This week, I came across an opinion piece titled “The Moroccan Exception in the Arab World” by Yaëlle Azagury and Anouar Majid. This article focused on the revival and restoration of Morocco’s Jewish heritage through the policies of King Mohammed VI. The authors’ main argument is whether the revival is symbolic or an intentional endeavor by the country to revive its declining Jewish population. Given that the existing Jewish population in Morocco has dwindled from around 250,000 in the 1940s to around 2,400 citizens today, the authors feel that the symbolic aspect of these policies is more dominant.
What are the reasons for this drastic decline?
First, we need to acknowledge that this decline is prevalent in all the Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa. This phenomenon was triggered and accelerated by the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. The aftermath of this war led to significant casualties on both sides, 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled by Israeli forces, and Israel annexed 22% more than the UN Partition Plan had allocated. The strategic losses incurred by the Arab countries involved in the war, the growth of nationalism among Arab nations, and the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state and a homeland for Jewish people were all factors that contributed one way or another to the Jewish exodus from Arab countries.
It is hard to estimate the exact numbers of Arab Jewish citizens who have fled their respective countries, but it is estimated that around one million Jews in North Africa and the Middle East left their homes in the decade after the creation of Israel.
I used several data sources, including the data published by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs to create a visual that gives a better perspective of the exodus of the Arab Jewish citizens between 1948 up until 2005.
The most significant decline in the Jewish population took place between 1948 and 1967. The Six-Day Arab-Israeli War of 1967 was another trigger that made it almost impossible for Arab Jewish citizens to openly identify their religion due to the growing hostility against Israel. Many Arab states utilized their nationalistic agendas to represent the Jewish Arab population as a population that is more loyal to the Israeli Jewish homeland than to their respective countries. Policies were drafted to alienate and isolate the Arab Jewish population. These policies varied across the different Arab states, but they included: imposing specific restrictions on Jewish businesses and associations, limiting religious practices, subjecting the majority of the population to procedural harassment and continuous surveillance.
These circumstances may help us understand the significant decline of the Jewish population in Arab states. Many Arab Jews were also attracted by the prospects of living in a Jewish state that embraces their Jewish identity.
What happened beyond 1967?
The decline between 1948 and 1967 was so severe that the subsequent exodus of many Arab Jews beyond this period may be considered trivial. It has also become extremely hard to identify the Arab Jewish citizens who are still living in Arab countries due to the lack of public census data that identifies them. The remaining Jewish citizens are also less comfortable in publicly identifying their religion due to fear of harassment from both public and state actors.