Sunday, July 26, 2009

Bahrain and Morocco rulers make positive gestures

Sheikh Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain

This week, statements made by the royal houses of Morocco and Bahrain making conciliatory gestures towards Israel or the Jewish people got some play in the international media. (With thanks Lily and Michelle). My assessment follows at the end:

The crown prince of Bahrain wrote an article in the Washington Post:

"WASHINGTON — Arab leaders must begin talking to the Israeli media to better communicate their desire for a lasting Middle East peace, Bahrain's crown prince said on Friday.

"We as Arabs have not done enough to communicate directly with the people of Israel," Sheikh Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa wrote in an opinion article published in the Washington Post.

"The article was published alongside a commentary by former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert in Friday's paper.

"Al Khalifa said Arab leaders must "tell our story more directly to the Israeli people by getting the message out to their media" and emphasizing support for the so-called Arab Initiative, which promises normalized relations between Israel and the Arab world in exchange for the creation of a Palestinian state.

"Essentially, we have not done a good enough job demonstrating to Israelis how our initiative can form part of a peace between equals in a trouble land holy to three great faiths," he wrote."

Read article in full

For the launch of the Aladdin project in Paris, AP reprised a largely unreported initiative by the King of Morocco made in March:

"RABAT, Morocco – From the western edge of the Muslim world, the King of Morocco has dared to tackle one of the most inflammatory issues in the Middle East conflict — the Holocaust.

"At a time when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's dismissal of the Holocaust has made the biggest headlines, King Mohammed VI has called the Nazi destruction of the Jews "one of the most tragic chapters of modern history," and has endorsed a Paris-based program aimed at spreading the word among fellow Muslims.

"Many in the Islamic world still ignore or know little about the Nazi attempt to annihilate the Jews during World War II. Some disbelieve it outright. Others argue that it was a European crime and imagine it to be the reason Israel exists and the Palestinians are stateless.

"The sentiment was starkly illustrated in March after a Palestinian youth orchestra performed for Israeli Holocaust survivors, only to be shut down by angry leaders of the West Bank refugee camp where they live.

"The Holocaust happened, but we are facing a similar massacre by the Jews themselves," a community leader named Adnan Hindi said at the time. "We lost our land and we were forced to flee."

"Like other moderate Arab leaders, King Mohammed VI must tread carefully. Islamic fervor is rising in his kingdom, highlighted in 2003 by al-Qaida-inspired attacks in Casablanca on targets that included Jewish sites. Forty-five people died.

"The king's acknowledgment of the Holocaust, in a speech read out in his name at a ceremony in Paris in March, appears to further illustrate the radically different paths that countries like Morocco and Iran are taking.

"Morocco has long been a quiet pioneer in Arab-Israeli peace efforts, most notably when it served as a secret meeting place for the Israeli and Egyptian officials who set up President Anwar Sadat's groundbreaking journey to Jerusalem in 1977.

"Morocco has long been a quiet pioneer in Arab-Israeli peace efforts, most notably when it served as a secret meeting place for the Israeli and Egyptian officials who set up President Anwar Sadat's groundbreaking journey to Jerusalem in 1977.

"Though Moroccan officials say the timing is coincidental, the Holocaust speech came at around the same time that Morocco severed diplomatic relations with Iran, claiming it was infiltrating Shiite Muslim troublemakers into this Sunni nation.

"The speech was read out at a ceremony launching the "Aladdin Project," an initiative of the Paris-based Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah (Holocaust) which aims to spread awareness of the genocide among Muslims.

"It organizes conferences and has translated key Holocaust writing such as Anne Frank's diary into Arabic and Farsi. The name refers to Aladdin, the young man with the genie in his lamp, whose legend, originally Muslim, became a universally loved tale.

"The Holocaust, the king's speech said, is "the universal heritage of mankind."

