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Morocco completes ambitious Jewish cemetery restoration project

by Larry Luxner

Nearly 200 Moroccan and U.S. officials, members of Congress, religious leaders and guests attended a Nov. 17 reception honoring Morocco’s just-completed “Houses of Life” project, which since 2010 has restored 167 Jewish cemeteries under the patronage of King Mohammed VI.

Co-sponsored by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Council of Jewish Communities of Morocco (CJCM), the Capitol Hill event featured a photo presentation of the project by CJCM President Serge Berdugo, as well as remarks from Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), who is Jewish, and Rep. André Carson (D-IN), who is Muslim.

Entrance to a Jewish cemetery in Marrakech, Morocco. Photo: Vysotsky / Wikimedia

Moroccan officials, acting on behalf of the king, presented awards to Rabbi M. Bruce Lustig of Washington Hebrew Congregation; Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington, and Imam Talib M. Shareef, president of The Nation's Mosque, Masjid Muhammad, for their leadership on inter-religious cooperation, tolerance and peace.

“This is a major moment,” said Cardin, ranking member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, “and what you are doing in Morocco will be an inspiration to leaders in other parts of the world to bring our communities together and to recognize that diversity is our strength, it is our heritage, it is our future.”

From left, Moroccan Ambassador Rachad Bouhlal; Rabbi M. Bruce Lustig of Washington Hebrew Congregation; Imam Talib M. Shareef, president of The Nation’s Mosque; Ahmed Toufiq, Morocco’s minister of endowments and Islamic affairs; Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington; Jason Isaacson, director of government and international affairs at the American Jewish Committee, and Serge Berdugo, president of the Council of Jewish Communities of Morocco.

Remarking on the award recipients, Cardin added: “They are three great leaders of three great religions that understand that the three great religions have much more in common than divides. Each respects tolerance of people of faith, and understands that together we are stronger. That is the message of today’s program.”

Morocco today is home to around 3,000 Jews, but before Israel’s establishment in 1948, it had as many as 350,000 — giving it the largest Jewish community anywhere in the Arab or Muslim world. The two countries do not have diplomatic relations, yet Israelis may freely visit Morocco. About one million Israeli Jews today are of Moroccan descent, constituting the country’s second-largest ethnic community after Russian Jews.

Roadside plaque in Qiryat Ekron, Israel, honors Morocco’s late King Hassan II. The memorial is a testament to the affection Moroccan Jews feel for the land they left behind. Photo: Larry Luxner

Carson, a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, commended Morocco for setting an example “for all of us, to celebrate the future of peaceful coexistence, and effectively unity. After centuries of challenges, Morocco has really recommitted herself to moderation, dialogue and a great respect for diversity.”

In this aspect, he said, “the United States and Morocco stand in great solidarity. As Americans, we pride ourselves on the inclusion of all people, regardless of race, religion, or even background.”

Morocco’s “Houses of Life” project began in April 2010 under the direction of King Mohammed VI. Over the course of five years, workers restored 167 Jewish cemeteries across the country, installing 159 new doors, building nearly 140,000 feet of fencing and repairing 12,600 graves.

Synagogue in Marrakech, Morocco. Photo: Vysotsky / Wikimedia

“This is a testimony to the richness and diversity of the Kingdom of Morocco’s spiritual heritage,” said the king. “Blending harmoniously with the other components of our identity, the Jewish legacy, with its rituals and specific features, has been an intrinsic part of our country’s heritage for more than three thousand years. As is enshrined in the kingdom’s new constitution, the Hebrew heritage is indeed one of the time-honored components of our national identity.”

Ahmed Toufiq, Morocco’s minister of endowments and Islamic affairs, echoed those sentiments at the event. So did Rachad Bouhlal, Morocco’s ambassador to the United States.

“The rehabilitation of the Jewish cemeteries in Morocco is a testimony that Muslims and Jews can coexist and live together in peace and harmony,” Bouhlal said. “A testimony that this is possible in a world that is being threatened by extremism and radicalism, hatred, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Ladies and gentlemen, the world needs projects like the rehabilitation of the Houses of Life.”

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.



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