Copyright 2003 International Herald Tribune  
The International Herald Tribune


May 21, 2003 Wednesday


LENGTH: 874 words

HEADLINE: Moroccan Jews seek to keep peace ;
Casablanca attacks affected community struggling to survive

BYLINE: Elaine Sciolino

SOURCE: The New York Times


For Serge Berdugo, president of the Jewish Community of Morocco, the terrorists who attacked the Cercle de l'Alliance social club last Friday night left behind a message of hate but something else as well.

The attack, which badly damaged the two-story white concrete building, was carried out on the Jewish Sabbath, so the three suicide bombers killed no one but themselves. And in what Berdugo called "a sign from God," the massive crystal chandelier in the central hall remained intact, the photograph of King Mohammed VI hung in place, and the framed declaration that the club was kosher was untouched.

"We are still in a state of shock, but look at this we still have light, we still have the king and we still have the kosher declaration that defines our belief," he said. "And we promise to be open again in no more than three months." Berdugo is a former tourism minister, a fierce nationalist and a fervent supporter of the king. His family immigrated to
Morocco in 1492 when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who were Catholic, expelled the Jews from Spain.

So it is not at all surprising that he is determined to calm
Morocco's small, aging Jewish community and to reinforce the official message that Morocco is a nation of tolerance and interfaith understanding.

At least three of the five targets in the terrorist operation a Jewish social club and restaurant, a Jewish cemetery in the old city and a Jewish-owned Italian restaurant were aimed directly at Jews. Some members of
Morocco's Jewish community believe that even the Hotel Farah was a target because it was often used by Jewish tourists visiting Casablanca on religious pilgrimages.

But there were no Jews among the 28 victims of the attacks. In the members-only Jewish sports club in the center of town, that was called nothing less than wondrous. Just two nights earlier, more than 200 people had come to the Cercle de l'Alliance for its weekly kosher Chinese dinner.

"If they had attacked another day and killed Jews, it would have been the end of the world for us," said Itah Violette, manager of the kosher restaurant at the club. "I have to call it a miracle."

The attacks affected a Jewish community that is struggling to stay alive and strong as its numbers decline. Jews first arrived in
Morocco after the destruction of the Jewish Temples. (The last was destroyed in 70 A.D.) In 1948, there were more than 250,000 Jews out of a total of 7 million inhabitants.

Today, out of a population of 30 million, there are at most 5,000 Jews left, most of whom live in this ocean port city that serves as the country's commercial capital. Most of Morocco's Jews left the country following independence from France in 1956. Today, most Jewish high school graduates try to study and find jobs abroad because there are so few job opportunities at home.

There is a strong campaign to revitalize the Jewish community that remains. Casablanca, for example, is home to five main synagogues, six kosher restaurants and a kosher liquor store, Jewish schools and butchers and bakeries. A synagogue was inaugurated last year, and a new Jewish museum has a serene, manicured garden and beautifully mounted displays.

The Jewish community has largely coexisted peacefully and integrated easily with Muslims, and Jews are wondering now whether the attacks Friday were homegrown or the work of international terrorists, as Interior Minister Mustapha Sahel suggested on television Monday evening. Sahel also said that the authorities now had two of the suspected 14 suicide attackers in custody and that 12 people had died in the bombings.

Moroccan Jews recall how the grandfather of the current king refused to deport Jews during World War II. In the aftermath of the attacks on Friday night, there is a determination to keep the peace.

"We have always lived, eaten and worked together with the Muslims," said Moise Amou, who heads Casablanca's Jewish community. "All of us together we cannot let down our guard and do nothing in the face of these attacks. If we do that, the other side is going to win."

At the sports center, groups of men lingered over a kosher lunch and argued over the meaning and the impact of the bombings.

"The goal wasn't to kill Jewish people," said Salvador Bentolila, a 55-year-old printer. "It was symbols of the Jews they wanted to strike."

Marc Abitbol, a 60-year-old business executive, disagreed, saying: "They just made a mistake. They got the wrong night. All Jews have to feel afraid. We were the target even if no Jews were killed. Next time it might be more bloody."

A 65-year-old corporate director, who declined to give his name, spoke of an undercurrent of anti-Jewish feeling because of U.S. foreign policy. "Everyone thinks the Jews are supported by the Americans, and people are very anti-American," he said.

Some thought the downtown hotel was attacked because it often had Jewish clients. But others felt the attack was directed against rich, Westernized Gulf Arabs. "There were many Kuwaitis, many Saudis who came there for, excuse me, debauchery," said David Benarroch, a corporate executive. "They came to drink and watch belly-dancing. And it was known that many prostitutes came there."