Alma Rachel HeckmanThe Sultan’s Communists: Moroccan Jews and the Politics of Belonging (Stanford University Press, 2021). 

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

Alma Rachel Heckman (ARH): I first traveled to Morocco in 2009 with a Fulbright fellowship to study Moroccan Jewish heritage sites. There, I volunteered at the Moroccan Jewish Heritage Foundation and Museum in the Casablancan suburb of l’Oasis, mostly cataloging archival documents. The museum was founded and directed by Simon Lévy (1934-2011), a Moroccan Jew who had been active for decades in the Moroccan Communist Party, through which he militated for national liberation from French and Spanish colonial rule (1912-1956). I was recently out of undergrad and had not heard of Jews in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) fighting for independence—I had only learned about Jews leaving their home countries in the fallout of the anti-colonial struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. I wanted to know how exceptional Lévy’s story was, so I began investigating further. These investigations ultimately led to a new narrative of twentieth-century Moroccan Jewish political history, with implications for modern Jewish history as well as the history of the modern MENA writ large. Historically, modern Jewish historiography has neglected Jewish political history of the MENA in its standard narrative while modern MENA historiography has often neglected the contributions of minorities to nationalist organizations. The history of Moroccan Jewish communists cuts across these historiographic circles.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address? 

ARH: This book explores Moroccan Jewish participation in Morocco’s anti-colonial movement and follows the stories of politically active Moroccan Jews who remained in the country after independence in 1956 through to the 1990s. As such, it is part of a growing body of literature discussing Jews of the MENA region and patriotic projects of the twentieth century. This literature includes work by Joel Beinin and Rami Ginat on Egypt, Orit Bashkin on Iraq, Lior Sternfeld on Iran, Pierre-Jean Le Foll-Luciani on Algeria, and Kamilia Rahmouni on Tunisia. Until relatively recently, the prevailing historiography of Jews of the MENA had not considered the trajectories of Jews that fought against colonialism and sought to participate in the project of national reconstruction post-independence. Instead, most narratives emphasized Jewish mass exodus and intercommunal antagonisms. With this book, I intervene in that previously dominant narrative to uncover a history of Moroccan Jewish nationalism and political idealism that persisted well beyond traditional stopping points of the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Moroccan independence in 1956, and regional wars with Israel of the 1960s and 1970s. For politicized Moroccan Jews, as well as Jews elsewhere in the world, communism provided the most persuasive and practical means of participating in the national liberation movement as it was one of the only political movements that did not emphasize a specific ethno-religious national identity.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

ARH: This is my first book. Most articles and chapters I have published have been related to the book in some manner, emphasizing different themes. For example, I have published several chapters and articles about the Second World War in Morocco and the politicization of Moroccan Jews, notably into communist politics. The overarching concern of the book and related shorter publications is the question of Jewish political belonging in Morocco and the place of Jews in national liberation politics in the MENA.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

ARH: I tried to write The Sultan’s Communists in an approachable narrative voice, following the stories of five Moroccan Jewish radicals (Léon René Sultan, Edmond Amran El Maleh, Abraham Serfaty, Simon Lévy, and Sion Assidon), and to frame each chapter thematically and chronologically. As such, I hope the book finds readers beyond the academy, reaching all those interested in Jewish history in the MENA, the history of Jews and radical politics, the history of Jewish anti-Zionism in the MENA, and the history of anticolonial movements in the MENA and beyond. Fundamentally, I hope that readers come away from the book with an appreciation for the diverse political histories of Jews in the Middle East and North Africa, with Morocco as a case study. 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

ARH: Together with Nathaniel Deutsch of UC Santa Cruz and Tony Michels of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, I am co-editing a volume on Jews and radical politics around the world. While many have noted the disproportionate involvement of Jews in radical leftist politics in different specific contexts, in this volume we seek to consider the phenomenon across these contexts, including previously neglected colonial settings of the MENA, to shed further light on modern Jewish political history. In addition to this volume, I am beginning research for a second book project. This project explores Jewish and Muslim participation in anti-fascist organizations in the MENA during the interwar period, with a particular focus on the Ligue internationale contre l’antisémitisme (LICA)—the International League Against anti-Semitism. The LICA was founded in 1928 by Bernard Lecache, a French Jew, and had branches across the MENA region with particularly robust activity in the 1930s.

