The Sultan's Communists
Moroccan Jews and the Politics of Belonging
Alma Rachel Heckman



“Jews don’t do politics.”1 The Moroccan Jewish writer and former Communist Party leader Edmond Amran El Maleh wrote this provocative statement in his 1980 semiautobiographical novel Parcours immobile (Motionless Journey). The statement was tongue-in-cheek: El Maleh had been a prominent figure in Morocco’s anticolonial movement, much to the chagrin of most members of the Jewish community, who sought to stay out of political trouble. He was not alone in his activism. In the 1960s, Abraham Serfaty, a fellow Jewish Communist, proclaimed his “Arab-Jewish” identity as a way of underscoring his Moroccan patriotism.2 Serfaty, who had worked with El Maleh in Moroccan Communist politics, had also been rejected by the majority of the Jewish community. More recently, Simon Lévy largely withdrew from Communist politics in the mid-1990s after having been a leading figure in the party since the 1950s. Lévy then established the Moroccan Jewish Heritage Foundation and Museum in Casablanca, an institution that expressed his most dearly held belief: that Moroccanness and Jewishness are inextricable from one another.3 Lévy, too, would struggle in his relationship to the Moroccan Jewish community in service of what he saw as his patriotic duty to his homeland. Outcasts of the Moroccan Jewish community, persecuted by the colonial authorities and the postcolonial state, by the end of the twentieth century these three men would be hailed by the Moroccan monarchy itself, held aloft as national heroes and emblems of Morocco’s Jewish heritage.

These men were among the most famous Moroccan Jews of the twentieth century. All were active in the national liberation struggle of Morocco against the colonial protectorate rule of France and Spain; all were deeply patriotic and committed to their vision of an idealized Morocco. When Morocco gained its independence in 1956, each was profoundly optimistic for the future of his nation and the place of Jews within it, even in the face of the great waves of mass Jewish migration to Israel that had begun in the late 1940s. That optimism would be severely tested. Each man ran afoul of the post-independence regime of King Hassan II (r. 1961–1999), which often resulted in imprisonment and torture, even as the majority of the members of the Moroccan Jewish community at home and abroad embraced the monarch as their primary “protector.” For most Moroccan Jews across the twentieth century, Moroccan Jewish Communists such as El Maleh, Serfaty, and Lévy represented political liabilities to the security and stability of the community, first in relation to the French and Spanish colonial authorities and then under the authoritarian rule of King Hassan II. How strange it is, then, that these dissidents have since become the international face of the Moroccan state’s much-touted “tolerance” of Jews and embraced as nationalist heroes. Once reviled within the dominant Moroccan Jewish community and regarded as godless Communists in a Muslim-majority nation, their names and faces now appear regularly in the Moroccan press, they are the subjects of documentaries and conferences, and they have foundations in their honor supported by the Moroccan government. How is it that they have become the pride of the nation, the Sultan’s Communists?4

The prerequisite for understanding this apparent paradox is the history of Moroccan Jewish migration and the composition of the pre-migration Moroccan Jewish population. Morocco was once home to a diverse Jewish population, including Amazigh (Berber) Jews who had lived in Morocco since before the Muslim-Arab conquests began in the seventh century, Arab Jews arriving from other parts of the Arab-Muslim world, and Sephardi Jews exiled from Spain in 1492. At its height in 1945, the Jewish population in Morocco numbered approximately 250,000; during the 1950s and 1960s, nearly the entire community left the country, primarily for Israel. This book explores the motivations of the Moroccan Jews who remained, looking beyond the historiographical flashpoints of 1948 (the establishment of the state of Israel), 1956 (the year of Moroccan independence), and the subsequent regional wars with Israel in 1967 and 1973. Adopting this temporal focus disrupts conventional periodization to reveal a nuanced story of patriotism and idealism, of quests for belonging and experiences of alienation that challenge triumphalist nationalist narratives that end in 1956 or with Jewish migration to Israel. This study examines how Moroccan Jews envisioned themselves as active citizens in a newly independent Morocco, how Communism enabled their participation in Morocco’s national liberation struggle, and how Communism and political activism sought to resolve the apparent paradox of Jewish political belonging in Morocco. The Jews of Morocco and of the wider region were not passive objects, uprooted by colonialism, Zionism, and Arab nationalism. Rather, they were (and remain) active participants in the political life of their homelands—whether in situ or in the diaspora—embracing, resisting, and recombining political affiliations.

