Saturday, March 21, 2009

How 530 Moroccan-Jewish kids were smuggled out

For 40 years David Littman kept a secret: his pivotal role in a Mossad plan to smuggle Jewish children from Morocco to Israel. Two years ago, this undercover project, which managed to spirit 530 Jewish children out on five flights, became the subject of an award-winning film, Operation Mural.

David Littman is known as a historian and the representative of the World Association for Education and The World Union for Progressive Judaism at the UN in Geneva. He is also the husband of Gisele, who has achieved fame under her pen name Bat Ye'or for her research about the dhimmi status of Jews and Christians in Muslim lands. She is also the author of the acclaimed Eurabia.

It was fifteen years since the end of the Second World War that the dashing, young, newly-married Littman, inspired by William Shirer's The rise and fall of the Third Reich, went about knocking on doors of Jewish organisations in Geneva asking what he could do to help the Jewish people.

Before he knew it he was entrusted with a dangerous mission: to pose as an English gentleman and arrange Swiss holidays for Jewish children from Casablanca. At first he did not realise that his handlers would be members of the secret Israeli intelligence agency, the Mossad.

For five months, between March and July 1961, the tall, athletic, handsome Littman, equipped with the fearless self-confidence which only an English public-school education could provide, had, from his base at a Casablanca hotel, established his credentials as an English gentleman, playing tennis with the British consul, going to church on Sundays, and on first-name terms with the local police chief.

Littman advertised his Swiss holiday camp in the local press. Surprise, surprise - only Jewish children applied. Most came from the poverty-stricken Mellah - the traditional Jewish quarter. Despite Bat Ye'or's vigorous denials in the registration office, the families understood that the children's final destination was Israel and they would not be coming back. Parents did not know when they would see their children again. The parents were given the money for the holiday camp by Littman's underground 'contacts', paid it on registration and Littman returned the money to his 'contacts' that same night.

One child, now a senior officer in the Israeli army, said with tears in his eyes he did not understand to this day why, out of nine children his mother had chosen him, then a seven-year old, to travel with two of his siblings on a one-way ticket to the unknown.

One reason was desperation to reach Israel. From the time Morocco acquired its independence in 1956, the mass of the 260,000-strong Jewish community was banned from emigrating. Some were so desperate that they risked their lives sailing in rickety boats. One, the Egoz, sank with 44 lives lost. Although the king of Morocco had always been well-disposed towards the Jews, anti-Jewish hostility intensified following the visit of Nasser in 1960 and Morocco's alignment with the radical Arab League.

Littman soon came up against his first hurdle. The clerk who issued the collective passports for the children smelled a rat: all the children happened to be Jewish and Littman's project was a 'Zionist plot'. He refused to have anything to do with it. This is where Littman's skillful networking came into its own: he went to see his friend the (Berber) police chief, venting his outrage that anyone could doubt that he, a bona fide Englishman, was only trying to give children a break in Switzerland.

The police chief agreed, and gave Littman carte blanche to do whatever he needed to accomplish his mission.

But opposition to the mission brewed inside Israel itself. Religious groups asked how children could be made to travel by bus on Shabbat to catch a plane from Tangier, were torn away from their traditionally observant backgrounds and put in a godless, secular environment in Israel. Orthodox Jews at the waystation in Switzerland tried to lure the children to the local Yeshiva.

In addition the Israeli authorities themselves preferred individual passports for the children, some of whom were clearly delinquents.

The unexpected publicity made things dangerous for Littman and his young family. If his cover were blown he could have expected a long term in prison or even execution. The Mossad lost no time spiriting him out of Morocco.

But Operation Mural had done its job: it had paved the way for the mass emigration of 100,000 Jews from Morocco to Israel in the early 1960s. By agreement with the new king, Hassan ll, they were ransomed at 200 dollars per head, a princely sum in those days. The parents of the Casablanca children were given priority on Operation Yakhin, and could rejoin their children as little as nine months later.

Although Operation Mural was first publicised in 1986, and tributes to the Littmans were paid by then Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz, it was only with the making of the film in 2007 that David Littman received due public acknowledgement for his role in the mission. In June 2008 President Shimon Peres, who as deputy Defence Minister in 1961 must have known about Operation Mural, invited the Littmans to his residence and paid tribute to their bravery.

For Mrs Littman, Bat Ye'or, virtue was its own reward. A Jewish refugee from Egypt in 1957, she had overcome resistance from her own family to return to an Arab country so soon after having endured persecution and expulsion from another one. She considered it a Mitzvah to do what she could to save Moroccan Jews.

The Littmans returned with an Israeli group of tourists to Morocco to make the film, but surrounded by guards and officials, had to pretend that they were shooting a home movie of their travels.

This week, introducing the UK film premiere (organised by Spiro Ark and Harif) in the grand surroundings of the Main Library at the Reform Club - where Phineas Fogg had embarked on his journey in the novel Around the World in 80 Days - the historian David Pryce-Jones said that Jews in Morocco lived as second-class dhimmis well into the 20th century. They had to wear distinctive clothing and lived in fear of random violence.

Pryce-Jones said that the king of Morocco, Mohammed V, was pro-Jewish, but his role in protecting his Jewish subjects during the Second World War has been romanticised. The story that he insisted on yellow stars for himself and his family was apocryphal. The Vichy government had imposed the discriminatory statut des juifs, and while no Jews were deported to death camps in Europe under his watch, the king was powerless to prevent Jews being interned in some 60 forced labour camps on the Moroccan-Algerian border and the practice of 'tombeau' torture. Inmates were punished by being made to lie in holes in the ground for weeks on end. Many died.

David Littman added that as late as 1911, a year before the establishment of the French protectorate, a Jew had written to the Sultan of Morocco pleading to be allowed to visit him wearing his baboush slippers. Jews who stepped out of the Mellah or Jewish quarter had to walk barefoot on burning or freezing paving stones. The Jew's request was refused.

It was a tribute to Israel's establishment as a refuge for all Jews that even the very poorest and most needy found a home there. Of almost 300,000 Moroccan Jews in 1948 the vast majority went to Israel ( a million Israelis are of Moroccan descent). Only some 4,000 remained behind.

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