J: What were the sources for the book, and in what languages?

ARH: Sources for the book came from a several different official and personal archives, in addition to oral histories, literary materials, and political ephemera. I consulted archives in Morocco, France, Israel, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The location of the archives, as is the case with so many colonial and post-independence research topics, reflects the political and migratory patterns of the subject material, in this case Moroccan Jewish political history of the twentieth century. The personal archives of Simon Lévy were tremendously rich, and I am forever grateful to his family for granting me access to these materials, which included internal Moroccan Communist Party documents, propaganda materials, petitions, and more. Most of the materials generated by Moroccan Jews were in French, with very few published items in Arabic, symptomatic of educational policies that began in the nineteenth century and accelerated under colonial rule. Other research languages include Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish, and Moroccan Judeo-Arabic.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 4, pp. 143-175)

Splinters: Disillusion and Jewish Political Life in the New Morocco

“My father – may God keep his soul – always told me: ‘Morocco is a lion that must be guided with a leash. It must never feel the chain.’ […] When it pulls too much, I let go a little, and when it lets up, I pull a little. It’s a constant compromise, collective and unconscious. We are immersed in the same bath, a bath of love and a bath of conflict. This relationship transforms into perfect solidarity when the nation is in danger.” — King Hassan II

During the bloody uprising in Casablanca of March 1965, Simon Lévy was arrested by the police. He was tortured for eight days, while his wife, Incarnation, was stricken with anxiety. She had no idea where her husband was but feared the worst. She waited at home with their two sons until, finally, Simon was unceremoniously dumped at the doorstep of their building at four in the morning, broken and bruised. According to Ali Yata’s son and Simon’s nephew, Fahd Yata, Simon Lévy had been beaten, subjected to electric shocks, and forced to drink laundry detergent. Simon’s sons corroborated this account of their father’s torture. Simon was unable to walk when he finally made it home; he had been thrown out of a moving car and would suffer gastric problems for the rest of his life. After this incident Simon’s mother implored the family to go to France, but Simon was adamant in his loyalty to Morocco. A few months after Lévy’s release, the Hungarian Communist Party, in a gesture of kindness toward their comrades abroad, paid for the family to spend a month on the coast of bucolic lake Balaton in the small town of Siófek. Incarnation remembered hating the food.

The 1960s and 70s proved a crucible for state formation in independent Morocco. The state was dominated by the monarchy, led by Hassan II after his father’s death during a relatively minor medical procedure in 1961. The state experimented, sometimes with violent and greatly repressive outcomes, with the balance of parliament, constitutional monarchy, state of emergency, and back again. Political parties splintered, recombined, and challenged each other and central authority in a manner that was deeply disturbing to the palace. The main efforts of the palace were, as the quote above from Hassan II indicates, to guide the “lion” of the state without it feeling the hand of the makhzan and so quell, control, and ultimately co-opt any political opposition. In the absence of political collaborators, the state tortured, exiled, imprisoned and “disappeared” unruly political forces. Some parties, such as Istiqlal and the PCM, split down the middle along such lines. The Istiqlal’s left-leaning sect, under the leadership of Mehdi Ben Barka (kidnapped in broad daylight in Paris 1965 and subsequently assassinated, it is speculated by King Hassan II’s aide General Oufkir who would himself lead a coup-d’état in 1972), would form the UNFP (Union Nationale des Forces Populaires). The PCM, after being legally disbanded by court order in 1960, continued to operate clandestinely. It would resurface as the PLS (Parti de Libération et du Socialisme) in 1968 and then finally its current iteration, the PPS (Parti du Progrès et du Socialisme) in 1974.

