By Asia Hester
For the Mitzpeh
The Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies welcomed Aomar Boum, a socio-cultural anthropologist, Wednesday to discuss the effects of the integral history of Jewish culture and presence in Morocco and other Arab countries on the people and governments .
“This professor is an expert on Moroccan Jews history as well as the present and he is a fascinating person,” said Yoram Peri, the Abraham S. and Jack Kay chair of Israel Studies and director at the Gildenhorn Institute.
Boum, the author of “Memories of Absence: How Muslims Remember Jews in Morocco,” is an assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose research focuses on how Jews from Morocco see their heritage and Moroccans view Moroccan Judaism.
Before tensions increased between Arabs and Jews between the 1950s and 1960s, Moroccan Jews were a thriving community. However, thousands of Jews emigrated for better economic opportunity during post-colonial Morocco and increasing ethnic and religious tension, according to Boum.
“Despite the physical absence of Jews in Tunisia and Morocco today, they still play a role in political economies of both countries with the extent that important sections of the tourism industry cater to Jewish descendants of both countries,” Boum said.
The revival of Jewish heritage in countries like Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia is an attempt to promote further discussion about the history of Jews in Arab countries and attract Israeli tourists of North African descent to explore their heritage through tours.
Boum said Morocco and Tunisia especially “have engaged in a number of projects to restore local Jewish sites and synagogues.” Some heritage tours take tourists through old Jewish neighborhoods in rural and urban centers, in addition to visiting shrines and cemeteries.
Sophomore history major Ashley Holcomb said she thought the entire discussion was interesting.
“I’m taking a class on the history of Jews of Muslim lands and one of the places we’ve been talking about is Morocco,” Holcomb said. “I had no idea that these movements to have more Jewish cultural tourism in Morocco and Tunisia were taking place.”
Boum emphasized how previous social and political perceptions saw the Jews “economic saviors,” which can contribute to a disingenuous interest by exploiting the Jewish population and history in Arab countries for profit.
“The positive view of Jews as good business people is still anti-Semitic,” he said, quoting author Frank Stern’s argument on the anti-Semitic views of Jewish people.
While the Moroccan and Tunisian governments interest in the Jewish population comes from a tourism perspective as a way to bring in revenue to maintain historical sites, the dialogue about the Islamic and Jewish culture is still important to the countries, said Boum.
Now, the majority of Jewish people who stayed in Morocco live in urban areas.
“The Jews who live in Morocco today have a positive attitude toward these conversations that take place,” said Boum, who has talked to several generations of Jews in Morocco. “Overall they think it will lead to major changes in population views.”
Peri said he visited Poland a year ago, where he saw the same trend of growing interest in the history of Jews in Poland.
“The growing role of Judaism in the Moroccan tourist industry is a fascinating story which no one knows,” Peri said. “They occupied a major part of Polish economy, society, and politics in the past. Now there’s a resurgence of interest in Jews and we didn’t know the same thing is happening in Morocco.”