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Moroccan Jews in Canada

Sephardic Center – Montreal

Thousands of Moroccan Jews chose Canada to be their home from the 1960s-1980s. Many immigrated directly from Morocco, but others came from France and Israel. Proficient in French, most of them moved to francophone Quebec, especially Montreal. They came to Canada with more assets and education than the Moroccan Jews who moved to Israel in the 1940s. The Canadian Government and Jewish community organizations welcomed and supported them. In 2020, Moroccan Jewish immigrants and their many descendants are the main group within Canada’s Sephardic community. They are well educated and solidly within the middle and middle-upper class. Staunch supporters of Israel, they have celebrated and built on Moroccan Jewish and Sephardic culture.

Demography of Moroccan-Canadian Jews

Sephardic Jews in Montreal

About 8,600 Jews moved from Morocco to Canada between 1960 and 2011, most of them between 1960 and 1989. French-speaking Quebec and its largest city Montreal were the main destinations for Moroccan Jews. In Canada, Moroccan Jews identified themselves as Sephardim, along with Jews from other Jews from North Africa and the Middle East. In 2011, 36,040 Sephardim lived in Canada, with 22,225 in Montreal, 9,425 in Toronto and smaller groups in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Calgary. The country’s total Jewish population by religion was 330,000 and 349,000 by ethnic origin out of a total population of 30 million.

In 2011, out of the total Montreal Jewish population of 90,780, 6,280 were born in Morocco. In addition, many of the 1,690 Sephardic immigrants from France and 1,415 immigrants from Israel in 2011 had Moroccan heritage. Of the 9,735 Sephardic inhabitants of Montreal born in Canada, the majority had Moroccan Jewish heritage.

The bilingual character of Montreal attracted many francophone Moroccan Jews. While many of the first generation spoke French primarily, almost all of the second and third generations became completely bilingual. In 2011, the primary language of 62.3% of Montreal Sephardim was French. For 30.7% of Montreal Sephardim, English was their primary language.

Moroccan Jews and other Sephardim succeeded economically in Canada, but some of them remained poor. In Montreal, the poverty rate among Sephardim in 2011 was 18.4%, less than the rate for the Ashkenazi population, 20.5%.

Emigration of Moroccan Jews to Canada

Moroccan Jewish Immigrants, 1970s

Whether they moved to Canada from Morocco, Israel or France, Moroccan Jews emigrated voluntarily. Unlike Jews from some other North African and Middle Eastern countries, they were not forced to flee. While most Moroccan Jews who moved to Israel in the 1950’s and 1960’s had few assets, those who moved to Canada had greater wealth and were able to finance their own travel. Hundreds of francophone Moroccan Jews who did not appreciate the discrimination they experienced in Israel moved to Canada. Others who were frustrated at the difficulties in gaining French citizenship emigrated to Canada.

Immigration of Moroccan Jews to Canada

Moroccan Jewish Immigrants at Montreal Dorval Airport, 1972

The Canadian Government sought immigrants to build a multicultural society in which women and men have equal rights. In Quebec, anglophone Jewish institutions encouraged the immigration of francophone Jews to rejuvenate the community and increase support from the militant francophone political leaders who dominated the province in the 1970’s. This French-speaking province with a commitment to religious freedom attracted many Moroccan Jews. Most of them had attended Alliance Israelite Universelle schools in Morocco, where they learned to speak French and admire the republican and secular values of France. The political, linguistic and cultural environment of Quebec, similar in many ways to that of France, attracted them.

The Canadian Government and Jewish organizations provided support to Moroccan Jewish immigrants. In most cases, immigrants gained their citizenship within three years. While Moroccan Jews were not familiar with Canadian and Quebec culture, they adapted relatively quickly.  Most of them also took advantage of Canadian job opportunities and education, which helped them move rapidly into the middle and middle-upper class.

Establishing a Sephardic Community in Quebec and Montreal

United Sephardic Community of Quebec Staff (October 2019)

Moroccans joined with other groups to become the Sephardic community, which makes up about a quarter of Montreal’s Jews. They strengthened existing Jewish community institutions and established their own. Their work led to the creation of the United Sephardic Community of Quebec (CSUQ). The main objectives of the CSUQ are to preserve Sephardic culture, support the integration of immigrants into Canadian society, provide religious and social services and publish the monthly magazine, “La Voix Sépharade.” Moroccan and other Sephardic Jews also created Jewish day schools, a Sephardic Talmudic school (yeshiva), eight synagogues in Montreal and a biannual Sephardic festival. 

The Ashkenazi-led Jewish organizations had difficulty adapting to a large Sephardic presence in Montreal, leading to occasional clashes between representatives of the two communities over policies, statements and actions. In many cases, Moroccan Jews felt they were dominated by the Ashkenazi community.

The first generation of Moroccan Jewish immigrants was relatively secular, committed to the development of a society that embraces Jews as one of Canada’s many ethnic groups. The second generation has become more religious and is attempting to refocus Sephardic and other Jewish institutions on religion.  Young people also are rediscovering Moroccan Jewish traditions and learning about their Moroccan heritage. Some of them have visited Morocco, and many more are hoping to do so.

Relations with Non-Jews and the Quebec Government

Quebec government adopts controversial religious symbol ban
Francois Legault, Quebec’s Premier elected in 2018

Moroccan Jews share the French language with many inhabitants of Quebec and Montreal, enabling them to work together and socialize. The Sephardic community participates strongly in interreligious dialogues. However, intermarriage with Christians is limited. In 1991, the rate of intermarriage of Jews and Christians (6.8%) in Montreal was about half the rate in the whole country (13%).

About 100,000 Muslims immigrated to Montreal in the last few decades. Sephardic Jews, strongly committed to Israel, have had some conflicts with Muslims who advocate for Palestinian rights. Yet the two communities have engaged in constructive dialogue and have expressed their opposition to antisemitic and anti-Islamic acts.

Since 2013, Jews and people of other religions have fought efforts by the Parti Québécois and the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) to ban public servants from wearing religious symbols in the workplace. The CAQ led the passage of the Quebec Law on State Secularism in 2019. The law was passed in the spirit of laïcité, the concept of secularism used in France. Its contents include:

  • The separation of state and religion
  • Religious neutrality of the state
  • Equality for all citizens
  • Freedom of conscience and freedom of religion
  • New hires in positions of authority, such as prosecutors and police, as well as teachers and principals of public elementary and secondary schools, may not wear religious symbols in the performance of their duties

Relations with Israel and the United States

Advertisement for Joint Research Projects between Quebec and Israel

Some Sephardic Canadians have expressed solidarity with Sephardic Israelis fighting against discrimination. In recent years, some Sephardic Canadians have emigrated to Israel. Others have joined with Israelis on the left and Muslim Canadians to promote reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.

Canada has served as a stopover for some Moroccan Jews who have re-emigrated to the United States.  Moroccan Jewish communities in Florida, New York and California have grown due to emigration from Canada.