This story is at once deeply Moroccan and inherently transnational: its characters travel between Morocco, France, Spain, Algeria, Israel, and the United States. I ask several complementary questions across the five main chapters: What did it mean to be a Moroccan Jew under colonial occupation? What political strategies and affiliations were available, and how did they change over time? How did Jews of different political stripes relate to each other, to Jewishness and Moroccanness as dynamic categories, and to the state? What happened to those radicalized Jews who remained in Morocco, and what were their relationships to those who left? As the chapters that follow reveal, the answers to these questions demonstrate how an examination of Moroccan Jews sheds light on the position of Morocco in the world over time and contributes to regional and global narratives of Communist politics in the twentieth century.

The Sultan’s Communists presents the untold story of Jewish radicals’ involvement in Morocco’s national liberation project. In so doing, it challenges standard narratives of the Jewish past, the modern history of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), as well as international leftist and imperialist histories. Until recently, most narratives have told a story of mass uprooting or Zionist salvation. In Moroccan historiography, most works either end after Morocco’s political independence in 1956 or follow the vast majority of Jews who left the country. In contrast, this book examines the Jews who stayed in Morocco after independence and their political activism, which stood at the intersection of colonialism, Arab nationalism, and Zionism. The chapters extend from the beginning of leftist movements and demographic upheaval in the 1920s, through the high point of Jewish political activism in the immediate postwar period, to Morocco’s repressive post-independence political history in the 1970s, concluding with a discussion of the 1990s and the Moroccan state’s lionization of its Jewish past. This scope, encompassing both the colonial and the Cold War contexts, brings into view the connections between the demographic and ideological shifts within both Morocco’s Jewish population and Moroccanized Communism, as well as the power of the Moroccan state. As such, this book is simultaneously a history of Moroccan Jewish Communists and, more broadly, a history of Morocco and its Jews in the twentieth century.

The Narrative Power of a Minority within a Minority

This book is about a minority within a minority—Jews in the Moroccan Communist Party—and how they became the most famous of Moroccan Jews. In short, this is a story of how a small group of people gained prominence both within Morocco and internationally, in ways that ultimately conferred benefits on all parties involved. Unearthing this story sheds light on the very mechanics of colonialism and anticolonial agitation, the history of Zionism in the MENA and its detractors, the formation of a modern nation-state out of a colonial legacy, and the Jewish role within the state-building process. Finally, studying Moroccan Jewish Communists demonstrates the possibility of Jewish patriotism in the MENA long after independence and regional wars with Israel that contributed to the massive Jewish exodus from so much of the region, including Morocco, during the 1950s and 1960s.

In the words of Edmond Amran El Maleh, to write this story of Moroccan Jewish Communists is to play “a game of complex margins.” 5 Historiographically speaking, The Sultan’s Communists straddles four overlapping circles of scholarly debate; first, the formation of Moroccan national identity politics, and the place of Jews within it; second, Jewish involvement in radical leftist politics, both in the MENA region and in other heartlands of Jewish radicalism; third, Jewish Studies as a field that in recent years has enjoyed an efflorescence of writing regarding Jews of the MENA; and fourth, Middle Eastern and North African Studies, which has increasingly included Jewish minorities in narratives of anticolonial nationalist politics. On the first point, The Sultan’s Communists advances previous work in the field by being the first book to recount the sweep of twentieth-century Moroccan Jewish history into the twenty-first through the prism of radical politics.6 Uniquely, this book addresses Moroccan Jewish identity formation and politics in the post-independence, Cold War world of Zionism and Arab nationalism that would have an outsized effect on Moroccan Jewish patriotism and citizenship models.

