In the stately old Union Club, amid chandeliers and dark paneled walls, Gabriel Harrar, a 33-year-old dentist, was explaining what had brought him back home to Morocco after 13 years in France.
"It was a business opportunity," Harrar was saying. "I never intended to stay more than six months. So now six months have become six years, and I can't imagine ever leaving. I have a wife and baby now and my life is here. I feel completely secure."
His three friends nodded, knowing there was nothing unusual about an Arab coming home from Europe or the United States under those circumstances.
But what makes Harrar's return journey interesting is that he is a Jew, and the Union Club where he had met his friends for evening tea is an exclusively Jewish club.
At the royal palace in Rabat, Andre Azoulay, who gave up a 30-year career as a senior bank executive in Paris to return home in 1991, seldom puts in fewer than 12 hours a day as the country's key economic and political planner--an ironic reversal of roles for a man who, as a young leftist newspaper editor here in the '60s, was arrested several times as a troublemaker.
When his phone rings these days, as likely as not King Hassan II is at the other end.
"I feel very comfortable in my position, comfortable knowing I'm trying to do the best I can for Morocco," Azoulay says.
Nothing unusual about that either, except that Azoulay is the king's closest adviser and he, too, is a Jew--the only senior Jewish adviser to any head of state in the Arab world.
David Dadoon has come home too, though in a different way. He left Morocco in 1966 for a new life in a new homeland and now is back, with the rank of ambassador, as the head of the recently opened Israeli Liaison Office in Rabat.
And Marc Ginsberg, the U.S. ambassador to Morocco, spent his teen-age years in the 1960s in Israel.
The four men are, each in his own way, symbolic of a Moroccan social experiment that stands in extraordinary contrast to the general intolerance that has blighted the Middle East landscape: Here, where Judaic history dates back 2,000 years, predating the birth of Islam, the relationship between Jew and Arab is marked by harmony, mutual respect and an integration at all levels of society, from government to business.
"If you look at it historically, it's better to have been a Jew in Morocco than in Europe," says Serge Berdugo, a contractor and former minister of tourism. "First of all, we were protected in World War II. The king saved us from the Holocaust. And two, in Morocco today, and I hope forever more, we lead full and free lives, with all the traditions and values of being a Jew."
Although the Moroccan Jewish community is a shadow of its former self after shrinking from 350,000 in 1950 to about 10,000 today, it is the largest and most secure Jewish community remaining in the Arab world, and it retains all the institutions of Jewish life, including synagogues, a home for the elderly, schools, clubs, kosher restaurants and a Hebrew-speaking culture.
When combined with the nearly 1 million Moroccan Jews scattered throughout the world, including 650,000 in Israel, the Jewish community here gives Hassan influence far beyond his own borders. For nearly 20 years, he has played a key off-stage role in the Middle East peace process, arranging the secret meetings between Egyptians and Israelis that led to President Anwar Sadat's dramatic visit to Jerusalem in 1977 and continuing to host meetings that bring Israelis and Arabs together at senior levels.
"What we hope," says George Berdugo, a lawyer who sees no contradiction in being an Arab nationalist with strong spiritual ties to Israel, "is that others in the region will understand that although the situation in Morocco is unique, it can also be normal. Jews and Arabs can live together."
The changing climate in the Middle East is eroding, if ever so slowly, old psychological and physical barriers.
With the opening nine months ago of the Israeli Liaison Office--an embassy in all but name--trade between Morocco and Israel, once conducted covertly through third countries, is up 50%. Last year, Israel bought Morocco's entire crop of tomato seeds.
Tourism is booming, and nearly 30,000 Israelis of Moroccan descent are expected to visit this year. Weekly charter flights, still routed for political reasons through Spain, are booked solid until January. Hotels in Casablanca are full of Hebrew-speaking guests, a onetime oddity that no longer even turns a head or raises an eyebrow.
"For me, what is happening is marvelous," says Azoulay, the king's adviser. "We are just starting the process of coming out of a century of hatred and death and violence of Jews and Muslims.
"Every morning, as a Jew, for the last 50 years I read my newspaper or listened to my radio, and day after day, there is a death on the Jewish side or a death on the Arab side. I grew up in this environment. My children were educated in this environment when one side learns to hate the other side. Enough. It is time people realized that what has happened in Morocco is not only possible, but a reality."