"It was "a very important political act," said Anne-Marie Revcolevschi, director of the Shoah foundation. "This is the first time an Arab head of state takes such a clear stand on the Shoah," she said in a telephone interview.

"While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often aggravates Arab sentiment toward Israel, Morocco has a long history of coexistence between Muslims and Jews.*

Read article in full

My reaction: While the Bahraini crown prince's piece is to be welcomed, one should not read too much into it. Perhaps to counterbalance its pressure on Israel over settlements, the US has been anxious for some positive Arab noises on normalisation with Israel. Bahrain, a base for the US Navy's Fifth fleet, has been willing to oblige.

Both Bahrain and Morocco are worried about the Iranian nuclear threat, as as two of the few Arab states still with a few Jews living in them* , it is natural that they should make pro-Jewish gestures. Both ruling houses have appointed to Jews to be advisers or ambassadors, and have excellent relations with individual Jews. Neither state sanctioned anti-Jewish measures, as in Syria, Egypt, Libya and Iraq. However, despite statements of regret and even Bahrain's willingness to pay reparations for damage to Jewish property, both royal houses were powerless to stop popular antisemitic feeling and street violence against their Jews after 1947.

But the Bahraini crown prince adds nothing of substance to the debate: all he seems to be saying is that the Arabs should do a better job explaining themselves to the Israeli media. He says nothing about the Arabs recognising Israel as a Jewish state. Even such a gesture as his was too much for some: his article is not particularly representative of how Bahrainis feel, and received instant rejection in some quarters. As the Dubai newpaper The National reported:

Bahraini opposition groups and anti-Israeli groups issued statements shortly after Sheikh Salman’s article appeared in which they criticised the move as a step towards “naturalisation with the Zionist enemy”.
Bahrainis, regardless of the sectarian differences that divide them on other regional issues, also quickly utilised the internet and Facebook to form reaction groups to reject the crown prince’s call.

As for king Mohammed Vl of Morocco, his acknowledgement of the Holocaust is to be welcomed. But there is little recognition of the impact it had on Moroccan soil where thousands of Jews died in labour camps. Neither does he mention the effect of the wartime Vichy laws on Moroccan Jews.

* one should take praise from reporters for Moroccan 'tolerance' and 'coexistence' with a pinch of salt. The fact that only 3,000 Jews remain out of 300,000 is an indication of failure, not successful coexistence and tolerance. Likewise the fact that Bahrain has not been able to retain more than 36 Jews out of 600 hundred - ed.


Anonymous said...

As someone who has travelled widely in Morocco and spoken with Moroccan Jews, I believe that you can't tar Morocco with the same anti-Jewish brush that mark out anti-Jewish events and and attitudes in Iraq and Egypt amongst others. A great many Jews in Morocco lived poor lives in poor villages with no access and no hope of access to ways of improving their lot. This they had in common with many of their cohabitants, in the tiny Berber villages. They were offered the chance to improve their lives, to offer their children vastly improved lives and possibilities and like anyone would they took it.
I am not saying that there isn't anti-Jewish sentiment in Morocco, their most definitely is, but not at a societal level, and of course Jews worried about being caught up in the anti-colonial Arab nationalist fervour (which they were). But many many Jews and Berbers lived poor difficult lives together, if you visit those villages now you will see the Berbers still live the same way - the Jews had the opportunity to change and they took it.

what is your feeling about this?


bataween said...

I did say that Morocco was not in the same category as Iraq or Egypt. The Jews were not expelled and there was no specific anti-Jewish legislation. As you say, there was a mass of poor Jews who lost nothing because they had nothing to lose by leaving. However, I'd say that the old anti-dhimmi prejudice was stronger than elsewhere in North Africa, and as you say that there was much anti-colonial fervour spilling over into antisemitism. I'd also say that there was nothing better than a six-year emigration ban to encourage Jews to leave.

Anonymous said...

>> I'd also say that there was >>nothing better than a six-year >>emigration ban to encourage Jews to >>leave.