A Jew Broadcasts to Morocco, Building a Relationship With a Muslim Audience
‘Risalat New York,’ the Arab world’s only non-Israeli Jewish-hosted radio show, offers perspective from Brooklyn
Sunday night for me is always Moroccan radio night. From a home office in Brooklyn surrounded by echo-absorbing foam, I write a commentary in Arabic about the week in Arab politics and then read it into a microphone. Next, I upload the sound file to a studio in Casablanca, where a producer adds the theme song, and it airs the following day to an audience of 1.75 million under the title Risalat New York—“Letter from New York.”
My show has the distinction of being the only radio program hosted by a Jew on Arab airwaves that doesn’t originate in Israel. But more than three years after the broadcast debuted, my Muslim audience now finds it ordinary, rather than aberrant, to hear a Jewish voice opine on Arab affairs in their mother tongue. In numerous Arab countries, such a situation would be revolutionary—but in Morocco, where the leadership has proactively nurtured Muslim-Jewish understanding for years, it’s merely one step forward among many. Given that the listenership has begun to spread beyond the kingdom’s borders, moreover, Risalat New York presents a case in point of how the broader Moroccan policies that keep me on the air can help spread tolerance in other places where Arabic is spoken, too.
A century ago, the region’s demographics were considerably more diverse, and considerably more Jewish. A million Arabic-speaking Jews still lived throughout the region; in some Arab cities, almost every Muslim knew at least one. Jews formed a professional class, deeply engaged in mainstream culture wherever they were allowed to be. Iraq’s national orchestra, composed overwhelmingly of Jewish musicians, broadcast a live radio performance across the region each week into the 1940s. Leila Mourad, the Barbra Streisand of Egypt, starred in some of the most popular Arabic movie musicals ever made. Jews published prolifically in Lebanese and Syrian media and contributed to the major newspapers of Baghdad, where even a Zionist daily with reporting from Palestine was licensed in the 1920s. In Morocco, Jews began publishing newspapers as soon as printing presses became available. The Hadidi brothers of Casablanca, Pinhas Assayag and David Chriqui of Tangier, and one of the country’s few female journalists, Rahma Toledano, were all well known to Muslim and Jewish readers. Some published in Spanish or French, then the languages of politics and commerce, while others wrote for a narrower audience in Judeo-Arabic—the Moroccan equivalent of Yiddish—printed in Hebrew block characters.
It is of course hard even to picture such a media landscape in the Middle East today, when the great emptying of the Arab world’s Jewish communities is slipping out of living memory. But through the most difficult years of the 1930s and 1940s, the Moroccan monarchy ensured that its country remained a haven for Jews: In 1941, Sultan Mohammed V rejected calls from the Vichy French occupiers of his country to turn over the 265,000-strong Jewish population to the Nazis. After WWII and Israel’s creation, Jews remained in Morocco for longer than their co-religionists elsewhere in the region—but those who stayed understood that the price of their security was to keep a much lower profile. By the 1960s, barely any Jews remained active in the media. The few who continued writing were leftist dissidents, and by the 1970s they too had put down their pens.
Morocco’s Jewish community now numbers around 5,000—a shadow of its former self, yet the largest in the Arab world. Though Moroccan cities, towns, and even mountain villages are full of Muslim grandparents who speak fondly of the Jews they knew as children, few of today’s youth have even met one in the flesh. Much of what they hear about Jews comes from regional satellite television networks that use The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to explain Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. The monarchy has taken steps to offer a corrective to these ideas: Mohammed VI, the present king, has called for a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, even as he condemns Israeli settlement building and human rights violations. Moroccan schoolchildren learn about their country’s Jewish heritage. Hebrew and Arabic hymns are performed side by side in festivals of sacred music. Synagogues in the country are fiercely protected, and some have been publicly rededicated in joint ventures between the Jewish community and the state. In a 2011 speech, the king countered the scourge of Arab Holocaust denial by describing the tragedy as “a wound to the collective memory, which we know is engraved in one of the most painful chapters of the collective history of mankind”—and called on Moroccans to observe Yom HaShoah.
Next week King Mohammed VI will meet with President Obama in Washington, D.C., his first official visit since 2002. They are expected to discuss Syria, Iran, the rising al-Qaida threat in the African Sahel, and the status of talks between Israelis and Palestinians. On the latter issue, the monarch can offer resources that could prove invaluable to a negotiated settlement: As chairman of the Arab League’s Jerusalem Committee, he is an advocate for the rights of Palestinians whom Ramallah trusts. In the Gulf, heads of state regard him as a member of their families. For decision-makers in Israel, he is first and foremost the grandson of Vichy-era Sultan Mohammed V. He is also the only Arab leader to have legislated equal rights and protections for his country’s Jewish minority in a new constitution and a reliable intermediary between Israel and those Arab states with which it lacks formal relations. As for Israeli voters, a million of whom are either natives of Morocco or have a Moroccan-born parent or grandparent, he embodies a tradition with which many still identify: a feeling of attachment that goes hand-in-hand with their pride in Israel. Above all, he is a head of state who has made his personal affinity for Jews into formal domestic policy and won over a large swath of the population to the values he espouses.
