusalem on November 23, the Moroccans “were all messaging in the WhatsApp group, asking if [the Israelis] were okay,” Ladino said.

“People came with only a modest knowledge of what’s going on here. They had many questions. We tried to answer as many as we could. And now they’ve also seen things with their own eyes,” he said.

Israeli and Moroccan youth pose for a photograph in Israel in December 2022. (Courtesy)

Ayala Shakuri, one of the Israeli participants, said she got involved in the program to learn more about Morocco and to teach Moroccans more about Israel.

“It was an opportunity for dialogue. We’ve had many conversations. Conversations about life, about what life is like in Israel, what life is like in Morocco, about Judaism, about Islam,” Shakuri said. “We wanted to show them that Israel is not just what they read about. There are also Jews and Arabs living alongside one another.”

Israeli and Moroccan youth watch Morocco beat Portugal in the World Cup in a HaNoar HaOved VeHaLomed youth center in the northern town of Isfiya on December 10, 2022. (Courtesy)

After the bombing attack in November, which occurred between the Israelis’ trip to Morocco and before the reciprocal visit, the Moroccan participants grew somewhat nervous about the visit. “But no one dropped out,” Ladino said. “They were very excited before the trip but they didn’t know what to expect.”

According to Laila and Ladino, the Moroccans were met with a warm welcome from Israelis, both Jewish and Arab.

“People loved that we were Moroccan! After I realized that, I started wearing the Moroccan flag everywhere we went,” Laila said.

Ladino said this was particularly true after Morocco beat Portugal on Saturday night. After the game they returned to Haifa, where everyone who saw them with their Moroccan flags greeted them as conquering heroes.

“Everyone was saying, ‘It’s good to be Moroccan in Israel. You’re liked by everyone,'” Ladino said. “In Haifa, they had their 15 minutes of fame.”

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