Moroccan Jewish Communists and the Frontiers of Jewish Studies: Avery Weinman Interviews Professor Alma Rachel Heckman
This is the transcript for the full interview, which has been edited for clarity.
Avery Weinman: Can you give me a brief prologue that traces day one of this project to finally holding a hardcover copy in your hands? How did this book come into being? And how did you first get interested in this subject?
Alma Heckman: That’s a very long story that I’ll try to make brief. But, essentially, it emerged out of my undergraduate thesis. [It was about] Jewish and Muslim literature of exile in post war North Africa. I looked at different novels between Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia by a number of different authors. That sort of started me in thinking about the question of belonging in a homeland, the complications of colonial policy for what is the logging in that homelands, complications of other twentieth century movements, including Zionism, including Arab nationalisms, and their intersections for producing a sense of exile, whether one had actually remained in one’s country or whether somebody had left because you can feel deeply alienated while living in a country that has transformed all around you. Then immediately after college, I had a Fulbright in Morocco. I had never been to Morocco before, and I lost my suitcase for the first two weeks. So, I was dependent on the kindness of my fellow Fulbrighters for everything until it eventually surfaced.
I was supposed to be looking at all kinds of Jewish things around Morocco; it wasn’t particularly well focused. But I volunteered some time at this Jewish heritage museum and foundation in Casablanca (the Museum of Moroccan Judaism and the Foundation for the Preservation of Moroccan Jewish Culture) and the director and founder of that museum was a man named Simon Lévy, who became one of the foundational figures in the book. Simon Lévy was a prominent member of the Moroccan Communist Party. When I met him as a twenty-three-year-old, I knew nothing about that history. I had studied some North African Francophone literature [and] I had studied some Middle Eastern history, but really that was an intersection I knew absolutely nothing about. I’d never heard anything before about Jews who participated in national liberation movements where they were. I really wanted to know more about this kind of figure. So, when I went to grad school, I started looking into it. I remember the first seminar paper I wrote was some really early version of questions I would develop later for the dissertation. It was a long, long Odyssey of various papers, oral histories, and then traveling between all kinds of archives. Eventually, it was a dissertation. So, by the time I got the cover, the full physical item – it was just such a long process. It’s been a basically over ten years in the making. Really sadly, a lot of those people that I interviewed, including Simon Lévy, have died in that interim – including Lévy’s wife and one of his sons, all whom I got to know pretty well over the process of this book. So, I wish I could have done it a little faster [and] gotten it to them. But one extant member got it, at least.
AW: Before we get into more specific questions, I’m wondering if, in your own words, you can sketch an outline of what The Sultan’s Communists is about and summarize the key arguments that you hope readers would take away [from the book].
AH: It depends on the reader. Because I think for some readers, it will be surprising to know that there were many Jews in Morocco at all. For some readers, it will be surprising to know that during these mass waves of migration during the fifties and sixties of Jews from the wider Middle East and North Africa, some [Jews] chose not to migrate and remained exactly where they were and participated in the national building project. For some of them, the idea of Jewish Communists and Communism being reconciled with a Muslim predicated vision of nationalism, as well as a monarchy, is very surprising. So, it depends on the reader. But the main takeaways would be that if you think about Morocco now, they’re super proud of their history as being a “tolerant” nation in the wider Middle East and North Africa, and that there is a special relationship between the king and his – possessive his – Jewish subjects.
And that relationship is a modern nationalist revival of an older relationship that is pre-colonial of Jews operating as political go-betweens for the Sultan and for the makhzan (Morocco’s centralized monarchical-state apparatus) and the wider Moroccan state in the world. This is one narrative, basically, that’s been romanticized, in the post-World War Two period: particularly to facilitate Jewish nationalist participation in Moroccan nation building. But there are a lot of things in between all of that.
AW: For me, the central takeaway that I got was not only did Jews indeed actually “do politics,” as you say, and which is in the preface that I’ve written, but they do politics in unexpected places, and with, I think, tremendous and sometimes really tragically misplaced chutzpah. Moroccan Jewish Communist is a string of words that don’t actually seem like they should go together. And yet here we have this small, admittedly elite ostracized group, who proclaim themselves as you would say, very loudly from the margins of what we think of when we think of Arab nationalism, Jewish trajectories in the Middle East and North Africa, and otherwise. I think you would probably agree that there’s a lot of value in examining these kinds of obscured and rebel voices as a way to reveal Jewish history where we wouldn’t think to find it. Which, in the case of what you’ve written, is in the context of the Arab world, or also in anticolonial national liberation politics. So, I was wondering if on this last point, then, of Jews being involved in nationalist politics that are not Zionism, which I think is where the disconnect appears for readers, if you have another comment on that, and maybe to compare Morocco to other contexts. There are Jews who are participating in the creation of national identities that are not what readers in the United States are used to thinking of when they think of Jews.
