A Jew Broadcasts to Morocco, Building a Relationship With a Muslim Audience
‘Risalat New York,’ the Arab world’s only non-Israeli Jewish-hosted radio show, offers perspective from Brooklyn
Sunday night for me is always Moroccan radio night. From a home office in Brooklyn surrounded by echo-absorbing foam, I write a commentary in Arabic about the week in Arab politics and then read it into a microphone. Next, I upload the sound file to a studio in Casablanca, where a producer adds the theme song, and it airs the following day to an audience of 1.75 million under the title Risalat New York—“Letter from New York.”
My show has the distinction of being the only radio program hosted by a Jew on Arab airwaves that doesn’t originate in Israel. But more than three years after the broadcast debuted, my Muslim audience now finds it ordinary, rather than aberrant, to hear a Jewish voice opine on Arab affairs in their mother tongue. In numerous Arab countries, such a situation would be revolutionary—but in Morocco, where the leadership has proactively nurtured Muslim-Jewish understanding for years, it’s merely one step forward among many. Given that the listenership has begun to spread beyond the kingdom’s borders, moreover, Risalat New York presents a case in point of how the broader Moroccan policies that keep me on the air can help spread tolerance in other places where Arabic is spoken, too.
A century ago, the region’s demographics were considerably more diverse, and considerably more Jewish. A million Arabic-speaking Jews still lived throughout the region; in some Arab cities, almost every Muslim knew at least one. Jews formed a professional class, deeply engaged in mainstream culture wherever they were allowed to be. Iraq’s national orchestra, composed overwhelmingly of Jewish musicians, broadcast a live radio performance across the region each week into the 1940s. Leila Mourad, the Barbra Streisand of Egypt, starred in some of the most popular Arabic movie musicals ever made. Jews published prolifically in Lebanese and Syrian media and contributed to the major newspapers of Baghdad, where even a Zionist daily with reporting from Palestine was licensed in the 1920s. In Morocco, Jews began publishing newspapers as soon as printing presses became available. The Hadidi brothers of Casablanca, Pinhas Assayag and David Chriqui of Tangier, and one of the country’s few female journalists, Rahma Toledano, were all well known to Muslim and Jewish readers. Some published in Spanish or French, then the languages of politics and commerce, while others wrote for a narrower audience in Judeo-Arabic—the Moroccan equivalent of Yiddish—printed in Hebrew block characters.
It is of course hard even to picture such a media landscape in the Middle East today, when the great emptying of the Arab world’s Jewish communities is slipping out of living memory. But through the most difficult years of the 1930s and 1940s, the Moroccan monarchy ensured that its country remained a haven for Jews: In 1941, Sultan Mohammed V rejected calls from the Vichy French occupiers of his country to turn over the 265,000-strong Jewish population to the Nazis. After WWII and Israel’s creation, Jews remained in Morocco for longer than their co-religionists elsewhere in the region—but those who stayed understood that the price of their security was to keep a much lower profile. By the 1960s, barely any Jews remained active in the media. The few who continued writing were leftist dissidents, and by the 1970s they too had put down their pens.
Morocco’s Jewish community now numbers around 5,000—a shadow of its former self, yet the largest in the Arab world. Though Moroccan cities, towns, and even mountain villages are full of Muslim grandparents who speak fondly of the Jews they knew as children, few of today’s youth have even met one in the flesh. Much of what they hear about Jews comes from regional satellite television networks that use The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to explain Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. The monarchy has taken steps to offer a corrective to these ideas: Mohammed VI, the present king, has called for a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, even as he condemns Israeli settlement building and human rights violations. Moroccan schoolchildren learn about their country’s Jewish heritage. Hebrew and Arabic hymns are performed side by side in festivals of sacred music. Synagogues in the country are fiercely protected, and some have been publicly rededicated in joint ventures between the Jewish community and the state. In a 2011 speech, the king countered the scourge of Arab Holocaust denial by describing the tragedy as “a wound to the collective memory, which we know is engraved in one of the most painful chapters of the collective history of mankind”—and called on Moroccans to observe Yom HaShoah.
Next week King Mohammed VI will meet with President Obama in Washington, D.C., his first official visit since 2002. They are expected to discuss Syria, Iran, the rising al-Qaida threat in the African Sahel, and the status of talks between Israelis and Palestinians. On the latter issue, the monarch can offer resources that could prove invaluable to a negotiated settlement: As chairman of the Arab League’s Jerusalem Committee, he is an advocate for the rights of Palestinians whom Ramallah trusts. In the Gulf, heads of state regard him as a member of their families. For decision-makers in Israel, he is first and foremost the grandson of Vichy-era Sultan Mohammed V. He is also the only Arab leader to have legislated equal rights and protections for his country’s Jewish minority in a new constitution and a reliable intermediary between Israel and those Arab states with which it lacks formal relations. As for Israeli voters, a million of whom are either natives of Morocco or have a Moroccan-born parent or grandparent, he embodies a tradition with which many still identify: a feeling of attachment that goes hand-in-hand with their pride in Israel. Above all, he is a head of state who has made his personal affinity for Jews into formal domestic policy and won over a large swath of the population to the values he espouses.
These efforts are part of a larger, ongoing relationship between Moroccans in and out of government and Jews in Israel and the diaspora, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim alike. As Shmuel Segev, a former Israeli military intelligence officer, described in a recent book, the two sides have quietly made common cause in the halls of Congress, worked together in the Middle East to mitigate disputes between Israel and its neighbors, and fostered security and intelligence cooperation. Looking ahead, they recognize the urgency of brokering a Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement—but also know that hostility toward Jews in the broader Arab Muslim world will not end with the establishment of a Palestinian state. With only a few thousand Jews left in Arab lands, the question of how to build and nurture new emotional bonds with hundreds of millions of Arab Muslims remains open.
Thanks to outside forces waging a proxy battle in Syria, 2013 has become a year of attrition rather than endgames