On the second point, The Sultan’s Communists joins a small but growing literature on Jews and radical politics in the MENA.7 These works have largely focused on the Middle East, with a few exceptions that treat North Africa. Scholarship that purports to address Jews and radicalism on a global comparative level has historically given the MENA little, if any, attention.8 Although this book is not a comparative study, there are notable similarities across the different colonial contexts of the MENA and even with Ashkenazi Jewish radicalism in Europe and the Americas. As I have written elsewhere, “perhaps paradoxically, Jewish participation in Communist politics was a unique strategy to achieve normalization through conscious pariahdom, whether in the more traditionally construed Ashkenazi context or in the less examined MENA lands.” 9 Despite its focus on Morocco and its unique context, this book complicates the nebulously defined, yet widespread, phenomenon of Jewish involvement in radical politics in the twentieth century.

Third, in studying a minority within a minority, this book engages with some of the most fundamental questions in modern Jewish Studies regarding political emancipation, citizenship formation, and communal affiliation in a nationalizing global context. Over the last few decades, scholarship on Jews of the MENA has boomed, reorienting Jewish Studies in more inclusive directions and greatly enriching the field in the process. The Sultan’s Communists contributes to new work on Jews under colonial occupation and their responses to it, as well as on Zionism and Jewish anti-Zionism in the Arab world.10 Further, because the book focuses on the Jews who remained in Morocco after the mass migrations to Israel of the 1950s and 1960s, it reminds readers that Jewish history in the MENA outside Israel did not end, either in those decades of demographic upheaval or now. Indeed, as this book points out, Jewishness in Morocco has become an increasing source of interest and investment in Morocco and abroad, a trend reflected in scholarship and in tourism alike. In short, the story of Moroccan Jewish Communists is an essential component of modern Jewish history, with thematic resonance across Jewish Studies.

Fourth, The Sultan’s Communists contributes significantly to the modern history of the Middle East and North Africa. Within the field of Middle Eastern Studies, North Africa has often been neglected. Within historiography of the MENA as a whole, minority groups, including Jews, rarely feature in narratives of anticolonial agitation and the politics of modern nation-state formation during the twentieth century. In writing the story of Moroccan Jewish Communists, this book tells the story of Morocco in the MENA and of Jews in MENA political life. It gives nuance to narratives of citizenship formation and MENA nationalism by centering some of the MENA’s most ardent Jewish patriots.

In the middle of the 1940s, the Moroccan Jewish population reached its peak at approximately 250,000. Of that number, a small but disproportionate percentage were members of the Moroccan Communist Party (hereafter referred to as PCM, after the French acronym for the Parti Communiste Marocain). The mid-to late 1940s also represented the height of the PCM’s popularity in Morocco, although reliable numbers are harder to establish. Across the sources, the number of party members likely rests somewhere between five hundred and the low thousands (though the figures for event attendance were often many times more than the basic membership count). Most Moroccan Jews were not very politically active throughout the twentieth century; hence, Edmond Amran El Maleh’s cynical comment, “Jews don’t do politics.” Most Moroccan Muslims were part of political parties other than the PCM, including, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, organizations more radical than the PCM.11

Moroccan Jewish Communists fought for an idealized Morocco that never quite came to fruition. The party emerged out of the French Communist Party and other leftist groups in Morocco during the interwar period, partnered with anti-fascist politics. During the interwar period, Moroccan Jews were drawn to a wide array of political affiliations: it was possible to be simultaneously Zionist, pro-France, and Communist. Anti-fascist activism in response to the Spanish Civil War, as well as the rise of Nazism and its attendant propaganda, spurred Moroccan Jews and Muslims to join leftist organizations. These organizations overlapped with the Communist Party of Morocco. During the Second World War, the Communist Party of Morocco transformed into the Moroccan Communist Party, becoming an anticolonial national liberation party with a Muslim-majority leadership and membership.