AH: This book comes on the heels of other books that have examined similar questions in Egypt, in Iraq, in Algeria, and in Iran. Joel Beinin in wrote a book in the mid-nineties, The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry (1998), that highlighted Egyptian Jewish Communists their commitments to Egyptian nationalism. Even though, again, the vast majority of Egyptian Jews left and under far more dire circumstances than in Morocco. I mean, this is a problem – when we think about the story of Jews in the Middle East and North Africa, there is this unfortunate tendency to say “Ah yes, all of the Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa.” In some places, that’s true. In some places, that’s not true. In some places, Jews were really facing quite dire circumstances, and in others like Morocco there was fear, but no – with a few exceptions – no real physical threats. The government always assured the belonging of Jews to the state in a way that in Egypt and in Iraq, in parallel time periods, didn’t. Orit Bashkin’s work New Babylonians (2012) focuses on that question in Iraq: on Jews and their commitments to the Iraqi nation state as it was [in the process of] constructing itself out of the shambles of World War One and the destruction of the Ottoman Empire. Pierre-Jean Le Foll-Luciani has written a book [Les Juifs Algériens Dans La Lutte Anticoloniale (2015)], only published in French unfortunately, about a similar thing in Algeria. A few years ago, Lior Sternfeld wrote one about Jews and Iranian Communism [Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth-Century Iran (2018)], the Tudeh Party.
We are this handful cohort of people that are interested in this question. I mean, and we are all bearing in mind the contextual particularities of all of these nation states as they are now. There is this interesting question of – how is it that Jews can participate in nationalist politics in a region [that] for most of the twentieth century [was] subjected to some form of European colonization or another, and that was home to a number of different versions of Arab nationalism: all of them predicated on a form of rejecting Zionism as at least one component? So, for Jews in all of these regions that I mentioned, rejecting Zionism was a way of proving one’s bona fides and belonging to the state. Communism was typically the easiest way of doing that, because it was a political party that was not based on ethnic or religious particularism. Whereas many other national liberation organizations or nationalist organizations in the region either had some sort of Muslim identity undergirding them, or were not appealing to Jews for other reasons.
AW: Communism, and the idea of a Communist nationalism… this is another thing – not specific to the Middle East and North Africa, but anywhere where it’s the quote-unquote Third World – where there are communist parties [that are] also very, very nationalistic, and not at all self-conscious about being so. Left and Right on the American political spectrum does not understand that [juxtaposition] – it rejects it, biologically, but [Communist nationalism] is something that we see not just in this context, but globally.
AH: And even in Eastern Europe. I mean, one of the things that Moroccan nationalists leaned on was, well, Stalin, quote, “Solved the national question, it’s okay to be nationalist. See, it’s okay to have national pride and call yourself a communist” even though Stalin hated Tito. That’s something Tito did too. So, you know, it’s not unique to former colonial regions. And it’s true that overwhelmingly in those regions Communism functions as national liberation, we also see it operate nationalistically in the heartlands of Eastern European Communism as well.
AW: With The Sultan’s Communists you’ve written a much-welcomed scholarly text that presses on the boundaries of a number of historiographical frontiers. To elaborate for Leviathan’s broad readership, what I mean by this is that your book challenges and enriches the spatial, temporal, and political borders that have typically concerned scholars of Jewish history in the Middle East in North Africa up to this point in time. For instance, the physical setting in Morocco centers Middle Eastern and North African historical events – ranging from the Spanish Civil War in the interwar period, to Operation Torch during the Second World War, to Morocco’s Green March into the Western Sahara in 1975 – as the foundation upon which this history took place. The significance of this spatial context is also evident in what languages you conducted your research in, as I’m guessing you worked primarily in Arabic and French in addition to English, Hebrew and Spanish. With regards to the temporal dimension and periodization, you’ve made an active effort to undercut moments of imposed narrative or teleologically based fixity by traversing imagined denouements or conclusions in either 1948 with the establishment of the State of Israel, or in 1956 with Moroccan national independence. Politically, you’ve exploded the myth of Jewish passivity and advanced the Middle East in North Africa as an arena of Jewish radical politics, which is an ecosystem that still focuses in large extent, to European Ashkenazi, and Yiddish speaking Jewry. So, my question is this – with all this pioneering that you’ve done, how do you understand The Sultan’s Communists, and in your work in general, [in relation] to the existing historiography, and to some of the major reorientations that are currently taking place in Jewish Studies?
