Deep inside every Amazigh a Jew is hiding. Being of Amazigh culture and layman, I claim this part of our identity and of our multimillenial history.
I must have been seven or eight years old when I heard speak of Amazigh Jews for the first time. I will always remember that day. It is my father who spoke about it to me while we were walking behind our donkey whose back had been made heavy by the vegetables and fruits produced by our small farm which we sold on the Asrir market, distant a few kilometers from my village Amellal, located at Tinejdad, a small town of the South-East of Morocco.
We walked by the bank of Asif n Ufrekla before entering the heart of the Asrir oasis, a village including a large mollah still inhabited nowadays. I was expecting to see these Jews I imagined different from us, but to my big surprise I did not meet any of them in Asrir. The reason for it was very simple. They had already left since more than 20 years. All what remained was their remembrance tinted with bitterness within the hearts of most of the inhabitants. In this village, the Amazigh Jews felt at home. Their departure was felt as a tragedy by the elders. An incomprehensible tragedy. But the youngsters who had never met a Jew in their life do not see things the same way. The media and the official propaganda explain that these Jews, who were considered as “brothers”, had left Morocco to colonize Palestine and expel the Muslims from their lands. A real anti-Jewish feeling arose mainly because of the Arab-Islamist medias in particular since the Gulf War, the creation of the Al Jezeera TV station and the Wahabite stations. And no Moroccan media has the courage to question this way of thinking.
Over all these years I found that deep in each Amazigh, a Jew is hiding. They were there among us since more than 2000 years. This presence could not be erased from our memory. This “discovery” of the Jews had fascinated me. I imagined them different from us , wearing other clothes, speaking another language. One must say that there is something “mythical” and “legendary” in this whole story. . Several ten thousand people had left one country for another. It is almost “biblical”.
My discussion with my father about the Jews had stimulated me but my excitement eventually diminished as soon as I started to talk about it around me at the school of the village. A childhood friend, today officer in the army, told me that his grandfather, a businessman, had only Jewish friends, businessmen as well and whom he trusted entirely. A second one, older, told me that these “damned” Jews emitted an awful smell and that any food they touched became unsuitable to eat. An imam had told them not to speak about Jews if they want to avoid hell and divine damnation. He told also that Jews were cowards who fear death and that they use trickery to deceive their enemies instead of having the courage to face them face to face.
Inside me a world collapsed that very day. I did not understand: did the Jews leave because they smelled bad? How different were they from us? These questions were nagging at the back of my mind, until they vanished along the years. At the college, an Arabic speaking teacher of Islamic education , eventually woke up my old demons. He taught us that these “swine sons” of Jews “are our eternal enemies”, that they “are cursed forever” and that they “will burn in hell”. Deep inside me the questions were multiplying. What if it was true? A teacher cannot lie to us or manipulate us.
Moreover, the Koran speaks about it et nobody can doubt “Allah’s word”. The Islamic education manual contained several paragraphs very hostile to Jews and to Judaism. We were compelled to learn them by heart. In a manual of Islamic education (third year of the secondary) one can read the following: “Jews consider themselves as the chosen people who has the right to enslave the others. This belief allows the Jews to commit all the wrongs and vices, like fornication, usury and murder, but under the condition it applies to non-Jews. The same belief allows the Jews to invade the other peoples. But God has revealed in the Koran this baseness which is part of the Jews nature.”
The Jews are there, in all the villages of Tinejdad, among us. Our proverbs and our tales speak about them, show them as intelligent and sometimes also as “fearful persons”. It is for instance told that Itshak the Jew could not go out from home in the evening to satisfy the call of nature in the palm grove, due to the lack of toilets in those days. One night, his wife went with him and stayed next to him while he was answering the call of nature. Itshaq who was trembling, shouted at wife: “I would like to cross the palm grove by a dark night like this one and kill my enemy”, then his wife replied : “Relieve yourself Itshaq and shut up. You can’t even defecate without trembling.”
Most of those who were lucky or unlucky to have a television set had a clearcut opinion about Jews. “They are children beaters. The television news opens with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and it does nos depict the Jews as humans. They are only “monsters” who exterminate ”our Palestinian brothers”.
In Asrir, every time I was visiting a friend, now deceased, the story of these Amazigh Jews who inhabited our collective memory since generations and who lived here peacefully, came back. It will one day eventually impose itself. I could not believe an Arabic-Islamist teacher and consign to oblivion this collective memory. That became to me more and more obvious. At that time, an Amazigh association was just created in Goulmima, a town located 20 kilometers from my home. It was called TILELLI (Freedom). A member of this association made me discover the fight for the Amazighity.