The Moroccan Communist Party was the primary avenue for Moroccan Jewish expressions of patriotism and participation in the national liberation movement. Following the Second World War, Moroccan nationalists, including Jews, took advantage of the newly established United Nations and the relative weakness of France to fight for freedom from French and Spanish colonial rule, which had been established in 1912 and was soon to end in 1956. Under colonial rule, many individuals—including colonial officers, Muslims, and even Jews themselves—saw Moroccan Jews as complicit with colonization. Yet, the anti-Semitic persecutions of the Vichy period undermined Jewish relations with colonial authorities. As a result, Moroccan Jews were increasingly primed to support political alternatives to France, including Zionism and Communism. In rejecting French colonial rule, Moroccan Jewish Communists identified primarily with “Moroccanness.” For them, Moroccanness as a social and political concept evolved into a nationalist patriotic identity predicated on a narrative of precolonial protection under the sultan and, with that protection, a legacy of social harmony between Muslims and Jews. That model of social harmony, in turn, drew on romanticized narratives of the Convivencia (living together) of Jewish life in medieval Muslim Spain, mapped onto modern Morocco. The sultan became an important symbolic and then active figure during the war, while the mainstream national liberation organization Istiqlal (Independence) issued its Manifesto for Independence in 1944. The PCM followed suit in short order. In fact, every viable political party came to support a vision of Moroccanness inextricably bound to the institution of the monarchy.

One of the reasons why the Moroccan Communist Party appealed to Jews was its universalist, expansive definition of “Moroccan” at a time when most national liberation parties foregrounded an Arabo-Muslim Moroccan national identity. Although the meaning of “Moroccanness” evolved over time, for Moroccan Jewish Communists it meant embracing Moroccan cultural and national identity formations to the exclusion of all others. In other words, embracing “Moroccanness” entailed a commitment to “Moroccanize,” to accept Jews as an integral part of the nation and to reject French, Spanish, or Zionist politics as threats to the Moroccan nation; it meant both a pluralistic Morocco free to develop its full potential and a narrative of precolonial Muslim–Jewish peaceful coexistence. In fighting for independence through a universalist party that defined Moroccanness broadly, Jews fought to demonstrate their authenticity as Moroccans and their belonging to the Moroccan nation. As a result, they demonstrated the legitimacy of the monarchy as their “protector,” in the figure of the “Commander of the Faithful,” the sultan-turned-king. During the late 1950s through the 1990s, prominent Moroccan Jews rejected specific policies of the monarchy and its turn toward authoritarianism. They did not, however, attack the legitimacy of the monarchy itself. They fought for an idealized vision of Morocco, while, simultaneously, the majority of Moroccan Jews were leaving the country.

By the time King Hassan II died in 1999 and his son King Muhammad VI ascended to the throne, the most prominent remaining Jews were working in the service of the centralized state apparatus known as the makhzan in Arabic. These figures included dissidents who had been welcomed home from exile in France, freed from prison, and rewarded for their patriotism, becoming the “Sultan’s Jews” and thereby the emblems of purported Moroccan “tolerance” of its Jewish minority and of political opposition after decades of repression. The elevation of these Moroccan Jewish dissidents allowed the makhzan to atone for an authoritarian political past, bolstering what Susan Slyomovics has called its “performance of human rights”12 while simultaneously highlighting Morocco’s exceptionalism in the MENA for its commitment to the Moroccan Jewish past and present.

The story of Morocco’s Jewish Communists is both exceptional and emblematic of the history of Jews in Morocco and of Moroccan political life across the years of colonial occupation through independence and the Cold War. The legitimacy of the makhzan, of Jews as Moroccans, and of the Moroccan Communist Party as “authentic” to the values of “Moroccanness” all came to support and serve one another. While bolstering their mutual legitimacy, the makhzan and Jewish Communists also proved each other’s Moroccan “authenticity.” As the following chapters demonstrate, a triangulation of historical contingencies and necessities ultimately enabled both Jewish Communists and the makhzan to combat a legacy of colonial sectarian politics through one another. Each aimed to restore, according to the nationalist narrative, the precolonial and pre-Zionist patriotic harmony between Muslims and Jews, loyal subjects of the sultan-turned-king, the Commander of the Faithful, and the protector of “his” Jews.