AH: You’ve put your hand on a number of frustrating issues within the field of Jewish Studies. There isn’t nearly enough cross conversation between those who do European Jewish history or American Jewish history, and those who do Jewish history in the Middle East in North Africa or other parts of the world. It’s, I would argue, a very artificial divide. There are a lot of intermingling of populations, demographically, as well as in terms of [historiographical] reading, in terms of languages – all of these sorts of things. I would advance it’s a pretty artificial division. Those categories can help in terms of thinking about the development of the categories in these populations, but I think it’s equally important to question them. I’m working on another project right now – an edited volume, along with Nathaniel Deutsch and Tony Michels – on Jews and radicalisms in a comparative context that does exactly this; that bridges, Eastern Europe, Central Europe, Western Europe, the Americas, Middle East, North Africa, to try to ask [if] there something to Jews and communism and radicalism that supersedes, in some way, these Ashkenazi-Sephardi-Mizrahi divisions. And maybe that many of these divisions are, again, artificial or less helpful than they are helpful in understanding real political events and histories for all of these people for all of those regions. So that’s the first thing I do, within Jewish Studies anyway, is push back on those divides. I would really hope that those who are interested in Jews and radicalism writ-large who have often worked in Eastern Europe or Central Europe would consider looking at these other texts. I can’t tell you how many edited volumes I’ve seen that say, “Jews and Communism,” or “Marx and the Jewish Question,” and they’re not talking about Jewish history. They’re talking about American Jewish history, or they’re talking about Eastern European Jewish history or German Jewish history. And they’re taking this to stand in for all of Jewish history without even so much as a note in the introduction to say that is what they are doing. In fact, they are not representing all Jews everywhere and the phenomenon of radicalism across time and space. So, that’s the first intervention.
But then I’ll say, in Middle East Studies, there’s another problem of thinking about the narrative – the grand narrative of the history of the Middle East. Minorities often get short shrift within those broad narratives. Within histories of national liberation movements and anti-colonial movements minorities get some attention, but not in the grand narratives, so to speak. There are so many stories and histories of Egypt, let’s say, or Iraq, that neglect Jewish participation. In Morocco, [this is] to a lesser extent, but that has to do with Morocco’s geopolitics. In Morocco it is very “in” to talk about one’s Jews.
[…] When I was thinking about publishing the book, I thought about, well, should it go in a Middle East Studies series, or should it go in a Jewish Studies series? Stanford has both, and they’re both excellent. And I’ve had friends who have done both. Lior Sternfeld’s [book] on Iranian Jewish communists was in the Middle East series. Orit Bashkin’s book was in the Middle East series. Joel Beinin, incidentally, is one of the editors for the Middle East series. And I thought I had more to argue within a Jewish Studies context, because of this set of arguments that has existed already, for instance, within those edited volumes that I referenced. [Or] in the neglect of colonialism and the Jews, all of these sorts of things. It seemed that there was much more neglect within the field of Jewish Studies to contend with than there was in Middle East Studies.
AW: That is an interesting point, like you’re saying this decision to go either the Jewish Studies route or the Middle Eastern Studies route is really superfluous to what the content of the book is. It fits very easily in either, but it is a matter of audience – of who is most likely to pick up this series, and who are you trying to reach? And, perhaps it’s just to my mind because you trained me, but it seems like the Middle East and North Africa is going to be a gravitational center in Jewish Studies. If it’s not already, it will be, I think, almost certainly within this decade on equal footing [with other contexts].
AW: And then the Middle Eastern Studies [narrative] is an equal point. One, you’re correct to then say that [The Sultan’s Communists] is a minority story, and to understand the role of minorities in the Middle East, [there is] perhaps no better example [to tell a minority history] than with Jewish history because it speaks to Berber history, Coptic Christian history, et cetera. The Greeks and the Armenians and whoever else are in Egypt in the same period. People who are Arab, and then sometimes people who are not Arab at all, but are still feeling very much part of that national identity. But even beyond just telling a minority story, how can you tell a story of Middle East without the presence of Israel or Zionism? The region doesn’t make sense, unless we account for the ways in which the political back and forth that takes place between Arab nationalists, between Zionism, between people caught up – like the main characters of your book – in the fray of all of it. So, it’s a superfluous decision, then, to say “is it a Jewish Studies or Middle Eastern Studies” when it’s both, and both of those historiographies are in conversation with each other.
