Top Menu

Jews and Muslims: It’s Complicated


Original Guest article by Mehdi

This article is not intended to explain the differences between Islam and Judaism, nor is it an attempt to provide a comprehensive narrative of Jewish-Muslim relations globally. This article is based on personal impressions and an analysis of a common history that will analyze the relational dynamics between Jewish and Muslim communities where they have coexisted.

I began writing this article based on the impression that something has been broken, 13 centuries of positive coexistence between Muslims and Jews has been erased in half a century. A common history is on the verge of extinction; like a family quarrel leading to a gradual distancing, cousins moving apart, to the point that they have stopped being a family. We have become all too familiar to events such as the most recent instance of Israel “mowing the lawn in Gaza,” devastating and massacring countless innocents and in a tit for tat Israelis have also been killed (e.g. the kidnapping and murder of 3 Israeli teenagers last summer or the attack on a synagogue last November in Jerusalem).

This is the contemporary backdrop of a complicated and rich history and hence it is impossible to have a completely objective and comprehensive discussion. The main difficulty is not in addressing the different angles or perspectives, it is putting passions aside for a moment, and reflecting on what united Muslims and Jews. Therefore, readers of this article are kindly asked to indulge the author, whose objective is to tell a story, and remind people of how close Jews and Muslims have been throughout history, and the level of greatness of the civilization that they built together; it is the memory of these achievements that can provide a framework that would help fix the contemporary problems, and build something new.

Morocco and a few personal reflections

Before jumping into the historic perspective, I would like to write a few lines about my personal background. I grew up in Morocco, where Judaism has historically been very present (in fact long before Islam’s arrival in the 7th century, most historians estimate its existence to 2000 years). There are many reminders of Morocco’s rich Jewish history, from historical figures such as Al Kahina, Joseph Toledani, or more recently, Jewish Moroccans like: political activist Abraham Serfaty (anti-zionist Marxist militant, who spent many years in jail as a political prisoner), anti-Zionist militant Sion Assidon who is BDS’s main representative in Morocco, to a very different personality such as André Azoulay, on the other side of the political spectrum (businessman and king’s adviser, also in charge of relationships between Morocco and the Moroccan Jewish diaspora in the USA, Canada, France or Israel), writers such as the late Edmond Amran El Maleh, or the hugely popular humorist Gad El Maleh whose jokes are known by heart by most Moroccans. Jewish cuisine, humor, music are also part of Moroccan identity, for instance the Moroccan Andalusian classical music and its poetry often includes a clear Jewish dimension (as in this moving wedding song), several orchestras play this music in Israel after Moroccan Jews emigrated there. Even in some mosques in the south, stars of David can be seen as they were a form of recognition for the Jewish artisans who contributed to building those mosques. Sights like these are pretty common in Morocco:

Star_David_MoroccoCoin collectors in Morocco (as I have been) are also used to seeing Stars of David on coins that date back to the first half of the 20th century or before, since Jewish artisans of Essaouira produced coins for Moroccan currency.

Coins_MoroccoTo these historical reminders, I add personal memories and stories coming from my father and my grandmother who lived in Sefrou, a town that had a significant Jewish population. My grandmother, a very conservative and proud woman, very clear about her Muslim identity, never had a single negative word about Jews. She always cherished memories of her neighbors, getting angry with people who made any sort of anti-Jewish remarks. I always found it interesting to notice how my father and grandmother, both quite religious were immune from any anti-Jewish prejudice unlike other more “secularized” family members.

My father was proud to tell me about my grandfather, a judge, who had great respect for Judaism, who once received a Muslim who wanted to marry a Jewish woman and wanted him to convince her to convert to Islam. My grandfather asked him a few religious questions (that the man answered poorly), and then told him: “I have enough on my plate trying to make people like you and in this town better people and Muslims! Why would I push this woman to abandon a religion she is probably very happy with? Leave this woman alone, marry her and do your best to become a better Muslim. Respect her faith, remember that Moussa PBUH is also a prophet of ours”.

My father and my late grandmother would usually tell me other positive stories about their life with their Jewish neighbors, and also with sadness, about their neighbors’ sudden and surprising departure. I will come back to this point later on, as there is a history behind it, but this recollection of events is essential, and is consistent with what many Moroccans remember from the 1950s and 1960s.

