In Casablanca, only Jewish museum in Arab world

A white building tucked into a residential neighbourhood of this cosmopolitan city holds a treasure trove few here know about: the Arab region's only Jewish museum.

"To be frank, I didn't even know there were Jews of Moroccan origin," said high school student Sidi Ahmed, who visited the Museum of Moroccan Judaism of Casablanca with his class from the Western Sahara town of Dakhla.

"Thanks to this visit, I found out there were Moroccan Jews in Fez, in Meknes and in other cities" in Morocco, Ahmed added."I am happy to have learnt this."

Founded in 1997, the Jewish museum assembles a hodgepodge of objects - clothes, tools, even a jeweller's studio - that attest to the rich history of the country's 2,000-year-old Jewish community.

"It's the only Jewish museum in the Arab world," said museum curator Zhor Rehihil, a Moroccan civil servant who is Muslim.

Some 5,000 Jews live in Morocco today - including 2,000 in Casablanca, according to Rehihil's estimates.

The school visits "show to Moroccans that there are other Moroccans with other religious beliefs," she said.

And the museum's philosophy?

"That the Jews of Morocco did not disappear without a trace," says 76-year-old Simon Levy, who has directed the museum since its creation.

He wants Morocco to acknowledge its Jewish heritage in other ways - namely in history textbooks, which he says is not currently the case.

"That means that for a Moroccan youngster today, a Jew is simply somebody who kills someone in Palestine, even if Jews have contributed enormously to this country," said Levy, a longtime political activist and fighter for Morocco's 1956 independence from France.

"I want this Moroccan youngster to know his country in its historic diversity," he said.

Present since antiquity, Morocco's once-vibrant Jewish community grew steadily over the years, bolstered by the arrival of Jews expelled from Spain by Catholic monarchs starting in 1492.

In the late 1940s, it counted some 250,000 members, or 10 percent of the population of this North African country.

But the numbers of Jews here have since dropped dramatically. A large majority flocked to Israel after the founding of the Jewish state, in 1948. More followed after the 1967 Arab-Israeli six-day war.

Still others headed for France, the United States and Canada.

The Jews who remain in Morocco still leave an imprint. Major cities have synagogues, including Casablanca, which has several along with two Jewish schools - which Muslim as well as Jewish students attend.

Then there is the museum, which aims "to preserve Moroccan heritage in its totality," curator Rehihil said.

Museum director Levy also hopes that strides in Middle East peace talks may someday bring Morocco's Jewish diaspora back to their home country.

"Each time there's an improvement in the Middle East climate, a certain number of Moroccan Jews move back to Morocco," he said.

For curator Rehihil, the museum attests to the religious tolerance of her fellow Moroccans.

"We need to end this pejorative image of Muslims who not interested in others, who are not tolerant," she said.

Still, such sentiments are not universal. A police officer stands watch in front of the museum - testament that this institution celebrating Jewish culture does not please everyone.

The museum's website is casajewishmuseum.com/.

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