January 28, 2020

Sephardic Congregation Celebrates Moroccan Royal Dynasty

An Arab-Moroccan band, performed. Photo by Ryan Torok

A Jewish Sephardic vocalist backed by an Arab Moroccan string ensemble formed the backdrop to a unique event at the Beverly Hills Hotel when San Fernando Valley-based Em Habanim Sephardic Congregation honored Morocco’s longstanding respect toward its Jewish community.

The Nov. 19 event, titled “Salute to Morocco: Honoring a Dynasty of Tolerance,” featured a rare appearance by Princess Lalla Hasnaa, daughter of the late Moroccan King Hassan II and youngest sister of current King Mohammed VI, together with around 50 other delegates from the North African country. 

UCLA anthropology professor Aomar Boum, who has devoted himself to the study of Moroccan Jewry, introduced Hasnaa.

Boum, who was raised Muslim in southern Morocco, told the close to 500 attendees, “From an early age, Her Royal Highness Princess Lalla Hasnaa has shown a keen interest in social issues, particularly the environment.”

Em Habanim Rabbi Joshua Bittan, who orchestrated the event, told the Journal, “It was a salute to Morocco and all they are doing, and honoring the dynasty of tolerance because not just the current king but his father was good to the Jews.” 

Bittan, who hails originally from Morocco, also explained how the current king’s father, the late Hassan II, helped bring about peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, while the king’s grandfather, Mohammed V, objected to the Vichy government in France during World War II. Working with the Nazis, the Vichy regime tried to order the deportation of Morocco’s Jews to European concentration camps. It didn’t happen, Bittan said, in part because of the Moroccan king.

Em Habanim Sephardic Congregation Rabbi Joshua Bittan escorts Moroccan Princess Lalla Hasnaa into the Beverly Hills Hotel banquet hall. Photo courtesy of Em Habanim Sephardic Congregation

Bittan came up with the idea of inviting the delegation after reading in The Jerusalem Post about the current Moroccan king’s efforts to incorporate Holocaust education into the curriculum of the country’s high schools. 

“When we live in a period where there are Holocaust deniers, he had the courage to make it part of education in high school,” Bittan said. “I was very impressed.”

Bittan also noted that the king’s commitment to respecting the country’s Jewish history included refurbishing synagogues and cemeteries, and restoring the names of Moroccan streets named after the country’s Jews.

“He has been very good to us,” Bittan said. “We have to recognize and give credit to that and express gratitude.”

“We hope the model of Morocco can be emulated in other countries, in other societies, where people are respectful of each other, where Muslims and Jews have respect for each other.”— Rabbi Joshua Bittan 

During the event at the hotel, Princess Hasnaa awarded four local Moroccan-born community members the Wissam al Arch, or Order of the Throne, an official state decoration of the Moroccan kingdom. The recipients included Em Habanim members and event co-chairs Maurice Marciano, co-founder and former chairman of Guess, and Jack Rimokh, chairman and CEO of Signal Brands.

“[Marciano] was born in Morocco. He is a major philanthropist and he is a source of great pride for the Moroccan people,” Bittan said.

The other recipients were Bittan as well as 93-year-old Em Habanim board member Sidney Chriqui, who was living in Morocco during the war and at 16 was slated for deportation to Europe. However, days before the deportation, the Allies landed in North Africa as part of Operation Torch, on Nov. 8, 1942. This, coupled with the then king’s consideration of Jews as equal to other Moroccan subjects, saved his life, Chriqui said.

“We were really saved by the king and then by the landing,” Chriqui told the Journal. “The king actually objected to the Vichy government.”

Casablanca native and Jewish Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief David Suissa also spoke at the event about his personal connection to Morocco, and how Moroccan culture instilled in him a “Judaism of the sun,” one of “warmth, community and optimism.”

It also was an evening of great pomp and ceremony, with former L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa presenting the Moroccan delegation a proclamation by the City of Los Angeles declaring Nov. 19 as Morocco Day in the city. Models entered the event wearing Moroccan couture, and Bittan escorted the princess into the banquet hall.

Local attendee Yaffa Ben Harosh told the Journal she was excited to see the princess and managed to snap a photograph of her. She said the event was an opportunity for her to connect with her ancestral homeland and pass on the photo capturing the princess’ visit to the next generation. “I have a duty to send this to my daughter to teach her about her ancestors,” Ben Harosh said.

“I know all of you continue to hold Morocco dearly in your hearts. You are all outstanding ambassadors of what makes Morocco so special and nobody better than you can tell our story.”
— Princess Lalla Joumala

Ben Harosh added that the liturgical tunes performed by the Arab Muslim band singing with a Jewish performer were akin to “praying with music. It’s very important in the Moroccan Jewish tradition,” she explained. 

Bittan added, “The same melodies that are used by the Muslims are the same melodies we use in our liturgy in our synagogue.”  

The event was the third in a brief visit for the delegation, which made its first stop at Em Habanim in Valley Village on Nov. 17 followed by a visit with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles on Nov. 18. 

Speaking at Em Habanim, Boum discussed Morocco’s continued embrace of Jewry through its preservation of Jewish sites, welcoming Jewish tourists and educating its Muslim community about Judaism.

Moroccan Princess Lalla Hasnaa (right) presents an official Moroccan state decoration to businessman and philanthropist Maurice Marciano. Photo courtesy of Em Habanim Sephardic Congregation

“It is not a coincidence,” he said, “that Jewish life is thriving in Morocco today even as the number of Jews living in Morocco is plummeting.” 

Princess Lalla Joumala, ambassador of Morocco to the United States and Princess Hasnaa’s cousin, also spoke at the Em Habanim event, saying she appreciated the L.A.-based Moroccan community’s connection to its ancestral country.

“I know all of you continue to hold Morocco dearly in your hearts, and I encourage you to continue representing and supporting your country in your various capacities,” she said. “You are all outstanding ambassadors of what makes Morocco so special and nobody better than you can tell our story.”

Bittan said other Arab countries would do well to follow the lead of Morocco and, rather than demonizing Jews, celebrate their connections.

“We hope the model of Morocco can be emulated in other countries, in other societies, where people are respectful of each other, where Muslims and Jews have respect for each other,” he said. “This is what Morocco is doing and that is something that should be emulated by others, and that was the spirit of the evening and the spirit of this week.” n