AH: You can see this in the news. Very recently, I tried to submit a failed op-ed in The New York Times about the Western Sahara question, because there was a really interesting Jewish story internal to Morocco, as well as to Moroccan Jews in Israel in the 1970s that surround that event. Morocco is the latest of a number of nations in the Middle East and North Africa to agree to normalize ties with Israel, in exchange for one thing or another. But in Morocco, specifically, it’s for recognition of its claim to Western Sahara. Some of the people that I write about – Simon Lévy was so proud of participating in the Green March and being one of the first people to walk in, and it was a very popular cause among most Moroccan Jews, whether they were in Morocco or Israel or elsewhere. There was this tremendous marshalling of patriotic fervor among Moroccan Jews for this cause, and in support of the king. However, some of the other figures I write about – notably, Abraham Serfaty – was rotting in prison for nearly twenty years for his opposition to the exact same policy and for his support of the Polisario Front. All of these things have to do with Morocco’s place in the Cold War, and then after 9/11 [with] Morocco’s place in the so-called Global War on Terror. That actually is something that contributed to the rehabilitation of figures like Abraham Serfaty, even though he was against this Western Sahara issue. It’s totally visible in in all of these huge political choices that we see today that are in the news. They have these very, very deep, complex stories, not just about Morocco [or] in the United States and Israel, but around people: Moroccan Jews in Morocco, Israel, and sometimes in the United States who have very personal stakes, and very personal politics surrounding these questions. Back to the question of minority – so often telling the story of a minority is a very effective way of telling the story of a place and its time because when you include the minority, the minority sheds light on the whole, but the majority story is not going to shed light on the minority.
AW: You’ve apprehended one of my other questions. One of the unavoidable consequences of writing a modern period history that extends to the present day is that almost inevitably it’ll become out of date because something will happen in diplomacy that makes the conclusion not up to speed anymore. So, in the few short months between the release of your book and when we’re doing this interview in December 2020, one such of those developments took place between Morocco and Israel when they normalized their diplomatic relations. Although, we should probably say it’s more of a formalization or a publicization of relations that they’ve had on down-low for several decades now. Briefly, for the readers, it is worth mentioning that Morocco is one of several Middle Eastern North African states to establish diplomatic relations with Israel this year, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan, as well as the Kingdom of Bhutan in the Himalayas. You’re not a political scientist, and I will not ask you to level and unimpeachable judgment on the geopolitics of the Middle East, but we’ve commented a little bit already about how the use of formalizations between Israel and Morocco might impact Moroccan Jews, both those who remain in Morocco and the huge number of Israelis who have Moroccan heritage. And so perhaps, then, we could cover just the tourism industry that exists between Moroccan Jews and Israeli Jews of Moroccan heritage.
And I should also add, just briefly because it’s part of my own work, that the internal Israeli angle to this is very interesting in the way that this formalization of ties plays into this assertion of Mizrahiness and proximity to Morocco and the Arab world as a valid expression of being Israeli. The history of Mizrahi Jews in Israel, their politics, anti-Mizrahi racism, et cetera, is beyond the scope of this interview, but given that Moroccans are, I think, still to date the second largest demographic group in all of Israel, this was a very emotional and symbolic movement for quite a few Israeli Jews. But to return, then, to the idea of tourism – I was wondering what you would comment and hope that people would know about that?
AH: As you said, what’s happening now is just the formalization of things that have been going on for a very long time. In the book I write about in the 1970s and Israeli immigration officials meeting with King Hassan II and having sort of quiet conversations in the courtyard and reports reflecting that King Hassan II was anxious that he not appear overly friendly to the Jews or not be known as the King of the Jews because he also had to balance Morocco’s position in the Arab world. In the 1970s, this is still an era of Nasserism, and the resonance of Nasserism and Arab nationalism. So, the idea of having those kinds of conversations with Israeli officials in that moment would have been very difficult to say the least in terms of popular perception. In every moment where the Moroccan King did make overtures to Israelis or legally facilitated immigration, there was widespread popular dissent. The same thing is happening now in Morocco about the new normalizations. Some people are really on board and very excited, but many others are protesting and saying “Morocco has thrown Palestine under the bus,” “how dare they,” or “this is terrible for Morocco’s record as a as an Arab regional ally.” All of these things have existed for a long time and tourism is attendant with them.