Although the number of Jews who, like Azoulay and Harrar, have returned to Morocco is small, and many young Jews who leave for universities abroad do not return, the peaceful cohabitation of the Jewish and Muslim communities here is a subject of increasing interest to visiting Arab delegations.
In the past year, according to Arab diplomats, governments in Algeria, Libya and Tunisia have made contact with their former Jewish citizens living overseas with an eye to eventually inviting them home.
In Cairo, a senior Egyptian official in the foreign ministry says, "The idea has been knocked about here, too, on a high level. We're entering, I think, an era of toleration, and maybe it's time to reach out."
At the end of World War II, the population of Arab Jews in the Middle East stood at about 850,000. In most countries they represented a class of professionals--merchants, financiers, doctors, lawyers--who made important economic contributions to their societies.
In many cases they and their sons and daughters were the friends and contemporaries of present-day Arab leaders, and in private conversations senior Arab officials often express guilt for the Jewish exodus and associate Jews with more prosperous times in countries like Egypt and Algeria.
Middle East wars in 1956 and 1967 led to a substantial number of Jews leaving the Arab lands for Israel, Europe or North America, but the biggest exodus, often made in panic, came after World War II as Arab nationalism, gnawing at the chains of colonialism, came in conflict with Zionism and, in 1948, the creation of Israel.
As Israelis and Arabs fought, rioters in Yemen killed 82 Jews and wrecked 106 of 170 Jewish-owned shops in Sanaa and other cities. Iraq made support of Zionism, along with Nazism and Communism, a capital offense. Algeria, once it had its independence, revoked the citizenship of Jews. Egypt imprisoned Jews by the hundreds. Bands of youths sacked the synagogues in Tunisia.
Today, probably no more than 20,000 Jews remain in Arab countries, half of them in Morocco. As a tiny, non-threatening minority, their presence is no longer an issue in any Arab country.
The Jewish population in Egypt numbers perhaps 250, most elderly, unskilled and apolitical, out of a community that stood at 150,000 two generations ago. Cairo, which once had 27 synagogues, a Yiddish theater and three Jewish cemeteries, has little left but the 1,000-seat, 102-year-old Chaar Hachamain synagogue, headed by an aging lay religious leader who seldom can put together the 10 men required for prayer services.
In Tunisia, only 300 or so Jews remain; in Iraq, about 400 from a former population of 150,000. Libya had nine Jews at last count, South Yemen none. Syria, which for years restricted Jewish emigration, has granted exit visas to all those wishing to leave, including the chief rabbi; about 400 remain, mostly in Damascus.
The exodus from Morocco, though accompanied by anxiety and sometimes fear, was voluntary. Jews left in the late 1940s to realize the dream of Israel, and in the mid-1950s when Morocco's independence from France created uncertainty for entrepreneurs and the educated elite, whether Jew or Muslim, in an Arab world full of nationalistic and socialistic fervor.
The Moroccan government supported the broad Arab opposition to Israel as the hostility grew during the Arab-Israeli wars, but it spoke out against the commercial boycott of Israel and warned its Muslim population against attacking Jewish property.
"I'm not going to tell you there weren't some bad times," says Boris Toledano. "I can remember the terrible tension during the 1967 war. I ran a paper factory. But you know, my [Muslim] customers used to come to my house then, under the cover of darkness, to pay their bills and assure me I would be all right. We knew the tension wouldn't last, and it didn't."
Part of the reason Jews have fared well here lies in the history of Morocco, a land whose heritage is Berber, not Arab. Jews and Muslims have lived and worked together since the 7th Century, and Hassan, a member of the Alawite dynasty that has ruled Morocco since 1649 and claims descent from the Prophet Mohammed, has a religious and political authenticity that few Arab monarchs can claim.
Hassan, who came to power in 1961, and his father, Muhammad V, were both seen by Jews here as caring for their well-being as Moroccans. During World War II, Jews were ordered by the Vichy regime in France, which had established a protectorate in Morocco, to identify themselves by wearing stars of David. But Muhammad V replied, "Then I will wear the first star, because all Moroccans are my children," and the order was ignored.
To this day, many Israelis of Moroccan descent have pictures of kings Muhammad or Hassan hanging in their homes.