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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.

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    • Mehdi

      Look I am not here to tackle any issue on what is divine and what is not, I am not a theologian and just provide my views. And I don’t consider the bible wrong, there are many bridges between the Qur’an and the bible. the argument as to what is divine in Christianity is not up for me to decide, Christians get to decide on that. Regarding the nakba yes there is difference between fleeing and being kicked out of a village but the overall process that took place is still the same and thoroughly documented. All of that is drastically different from the Jews who left morocco, their villages were not bulldozed after they left, they often took time to sell their belongings or asked their neighbors to take care of of some of their business or their relatives’ graves. During the nakba, in several cases people ran away and left food cooking, there is no comparison between these cases. Again the eviction of Jews in Jerusalem or Gaza can be slightly compared to the nakba, not the departureof Jews from Morocco. As for your other question, why do you want to ask me about martyrdom? It’s not as if it was a central topic that Muslims think of everyday.

    • Mehdi

      I don’t deny the Hebron riots at all and I try to address the tensions in the next articles, as for whether Palestinians fled through direct expelling or fear, there are different estimates, but the fact that people left after hearing for instance about Deir Yasin doesn’t decrease the Haganah/Irgun’s responsibility. As for what date is eligible to commemorate, it’s up for the Palestinian to decide on it. Regarding feminism and human rights my take is that the law should grant equality for women, it’s the case in most Muslim countries, but the equality isn’t always there in reality (as in several Western states) , this has to be fought, and there are issues in many Muslim countries around women’s rights, but as noted by Fatema Mernissi, many Western commentators are only interesting in finding oppressed Muslim women to confirm their prejudice. In the end there is no a mechanical relationship between Islam and these issues just like when FGM is wrongly related to Islam (for instance the cases of sexual harrassment in Egypt are very recent and tell more about social issues and contemporary problems in Egypt). I had written a piece some time ago on the Arab world and addressed women’s role within societies, it’s a complex issue As for what is divine, Muslims consider the Quran divine and thus non changing, but its interpretations are subject to debates. Thereare also debates as to what is changing or not outside the Quran, there are theologians who consider sharia as subject to changes and others who disagree, the scope of ijtihad is subject to debate, there are several differences within madhabs, Islam is not monolithic. As for debating an ex Muslim, I am here debating with you and taking time to respond, so I’m open to discussions, but I’m not keen on discussing with someone just because he claims he’s an ex-muslim, if the person has interesting points to make or ask then I don’t have any issue with responding.

    • Mehdi

      Thanks for the response and for speaking honestly. Regarding Moroccan Jews, in the movie “Tinghir Jerusalem” I mentioned in the article, the director interviews one of the Mossad agents who was involved in the covert operations, the man explains that a significant part of his work was about convincing Jews that they would soon be in danger and that Morocco wasn’t a safe place for them in the future. Many Moroccan Jews in the movie explain their decision to leave as spiritual, some as economical, some explained that they had concerns in the longer term because of the I/P conflict. Not that the Oujda/Jerada or Petit Jean massacres weren’t a factor, but most of the departures took place over 10 years afterwards, many people also link these events to the overall unrest during the final fight for independence (from around 1947 to 1956 and followed by several years of instability) where there were many riots, bombs, killings, etc. Besides, the Jewish communities as most of the Moroccan society back then were mostly rural and provided little room for individual decisions, such decisions were usually made by groups and people rarely decided whether to leave or stay individually. Usually, when the Jewish communities in place Tinghir decided to leave, it was very difficult for people to stay as opposed to US Jews who have more options nowadays. It’s no wonder that the Jews who stayed were mostly residing in cities. The situation was different in other Arab countries, I will come back to this later on, and I do not want to evade any Arab responsibilities, but it’s very different from what happened during the Nakba, which was a military eviction of Palestinians (mostly done even before the official creation of Israel and the resulting war). I see this kind of comparison a lot but it usually feels more like a justification of the Nakba, especially now that the official discourse of “The arabs decided to leave as their leaders told them to” doesn’t stand anymore. If there is one thing that can be compared to some extent to the Nakba, it’s the eviction of Jews from Jerusalem or Gaza during the 1947-49 war, that can be considered comparable, but not the other cases. Regarding feminism, there are many views on LW, I am personally not against all forms of Western feminism, it depends what we talk about, but people tend to forget that Arab and Muslim women face different challenges historically. Western feminism was focused on issues like women’s vote which never was a big topic in Muslim countries as they were granted that right in almost all countries at the independence. The other focus was on abortion right and topics like domestic violence, the access to the work market, wage equality, etc. In most Muslim countries, the debates were on different issues, or on different terms, for instance there have been many feminist organizations fighting back against patriarchal interpretations of religion, but from a Muslim point of view, and successfully so. And there are many organizations who collaborate with Western feminism, but this is not and will never be a copy-paste, Muslim women are finding their own paths and don’t need to be lectured on what is best for them. Women’s conditions are obviously different depending on the countries, there are many factors at play such as demographics too (in Morocco for instance the gradual shift from a rural to a mostly urban society has done a lot to change women’s lives in terms of family structures, birth ratio or access to work), in the end women do have options and they find their own ways. As for Islam priding itself with not changing, I have to disagree, the Quran does not change and will never change, but there are debates taking place everyday on how to interpret it, you can find many heated discussions on many topics, the tradition of ijtihad is at the heart of Islam and has never disappeared. Islam is not immune from debates and rightly so. That said, there are (just like for other religions) different interpretations, people against the principle of ijtihad or in favor or restraining it, but that doesn’t mean that Islam is monolithic or hasn’t changed since the 7th century. The high variety of religious practice accross the Muslim world is a proof.

