Interview | Laziza Dalil on Teaching Moroccan Jewish Heritage

By | Jan 24, 2024
Interview, Israel-Hamas War, Latest
Laziza Dalil

In 2007, Laziza Dalil helped found the Mimouna Club on her university campus in Morocco, with the intention to expose Muslim students to Moroccan Jewish heritage. (According to the Mimouna Association, “mimouna” is a traditional Jewish Moroccan celebration at the end of Passover, whereby Jewish families invite Muslim neighbors to join their festivities.) Since then, the club has expanded into a national association to educate Moroccan youth. Moment spoke with Dalil, currently the vice president of the Mimouna Association, on how her intercommunity work has changed since October 7.

How did you get into interfaith or intercommunity work?

I was born and raised in Marrakesh, and I attended French school from kindergarten on. It was the only French school in the city, and all the Jewish community had their kids in the school, so I actually grew up with a third of my class being Jewish. They were perfectly integrated; they were our friends. We went to each other’s houses for birthdays. And I thought that was the norm in Morocco when actually it wasn’t. Just a few of us were privileged enough to experience that coexistence. 

When I went to France to study, I lived in a Jewish neighborhood. One day I was doing my grocery shopping and while waiting for a bus, a very old lady was looking at me intensely. I smiled at her, but then she got very angry and told me, “Paris was cleaner when the Germans were here.” She thought that I was Jewish, and she insulted me. Being a foreigner, I didn’t react because I was scared, and I was thinking that maybe it wasn’t my place to react. A few months later, I decided to go back to Morocco to pursue my studies there. And when I joined Al Akhawayn University in Morocco, I spoke with another student, El Mehdi Boudra, about my experience in Paris. He had grown up knowing Jews as well and was surprised that so many fellow students hadn’t. So in 2007 we started the Mimouna Club, a campus group that introduced Jewish culture to students, which then expanded to other universities. 

Did you face any kind of pushback from people in your community about being so involved in interfaith work?

Well, when we started on campus, people were very intrigued by why Muslim students would be talking about Jewish culture and Jewish heritage in Morocco. Some would draw insults on our dorm doors, they would call Mimouna’s president “the rabbi” and me the “wife of the rabbi.” But these were childish jokes, nothing very serious or threatening.

After our first Moroccan Jewish Day event on campus, we noticed that people were more understanding, more interested in what we were doing. And we faced less backlash from students because they started understanding that we were mostly talking about Moroccan culture and coexistence, or convivencia, in Morocco’s history. So they started understanding a little bit more and the more they understood what we were doing, the less we received any insults or bad jokes.

What changed after October 7?

We had a big conference scheduled for October that we had been planning for months. After October 7, people started calling, saying that they didn’t feel safe enough to travel. So we had to postpone our conference. We could feel a certain form of tension, even though we tried to keep our initiatives going because this is the moment where it is even more relevant to have this interfaith dialogue.

“We know that the best security measure is peace, especially for a country that is surrounded by hostile countries. It’s difficult to be in that position.”

The conflict is purely political, driven by a certain category of decision-makers, and it doesn’t make Israeli people bad people. So it was, for us, very relevant to do people-to-people initiatives because there are innocent people on both sides of the conflict. It was very important to make the point that whenever there is a problem in Israel/Palestine, there is fallout everywhere else. We had big unrest here in Morocco, pro-Palestinian unrest. Our environment is mostly pro-Palestinian. We tried to keep the last event we organized low-key: We didn’t really publicize a lot or [invite] the media.

Have your Jewish partners also been a little more wary about doing events or doing more public things?

Well, they were worried about the big conference. Everybody was worried. No one was willing to travel to Morocco, because it’s a Muslim country. Most of the guests were Jewish, so they were a little bit stressed to travel to Morocco after October 7. 

Do you see rising antisemitism in Morocco?

No, we didn’t see any antisemitism, in the sense of anyone attacking any people from the Jewish community. But there was a lot of pro-Palestinian unrest, pro-Palestinian speeches, and everybody’s talking about the genocide that is happening. 

Outside of Morocco, is there also a fear of rising Islamophobia?

Absolutely. This conflict has consequences for every Jewish community abroad but also for Muslim communities because it’s a conflict between a Muslim minority and a Jewish entity. Of course, we are worried that there is more racism, antisemitism and Islamophobia, as well as an increase in hate speech on social media. We are worried at the way this conflict is nourishing such hate. And that actually, despite all the work we are doing, we are going backward. 

That’s why we keep doing our initiatives and we keep speaking to people and organizations, because we feel it’s very important in this time particularly to engage in interfaith work and to promote peace, especially between Muslims and Jews, and especially to acknowledge that both of those communities are facing racism. It would be great if we could show some solidarity with one another instead of fighting each other.

Are you hopeful about the future in terms of being able to come together as Jews and Muslims?

I’d like to be hopeful. That thinking is what we build our association on. And we hope for peace. And we know that the best security measure is peace, especially for a country that is surrounded by hostile countries. It’s difficult to be in that position. I’m hopeful that the decision-makers will come to terms with the fact that peace is highly needed in this region.

What are some of the programs or initiatives you have planned in the Mimouna Association?

Recently we finished restoring the synagogue in a very remote region of Morocco, in the Atlas mountains. We organized an exhibition in that synagogue. We also have something called the Moroccan Jewish University, where we invite young people from the Mellah (the ancient Jewish quarter in Rabat) to go to the coastal city of Essaouira for a three-day seminar on Moroccan Judaism and training on coexistence and interreligious dialogue. We work a lot with the youth of the Mellah, which is a very poor neighborhood.

We organized another event called Unity through Diversity, and a lot of events in the Mellah for youth who live there. Most of the youth are Muslim, but they know that the neighborhood was Jewish before, so they get a little bit of Jewish history. And we like to work for these people because they come from a disadvantaged background. So at the same time, we do some social work and some human development work while disseminating this peace message. 

It sounds like the key to coexistence for you is really education.

Absolutely. Because I think instinctively when you don’t know something, you get scared of it. And when you get scared, it can lead to violence. We really believe that education is about knowing one another, meeting people, seeing that these people are regular people who have the same aspirations, the same dreams. They want a family; they want a good living.

And I think it makes all the difference, because when you’re alone at your computer watching what is happening with nobody to talk to, it’s difficult to form a very educated opinion. You will be biased because what you get in the media is already biased. 

So it’s good for people to meet as a way to form their own opinion. Knowing people, meeting people, having friendships form—that’s really an incredible dynamic to get going.

It does seem sometimes like social media is the thing that drives so many people apart because people on it have such strong opinions.

Absolutely. What I see on TV, on the news, on social media, I have a critical mind and I think about it, I would ask my friends, but it’s not the case for everyone. So sometimes people would take what they see at face value, but when they meet a Jewish person from the community, they talk the same Moroccan dialect, they share the same feeling regarding their country and see they are regular human beings like you and me. It changes their perspective.

When I was in university, I was shocked to see that some young people had never met a Jewish person in their life. So we had guests from the Jewish community in Fez come to the university for our events. It’s a lot of work and we are going step by step, but at least it’s impactful.

Have you felt that the government is supporting the Jewish community, especially at this time?

Yes. There is a lot of security in front of Jewish sites, such as synagogues, museums and cemeteries. Jews are a component of the Moroccan fabric. They are Moroccans, and they are protected as any Moroccans would be.

Opening image: Laziza Dalil, courtesy of the Mimouna Association.

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