The first major touristic jaunts of Israelis of Moroccan origin were really in the 1980s. Oren Kosansky, an anthropologist, has written a lot about this. Andre Lévy has also written a lot about this. [These trips] began with this sense of the Convivencia narrative, the idea of Jews having always lived well in Morocco. And yet, asking [Moroccan Jews], “Why did you leave in the first place?” and “Why are you coming back for this touristic purpose?” is a question that’s not overtly stated, but it is part of that touristic practice. Tourism in Morocco, Jewish or otherwise, is a huge industry. But Jewish tourism occupies a very special niche in Moroccan political history, and in its relationships to Jews. Because in so many other parts of the region – especially in the eighties and nineties, when this [tourism] was really getting going in Morocco – you couldn’t really engage in Jewish tourism [elsewhere]. Certainly not in a place like Iraq – you could never engage in Jewish tourism then – or Yemen, or in Egypt to some extent. Algeria? No. So many of these places, that kind of thing would have been impossible. But in Morocco, it very much was possible. That’s a sort of unique component to the Morocco story. In Tunisia, it was also possible, but Morocco welcomes Jewish tourism and a Jewish narrative within its past in a way that is really different from the wider region.
AW: And as you argue, that’s part of the national spirit that [Morocco] is trying to exude – this “we are so plural.”
AH: Exactly. “We are so plural.” In the 1970s, “We are so plural. Thanks, American army, for your support in the struggle of Western Sahara and in pushing back any Algerian socialist incursions in support of the Polisario. Thanks for being a great Cold War ally.” And here, we see it again. Today, the Leftists that were oppressed from the seventies and eighties onward are now beacons of a more nostalgic age, marshalled for contemporary political purposes.
AW: I’ll move on to a different topic that’ll get us away from the minefield of diplomacy. I would also argue that with The Sultan’s Communists – especially in the fifth chapter, which focuses mainly on the 1970s through today – you’ve written a very valuable addition to the history of the end stages of the global Cold War. In particular, I’m thinking about how repression of political dissidents during the Years of Lead under Hassan II and how the imprisonment and subsequent international campaigns to free one of the book central figures, Abraham Serfaty, mirror several similar trends taking place in the world at the same time. For instance, we actually see the practice of “disappearing” your political dissidents – especially dissidents on the Left – is really a feature of authoritarian regimes in the mid-to late-twentieth century. In your book, that means Morocco under Hassan II, but what comes to my mind immediately are South American examples like the Argentinian Dirty War, or Chile under Augusto Pinochet. The lionization of Serfaty, on the other hand, serves as a beacon of global interest in the human rights of political prisoners in the 1980s, of which there are, of course, a number of similarities to be found in the Irish Republican Army and prisoners like Bobby Sands during the Thatcher years, in the Moscow-Helsinki Group that operated from behind the Iron Curtain in the USSR, in a more explicitly and obviously Jewish angle in the Movement to Free Soviet Jewry, and, as you yourself note in the book, in the push to free Nelson Mandela from prison in South Africa. Did you intentionally set out to write something that would contribute to the historiography of the global Cold War? And if so, what were some of the unique challenges about writing about a relatively recent period of history?
AH: I didn’t start out the project thinking it would have much to do with the Cold War. It wasn’t my original interest or intent, but the more I got into the papers – and especially with the case of Abraham Serfaty and the somewhat strange position of politically active Moroccan Jews as symbols for the Moroccan state and international diplomacy – it became absolutely necessary to think of it in these terms. That actually is my favorite chapter of the book, chapter five. It’s also the only one that wasn’t based on a dissertation chapter. I wrote it totally new. Just to see how the Moroccan state – again, those intertwining natures of tourism, of Morocco’s place in the world of nations, and it’s standing in the world of nations – and how these strange little minority figures matter for that enormous political story was something that I found fascinating. I included some examples in the book of some Amnesty International’s and other human rights organizations’ materials about freeing Abraham Serfaty. It’s amazing stuff. There’s just this fantastic artwork that emerged from student groups that were supporting political prisoners, including Serfaty, and critiquing Morocco’s trade of oranges, for example, in France. There’s this one really wonderful image of an orange that has a little hole cut out of it and some bars in it and they’re people clinging to the bars, but on the orange there’s this little provenance sticker that says in French “Maroc” like you’d buy in a French grocery store, presumably. But it’s saying “You are complicit. By buying these tourist goods, or these essentialized goods with the sunshine and oranges of Morocco, you are also complicit in the imprisonment of these figures.”