1. Edmond Amran El Maleh, Parcours immobile (Paris: Maspero, 1980), 53.

2. Abraham Serfaty quoted in the December 1961 issue of the magazine, France-Pays Arabes; also quoted in Arlette Berdugo, Juives et Juifs dans le Maroc Contemporain: Images d’un Devenir (Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, SA, 2002), 89.

3. Simon Lévy’s numerous scholarly works make this argument, as well as the narrative presented in the Moroccan Jewish Heritage Foundation and Museum he founded in the mid-1990s.

4. Many thanks to Jonathan Wyrtzen for suggesting this felicitous conceptual phrasing at the Yale University Jewish History Colloquium on December 6, 2018; many thanks in turn to Michael Rom for inviting me to present my work in this forum. Wyrtzen was citing the seminal work of Daniel Schroeter, particularly The Sultan’s Jew: Morocco and the Sephardi World (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002). Wyrtzen himself wrote an excellent book on Moroccan national identity formation and twentieth-century politics: Making Morocco: Colonial Intervention and the Politics of Identity (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015).

5. El Maleh, Parcours immobile, 99. El Maleh’s original context for the phrase is a discussion of the growth of the left in Morocco. I earlier used El Maleh’s phrasing in the section header of the conclusion to my chapter, “Fissures and Fusions: Moroccan Jewish Communists and World War II,” in The Holocaust and North Africa, ed. Aomar Boum and Sarah Abrevaya Stein (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019), 185–204, esp. 203–204.

6. For Moroccan Jewish history, see works by Aomar Boum, Daniel Schroeter, Michael M. Laskier, Susan Gilson Miller, Emily Gottreich, Yaron Tsur, André Chouraqui, Mohammed Kenbib, Jamaâ Baïda, Mohammed Hatimi, Haïm Zafrani, André Lévy, and Jessica Marglin cited in the Bibliography.

7. Several excellent scholarly works describe Jewish involvement in national political life in the region; many of them, not coincidentally, focus on Jews in the Communist Parties of respective countries. The mid-to late 1990s saw the beginning of work on Jews and radical politics in the Middle East, including Zachary Lockman’s Comrades and Enemies: Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine, 1906–1948 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) and Joel Beinin’s The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry: Culture, Politics, and the Formation of a Modern Diaspora (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998). Since then, Rami Ginat’s A History of Egyptian Communism: Jews and their Compatriots in Quest of Revolution (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2011); Orit Bashkin’s New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), Pierre-Jean Le Foll-Luciani’s Les juifs algériens dans la lutte anticoloniale: trajectoires dissidentes (1934–1965) (Rennes: PU Rennes, 2015), and Lior Sternfeld’s Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth-Century Iran (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018) have all made important, groundbreaking contributions to the story of Jews and political belonging in the MENA.

8. For example, Ezra Mendelson’s edited volume, Essential Papers on Jews and the Left (New York: NYU Press, 1997), does not include the MENA despite its stated global comparative framework. More recently, Philip Mendes’s Jews and the Left: The Rise and Fall of a Political Alliance (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014) has a few small sections dedicated to the MENA.

9. Alma Rachel Heckman, “Jewish Radicals of Morocco: Case Study for a New Historiography,” Jewish Social Studies 23, no. 3 (Spring/Summer 2018): 67–100, esp. 70.

10. For two fantastic studies on Jews and Ottoman imperial citizenship, see Michelle U. Campos, Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Early Twentieth-Century Palestine (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010) and Julia Phillips Cohen, Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014). The works referenced in note 7 also, of course, directly tackle the subject of Jewish national political life in the MENA and “belonging” in a MENA nationalizing context, in addition to discussing Jewish Communism in the region.

11. As will be clear from Chapters 4 and 5 of this book, more radical organizations during these decades included the Union Nationale des Forces Populaires (UNFP), the Union Nationale des Etudiants du Maroc (UNEM), and Ila al-Amam (Forward, in Arabic).

12. Susan Slyomovics, The Performance of Human Rights in Morocco (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005).