Jewish_Moroccan_WomenI was personally privileged to have this background and insight into Moroccan history; I was never attracted by any anti-Jewish sentiment thanks to the education I received and the positive image of Jews relayed by my family. I was able to differentiate, due to this education, between the policies carried out by the Israeli state in the name of Jews and what most ordinary Jews stand for. I went on to have many Jewish friends, I also recall many experiences traveling where I would meet (on an airplane, a hotel restaurant, or during a dinner with acquaintances) Israelis of Moroccan origin, and how they had a great smile when they found out I came from Morocco, leading to very friendly discussions involving humor, food, or just culture. This helped me grasp how history did impact people’s lives, creating a huge distance, but at the same time, how a lot of common background was still there making us close.

I also remember a funny anecdote that happened to a late uncle. He planned a business trip to India, and had his ticket booked by a third party who did not pay attention to the stops on the way. My uncle was on his way to India, enjoying his flight, and was stunned to hear the flight crew announce that the plane was about to land in Tel Aviv, at a time when Israeli-Arab wars and tensions were at their peak, he was mad and refused to leave the plane. The plane crew gave up on convincing him to leave the plane while it prepared for the rest of the trip. Staff was sent to clean the plane, my uncle still angry, sat alone waiting, when suddenly he heard a voice speaking in a typical Moroccan dialect, asking him, “Brother, why are you sitting here by yourself? Can I at least go get you some water or an orange juice?” Yes, members of the cleaning staff were Jews born in Morocco.

Growing up in Morocco in the 1980s, there were very few Jews left (at least compared to the 300,000 Moroccan Jews who lived in the country during the 1950s). The previously important community was now a small group of people, mostly living in Casablanca. In the little town in south east Morocco where I grew up, the only Jews were the charming tailor and his wife. At the same time that a new generation of Moroccans had few Jewish acquaintances, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was omnipresent on TV: Moroccans watched coverage of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the Sabra and Chatila massacres, the repression of the first Intifada, the expansion of settlements in the occupied territories, which distorted the image of the Jew for many young Moroccans. While their parents would identify Jews as their neighbors, their children would be tempted to think of them first as the Israeli soldier now repressing their Palestinian brothers. I would later realize that many Jews (not only Israelis) identified the Muslim as a potential terrorist, a mirroring of the distorted way in which Moroccans viewed Jews; it’s clear, distance and headlines creates fear and misunderstanding.

The official history in Morocco as told in the media and books, emphasizes the Muslim nature of the country and is evasive regarding its Jewish history. The official history is not aggressive or Antisemitic in any sense but it diminishes the important Jewish role in Morocco’s history, reducing it to a few anecdotes and personalities. We often discussed these questions in more depth at the end of history courses in high school with our teachers but they were brief mentions in our textbooks. While I acknowledge that my personal experience and the general context in Morocco was different from other Arab countries, something was missing. Recently, a new generation of historians and artists has dug into this poorly written history.


Other Arab countries also look towards their Jewish history with different backgrounds and perspectives, this interest in itself is a positive step and shows that Muslim-Jewish coexistence in MENA exists.

These initiatives do not change the fact that there are many problems, especially as the suffering of the Palestinians is as deep as ever, any long term improvement and prospect of coexistence will be accompanied by a just solution that addresses these sufferings (and not with a so-called peace process focused only on security measures, totally evading Palestinian people’s daily lives).

Nevertheless, these initiatives shed light on a rich common history that no longer is burning as bright as it used to but still deserves to be recounted.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  • Mehdi

    Indeed, I was trying to point the fact that the different aaliyahs you mentioned were a reality, the examples you made are not for me to deny, quite the contrary, but were still different from the ones we observe today (e.g. A Dutch former colleague of mine who left to Israel for a mix of reasons not only spiritual) I’m not trying to explain Judaism to you, just highlighting some views I read or heard from other Jews. But the core of the matter is that we speak of aaliyahs that have different forms and meanings.

  • el turco


    I think you just clarified the differences between Mehdi and myself regarding “aliyah”. I am a Torah Jew of the Sefardic tradition, I am not a secular zionist. So when I say “aliyah” my linguistic connection is to the physical and spiritual elevation of coming up to to the rocky hilltops of Hebron, the Galilee, and Nablus from the lush lowlands of Mesopotamia/Egypt, usually done as a sign of piety and at the cost of the physical comforts of settled, wealthy societies.

