‘Jews were part of our identity’: University of Haifa’s Moroccan students explore shared memory

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By Noa Amouyal | January 22, 2023
Israel Hayom

 

Atman Errachid found himself surrounded by a cheering crowd as he watched his home country of Morocco play Spain in the World Cup. Such exuberance would have made sense back home, but Errachid was delighted to see such enthusiasm from an audience one wouldn’t assume would be so thrilled about their victory – Israelis.

Errachid is in Israel currently earning his master’s degree in Jewish Studies at the University of Haifa, a campus that is home to a diverse student body. There, shared society is not a theory or an elusive dream one hopes for – but a reality.

Errachid is leaning into this unique aspect of the campus and has become a coexistence advocate of sorts. Always open to hosting Shabbat dinners at his campus dorms – where all faiths are welcome – as a visitor in Israel, Errachid is fascinated by Israel and Jewish life and culture. But most importantly, he longs for the day that Jews and Muslims can have open and honest conversations with each other without letting political conflict get in the way.

“We’re delighted to host students from Morocco at the University of Haifa,” said Naomi Reinharz, Chief Executive Officer of American Society of the University of Haifa (ASUH). ‘The school is a beacon of diversity, where Jewish students, Arab students, and students from many other backgrounds study side by side. Including peers from Abraham Accords countries further enhances our vision for a shared society, not just for Israel, but the world.’

This is all the more reason why being engulfed by a cheering crowd for his home country made Errachid feel that dream may not be so far-fetched. “Those watching the games with me were from all walks of life – Arabs, Jews, Christians,” he marveled. “I’m proud to be from Morocco – it truly is one of the few places where Jews and Muslims are proud of its success.” “I’ll remember that night forever,” he said, recalling how he sat on the campus’ grassy knoll and students of all backgrounds came to take pictures of Errachid, beaming and holding a Moroccan flag.

The wide-ranging support in Israel for Morocco is not limited to the world of sports. Given Israel’s significant Muslim minority and the notable community of Jews of Moroccan descent, many Israelis had a soft spot for the African country long before normalization became official. In contrast to the other Abraham Accords agreements, the joint declaration signed by Israel and Morocco in December 2020 represented a restoration of ties rather than a first-time normalization deal.

In fact, the abundance of Moroccan history in Israel courtesy of Jews who left the country in the mid-20th century is one reason why Errachid wanted to study here. “I’m interested in our history – our shared history between Muslims and Jews – and a lot of that can be explained by generations of Jewish Moroccans who are now here. We all have a collective memory, which is worth exploring,” he said.

Errachid is one of the first Moroccan students to ever be granted a student visa to study in Israel, with others following shortly after. Nacima Kerouad, from Tangier, is one of them. Kerouad is a master’s degree student studying diplomacy at the university, who also wants to know more about Jewish culture. “I want to discover Israel by myself, on my own terms, without people telling me what I should think about the country,” she said, “I wanted to see for myself what it’s like being here.”

And so far, she’s fascinated by what she’s seen. “I get to meet a lot of people – Jewish, Arab Israelis, Druze. When I speak to them, it’s very enlightening because everyone has their own opinion about Israeli society, politics, and conflict. Yes, these opinions sometimes clash, but they are all legitimate parts of the diverse Israeli society. There’s more that brings them together than drives them apart.”

Although Kerouad can’t pinpoint the exact moment she became fascinated with Jewish culture, she knows it happened thanks to her father. “When I was a teenager my father used to buy books about the history of Morocco and those books would discuss our Jewish community,” she said of the community which at its peak was some 250,000. “This wasn’t some insignificant minority. They were part of our identity. They were part of us.”

After spending time across the country – Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the Golan to name a few – she feels most at home in Haifa, which reminds her of her beloved Tangier. “Haifa has this special energy to it – it’s indescribable. It’s a wonderful city that has its own charm,” she said.