The Sultan's Communists
Moroccan Jews and the Politics of Belonging
Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture
Published by: Stanford University Press
344 pages, 152.00 x 229.00 mm
- ISBN: 9781503613805
- Published: November 2020
The Sultan's Communists uncovers the history of Jewish radical involvement in Morocco's national liberation project and examines how Moroccan Jews envisioned themselves participating as citizens in a newly-independent Morocco. Closely following the lives of five prominent Moroccan Jewish Communists (Léon René Sultan, Edmond Amran El Maleh, Abraham Serfaty, Simon Lévy, and Sion Assidon), Alma Rachel Heckman describes how Moroccan Communist Jews fit within the story of mass Jewish exodus from Morocco in the 1950s and '60s, and how they survived oppressive post-independence authoritarian rule under the Moroccan monarchy to ultimately become heroic emblems of state-sponsored Muslim-Jewish tolerance.
The figures at the center of Heckman's narrative stood at the intersection of colonialism, Arab nationalism, and Zionism. Their stories unfolded in a country that, upon independence from France and Spain in 1956, allied itself with the United States (and, more quietly, Israel) during the Cold War, while attempting to claim a place for itself within the fraught politics of the post-independence Arab world. The Sultan's Communists contributes to the growing literature on Jews in the modern Middle East and provides a new history of twentieth-century Jewish Morocco.
The introduction presents the main interventions and arguments of the book in the overlapping fields of Jewish Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, Maghrib Studies, and the history of global Communism. It depicts how the precolonial paradigm of Jews as representatives of the sultan, and the sultan as "protector" of the Jews, came under assault in Morocco with the introduction of European colonialism, formalized into French and Spanish Protectorates over Morocco. Across its chapters, the book demonstrates how the precolonial paradigm of "belonging" to the sultan became repurposed for modern Jewish participation in the future independent nation-state of Morocco. Most Jews active in the national liberation movement were members of the Moroccan Communist Party. Across the twentieth century, the book argues that the "Sultan's Jews" became the "Sultan's Communists," demonstrating Moroccan Jewish patriotism and the mutually constitutive nature of "Moroccanness" and "Jewishness."
Chapter 1 describes Morocco as it was divided between French and Spanish Protectorates, focusing on the 1920s and 1930s. During this period, Jews enjoyed a wide array of political choices, including pro-French Alliancism; leftist Popular Front activism, notably through the International League Against Anti-Semitism (LICA), as well as the Communist Party of Morocco; and Zionism, which boasted robust cultural and intellectual organizations in the country since the late nineteenth century. The interwar period for Moroccan Jews was characterized by a fluidity of political affiliations that were not yet mutually exclusive. Global political polarization between rising fascism, anti-Semitism, Communism, universalism, nationalism, and Zionism within Morocco intersects with the rise of Nazism, the Spanish Civil War, and the Great Revolt in Mandate Palestine, braiding Moroccan Jewish and Muslim political life into narratives of the biggest political questions rocking the Middle East, including rising pan-Islamic and pan-Arab movements.
Chapter 2 focuses on the Second World War and its effects on Moroccan Jewish and Muslim political life. With France's fall to Nazi Germany in 1940, the collaborationist Vichy regime applied anti-Semitic legislation in Morocco. While unevenly enforced, such legislation called for severe restrictions on employment, education, and housing for Moroccan Jews. This chapter examines Vichy rule in Morocco and the related spikes in anti-Semitism and fascism. It also describes the efflorescence of political possibilities for Moroccan Jews and Muslims that followed the success of Operation Torch. Yet, the previous fluidity of political choices hardened into mutually exclusive possibilities. Moroccan Jews asked themselves whether it was best to stay in Morocco or to leave. Simultaneously, the chapter charts the transformation of the Moroccan Communist Party into a nationalist organization that included a critical number of politicized Jews.
