Mi Samcha?” The Dialectic of Authority in North Africa

Jewish schoolchildren at a JDC-supported school in Djerba, Tunisia. May 2009 by Chrystie Sherman for JDC

[Published to coincide with the 6th Yahrzeit of Ralph I. Goldman]

By Seymour Epstein Ed.D.

The title of this essay is based on a remark I heard several times at various staff meetings from Ralph Goldman z’l, senior statesman of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, twice its CEO. He would ask Mi Samcha quoting Exodus 2:14 where a Hebrew slave asks Moshe “Who made you chief and ruler over us…?” Ralph was referring to a question of ethics and policy that should concern every NGO. The JDC headquarters is in New York and its financial resources come primarily from Diaspora Jewish funds. What gives it the authority to function pro-actively in a Muslim country where Jews have existed for many centuries, having arrived before both Christianity and Islam? There they inhabited a home where they developed local customs and rituals – a unique culture vastly different than that of the North American Diaspora. These Jews are our family, but distinctly distant from us. Ultimately, the imposing authority of the NGO can conflict with the native and natural authority of the local community.

The question, however, is not unique to North Africa. When the JDC took control of the DP camps in post-war Germany or when they operated in Communist Hungary and Yugoslavia or when they began the long saga of deep involvement in the FSU — the dilemma of Mi Samcha existed in all these settings. Some examples:

Aside from food, shelter, and medical care in the DP camps, what prompted the printing of the Talmud in 1948 in Munich with the help of the US Army? Was it a JDC HQ priority or was it inspired by the observant residents of the camps convinced that the Nazis had destroyed any vestige of the world they knew and revered?

How did we count the Jews of Communist Yugoslavia? Did we use halachic rules or the regulations of the Israeli Law of Return, or did we simply accept the local norms of Belgrade and Zagreb?

And in the Former Soviet Union were we not so pleasantly surprised to see Jewish activity sprout up, literally ex nihilo, after decades of separation from Jewish life? Not what we expected and much of it self-started.

While the North African experience was unique and case-specific, it posed the same dilemma that JDC found in other countries of operation. I will relate specifically to Morocco and Djerba in this essay by providing cases where competing authorities vie for policy and agency.

On writing about JDC for both internal use and external audiences I often listed six Jewish values which seemed to me to be part of the operating principle of the organization: Tzedaka (the Jewish tax!), Chesed (charity), Ahavat Yisrael (Jewish Peoplehood), Talmud Torah (Jewish education), Tikkun Olam (messianic optimism), and Eilu v’Eilu (diversity and inclusion). These are the authoritative values which inspired the JDC to operate in a disintegrating community such as the Morocco of the early fifties. By the time I arrived in Casablanca in 1981 as a pedagogic consultant (later to become country director), the Jewish population had decreased from its post-war number of approximately 250,000 to about 15,000. Even in its diminished state it was a viable and vivid community with its own values and traditions, some of which corresponded wonderfully with those of the JDC, but not all.

While the seven cases cited below seem to be illustrative primarily of culture clash, they each demonstrate the competing respective authorities of the operating NGO and the local community along with a clash of agency. These cases are from a specific historical period and they do not represent present-day situations.

Teachers Salaries: A Case Study

When I arrived in Casablanca the JDC had just set up an agreement with the Moroccan government to purchase local currency at a reduced rate. This meant that our dollar budget was worth considerably more in country than when budgeted. The windfall had HQ instructing me to prepare a proposal for increasing teachers’ salaries in the school systems we were partially funding. Before computers this was done mostly with pencil, a calculator, and graph paper. The schools little resembled anything I had encountered in North America and the teachers even less so, but after many visits and meetings with principals I wrote a proposal for New York. The exercise was actually quite beneficial to me since it introduced me to both the complex differences from what I knew and the diversity among the four different school systems operating in Morocco; Ozar haTorah, the Alliance, ORT, and Habad. It was my first bath in the culture of North African Jewish education. But HQ immediately rejected my proposal and sent a school management expert from New York to work with me on a revised proposal. This man’s experience was in the New York public school system. He spoke English only; no Hebrew, French, or Arabic. My language with the principals was Hebrew and French. I translated at all the meetings with principals, but not only language. My colleague explained that salaries were determined by a simple matrix of training and work experience – last degree and years of teaching. Sounds simple, n’est-ce pas? When my co-worker found out that many teachers had not finished high school and that some had barely been in a real elementary school one element of the matrix became unrealistic. The other element, years of teaching, was relevant until one of the principals pointed out that there was a third consideration which he used to determine salaries and/or something like a bonus. A teacher with a large family received extra salary. An upcoming family celebration such as a brit milah or a wedding required a significant bonus. Etc. Here was the clash of systems between New York and Casablanca. Fortunately, our HQ expert saw that the system he represented could not function in North Africa and he supported my original proposal which was basically a percentage increase on the status quo of each teacher.

