Factor 3: Secularization and Identification with France

Class at the Alliance Israelite Universelle School for Girls, Tangier, 1919. 
From Beth Hatfutsot Photo Archive, Tel Aviv.  Courtesy of Ahuva Avital,Santiago.

The third factor contributing to emigration was the secularization of Moroccan Jews and their identification with the French, leading to increasing divisions between Jews and Muslims.

France was the major force for the secularization of Moroccan Jews, through the Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU), a French Jewish non-governmental organization that sponsored Jewish secular education throughout Morocco and the former Ottoman Empire. AIU support was a means to promote French culture without promoting assimilation. The schools were heavy on French culture, in addition to secular subjects of math and science, with some focus on Jewish religious studies. They drew their students from those who would have normally studied in Jewish religious schools led by rabbis. As a result, most rabbis opposed the AIU initially.

The first AIU school was established in Tetouan in 1862, just after the departure of the Spanish. There were 27 AIU schools in 15 cities and towns reaching 5,000 students by the beginning of the Protectorate in 1912. The French Government subsidized the AIU starting in 1915. The AIU schools tried to teach toleration of non-Jews, fighting against the prejudice of traditional Jews. It strongly opposed the few Zionists in Morocco in the 1920s. AIU schools continued to operate in both French and Spanish Morocco, even after the fall of France in June 1940. After World War II, the AIU did not formally embrace Zionism, but it began to teach modern conversational Hebrew. Nevertheless, the AIU alumni association supported Zionism.

Following the war, the French Government financed about 60% of the AIU budget, enabling enrollment to increase from 22,000 students in 1948 to 33,000 students in 1956. Since few Muslims sent their children to the either the French-run “European” schools or the French-financed “Muslim” schools, they received less secular education than Jews. By 1951-52, the AIU was reaching 60-70% of Jewish children. In contrast, in 1951, 14% of Muslim youths were enrolled in French schools.

Despite the rise of nationalism after World War II, the AIU resisted the teaching of classical Arabic, preferring to focus only on French and Hebrew. Most Moroccan Jews spoke Judeo-Arabic, so it would not have have been difficult for the AIU to set up such programs. Classical Arabic would only become part of the curriculum in all AIU schools after independence.

Muslim nationalists complained that the AIU facilitated the emigration of Moroccan Jews. A Moroccan journalist summed up this sentiment in 1976, “Numerous are the Jews who were victims of the operations of this organization and have consequently felt like foreigners rather than Moroccans. Having lost all contact with their Muslim compatriots, these Westernized Jews were in fact overwhelmed by a genuine persecution complex, seeing in the Moroccan Muslim a potential enemy. By cultivating this feeling of insecurity among the Jews, the Alliance Israelite paved the way for the exodus of these Jews to Israel. The departure of  Jews to Israel was planned by the Zionists since the nineteenth century, the epoch when the schools of the Alliance Israelite  began to spread their influence across Morocco.” (Abdalkadir Ben Abdellah, “L’Opinion,” 1976)               

I believe much of this criticism is true.  AIU aggravated the already existing Judeo-Muslim separation, cultivated a French-educated elite and facilitated emigration. If AIU had focused on Arabic education and local culture, in addition to French language and culture, Jews might have identified more with Morocco and been less interested in emigrating.

Graduates of Alliance Girl’s School,
Tetouan, Morocco, c. 1925
Paris, Library and Archives de L’Alliance Israelite Universelle