Breaking a Taboo: The Moroccan Amazigh Movement, the Holocaust and Israel

By Bruce Maddy-Weitzman
Submitted to Session P2548 (Makhzan Culture and Berber Counter-Culture, 2010 Annual Meeting
This paper will analyze manifestations of the Amazigh (Berber) Culture Movement's increasingly public affinity with the State of Israel and North African Jewish history, the reactions among other segments of Moroccan and Algerian societies, and their meaning for both the movement and for North African states and societies as a whole. In particular, it will focus on the November visit to Israel by a cross-section of Moroccan Amazigh activists, who participated in a week-long intensive seminar at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Museum, the first ever seminar conducted for a delegation originating from a member of the League of Arab States. The visit was related to an ongoing Amazigh project: the effort by Moroccan Amazigh militants to form an Amazigh-Jewish Friendship Association, a project which both draws on a particular reading of North African history that includes deeply rooted origin myths regarding Jewish-Berber ties and is intimately connected to the contemporary Amazigh movement's political agenda.

The Amazigh movement has long been a target for Arab nationalist and Islamist accusations of serving Western imperialism, thanks to its rejection of the Arab-Islamic historical and civilizational narrative, and its affinity to the universalist paradigm espoused in Western intellectual circles. Moreover, an additional aspect of the movement's overall orientation has been a quietly amenable view towards Jews and Judaism, an unwillingness to line up reflexively alongside of the Arab world in its struggles against the State of Israel, and even a measure of admiration for the Zionist movement's successful revival of a national language and assertion of ethno-national rights in the face of an antagonistic Arab world.

In earlier decades, Amazigh movement circles were extremely reticent to even mention anything to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict or their belief in their Jewish "roots". But in recent years, they have begun to be blunter. So too, have been the responses of its opponents, from both Islamist and Arab nationalist circles. Their mostly verbal confrontations are part of the larger developments in Algeria and Morocco in which competing Amazigh and Islamist discourses entered into the public sphere, an outgrowth of the newly liberalizing policies of North African states seeking to better manage and re-legitimize their rule.

Drawing on interviews with activists and a close analysis of published sources, this paper will analyze the Jewish-Amazigh connection in the context of the Amazigh movement's effort to create a viable social movement.