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Trip reinforces hope in future of Jewish people

Harvey Kaplan

Survival is an enduring Jewish principle, one that we celebrated during Passover, and soon will rejoice on Israel’s Independence Day. The trajectory of the Jewish journey was very much on my mind as I recently traveled with an American Jewish Committee (AJC) delegation to Spain, Portugal and Morocco. For an American Jew, troubled by daily reports of rising anti-Semitism, radical Islamic threats, and endless assaults against Israel, it was heartening to have highly positive experiences in each of these countries.

In meetings with senior officials in Spain and Portugal more than 500 years after the Inquisition it was clear that the two Iberian governments are dedicated to strengthening ties with Israel, and, significantly, to safeguarding their own Jewish communities.

These impressions were reinforced by our Spanish and Portuguese Jewish partners, whose representatives accompanied us — a common AJC practice on diplomatic missions — to most meetings. A further indication of outreach to Jews worldwide was the adoption last year of laws that will offer Jews who can trace their roots to Spain and Portugal the opportunity to apply for citizenship.

In a further illustration of cooperation and support, Madrid Mayor Manuela Carmena signed in our presence the Mayors United Against Anti-Semitism statement. The ceremony in an ornate room in Madrid’s City Hall was well attended and covered by media. She, along with a growing list of mayors across Europe and the U.S., so far more than 400, including Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Sly James, Jr.; Kansas City, Kansas, Mayor Mark R. Holland; Leawood Mayor Peggy J. Dunn; Overland Park Mayor Carl R. Gerlach; and Wichita, Kansas, Mayor Jeff Longwell, have joined the AJC global initiative.

Gathering support for a critical statement on anti-Semitism and organizing meetings with top officials, such as foreign, justice and interior ministers of other countries, are the product of decades of relationship building that is the hallmark of AJC, the premier global Jewish advocacy organization. AJC, founded in 1906, in response to pogroms in Kishinev, works tirelessly to ensure the well-being of Jews worldwide. Having friends at the highest levels of government and in civil society are critical to accessing key leaders with whom to advocate for our priority issues and to yield success in effecting policies.

While American Jewish roots are mostly in Europe, and AJC has been very active on the continent, with offices in Berlin, Brussels, Paris and Rome, the network of ties to governments also is extensive throughout the Arab world, a region that has become more turbulent and challenging for Jewish interests.

Morocco stands as a shining example of a Muslim country that is both openly committed to its Jewish community and gracious in welcoming American Jewish visitors. The preamble to the country’s new constitution, adopted by referendum in 2011, cites Morocco’s “Hebraic” roots. Judaism was practiced in Morocco for some seven centuries before the arrival of Islam.

Though the Jewish community is much smaller than its original size, with many having made Aliyah to Israel, Morocco continues to take affirmative steps to protect Jewish heritage and religious sites. These initiatives are led by King Mohammed VI, who sponsored a multi-year project repairing thousands of grave sites in more than 160 Jewish cemeteries. The care taken in preserving Jewish memory and celebrating Jewish heritage was evident when we visited a restored cemetery and synagogues in Fez.

Appreciation for Jews in Morocco extends well beyond the Monarch, and was on full display in our meeting with a group of Moroccan college students and young adults, members of the Mimouna Association. Elmehdi Boudra, Mimouna’s founder and president, shared the group’s mission to learn about and preserve Moroccan Jewish culture.

While none of the students are Jewish, one reminisced that his “grandmother used to light candles on Friday nights.” Undoubtedly, there was some family connection to Judaism at some time. Indeed, the Jewish feeling persists and it is hard to extinguish the flame.

In sum, after an overseas trip of 10 days that included intense discussions with senior officials, who also were open to hear our group’s views, on the peace process, refugees and migrants, terrorism, and relations with Israel and the U.S., I am ever more hopeful about the future for the Jewish people.

Harvey Kaplan is a member of the board (and former chair) of the Jewish Community Relations Bureau|American Jewish Committee in Kansas City. He is also a member of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) board of governors, and board of AJC’s Transatlantic Institute in Brussels.