Photographing Jewish Morocco

by tobybee

A woman is seen in the Marrakech Mellah. From Aaron Vincent Elkaim's 'Exodus: Jewish Morocco'

Aaron Vincent Elkaim, a Canadian photographer, has produced a stunning photo essay of Jewish Morocco. As he explains:

Jews first arrived to the land now known as Morocco over 2000 years ago. Protected under the Islamic Principle of Tolerance since the 7th century, they flourished, holding high positions in trade and government. The Star of David was a symbol shared by all Moroccans, appearing on currency and even the national flag. During the Holocaust, when asked for a list of Jews, King Mohammed V declared, “We have no Jews in Morocco, only Moroccan citizens.” Jews and Muslims were united by culture and kingdom.

Following World War II, Zionists recruiters targeted Moroccan Jews to populate the new State of Israel. Israel’s expansion marked the beginning of a Moroccan Jewish exodus. 300,000 Jews inhabited Morocco as of 1940; it was the largest Jewish population in the Arab World. Today, less than 4000 remain.

What remains today is a Jewish past nearly abandoned, fragments of Morocco’s Jewish culture that have been left under the protection of Muslim guardians devoting their lives to a history that isn’t even their own, yet entirely is. The majority of the remaining community now lives in Casablanca, where they choose to identify with their French past rather than their Arab heritage. Across the country amidst breathtaking landscapes lay the tombs of holy Jewish saints, abandoned relics and sacred spaces. Within these spaces are pilgrims seeking to identify with what remains of this ancient and holy history.

This work represents a journey into the remnants of this cultural exodus and aims to reveal a history of co-existence that has been lost in the wake of Zionism.

What is striking about these photos is not just their beauty and the ways they capture Jewish presence and absence (and the haunting ways in which absence is presence), but also that they represent an idea of Jewish/Muslim history (which you can see also in the work of people such as Ella Shohat, Ammiel Alcalay, and Loolwa Khazoom, for instance) which is based on mutual existence (rather than the disavowal of good relations which the Zionist narrative proposes. That is, after all, a narrative which falsely displaces Europe’s historical distaste for Jews onto the Arab world.) It’s a writing of history which is based on connection, rather than displacement and national hatred or disdain. As is explained, “Aaron began this project in 2009 while on a trip with his father to the place where he was raised. He and most of his family left Morocco in the 1960’s at the peak of the Jewish Exodus. As Aaron learned more about the history of Jewish Morocco, he realized how unique their history and co-existence was and felt it was something he needed to explore further.”

To look at the photos (which you really must do), go to Burn magazine. (via The Spinning Head, and hat-tip to schall. see also his citation in the Visual Culture Awards.)