When is an exhibit at a Spanish cultural center, illustrating the history of Jews in Morocco, the object of controversy?
When the exhibit – Los Hispanojudíos en Marruecos y sus diásporas, currently at the Tangier Cervantes Institute – is mounted by a Spanish institution with "Israel" in its name.
In cooperation with Instituto Cervantes and the wonderfully-named Fundación Premio Convivencia (a reference to that time when Al-Andalus was home to the three monotheistic religions, living in harmony), the Spanish cultural organization Centro Sefarad-Israel has mounted a serious, thoughtful, and well-documented exhibit tracing the history of Jews in Morocco.
The Centro Sefarad-Israel is a Spanish, not an Israeli, institution. Part of the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation public diplomacy effort.
Spain has a number of these cultural institutions dedicated to certain key regions of the world (Casa Árabe, Casa Asia, etc.). But you guessed it: the word "Israel" in its title triggered a demonstration on the eve of the exhibit opening last week. Police prevented things from getting out of hand; press reports indicate that the protest was organized by Islamist parties and pro-Palestinian organizations.
The fact that Morocco has a long, proud history of providing refuge to Jews – those fleeing the Spanish Inquisition or expelled by the Catholic monarchy, as well as in the mid-20th century, when Sultan Mohammed V stood in the way of Vichy French authorities bent on persecuting Jews – all that was apparently for nought with the protestors.
For the rallying cry was anti-normalization with Israel. Deputies in the Moroccan parliament have drafted laws proposing to criminalize such things as travel to Israel or calling for anything seen as "normalization." This, at a time when in Israel, numbers of young Sephardic Jews want to renew links with the Morocco of their parents' and grandparents' memory.
There is another aspect, that of Spanish moves to grant descendants of the expelled Jews Spanish citizenship. Many Muslim Moroccans ask, "why not us too?" Their ancestors were, after all, victims of the same xenophobic Reconquista.
None of this serves to reassure the country's dwindling Jewish population, which has, as Ralph Toledano described in his recent book Un Prince à Casablanca, sometimes suffered jolts to its traditional sense of security in Morocco, often brought on by outside, unrelated circumstances.
The exhibit runs through 14 March.