      Regarding debating a non-Muslim, just to be clear, I debate people with different views everyday, I am currently reading a book promoting atheism, I have several childhood friends who consider themselves agnostic or atheist, I am not close minded when it comes to reading or debating other view. My point is that I am yet to hear or read something new and refreshing from people who call themselves ex-Muslims, I have already read many views coming from such people, and most of it is quite ordinary, not to say dull. I think that many of them get publicity and attention which is disproportionate in regards to their intellectual merits. I have read much more interesting points coming from long-time atheists or agnostics, or from people from other religions. Again, this is my personal appreciation of things.

    • bobbert

      I was wrong to bring up the issue of FGM, and i admit that i am far more ignorant on this issue that you guys are. I apologize.

      The expulsion of jews from arab/muslim countries was a major historical event and thus complicated. Antisemetism was likely the strongest theme. Of course israel and the moroccan government collaborated to get the jews out. hundreds of thousands of people cannot easily leave a country without the government’s permission. But with permission or no, the jews would not have left unless they did not feel safe. jews in america can leave for israel at any point, but by and large do not because they dont feel the need. What caused the need? perhaps it was the riots that killed 44 jews in Oujda and Djerada. Now there were a lot of factors that led to this event. as you said it is complicated.

      I ask you for a second, to take a look at the flight of the palestinians (i hate using the word naqba if you like i will explain why). look at it the same way you look at the jews fleeing arab nations. as you said, its complicated. its not as easy of a story as “jews went and ethnically cleansed 750,000-800,000 palestinians from their land”. in both cases crimes were committed, i am not even trying to equate the two, but apply your own logic to the palestinian issue and you will see where alot of jews are coming from.

      As i stated before, I understand your disagreements with modern feminism. I have plenty of issues with them as well. I am not saying that you must force all of you women to walk around in bikinis in front of men, and i am not saying that you should encourage promiscuity. but i do think that you should allow people more choices. I think the biggest difference between islam and judaism/christianity is that the latter acknowledge that times change, and thus so should a faith. we have a pope who is openly talking about letting priests marry, which would be a HUGE shift. nuns no longer wear habits. judaism is slowly moving towards allowing women clergy. it has changed quite fundamentally over the years. islam prides itself on never changing. for me, thats concerning since it was founded in the 7th century.

      as for debating ex muslims. I understand the futility of debating an atheist. in the end, religion is a matter of faith, and that will be the fundamental disagreement. but if a muslim converted to christianity for example, you would not be curious as to what it was about islam, or what it was about christianity that caused him to leave? I personally would welcome such a challenge to any of my beliefs, and i would welcome you to challenge them. I bet we could quite honestly debate the israel-palestine issue for hours and be better friends because of it. I mean no offense, and apologize if i come across as aggressive, but it was said “I believe our arguments can withstand scrutiny and open debate”. but if you had the opportunity to discuss islam with someone who did not find your arguments convincing you would have no interest? it just seems rather closed minded to me.

    • Mehdi

      Thanks for these comments, Ilisha did pick several points, I won’t need to answer all your points but wanted to address some. Regarding the departure of Jews, I will come back to that in the next articles in the series, but it wasn’t a deliberate eviction in the same way as the nakba, it was a coordinated operation between Israeli and Moroccan authorities, (Yachin and confirmed by historians such as Yigal Bin Nun, nothing remotely similar to the fate of the Palestinians (link in French sorry

      The circumstances in other Arab countries were different and the resulting big picture is complex, and can’t just come back to Arab or Muslim anti-semitism, there were many factors in there. I hope the article when posted will help debate these matters. There were Arab responsibilities in what happened and there is some blame to be laid in there but it’s not just a case of mass Anti-semitism.

      I wanted to address the point you made on FGM, this wikipedia post shows the countries where it is prevalent, in fact it does not exist in most Muslim countries (the first time I heard of it was when reading a novel, I was horrified to the point of running to ask my mother about it), and when present, FGM is often a practice that is shared by different religious, as for instance in Egypt or African countries in Sahel:

      Regarding feminism, Ilisha made a valuable point about the difficulty to re-import Western feminism as-is in Muslim countries, but that doesn’t mean that Muslim women have no options, here’s one example and there are others:

      As Ilisha rightly points, LW involves a community of people with different sensibilities, we don’t always agree on everything but you were able to debate with Ilisha and I do hope you will continue doing so, debates are essential and highly welcome. I don’t think that anyone pretends that Muslims should not be criticized, as long as criticism remains fair and as long as we talk based on facts, and if possible with mutual respect (and even then we still try to debate).

      Last but not least, as for debating with an ex-Muslim, the main question I want to ask is debating what precisely? I would never consider asking a Christian friend if he/she wants to debate an ex-Christian, same for Jewish friends, and same for agnostic or atheists. People should be left free to decide if they want to remain Muslim or not (as pointed by Ilisha), but why on earth do I need to debate them just because they left Islam? It’s not as if Islam was a secret mafia holding people hostage, it’s a religion that involves 1,6 billion people with very different views and sensibilities.

      Welcome to the comment section in LW.

  • Mehdi

    Thanks for posting these answers

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