September 27, 2023

The unetaneh tokef prayer on Rosh Hashanah mentions the unpredictable inevitable human condition, as the book of life is opened, to be filled in over the coming days with the judgment of who will come to his timely end, and who to an untimely end; who will perish by fire and who by water; who by the sword and who by beast; who by hunger and who by thirst; who by earthquake and who by the plague.

Well, we all know this, or should (or maybe it’s me; as Messrs Tyrrell and Pleszczynski know, I am the most, if not the only, ecumenical and non-partisan, of the old The American Spectator gang), just as we all should know the basics of Christmas and Easter. Non-partisan indeed, I’ll even throw in the Q’dr, which I am told is the holiest day during the holy month of Ramadan, but don’t ask; I don’t know. However, on erev Rosh Hashanah, eve of the new year, here follows a terse follow up to the report on the disasters in Libya and Morocco of the other day. (READ MORE from Roger Kaplan: Libya, Morocco, Disasters, and Failed Regimes)

The disasters were natural, rock formations unsettled by seismic movements in the Atlas Mountains causing a devastating stoning of the ancient city of Marrakesh in Morocco, while almost at the same time a typhoon over the Mediterranean swept across eastern Libya (familiar to Americans for its major city of Benghazi), hit the town of Derna and busted two big dams, resulting in killer floods.

These are natural disasters, and you can interpret them as you will, but it does not hurt to keep in mind that the Deluge had something to do with human wickedness. It does not, but there is no call to point fingers, even though admittedly that was done in the earlier report (I’ll beat my breast on Yom Kippur) because, truth be told, there were human failures here, especially in Derna, where the dykes had not been inspected for some 20 years according to reports. You can blame that on the nature of the tyrannical regime that ruled that country, or on the way the so-called Western powers tried to “build democracy” as a replacement (and totally failed), or on the warlords who took over in the wake of the whole fiasco and have been fighting one another since, instead of seeing to the public interest. Or spread the blame — as my wife says, if it makes you feel good.

The Chabad organization, an Orthodox Jewish movement that focuses on education and succor, does not blame; it acts. It went to work immediately after, not only because ancient synagogues in Marrakesh were hit, but because “our Moroccan brothers,” as the rabbis say, need all the help they can get. The bearded men in black hats have been among the ruins making themselves helpful while their wives cook and prepare bandages.

In the 1950s, when Chabad sent its first missions to Morocco, between 200,000 and half a million Jews lived in Morocco, members of an ancient community that had been in the region since even before the coming of the Arabs (who, by the way, did not get very far into the western end of north Africa, but who did bring their language and religion to the indigenous Berbers).

World politics intruded, and most of Morocco’s Jews found it expedient to leave Morocco for France and Israel in the 50s and 60s. Those who remained have been viewed as neighbors, as their forebears were, and they have contributed across the board, but they really are very few in number now, 5,000 by the most generous estimate.

The same evolution can be observed across the region, give or take more politically motivated outbursts of anti-Jewish persecution in Tunisia and Algeria, which can be attributed to the more “modern” types of regimes in those countries, as compared to the traditional Moroccan monarchy that, for all its shortcomings, has less need of manufactured dangers (“Zionist enemy”) as a way to deflect discontent and rally support.

The Copts are an endangered population in Egypt; the Berbers of Kabylia had a strong Jewish, and later Christian, population until the end of the colonial period; St. Augustine was born in present-day Algeria and lived most of his life in present-day Tunisia.

Whether the North African countries, including Libya and even Egypt, would have done better to keep their Jews and their Christians may be posited; it is one of those easier-said-than-done questions.

In Marrakesh and environs, Chabad is doing as it always has, offering a hand and a few words, keeping in mind Exodus 23, for a stranger you will not oppress, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.