    Perhaps for Mehdi, the term is removed from its Hebrew/Biblical context and naturally only has negative connotations related to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I would only point out that if you watch the youtube video asking Mizrachi Israelis you will see that their idea of Aliyah is very similar to mine.

    As for our relationship to the Land and the “nationhood” of Jews, I always compare Judaism to Native American tribes, in the sense that we are an ethno-cultural unit with our own spiritual traditions deeply tied to the land in which they developed, but nevertheless happy to welcome any newcomer willing to join our society and live with us. In this sense we differ greatly from the Christo-Muslim tradition of a transcendent religion which unites many different ethno-cultural units into one body united by faith.

  • Just_Stopping_By

    I agree wholeheartedly with your final paragraph.

    I think part of the issue here is some lack of clarity in terminology. I see at least three concepts floating around here.

    “the historic Jewish relationship with the land we call Israel”: This has a lot of religious ties, some similar to the Muslim relationship with Mecca (direction of prayer) and some beyond it (holidays and prayers based on the seasons in Israel, prayers for the land in the Amidah, Birkat HaMazon and elsewhere, a number of different religious rules (certain holiday lengths, shmita, etc.) based on whether one is in Israel or not). These are in addition to the cultural ties.

    Individual aliyah: As your links point out, this was relatively common throughout history, particularly for some religious scholars.

    Mass aliyah and becoming major political participants: Generally more recent phenomena of the last 130 years or so.

  • el turco

    No worries, here are just a few more famous Moroccan Hakhamim (Rabbis) who made Aliyah to Ottoman Palestine.

    And here is a list of Wiki Pages for “Rabbis in Ottoman Palestine”. It is important to understand that these Jewish communities were in frequent contact with Middle Eastern and Ashkenazi communities and as I mentioned before the legal codes and kabbalistic prayers they created became accepted throughout the entire Jewish world, from Sanaa to Straussburg long before the 20th century.

    Any real discussion must begin with a recognition of differences. I as a Jew who speaks no Arabic would not dare to tell Muslims how they “really” view the Quran (isn’t that EXACTLY what this website was created to fight??) similarly I think that Muslims who do not know Hebrew, the Tanakh, any of the traditional commentaries, and have only limited contact with Jewish communities should not think that they can accurately describe the historic Jewish relationship with the land we call Israel.

  • Mehdi

    What I meant about aaliyah wasn’t that it didn’t exist, just that it wasn’t something central for any Jew throughout history, for some it was allegorical, for some it was a holy land in the same way that Muslims have a special place in their heart for Mecca, medina or even Jerusalem. And centrality of Israel has a lot to do with 20th century tragedies, wars and politics.
    Now you have a point when you say that Arab Jews have stories that don’t fit easily into a single narrative, that complexity is important to understand for people who want to build bridges.
    I did not have time to look at your links, I’m away this week with little access to good internet connections, I just have time to answer comments and some emails.

  • el turco

    What I was trying to demonstrate with the video I posted above was that when you speak to Mizrachim about why their ancestors made Aliyah, their answer does not fit nicely with either the anti-Islamic or anti-Zionist propaganda. Again, complexity.

    As for the historical desire for Aliyah we do not have to agree if it is a fact. Even ignoring the Biblical understanding of Abraham and Jacob’s struggles to live in the land, Jewish exodus from Egypt, Jewish return from Babylon under Cyrus, and numerous Talmudic accounts of Babylonian Rabbis making Aliyah to Israel (where Roman authorities were much less sympathetic to Jews) the role of Aliyah in Jewish life is undeniable:

    “In the Holy Land, he prayed at the Temple Mount. He wrote that this day of visiting the Temple Mount was a day of holiness for him and his descendants.”


    “in accordance with his wishes, his remains were exhumed and taken to Tiberias, where he was re-interred.[39] ”

    The most authoritative compendium of Jewish law was written in Safed by a man who:

    “Between 1520 and 1522 Karo settled at Edirne. He later settled in the city of Safed, Land of Israel, where he arrived about 1535, having en route spent several years at Salonica (1533) and Istanbul.”