Chapter 3 uncovers the previously untold story of Jewish participation in the Moroccan national independence movement, disproportionately from within the Moroccan Communist Party. It examines Moroccan Jewish political life in conjunction with Israel's establishment in 1948, Moroccan independence in 1956, and strife in the Middle East. Friction developed between the Communist and the Istiqlal Parties in the common fight to throw off colonial rule. Tensions also reigned within the Moroccan Jewish community as it navigated an escalating series of questions regarding its future in Morocco. Most Moroccan Jews were not politically active. To most, the Jewish Communists represented a liability for the stability of the community. Meanwhile, questions of Jewish loyalty to Morocco and the identity of Morocco as a Muslim state became linked to anti-Zionism and Arab nationalism. Increasingly, Moroccan Jewish Communists were isolated from the wider Jewish community, moving in opposite practical and ideological trajectories.
Chapter 4 traces the difference between the idealized Morocco of national liberation and the reality of increasing political repression. Splinters formed between Moroccan Jews and Muslims, and between leftist movements and the state. Mass migrations of Moroccan Jews to Israel began in the wake of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser's visit to Morocco, the sinking of a ship carrying Jews bound for Israel, and the unexpected death of King Muhammad V. King Hassan II sought to crush leftist movements, forcing the Moroccan Communist Party underground. Two attempted coups against the king and mass popular uprisings only increased repression. Splinters also developed between the majority Jewish community and the Jewish Communists: while most Jews left for Israel, Moroccan Jewish Communists pleaded for Jews to reject Zionism and remain loyal to Morocco. Among Moroccan Jewish Communists, some embraced a more accommodationist approach to the state, while others joined more radical opposition organizations.
Chapter 5 analyzes the infamous Years of Lead and how Moroccan Jewish Communists diverged in their responses. Morocco began to publicly embrace its Jewish past while imprisoning its most well-known Jewish Communists in horrendous conditions. Some prominent Moroccan Jewish Communists worked with the state, notably supporting the 1975 Green March. Others supported Sahrawi independence and faced decades of imprisonment. This chapter examines the development of the state's narrative of Moroccan Jewish tolerance alongside King Hassan II's relationship with Israel and the United States. Meanwhile, international human rights organizations militated on behalf of prominent Moroccan political prisoners, among them Jews, pressuring the monarchy to release them. With the end of the Cold War and the death of King Hassan II, the state embraced the previously marginalized and reviled Moroccan Jewish Communists as national heroes, upheld as symbols of Moroccan Jewish exceptionalism within the region.
The conclusion summarizes the book's main arguments while recapitulating the broad narrative and temporal sweep of its subject matter. It highlights the apparent paradox raised in the introduction of the book: how a minority of a minority, a small group of Moroccan Jewish Communists, reviled as pariahs and liabilities by many, became among the most prominent state-supported symbols of Moroccan liberalism and Muslim–Jewish interfaith harmony or convivencia in the region. It demonstrates the continuity of the Sultan's Jews into the Sultan's Communists, shedding light on ongoing political and cultural developments in Morocco under King Muhammad VI.
"With meticulousness and fervor, Alma Rachel Heckman offers a unique historical entry to North Africa's Jewish communities. Written from the perspective of a marginal group within the Jewish community of Morocco, The Sultan's Communists provides a new and refreshing understanding of minority politics in colonial and post-colonial societies. A significant contribution to Jewish studies in the Middle East and North Africa." ~Aomar Boum, University of California, Los Angeles
"The Sultan's Communists tells the paradoxical and largely unknown story of a group of Moroccan Jewish militants who identified with Morocco's national liberation movement and remained in Morocco as patriotic citizens after independence when the majority of Jews were emigrating to Israel. Alma Rachel Heckman's riveting account of political activism, imprisonment, torture, exile, and cooptation reveals the possibilities and limitations of Jewish belonging in an Arab Muslim country." ~Daniel J. Schroeter, University of Minnesota
"In this innovative study about Moroccan communist Jews, Alma Rachel Heckman explores radical leftist movements, their struggles against fascism, and their battles for national liberation and social justice. The book masterfully reconstructs the nonsectarian vision these Jewish radicals developed, illustrating how communism served as a patriotic option for Moroccan Jews. A unique and compelling tribute to the activism and heroism of Moroccan radical Jews." ~Orit Bashkin, University of Chicago
"Alma Rachel Heckman has written an original and important book concerning the role that radicalized Jews played in Morocco's struggle for independence from France and in newly independent Morocco." ~Sheldon Kirschner, The Times of Israel