As with so many exciting things about history – not to be overly nerdy – but it’s really the excitement of seeing these documents, and what the documents have to tell you. I just found those documents just so incredibly compelling. One of the interesting tensions to me was that, at the same time, there’s all of this international Jewish interest about the fate of Jews in all kinds of parts of the world and concern that they’re not going to do well, [that] they might suffer at the hands of Arab nationalism, which is true in many cases. I have never seen an international Jewish organization raise up the cause of Abraham Serfaty. Instead [Jewish philanthropies] say, “King Hassan II was a great friend to Moroccan Jews.” But at the same time, [he was] notorious for the Years of Lead, in which there were all of these political disappearances, including Abraham Serfaty. So, it’s a question of which Jews are good for international causes? And what international causes? That’s also a fundamental question about Jews and political involvement. To what extent did some of these figures represent liabilities to the Jewish community at large? To what extent, then, do they become heroes, or supportive symbols of the patriotism of the community? All of these figures have been on both sides of that divide. When I first was doing this project Moroccan Jews still living there would say, “Why do you care about these people? Aren’t you interested in cemeteries?” So, you know, they’re major figures on the nationalist stage, but still among most Moroccan Jews – not so much. They’re still kind of risky characters, even after the lionization.
AW: You’re bringing up another really fascinating angle, which is the American Jewish interest in what is happening to Jews around the world at this time, and why they’re not particularly interested in Moroccan Jews. I think you’re probably right to guess that this has to do with Cold War politics. Hard Left communists are not exactly who American Jews should be aligning themselves with in the Reagan years. That is not a wise, savvy political strategy move. But it is an interesting prompt to consider that, at the same time, the Movement to Free Soviet Jewry was – it’s impossible to understate how central that was to Jewish communal life. In that period, the Movement to Free Soviet Jewry was really a central political interest of all organized Jewish life. People who have been through the Leviathan archives will know this, that we sent people in the 1970s and 1980s to Russia behind the Iron Curtain to go and conduct interviews with refuseniks. It was part and parcel of what it meant to be a Jewish American for so long. At the same time, you have this lack of interest in Jews that are in similar situations, but on a different part of the political spectrum. It seems to me that there’s something to interrogate there. I don’t know exactly what it is. The idea of whether there were even pushes amongst Jewish American organizations to look into these Moroccan prisoners at all, or if that got redacted, or if that’s something that may be more likely to be found in the World Sephardi Organization archives is something that could be an interesting subject for someone someday to study.
AW: In the introduction, you provide an anecdote in which Incarnation Lévy – who was the wife of one of the texts leading figures, Simon Lévy – insists that she really has nothing interesting to say, and it was the men like her husband who were the Moroccan Jews who were “doing politics” in their day. As you note in the same section, archival absences and, perhaps, a reluctance on the part of this generation of women to center themselves as political actors poses a challenge to writing history where these voices are of primary importance, and are not simply occasional color notes for detail. How did you go about addressing this challenge? And what were some of the most interesting trends or memorable stories that you uncovered?
AH: I wouldn’t say I addressed it fully in the book. The book is unfortunately very much focused, for the most part, on these male figures in the Moroccan Communist Party. Where possible, I included women whose names came up in the archives, and especially in the interwar period. There were a number of prominent women – Spanish Communist women, French Communist women, as well as Moroccan Jewish Communist women – who were very active in more stereotypical wings of Communist Party activity, including children’s concerns, and soup kitchens – that kind of thing – rather than the main Communist Party leadership. One of the founding figures of the party in the post-Vichy period in Morocco – Léon René Sultan – [was] an Algerian Jewish guy who then re-founded the party in 1943 after Operation Torch. He died after volunteering with the French Army at the head of a brigade of Moroccan troops fighting in Germany, and he died later of his wounds in Casablanca. His widow [Fortunée Sultan] came to occupy, not an extraordinarily prominent place, but she would speak, then, in a number of public occasions [and] at party meetings. She came up in several archival sources. She came into her own quite a bit more after her husband’s death.
Abraham Serfaty’s sister, Evelyne Serfaty, is a very notable case. She was very, very active in the party. She and Incarnation and would operate together, putting up posters over Casablanca. Evelyne Serfaty was picked up by the police and tortured, and she died several years after these events. People alleged at the time it had to do with long standing effects of the torture that she suffered. [Abraham] Serfaty himself said, “Oh, she was tortured because of me. She was picked up because of me,” and that might have been the immediate reason, but she also was very active in her own right. She was an agent in her own right within the party and she comes up in the papers. [Others] talked about their families –sisters – being involved in some ways. Spanish women in particular were very, very heavily involved in the twenties through the fifties in the party. But it is something that I wish I could have devoted more attention to within this book. I’m very conscious of it.
