From the Jerusalem Post
Imagine a frightened six-year-old girl trying to catch her balance in the stifling and cramped hold of a violently tossing ship. She is not alone on the turbulent sea – her parents and sibling are nearby. But fear is in the air, along with the sight and smell of terrible sickness. The child understands little about her circumstances. She is aware that she is going to a place called Israel, where three of her brothers now live. She realizes that she is saying good-bye forever to her Morocco home. But that’s all she knows about her journey.
Meanwhile her present misery, and that of her beloved family, eclipses all else. The girl’s name is Dina Gabay. The year is 1955. Dina, her parents – Avraham and Rachel – and the family are fleeing ever-increasing dangers in their town of Sefrou, near Fez.
Only in later years did Dina come to appreciate the constant pressure her parents had endured before their departure. There were small things—insults and ceaseless intimidation. For example, her father, who owned a large and successful butcher shop, was at the mercy of local thieves, who sometimes simply walked into his business and demanded that he give them whatever they wanted – at no cost. “Not once and not twice,” Dina explains, “but whenever they wanted something. These were our good Muslim neighbors, you know?”
There were bigger threats too, including mysterious disappearances. First her father’s best friend vanished. Then one of Dina’s cousins, a remarkably beautiful 14-year-old girl, also disappeared, never to be seen again. In the Moroccan Jewish community, such things weren’t exactly unusual. And they happened more and more frequently after 1948, when Israel declared itself an independent state. At that moment, the centuries-long, low-grade oppression Jews experienced in their role as dhimmis under Muslim rule was ignited into ugly confrontations, humiliation and random attacks. These episodes sometimes exploded into full-blown pogroms in which hundreds were killed or wounded.
An article in Commentary magazine published in September 1954 described the difficult circumstances of Morocco’s Jews during the early years of Dina Gabay Levin’s life. “In disputes with Muslims, or on civil commercial and criminal issues among themselves, Jews are almost entirely subject to Islamic courts... even under the best of circumstances [the courts] regard Jewish litigants as unclean, inferior beings.”
AS IN many Jewish communities that fled hostility in Muslim majority nations in the 20th century, numerous Jews who left Morocco had been leaders in their communities; they were wealthy, successful and comfortable in their way of life. Doctors, lawyers, merchants and bankers were among the frightened masses that sailed away from their homelands. The day of their departure has often been described as their Nakba – the Arabic word for catastrophe that is often used by Palestinian activists to describe Israel’s Independence Day. In their catastrophic departures from their homes – many families had lived in North Africa since the 15th century and some even before – most of the Jews of the Maghreb lost everything but the clothes they wore. In a stunning riches-to-rags reversal, they found themselves among the poorest of the poor.
In 1948, Algeria had around 140,000 Jews. By 2008 there were none.
In 1948, Libya had more than 35,000 Jews. Today there are none.
In 1948, Tunisia had as many as 105,000; today there fewer than 2,000
And as for Morocco, there were around a quarter of a million Jews in 1948. Today there are fewer than 6,000.
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