In retrospect, there was another option. HQ could have decided to use the extra money elsewhere in the country budget and leave the teachers with their existing low income, but a balance was achieved; JDC’s money with local values.

Jesus in the Kindergarten: A Case Study

Soon after my arrival I was informed that our country director was going to be absent when a UJA mission of women leaders was arriving. I was to host and guide the mission. I knew very little about UJA, less about missions, and even less about Jewish Morocco. The Paris office suggested that the Ozar haTorah kindergarten was one of our finest jewels and that it must be on the tour. When I visited the kindergarten with Rabbi Aharon Monsonego z’l, the director of Ozar haTorah and later to become the chief rabbi of Morocco, I was shocked to see a picture of Jesus in the room. I asked the rabbi what he was doing there and he pointed out that a picture of a shepherd was suitable for the tiny children, and he wondered how I knew it was Jesus, which never occurred to him since Christianity barely exists in Morocco. I assured him it was Jesus and strongly requested him to take it down for the visit of the mission; that and the picture of the Marlboro man smoking. Rabbi Monsonego always wondered how a JDC consultant knew what Jesus looked like. It was the halo!

In this case, I imposed our western perspective, but for a higher good.

Blind Authority: A Case Study

One of the country directors in Morocco had become very friendly with the leadership, professional and lay, of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, called Ittihad in Morocco. At the time Ittihad ran four schools in Casablanca and one in Marrakech, a tiny remnant of what their system was in years past. This country director was European originally, Ashkenazi, fluent in French, and new to the JDC. It was natural for him to prefer the AIU schools along with ORT over the more traditional schools of Habadand Ozar haTorah. Regretably, he let his personal preferences interfere with his professional obligation to respect local culture and the diversity required to service the local demographics. He attempted to persuade HQ to force consolidation of the schools under an AIU roof. Fortunately, New York had sufficient exposure over many years to all four systems and even with a dwindling population saw the need for diversity in the overall picture. Each of the schools had its own sector of the community and served that sector according to its needs and values. Someone at HQ said “Mi Samcha?”

In most situations the clash between cultures did not affect major policy issues such as in this last case, but rather, minor details throughout the JDC work in North Africa came together to create a balance between the authority and agency of the NGO and that of the host community.

Djerban Education: A Case Study

Djerba, an ancient island community in Tunisia, is one place that the Alliance could not establish schools in the nineteenth century as the ruling rabbi forbade secular education on the island. That rule exists to this day for the boys who study in the yeshiva and spend a few hours every week in the local Muslim school to quietly add some secular material to their daily study of Talmud. It’s a long and fascinating story how David Kiddushim z’l set up a Hebrew language school for girls in post-war Djerba where eventually even some secular subjects such as arithmetic and geography were taught. David was fascinated by spoken Hebrew when he first encountered it having met a Palestinian Jew serving in the Jewish Brigade of the British Army. He decided to become the Eliezer Ben Yehuda of Djerba where only Arabic was spoken. He got around the rabbinic ruling by opening a school for girls only and the JDC quietly supplied him with text books from Israel. This had been going on for a few generations by the time I arrived in Djerba in the eighties, resulting in Hebrew-speaking mothers and grandmothers with a decent elementary education. The men had traditional Jewish training with little or no secular education. Many of them were trained by their fathers in the local jewellery trade. I attempted to determine if the 19th century ruling could be rescinded permitting the establishment of a full school for boys which would include traditional Talmud study, Hebrew language, and some general subjects such as math, geography, history, and French. My plan was to invite the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel to the island for a few days and have him rescind the ban on secular subjects. The community was enthusiastic about such a visit but made it clear that the Chief Rabbi could not alter the ruling. Why? Because he is not a Djerban!