Incarnation Lévy was just a fantastic, fantastic person. She wasn’t Jewish. [She] eventually converted to Judaism, but she was born from this the Protestant Spanish family which is strange enough as it is. [Her family] migrated to Algeria in the early twentieth century to work on colonial opportunities there. Then she made her way with her family to Casablanca, where her mother sold horse meat and was also very active with socialist propaganda. So, well before Incarnation Rojel became Incarnation Lévy, she was already steeped in this socialist-political-workers universe of the ports of Casablanca. The question is interesting how she came to then reframe her political life in terms of her husband’s activities.
AW: It seems to me a very ripe ground to do some sort of gendered history specifically on the subject of Jewish women activists in this period – in the number of ways that it encounters people who are, like we’ve just said, people of different ethnic background, national background, and class background who have long maintained that they don’t have interesting stories to tell, but perhaps they have the most interesting stories to tell of all. In my own work, I’ve come across a number of just incredibly interesting [women] who are involved with Zionist terrorism. These are sixteen-year-old Yemeni girls speaking Arabic and trying to offload bombs onto these young porters [in the 1940s]! And I want to know who they are, and how they got involved in this, but they don’t typically receive central treatment when it comes to these kinds of histories. And yet, there is clearly something to be written. So perhaps in the future [this is] yet another frontier to press.
AH: Yes, certainly.
AW: To start wrapping up, I want to ask you a few more future oriented questions about what you would like to see happen in the light of the publication of your first book. I made my case in this interview that The Sultan’s Communists is a much-welcomed advance on the frontiers of Jewish Studies. With that optimistic spirit in mind, when you dream of an ideal future for our field, what would you like to see happen next? Where do you want to see Jewish Studies go? How do you want to see the field evolve? And what kinds of subjects would you like to see established scholars, junior scholars, graduate students like myself, and maybe even undergraduate students start to focus on?
AH: There are so many untold stories within Jewish Studies – within every angle of it – but finding more connective material. This is something that Sarah Stein has been doing, and many others – transnational stories or following people as they move, and how this ruptures the limitations of thinking in terms of nation-state or even one empire or another, or one group of Jews or another group of Jews. I think more of those cross-subdiscipline conversations are happening, and should continue to happen. The problem is, say you’re at the Association for Jewish Studies’ annual meeting… people understandably have limited amounts of time, and attend the sessions that either their friends are presenting on, or work that they’re personally invested in, or interested in that overlaps with their field in some way. I understand that. But I’d like to see more branching out in unexpected directions. I’m trying to do that for myself – just attend things that seem interesting that have no relation whatsoever to my immediate work. Because, actually, you don’t know if it won’t have an immediate relation to your work. These things can happen in surprising ways in terms of theoretical grounds or otherwise.
But also, to expand this idea of Jewish Studies, to de-parochialize it in terms of whether it’s Ashkenazi focused, or Sephardi focused, or Mizrahi focused. The fundamental question of “what is Jewish Studies?” What does that container mean when there is so much diversity among all of these different subjects? Keeping that question in mind and not glibly saying, “Oh, yes, the history of Jewish radicalism is the history of German Jews and some Eastern European Jews.” That kind of thing. I think we are moving away from that, and I think we should continue to move away from it. But there are a lot of topics that that need that treatment, including radicalism. Including, for example, immigration to the Americas. There are a few people who’ve been doing really great work about Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish migration to the Americas recently. Devi Mays just came out with a really fantastic book [Forging Ties, Forging Passports: Migration and the Modern Sephardi Diaspora (2020)] about that. So, more of that. Devin Naar has been writing about the place of Sephardim in United States Jewish history, which has gone totally neglected until very, very recently.
AW: I’ll briefly interject that if people haven’t read his Jewish Currents article [“Our White Supremacy Problem”] on that, it’ll change the way that you look at this country.
AH: Yeah, exactly. He’s writing a piece for this edited volume I’m working on about the difficulty of Sephardi Jews within Ashkenazi dominated labor organizations, and who can count as Jewish in so many of these ways. I think we’re going in a positive direction as a field toward all of those things. We’re seeing a lot of great new publications, particularly around topics like the Holocaust – that there are reverberations in the Middle East and North Africa that are important to consider and think about, for example. That’s true of probably every topic. Colonialism and Jews. More of that sort of cross regional cross-category definitional work I think would be a great way to go. And I think we are going there.