I started to ask myself questions, to enquire and mainly to build up myself a shield. My enquiries about the Amazigh Jews ended up causing me some problems, especially with the Arabic speaking teachers.. They do not understand this attachment and this sudden interest I declare for the Amazigh Jews and for Amazighity in general. For them, the Amazigh language, fought against and forbidden at that time, is simply dead and buried. Any interest shown for this culture can only be a “foreign plot” fomented by the Jews. Ah, these Jews, again these Jews. Definitely, it was them who clung to my skin, while I was militating for the culture of my people. I could not escape them.
I am Amazigh, I am at home on my own land, but persecuted like a Jew. Inside myself, I feel I am Jew. The Jew who has suffered from the Shoah is my brother. Judaism is of us as Amazighs. It is in ourselves. One cannot black out this essential component of our identity., of our culture and of our history.
As years go by, my interest for the Amazigh Jews increased. During my studies, long discussions on the subject animated the debates within the university. The subject came often back during the discussions initiated by the Student Amazigh Movement of which I am one of the founding members – with a handful of militants, at the university of Meknès in 1994. The reason was simple, the Amazigh militants who claimed themselves as laymen, were accused of being “Jews” and “Zionists”, including by the students enrolled in the radical panarabist left who were supporting bloodthirsty Arab dictators and among them the sadly famous Saddam Hussein and Mouammar Kadhafi and who dreamt of installing a totalitarian Arabist regime in Morocco. For them, Amazighity was only a Trojan horse of the “international Zionism” and we militant laymen , were only “Israeli agents” who tried to fight for values such as the equality between sexes, the women’s rights and of course the Amazighity. This last point disturbed them very much, because speaking about Amazighity, we made feel to all who claimed to be Muslims or Arabs that they had arrived in North Africa like conquerors and colonizers.
It must be said that an anti-Jewish feeling was never expressed by the Amazigh Movement. The reason is very simple. Israel is a State like any other and most of the Amazigh Jews who left Morocco for Israel are like us, they are part of ourselves. For the Amazighs to visit Israel is a totally normal act, while any contact with the Jews is perceived in Morocco as a “treason” against the Palestinians. But as Amazighs, we have more to share with the Jews than with the Palestinians.
What’s more, the problem is presented by the Moroccan medias as the “Israeli-Palestinian” conflict while the the Amazighs are neither Israelis nor Palestinians. They are Amazighs and the conflict does not interest them. We have our eyes turned towards the West and Israel is part of that West. But we are uninterested by the Near East and its conflicts.
I live in Tinejdad, a small town located 20 km from Goulmima where each year a carnival hitherto barely known takes place: Uday n Taâchourt (The Jew of the Achoura). It is only during my years at the university that I discovered this carnival also known under the name of “Bu Wkeffus” (the sooty man). With the strengthening of the Amazigh Movement and the lack of opportunities to express themselves publicly, the Amazighs militants took over the carnival and changed its appearance. It has become a sort of political demonstration during which militants and masked inhabitants express themselves about political subjects and claim their right for freedom of expression. The authorities try every year to prohibit it, hateful imams rail at it in hateful sermons and demand the prohibition of this “Jewish heritage”. But the determination of the inhabitants always prevails and the carnival continues to exist.
It allows us to remember that there have been Amazigh Jews and that they are still there? They still speak Amazigh and claim themselves as such even in Israel, several decades after their departure. It allows also to convey a message, based on tolerance and on the fight against the hatred of the Islamists and the blindness of the panarabists.
I am an author in the Amazigh language, my language is also used by some Israeli Jews originating from Morocco. My parents who did not attend school, never taught me to hate the Jews whose departure has been lived as a drama in my area. One says that the weekly markets have lost some of their splendor, some of their magic since their departure. One also says that their art craft-work was refined and nicely done. When someone wants to speak about a work well done, one says that it is similar to “a work of a Jew”, before adding paradoxically: “he should burn in hell”.
I claim that part, that “Jewish” presence in me. I claim this identity, this memory that may not die out, that is why I militate to build bridges between the Amazighs in North Africa and the Amazigh Jews in Israel. Culture will help as a means in a first stage. This memory of the Amazigh Jews must be known and reclaimed. The Moroccan authorities must put an end to their hypocrisy and open themselves to this component of our thousand years-old history. The Moroccan school manuals must be expurgated of all the anti-Semite texts and this common history between Jews and Amazighs must be known and taught. Anti-Semitism must also punished by law.
I may be idealistic, but this is how I conceive things and will continue to conceive them. No hateful ideology could possibly stop me.
By : A. AZERGUI
*Testimony published in “ Sur les traces des juifs berbères du Maroc, Miléna Kartoweski (On the traces of the Berber Jews of Morocco).
Some pictures taken by me in Jérusalem, Israël :