Despite strained ties with Israel, annual Moroccan Book Festival features exhibition on Jewish literature, culture

Activists involved in programs connecting Israelis with people from the Middle East-North Africa region say efforts are more challenging post-Oct. 7 but still critical

Nestled in the Moroccan capital of Rabat lies a small “Jewish quarter,” replete with gates and alleys. At this year’s Moroccan International Book Fair, it was home to the Jewish Books exhibition, a celebration of the Jewish literature and culture that is intertwined with Morocco’s history, yet largely unknown to many of its citizens.

The inclusion of the Jewish literature exhibit came as the country’s ties to Israel have strained over the war against Hamas in Gaza and as the Jewish populations around the world, and in Muslim-majority countries in particular, have felt under siege. 

Yet with 300,000 attendees from various countries, including Lebanon, Turkey, Asia, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, the Moroccan Book Festival displayed books written by Muslim Moroccans or Jewish Moroccans about Moroccan Jewish history, customs, culture, food. The fair, which concluded it’s 10-day run on May 19, also contained a section for antisemitism and Holocaust education, Abdelhak (Abdu) El Kaoukabi, the director of education at  the Mimouna Association, the NGO behind the Jewish exhibition, told eJewishPhilanthropy.

“We had questions in our booth about a variety of things: Do Jews pray? Do Jews fast? How many times do they pray a day? How many Jews lived in Morocco? What happened to them?” El Kaoukabi recalled.

For El Kaoubaki and his organization, the event marked a significant success. Mimouna, founded in 2007 by Muslim students in Rabat, aspired to change negative perceptions of Jews among Moroccan youth through events like Moroccan Jewish Days and cultural exhibitions like this one.

El Kaoukabi himself grew up in a household where Islam and Judaism were discussed, as his grandmother is of Jewish origin. This personal connection fueled his passion for the subject, leading him to travel to Israel multiple times, learn Hebrew and receive training on educating about the Holocaust at Yad Vashem.

However, El Kaoukabi acknowledges the fear among his team about the feasibility of displaying a Jewish booth with Hebrew books in a Muslim country in recent times. “There were also questions from visitors about what’s going on in Gaza. We gave our position, which is very clear when it comes to Oct. 7 – it wasn’t an act of resistance, it is terrorism. Ninety-nine percent of the discussions were good. By the end of the conversation, we would end in peace, shaking hands.”

Following the book event closely from Israel was El Kaoukabi’s colleague and friend, Tom Vizel, the founder of the NGO 4MENA, which aims to connect youth organizations throughout the Middle East and North Africa region.

Vizel, who also serves as the head of the educational department at the Israeli youth movement HaNoar HaOved VeHaLomed (“The Working and Learning Youth”), remarked, “It’s truly outstanding to witness Mimouna’s work. They’re dedicated to preserving Moroccan Jewish heritage and culture in a smart and sensitive manner. We need to broaden our perspective beyond current events and embrace the rich history shared across the region because if you just talk about the present, you’ll be stuck in an endless struggle. Talking about the past. Open people’s hearts and minds.”

It may seem like a lifetime ago, but in December 2020, Israel and Morocco reestablished diplomatic relations as part of the  Abraham Accords. Two years later, in 2022, Vizel and El Kaoukabi were able to connect a delegation of 15 young Israelis, Jewish, Muslims and Druze to a delegation of 15 Muslim Moroccan students. They met twice – first for 10 days in Morocco and then for another 10 days in Israel.

Shir Reuben, one of the Israeli participants of the delegation, recalled her first experience arriving in a Muslim country: “When we first got off the plane in Morocco it was scary that all I heard was Arabic, and all the signs were in Arabic. It was daunting, since I’ve learned to be afraid of it. But during many small group dialogues, we talked about our lives and our misconceptions of each other. They were surprised about everything we told them about Israel.”

“It was an incredible experience for me to meet students from Morocco who are not Jews but are fans of Judaism and want to learn about it,” added Reuben. “They were bright individuals, and I came back full of inspiration and belief that we can build relations.”

After Oct. 7, the delegation’s WhatsApp group filled with worried messages from the Moroccan students, supporting their Israelis friends. But since then, the Moroccan students became more critical of the conduct of the war in Gaza. “I had to distance myself. It was too painful. Nobody understands what’s happening to us, and it’s frustrating,” says Reuben, who has been working with survivors of the massacre, mainly children.

The Moroccan participants in the delegation didn’t agree to be interviewed for fear of facing repercussions for maintaining ties with Israelis. But neither El Kaoukabi nor Vizel is losing hope. The seed planted in the delegation is still there, they said. They both believe it will eventually grow.

“Moroccans still struggle to differentiate between an Israeli and a radical Israeli,” said El Kaoukabi. “This lack of distinction places everyone in the same basket, making it very challenging for us. Nevertheless, we persist in our efforts. We have made significant strides, monitoring antisemitism on social media and reaching out to Jewish communities across Morocco. Our work continues, particularly with the youth,” he said.

“Building the necessary infrastructure for the network has been challenging, especially after the events of Oct. 7 and the subsequent war. Plans for trips to Jordan, the UAE and a Saudi peace event were canceled,” said Vizel.

“But we have to think of the day after the war. There are around 20 to 30 million people under the age of 35 in Muslim countries with which we have agreements,” he said. “We have to encourage young people to take a leap of faith and engage in cross-cultural dialogue. By visiting their countries first, we show them respect and trust. We aim to introduce them to a diverse Israel, where 20% of the population is non-Jewish. With great partners like Mimouna and others, we will be able to build a coalition of people who want to live together and build a better future.”