    The most famous Jewish Kabbalist was born in Jerusalem in 1534 to a local Jewish mother and an Ashkenazi father who had made Aliyah

    Another very famous Kabbalist who started a school which still functions in Israel

    “Sar Shalom Sharabi was born in Jewish Sharab, Yemen. He moved to Eretz Israel, then under Ottoman rule, in fulfilment of a vow. ”

    I am excluding many famous Rabbis who made Aliyah including Nachmanides, R. Haim Moshe Luzzato, R Yehuda HaLevy and so forth.

    This is all from what is called the “old yishuv” or pre-zionist aliyah

  • Mehdi

    I agree on bridge building but to be clear on what I call imaginary attacks, in France there is a tendency to exaggerate, such as the attack on the synagogue in rue de la roquette which was a manipulation, attacks on individuals where the antisemitic dimension turned out to be questionable at least if not imaginary in several cases that had a big media focus. And in the end most French Jews acknowledge that their life is safer in France than Israel.
    I totally agree on bridge building priority with Palestinians. I am more reserved on the aaliyah which was always a wish in dangerous times but anyway we won’t agree on that.

  • el turco

    Honestly, your statement is right on. Two things I would add:

    1. The issues of “manipulation” is one that comes up in the discussion of MENA Jews. This is why I tried to address Sefardic/Mizrachic “Zionism”. Jews always have been, and always will be, deeply focused on the land called Israel or Palestine. This is why so many throughout history made Aliya when there was no benefit and in fact great difficulties and dangers involved with doing so. Maimonides himself tried and failed. Considering this history of Jewish Aliya in dangerous times, it is unrealistic not to expect Aliya to be a serious draw when the conditions for Jews are as good as they are now. This should explain the draw even for non-religious Jews from “safe” countries like the US to do Aliyah (not necessarily “settlers”, dudes who want to be beach bums in Tel Aviv).

    Even the gravest accusations of Zionist agents committing “black flag” attacks against Jews to promote Aliyah, if true, could only work if there was a pre-existing concept of Aliyah and tension with the surrounding society which only needed the “confirmation” of such events. We cannot know the situation for Jews in 1950 Baghdad or 2014 Paris, but the locals did/do and they don’t need a newspaper to tell them whether they feel safe walking down the street.

    2. I think the diaspora discussion is right on and is a reality with the Moroccan Jews (although it could be more) and was very much a reality in Iran before the Revolution. I agree this bridge-building is a beautiful thing and I hope it can arrive one day, but frankly Jews need to focus on bridge building with the Palestinians first and foremost. If we cannot get along with our neighbor we have no hope of striking up a friendship with his brother down the street.

    Some links:

    This is my friend from high school who organizes Israeli/Palestinian kids to play music together, he is doing important work and could always use help!

    This is from a video series “Ask Israelis/Palestinians Questions” on youtube which really helps put things into perspective

  • Just_Stopping_By

    Very nice comment.

    I think that as a Moroccan, you have a bit of a biased viewpoint. Among Arab Jews, those of Moroccan descent tend to be the warmest toward their or their parents’ former home, at least according to what I know. Similarly, Morocco allows for stronger ties with Israeli Jews, with visits and economic relations being much more open. Even the history of Jewish emigration from Morocco was more positive; while there were tensions and even some violence, there was no revocation of citizenship or seizure of assets comparable to that in other Arab countries.

    I absolutely agree with you on rebuilding bridges with “cultural and economic[] and other types of relationships.” Political concessions and progress are much more easily achieved when the sides know and trust each other personally. You can’t tell children not to play with each other because another child is of a different religion, ethnicity, or citizenship and then be surprised when they grow up to have a bigoted or belligerent attitude. These may be simple steps toward reconciliation, but each one helps.

  • Mehdi

    There is a more modern singer, Francoise Atlan, she sings on the wedding song in my article. But comparatively Sami El Maghrebi is in another league. My parents had many of his records, these are great childhood memories.
    There is also Cheikh Raymond in Constantine, his murder is still a mystery.