The left itself began to splinter in the late 1960s. In 1970, Abraham Serfaty and others, disgusted with what they viewed as a betrayal of Communist ideals on the part of the PCM/PLS, broke with the party to establish a farther left, Marxist-Leninist group Ila al-Amam (“Forward” in Arabic), taking most of the students with them. This move caused lasting ire between Serfaty and Lévy, who remained staunchly loyal to the PLS. While both factions would face persecution under King Hassan II at the beginning of the infamous “Years of Lead” – an approximately two-decade period of political repression – eventually the PLS chose a path of accommodation while Ila al-Amam advanced maximalist ideological goals. These political fractures and fusions indicate a critical choice that lay before party leaders and their members, almost regardless of political platform and orientation: to work with the regime and maintain legal status, or to go underground. The efflorescence of prison literature and work on human rights in Morocco attest to the dire consequences of the latter decision.

While leftist politics splintered, so too did the Moroccan Jewish community. In response to the political instability of the immediate post-independence period regarding Morocco’s position within the Arab world as well as growing fear for the instability of the King’s regime, Moroccan Jews left in the hundreds of thousands. Between 1948, the year the state of Israel was established, and 1956, the year of Moroccan independence, approximately 90,000 Jews departed the country. A further 92,000 Moroccan Jews left between 1961 and 1964 in “Operation Yakhin,” an Israeli directed mass migration of Moroccan Jews undertaken with the tacit approval of the makhzan. The vast majority of Jews left for Israel, but many migrated to France, Canada, as well as Latin American countries such as Argentina, Venezuela, and Brazil.

This burst in migration was in part due to internal anxieties and threats of violence as well as economic boycotting, linked to the far away and yet deeply consequential Israeli-Arab conflict. The year 1961 itself was a watershed moment for Moroccan Jewish migration for three major reasons. First, Morocco hosted an African Summit and joint Arab League meeting including Gamal Abdel Nasser of the United Arab Republic in 1961, and played a delicate international diplomatic game among the Cold War and Non-Aligned powers. Violence erupted against Jews in Casablanca during Nasser’s visit, adding to mounting communal anxiety. Second, an illegal ship of Jewish migrants called the Pisces shipwrecked after leaving Morocco, causing uproar and anti-Zionist-turned-anti-Semitic reprisal as well as international outcry from Jewish philanthropies. Third, King Muhammad V died unexpectedly due to complications from a minor operation, raising his widely unpopular son, Crown Prince Moulay Hassan, to King Hassan II. Uncertain of their political future and the ability of this unpopular new King to “protect” them as guaranteed, Moroccan Jews departed out of fear. As the Arab-Israeli conflict intersected with Cold War politics and internationalism, Moroccan Jewish members of leftist parties found themselves increasingly alienated from the broader Moroccan Jewish community. Devoted to Communism in its many guises during the 1960s and early 1970s, Moroccan Jewish leftists were ideologically very consistent with their positions in previous decades, if not more devoted as their nationalism was increasingly pitted against the mass migration Jewish families and friends.

This chapter covers the period of the 1960s up until the Green March to claim Western Sahara for Morocco in 1975. It traverses the tensions of Jewish and Moroccan identities, nationalism and internationalism, cooptation and post-independence dreams of revolution. Despite an increasingly murky, grim Moroccan political context, the Jewish members of leftist parties remained staunchly devoted to their Moroccanness and their hopes for their country in the face of massive Jewish migration and political repression. The first section treats political splits in the mainstream Moroccan political parties and the makhzan’s ability to control or co-opt them before 1967, discussing the bloody violence of 1965 that opened this chapter as well as the assassination of Mehdi Ben Barka. The second section examines Zionism, clandestine migration, and Hassan II’s complicated relationship to Israel and the Jewish Agency. The third section addresses developments in Moroccan leftist political parties after 1967, particularly the foundation of Ila al-Amam and connections with Third-Worldist movements, and how these and other efforts were complicated by repression following two failed coups d’état of 1971 and 1972. This is a chapter about failed hopes, accommodations, migrations and collaborations; it is also about persistence. Simon Lévy’s activism exemplifies this persistence, After Simon Lévy and his family returned from vacationing in Hungary, the activist family (it will be remembered that Incarnation’s sister, Rosalie, was married to Ali Yata) returned to its previous activities. The stories of Moroccan Jewish Communists during this period of post-independence repression are at once exceptional and emblematic, shedding light on Morocco’s political history and that of its Jews in the relief available from the margins.