These efforts are part of a larger, ongoing relationship between Moroccans in and out of government and Jews in Israel and the diaspora, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim alike. As Shmuel Segev, a former Israeli military intelligence officer, described in a recent book, the two sides have quietly made common cause in the halls of Congress, worked together in the Middle East to mitigate disputes between Israel and its neighbors, and fostered security and intelligence cooperation. Looking ahead, they recognize the urgency of brokering a Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement—but also know that hostility toward Jews in the broader Arab Muslim world will not end with the establishment of a Palestinian state. With only a few thousand Jews left in Arab lands, the question of how to build and nurture new emotional bonds with hundreds of millions of Arab Muslims remains open.
In 2007-2008, I spent half a year in Casablanca researching a book on Arab security services. The government gave me permission to embed with a unit of the federal police in order to learn about its operations firsthand. I watched interrogations, accessed case files, and followed night forays into the city’s shantytown. The picture that emerged was far from rosy, but it ultimately reflected progress toward police reform. Entering this fraught environment was feasible only because I had spent years learning Arabic and living in Arab countries. What drew me to the region and language was a feeling of deep personal affinity: My mother was born in Baghdad. She and her family fled Iraq along with 125,000 other Jews in 1951, leaving 2,700 years of history in the country behind. My family still mourns the loss of friendships in Baghdad and savors memories from the city’s better times.
My study of the Moroccan police was facilitated by Ahmed Charai, the owner of a media company in Casablanca that published a weekly news magazine and held a stake in the country’s third-largest daily newspaper, Al-Ahdath al-Maghrebiya. Ahmed is a Moroccan Muslim patriot who calls on Jews and Muslims to team up—and practices what he preaches: He sends his children to a local branch of the Alliance Israelite schools, where the ratio of Jewish to Muslim students is 90-10 and everyone studies Hebrew as well as Arabic. On visits to the United States, where he sits on the boards of trustees of several think tanks including the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Foreign Policy Research Institute, he also devotes time to connecting American Jewish leaders with Moroccan movers in support of peace efforts between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
In 2010, two years after I departed Morocco, Ahmed put in a bid for one of 10 national FM broadcasting licenses tendered by the government. They were to be the first privately owned radio networks in the kingdom’s history. He won a license and founded MED Radio, which provides a lively mix of current affairs, cultural, religious, and family programming, in a combination of Arabic and French, and that supports the egalitarian values he believes in. On a visit to New York that June, Charai invited me to contribute a weekly commentary to MED Radio in Arabic. I could broadcast according to my conscience, he assured me. Asked whether he thought my Jewish background would be a liability for him, he expressed confidence that Moroccans were ready for a Jewish broadcaster: The audience would judge the segment on its merits, he insisted.
I have been on the air every week since then—except for one month off each Ramadan, when programming is predominantly religious. I started out reporting cautiously about the region, but as supportive messages from the audience began to reach me via social media, I felt encouraged to loosen the format. I reported from drug rehab clinics in Egypt and Bahrain, taped and parsed jihadist sermons from a Salafi mosque in Tunis, and asked disaffected Iranians to describe domestic repression in their country. Voices from Washington and Tel Aviv have helped demystify the workings of both cities. Via Skype, I take listeners farther afield—earlier this month to South Korea, where the director of the national broadcasting company’s Arabic service described, in fluent Arabic, the strategy of her country’s outreach to Arab publics. As an outgrowth of my friendship with the production team in Casablanca, I’ve also been able to migrate narrative and sound techniques used on American public radio to the Moroccan airwaves for the first time: Ayn Ala Tunis (“Eye on Tunis”), an hourlong documentary, based on my visit to the country, fuses Tunisian poetry, folklore, music, and street sounds with the voices of Tunisian politicians and preachers.
When the subject matter touches specifically Jewish subjects, I speak openly about my background. In a segment about Jewish communities in Arab lands last February that featured the voices of Arabic-speaking Jews as well as an Islamist calling for their murder, I asked listeners to imagine the psychological impact of his rhetoric—on Jews, as well as on the young Muslims who pray at his mosque. The program drew a favorable response—and a phone call to the network from the Moroccan minister of information, who is a member of the governing Islamist Party of Justice and Development. He conveyed curiosity about the program, I’m told—but no complaints.
MED Radio, now the most popular privately owned network in the kingdom, has provided a conduit for a friendly Jewish voice to build a relationship with a large Muslim audience. As such, it has achieved a meaningful “force multiplier” effect in a situation of vast demographic asymmetry. Such efforts are no substitute for the face-to-face contact between Muslims and Jews that once typified urban life in Morocco. But Twitter, Facebook, and Skype now enable a broadcaster’s relationship with an audience to become a two-way street. I feel very fortunate to live in a time when such connectivity is possible and never miss a chance to take advantage of it. Meanwhile, the program has more than 5,000 listeners outside Morocco, primarily in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, via their smartphones. A few of them are producers from pan-Arab TV networks, such as Al-Arabiya, who went on to host me as a commentator for their audiences, which number in the tens of millions. Though Arabic-speaking Jews from Israel have appeared on pan-Arab television before, they have mostly been confined to debates on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To break out of the Hardball-style “squawk box” and win acceptance as a voice on a range of Arab and Islamic issues is, I feel, a step forward—and for me, it was the unique cultural environment of Morocco that made it possible to take that step.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Thanks to outside forces waging a proxy battle in Syria, 2013 has become a year of attrition rather than endgames