  • Mehdi

    Yes and no.
    You have a point in the sense that the overwhelming majority of Jews who left are in the second or third generation in Israel or some western state, and have moved on. I would be very surprised to see jews of Iraqi or Syrian origin moving back there, safety being a reason due to the situation there, and also due to the fact that they have a different life with different expectations (in the movie Tinghir Jerusalem there is a very interesting discussion involving a grandmother who is nostalgic about her childhood in Morocco and her granddaughter who doesn’t feel like moving and prefers a washing machine to the daily life washing clothes in the river).
    So yes most arab Jews have moved on, but it’s just like most immigrants, few Chicago poles would move back to Poland, few Australian Greeks would go live in Athens especially nowadays, few Ukrainian or polish Jews would go back to live there. Arab Jews are in the same situation.
    That being said I have two points:
    – The security dimension and threats exist but are first a problem that is not specifically targeted at Jews, and are also the subject of a lot manipulation, in France everytime there is an attack (real one or imaginary as in the neighborhood where I used to live), there is an attempt by the Israeli government to call French Jews to do their alya, and articles on the topic. Not to underestimate real concerns from Jews as per your article or elsewhere but there is also manipulation.
    – on a positive note, the fact that so many people left shouldn’t prevent us from rebuilding bridges, whether by providing some with options for dual citizenship as Morocco tends to, or finding ways of animating cultural and economical and other types of relationships as a proper diaspora, just like most countries do with their emigrants.

  • Mehdi

    Samy el maghrebi is awesome

  • el turco

    Two of the big Jewish Moroccan singers I listen to

    Emile Zrihan (newer)

    Samy ElMaghrebi (old school)

  • el turco

    So while it’s the language of my ancestors, Ladino was never a mother language much beyond Turkey/Greece/Balkans and some of the Northern areas of Morocco. Arabic was, and still is, much more common among MENA Jews. Farsi has also become much more prominent in US Jewish communities (LA, DC, NY) since the Iranian Jewish exodus of the 80s.

    Just as I repeat my Pesach Hagada and sing Had Gadya in Ladino, most of my Syrian or Moroccan friends do so in Arabic. The old timers also maintain the good pronunciation (Begadkefath, Waw not vav, guttural Kuf and tet, etc…)

  • Mehdi

    Ladino is great. I bought two records of Mor Karbasi this year. Great voice.

  • Just_Stopping_By

    I’m glad you liked the Rambam article.

    The renaissance of Sephardi/Mizrachi material is something that I am also excited about. I enjoy listening to Ladino music and the incorporation of Sephardi melodies into primarily Ashkenazi services (depending typically on the desire and interest of the hazzan). I am not that familiar with the modern developments in this renaissance, but I will try to find some time to look into them a bit more. As for the Yemenite pronunciation, it is indeed highly well regarded and fascinating ( ). As noted at the link, it maintains the bgd-kpt dagesh distinctions of which two or three are typically missing from modern pronunciations, with the difference in the tav/sav being the most well-known distinction between traditional Ashkenazi and Sephardi pronunciations.

    Anyway, baruch ha’ba to LW and glad to have you with us. There are many here who hope and work to bridge divides and it is a pleasure to have one more.

  • el turco

    So it all depends on your definition of Zionism. Sefardic spiritual focus returned to Israel immediately following exile from Spain. This explains the dominance of Kabbalistic and legal traditions that emerged from Safed in the 1500’s, the establishment of the Chief Sefardic Rabbi/Rishon LeZion (“first to Zion”) in the 1600’s, the involvement of renaissance Sefardic mercantile dynasties in supporting Jewish life in Ottoman Palestine, etc…

    Modern Sefardic and Mizrachi support for right-wing politics is definitely related to discriminatory Labour policies of the 50’s-70’s. However, there is also a reality that Jews from MENA tend to view Arab and Muslim political actors (not necessarily the people) as always seeking the subjugation or annihilation of Jews. This attitude lends itself to right-wing parties such as the Likud.

    This is why you are right that larger issues of polity in the Middle East are the thread that connect the bloodshed in Syria or Iraq to that in Gaza and why addressing them is so crucial.