AW: For me, the idea of doing more cross-regional work – works that traverse historiographies, as it were… it serves us more. I mean, it serves us as Jews in 2020 more to have that kind of history to access than it does to continue on a path that’s been well established by brilliant people for many, many years. But when we’re thinking about what should history do for people today, it strikes me as that Jewish readers are best served by going into a Jewish future with that set of histories – that traverse moments of fixity, that traverse ethnic boundaries, et cetera. I’m with you on the same boat there.
AW: Lastly, after taking ample time to revel in the afterglow of your achievement and enjoy this well-earned my milestone, what’s next for you? What projects do you currently have in the works that we can be on the lookout for? What courses are you planning to teach? And what are you hoping to put on in our beloved UC Santa Cruz? Do you have any inklings of where you might want to steer your research next?
AH: So, a lot of things. I wouldn’t say I’ve taken ample time to celebrate this book, actually, because there’s not time! Because it’s such a long slog that finally when it emerges, it’s really “Oh, thank God.” It’s relief more than anything. But at UCSC in winter 2021 I’m teaching part B of a survey on Jews of the Middle East in North Africa: a long history lecture course. I’m also teaching the Holocaust and in the Arab World, and thinking about Jewish history within that region during the period of the Second World War and what the Holocaust means for Jews and non-Jews in that region. In the spring, I’m teaching a class that’s related to my future research interests. That class is modern Jewish history of Latin America, which seems pretty far afield from what I’ve generally been doing, but it is related to my next project idea.
One of the really interesting things that is understudied, and also emerged from this research, was [that] Abraham Serfaty was denied his Moroccan citizenship twice on the grounds that he was a Brazilian citizen, despite the fact he never ever gone to Brazil. He and his sister. So, I wanted to know more about that. Susan Gilson Miller is one person who has done work on this. She wrote an article in the nineties called “Kippur on the Amazon” that followed the trajectory of Jews from Northern Morocco to Tangier/Tétouan area and their work in the rubber industry in Brazil in the late 19th century [and] early 20th century. I’ve become intensely curious about this, about Moroccan Jewish communities and the rubber industry. So that’s one thing I’m pursuing. Another [thing] I’m really interested in is the history of Jewish and Muslim anti-fascism in the wider Middle East and North Africa. It’s an understudied topic, although one that has been getting more attention in the last few years. There’s this one organization in particular – the International League Against Anti-Semitism – that operated briefly across a wide number of places in the region that I think would make for a really interesting transnational political history. I also think it might be possible to connect that story with the story of the Amazon and with the story of Brazil because of the definitely under-discussed story of Jews in Tangier in in the international zone, but also in the Spanish-protected zone of Northern Morocco and their continued communications with Moroccan Jews who had migrated in an earlier era to South America. I am dreaming of a way to stitch these things together. I have some of those materials at my disposal now, but I will have to be able to travel to the archives in the future, which I can’t do right now.
In terms of events at UCSC – sadly, everything’s online, but there are some great people coming to speak in my classes that we’re going to publicize in the winter newsletter. Sarah Stein is going to be giving the annual Diller Lecture in February about her book, Family Papers. So, we’re still doing some things, but we are very excited to kick it into actual physical gear again, when that is possible.
AW: As we all are. Well, as always fantastic to talk to you, friend. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to my beloved Leviathan. Thank you to the Leviathan staff for letting me to come back to conduct this interview. We all look forward to what comes next.
Avery Weinman is a graduate student in the UCLA Department of History and the Harry C. Sigman Graduate Fellow at the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. Her primary research interests are modern Jewish history, Sephardic/Mizrahi Studies, modern Israel, the modern Middle East and North Africa, and the intellectual history of Zionism. She graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2019. In her happy years as a Banana Slug, Avery was a member of Leviathan Jewish Journal from 2016 to 2019, during which time she served as co-Editor-in-Chief from 2017 to 2018. She can be reached at her email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Professor Heckman’s book, The Sultan’s Communists: Moroccan Jews and the Politics of Belonging (2021), is available now through Stanford University Press. For UCSC students and others with access to the University of California library system, the book is available for free online via ProQuest Ebook Central.
[Cover, Courtesy of Stanford University Press]
[Thumbnail, Courtesy Alma Rachel Heckman]