The Djerban story is not over, but the dialectic of authority in this case took place in an ancient community that is justifiably very proud of its history and spiritual patrimony. We did modernize their kindergarten and we funded their girls’ school, but their boys, when not in yeshiva, still run off to the local public Islamic school for a bit of general studies – the community’s way of getting around the ban.

Moroccan Special Education: A Case Study

After a few months of observing classes in all of the schools I noticed that some lower grades had older children sitting in the back of the room. When I asked about these children it became apparent that they were kids with various forms of learning disabilities who were frozen into one grade, usually without any real progress. There was, as yet, no tradition of special education in the country. A group of women connected to one of the schools encouraged me to form a group of these students for some special attention. There were no special educators in the community and I had no training in that domain. I found a mother who spoke French, Arabic, and Hebrew and together we came up with some teaching strategies for these children. I had to convince the schools to cooperate by releasing these children to one class. The only authority I had was that of common sense and compassion. JDC had to find the funding in our budget for this class and the principals had to open themselves to a new idea. We had some small success and a few sad failures, but we worked on hope. While I hoped for a bit of French reading skills and some simple arithmetic, our worst child made no progress. All we could do to give him a win was to teach him a chapter of Song of Songs in Hebrew so that he could join other boys singing it in the synagogue Friday eve. That first time, he smiled with pride and confidence a smile I never saw on him before. Once again, a dialogue of different cultural authorities. Special education produced a brief but significant moment of Moroccan liturgy!

Corporal Punishment: A Case Study

I was in the lunch room at one of our elementary schools watching the kids eat a delicious couscous meal when I noticed that one of the teachers was maintaining discipline with a stick in his hand. I did not witness him using it that day, but when he left it on a table and walked away, an older child picked it up and threatened another student with it. In my then role as pedagogic consultant I had already wondered if I could speak to the teachers and impose on them my western views regarding corporal punishment. I hesitated until a parent complained to me about the problem. Even then I wasn’t certain since the parent claimed that only she had the right to hit her children. Finally, I had seen too much and decided to talk to the teachers about corporal punishment. Given the traditional background of the teachers, I thought of quoting some sacred Jewish sources from the Talmud, but I realized that some of them were quite capable of citing alternative sources which recommended the very thing I was opposing. I gave the talk without quoting the Talmud and there was no opposition. The next day one of the teachers came to my office and told me how much he agreed with me and assured me that he never hits a child for bad behaviour, only for incorrect answers. That was one of those days when I wondered what I was doing in Casablanca.

A School Library: A Case Study

The story about corporal punishment reminded me of my attempt to establish libraries in the schools. Morocco was very much an oral/aural culture and reading and writing were not as natural as talking and listening. The upside of this was that many folks had prodigious memory. I was taken by the fact that many men in the synagogue did not use a prayerbook since the psalms and prayers were known by heart. That said, the schools taught the reading and writing of three languages, French, Hebrew, and Arabic, and both general and Jewish books were available in the first two languages. Moroccan Arabic is a spoken dialect and only standard Arabic was taught as a written language. Two of the schools seemed to be interested in establishing a school library and the JDC was prepared to fund the purchase of books if the schools provided space and staff. After setting up one of the libraries I gave a talk to some teachers on how a school library functions. One of the teachers later told me she was certain of two things; none of the teachers had ever been in a library and none of them read books for leisure or study, including herself. I knew that the exception was the men who studied Jewish texts, but even they, never took notes nor did they read other material.

As I noted above, it is possible to see these cases as simple clashes of culture, which they are. In the case, however, of an NGO investing care, concern, human resources, and funding in a community, the dialectic of competing cultures creates issues and dilemmas of authority and ultimately, agency. If the community is dwindling and in relative distress, it can only demonstrate its value system by the way it lives. The NGO, on the other hand, has the ability to decode any given situation and decide how to impose outright, when to yield entirely, and when to find a balance that works for both sides. My hope is that the cases cited above illustrate the dynamics of Mi Samcha in JDC’s work in North Africa.

Seymour Epstein Ed.D., who worked in various senior roles for JDC until 1999, delivered this paper at a Scholars’ Workshop — “The Work of the Joint Distribution Committee and Other International Jewish Organizations in Islamic Countries” — co-sponsored by the JDC Archives and the Ben-Zvi Institute.