  • Mehdi

    Thanks. We’ll get back to that. There are some good points in your views. Individual freedoms were not a point of focus for several centuries, having tolerance and collective rights was considered fine (and better than in many European countries) until things changed with the enlightenment and so forth. Muslim regimes were not able to adapt to the changes and colonialism also played divide and conquer with minorities. We’ll get to that.
    There need to be solid guarantees to ensure individual and religious freedom in modern societies, whether it is based on western models or other approaches is a different question. And it applies to Muslim countries and also Israel Palestine.
    As for Sephardim support for Zionism, I heard different views, and I can’t confirm, for instance the Moroccan Jew support for likoud relates more to how they were treated at their arrival. But I’m interested in your thoughts.

  • Mehdi

    Thanks Garibaldi, peace will come some day and I would be so glad to see Moroccan Jews back to Morocco and likewise elsewhere, we lost so much from their departures. In the end, there is a lot we can build on between people of good will.

  • el turco


    I’ve actually been reading the site for a while but didn’t feel I found a series I could constructively comment on until now. There is a renaissance of Sefardic/Mizrachic Jewish
    culture and religion going on at the moment, whereby many of us who are the children/grandchildren of those who fled are finding our way back to the classical Sefardic approaches to Jewish music, religion, and culture.

    In music, a lot of this is related to the Sefardic tradition of Piyyutim poetry, which drew upon Hebraizations of classical Arabic poetic metres, or the makam tradition in Sephardic liturgy which adopts different Arabic scales (al-rast, al-hind, etc…) and ties them to different life cycle events or Torah portions that fit that musical “tone”. In religion, it is a focus on grammatical approaches to understanding Tanakh and Talmud. Classical Hebrew grammar was adapted entirely from the Arabic grammar system developed by the early Muslims and most of the Arabic speaking Rabbinic academies mapped out the traditional pronunciation of Hebrew letters in Biblical recitation according to Quranic Fusa so that we would not lose track of the original pronunciation as we shifted through millennia of exile. Jewish Yemenites, much like their Muslim counterparts, are known for their exceedingly precise pronunciation of Miqra (Biblical recitation).

    My dream would be that this revival can bring us closer to bridging some of the divides in the modern MidEast.

    P.S. Liked the Rambam (Maimonides) article, I’m currently working my way through his Mishneh Torah.

  • el turco

    Sorry about the lack
    of clarity, my smiley face was meant to express playful irreverence, not stern

    I think the key point
    is the lack of a viable framework in the Middle East for true coexistence on
    the basis of equality, rather than tolerance which depends on the whim of
    rulers. This explains why the MENA Jewish community fled en masse to either
    Western countries, where we enjoy freedoms unimaginable in even the best
    periods of Muslim coexistence, or Israel where we (unfortunately in my view) finally
    enjoy the privileges of being the oppressor rather than the oppressed.

    This also goes a long
    way to explaining why Sefardic/Mizrachic Jews have always been much more
    supportive of the Zionist project than their Ashkenazi brethren. As Middle Easterners
    they tend to interpret nation building as a zero sum game and they feel that
    recent Middle Eastern history (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, etc…) proves them right. Their
    thinking is driven by the sense that anything less than Jewish superiority will
    lead us back to second class citizenship at best and total genocide at worst.

    This brings us back to
    your point that, with Western models of egalitarian coexistence out of the box,
    the Middle East needs to create its own indigenous egalitarian models if it
    hopes to grow out of this current period of bloody sectarian strife.

    I’m really looking
    forward to your exploration of these topics!

  • GaribaldiOfLoonwatch

    I can only echo everyone else, great article Mehdi. When reading this for the first time, it was so refreshing getting the personal perspective, thank you for opening up to us. Even then you included tid bits about history and societal relations. Over time, after a just peace is reached, and a bit of normalcy reaches the region, I hope Jews (at least some) can/will want to come back to their ancestral homelands and reintegrate into those societies which they enriched and which in turn enriched them as well.

  • GaribaldiOfLoonwatch

    Reminded me of Maimonides’ quote in a letter to Samuel B. Tibbon: “Generally, I would advise you only to study the works of logic composed by the scholar Abu Nasr al-Farabi, for everything he has written, especially The Principles of Existing Things, is like fine flour…”

  • Mehdi

    The time to publish is proportional to the quality of the comment right? 🙂

  • Fritz Wunderlich

    Sure, two days delay while other comments were released. You are fun.

Powered by Loon Watchers