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November 4, 2003 Tuesday


SECTION: INTERNATIONAL NEWS

DISTRIBUTION: Europe; Britian; Scandinavia; Middle East; Africa; India; Asia; England

LENGTH: 970 words

HEADLINE: Moroccan Jews' dilemma: Leave amid terrorism fears or keep alive an ancient heritage?

BYLINE: ANGELA DOLAND; Associated Press Writer

DATELINE: CASABLANCA,
Morocco

BODY:
Harry Amar worries that his little sister will never know the Morocco he grew up in, where Jews and Muslims lived comfortably side-by-side.

Three-year-old Audrey's Jewish preschool was evacuated last month in a bomb scare, and she has to cross a police barrier just to get to class.

"I'm afraid about what it's going to do to her psyche," said Amar, 26, on a break at his office supplies import business. "It's tough ... especially if you're just a child."

The North African kingdom has long been an example of Jewish-Muslim coexistence, a sign of hope that peace would be possible between Israelis and Palestinians. Now the small, ancient Jewish community is becoming a target.

Suicide bombers killed 45 people - including 12 attackers - in Casablanca on May 16. No Jews were killed, but three of the five bombings targeted symbols of
Morocco's Jewish presence: a cemetery, a community center and a Jewish-owned restaurant.

In September, two Jewish men were murdered, one stabbed on his way to synagogue, the other shot point-blank by masked assailants. Police believe one killing was carried out by extremists; the motive for the other is still unclear.

The attacks have stunned
Morocco, which prides itself on tolerance and had been largely spared from terrorism.

Now, some Jews are wondering whether it is safe to stay. Many are determined to stick it out, saying it would be a disaster for
Morocco - and for history - if the few remaining Jews packed their bags.

After decades of emigration, there are only 3,000 to 5,000 Jews left in
Morocco, down from 280,000 in 1948. Many went to Israel, where they were guaranteed citizenship under the right of return. Others fled Morocco's poverty in hopes of finding a better life in France or Canada.

Morocco's Jews have watched most of their friends and family leave. Harry Amar, for example, says only a few of his childhood friends still live here. All his aunts and uncles moved to Israel or France.

"If I had the choice, I wouldn't be here," said Amar, who has spent time in Britain and Israel. Now he's dreaming of New York.

Joe Kadoch, who runs the restaurant targeted in the May bombings, says Morocco's Jews have lost their lightheartedness since the attacks.

"There is a before and after," he said. "Before, it was
Morocco. We had confidence in the future. ... I think all that has collapsed."

With the Jewish community dwindling, Moroccan Muslims have less and less contact with Jews, Kadoch says. There are simply fewer chances to break down stereotypes and hate.

Before the mass departures, "every Moroccan guy had a Jewish buddy. It's not like that anymore," Kadoch said in his quiet, dimly lit Italian restaurant. The elegant entrance hall, decorated with mirrors and chandeliers, was blasted in the attack.

Kadoch reopened two weeks later. He says he needed to get on with life. He is not leaving.

"If the (Jewish) community disappears, a history of thousands of years would crumble," he said.

The first Jews settled in Morocco 2,000 years ago, about six centuries before the Arabs brought Islam here.

Despite dark chapters, like the expulsion of Jews from some cities during the 18th century, their lot was better overall than in Europe, Jewish leaders say. While the Inquisition raged in Spain, for example, Spanish Jews found refuge in
Morocco.

During the rule of the French Vichy government in World War II, when the Nazis came hunting for Jews,
Morocco's sultan famously told them: "There are no Jews, only Moroccans."

Morocco's late King Hassan II mediated between other Arab countries and Israel, helping to bring about the Jewish state's 1979 peace treaty with Egypt and later its pact with Jordan.

Today, one of King Mohammed VI's most influential advisers, Andre Azoulay, is Jewish - unthinkable elsewhere in the Muslim world.

In Casablanca, kosher butcher shops are nestled in streets lined with Arab groceries. There are more than 30 synagogues in a city where the call to Muslim prayers echoes over the dilapidated rooftops from the minarets.

Many Moroccans are proud to have a Jewish population. Soon after the attacks in May, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in Casablanca, waving banners that read, "Say no to hate!" About 1,200 Jews, including children, felt safe enough to join in.

"Everyone applauded us and kissed us," said Serge Berdugo, president of the Jewish community's council. He believes that Muslim extremists aren't targeting Jews specifically, but an open and tolerant
Morocco.

The growing Islamic fundamentalist movement has won support by distributing food, paying hospital bills for the destitute and teaching people to read. One out of two Moroccans is illiterate.

Among those rounded up in a terror crackdown after the Casablanca attacks were extremist Muslim preachers who told followers that killing a Jew was not a sin.

Simon Levy, who heads a foundation to preserve
Morocco's Jewish heritage, says Jews can provide Muslim Moroccans with a lesson in the value of diversity in their society.

"If we really want to fight Islamic extremism, we must show Moroccans that ... there are people who are different than them," he said.

Levy's Foundation of Judeo-Moroccan Cultural Heritage restores crumbling, abandoned synagogues. Many cannot be saved, and their treasures - like hammered-silver chandeliers and ornate pulpits - go into a museum.

Levy has a double mission: He's putting relics on exhibit to record Jewish life in
Morocco, in case the Jews disappear. At the same time, he's trying to show Moroccans the value of that lifestyle to help keep the Jews here.

"As long as we have a small community here, we are not just history," Levy said. "It's easy to leave. You just have to buy the plane ticket. It's harder to stay. That's more beautiful and more meaningful."