Sunday, January 10, 2010

Should Mohammed Vl speak on Holocaust Day?

Or Chaim, a Toronto synagogue, is all a-flutter that the King of Morocco, Mohammed Vl, has been asked to make a speech on Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January. We don't yet know if he will agree. In the meantime, how suitable a choice would he be? How much of a friend to the Jews was the wartime King, his grandfather Mohammed V? Or are the congregants being hoodwinked into believing a revisionist version of history?

The Or Chaim bulletin editor excitedly sent round to her readership the text of a royal message conveyed by King Mohammed Vl in March 2009 to the Aladdin Group. Let us look at just three royal statements from that message, printed here in italics, followed by my comments:

"..We perceive it (The Holocaust) as a wound to the collective memory, which we know is engraved in one of the most painful chapters in the collective history of mankind. People other than myself can rightly point out, in this respect, that when it comes to the Kingdom of Morocco, this assertion is not new nor is it merely spoken words. The reason is to make sure that Aladdin...sets for itself the priori objective of finally telling the rest of the world how Arab and Islamic countries such as mine, resisted Nazism and said no to the barbarity of the Nazis and to the villainous laws of the Vichy government."

Resistance? Isn't that too strong a word? As Robert Satloff explains in his book Among the righteous, most Arabs did nothing and a number actively helped persecute the Jews. A few individuals saved them. In fact Satloff could find only two examples of such heroes, apart from the King himself and the Imam of the Paris Mosque.

What role did King Mohammed V actually play? Surrounded by a group of Judeophobic advisers like the antisemite al-Mokri, it was probably remarkable that the King did not support Vichy more enthusiastically. Last year, journalists from the Moroccan Tel Quel magazine reassessed the king's role. 'Just but powerless', they concluded.

As the historian Michel Abitbol explains here:

"People forget that real power lay with the Resident-general of the French protectorate ( Abitbol told Information juive - July/ Aug 2008 - Les juifs d'Afrique du Nord sous Vichy). The King kept the trappings of sovereignty, but had no way of opposing the French, unless he put his throne at risk, as he did in the early 1950s. In the 1940s, however, the king had no choice but to countersign French edicts, such as the notorious 1930 Berber Dahir, a real blow against Islam, and the anti-Jewish Vichy laws. On the personal level, however, he was sympathetic to the many Jews in his entourage. But as the 'statesman', he was forced to sign. "

"In what history or civic education textbooks used in the West is it taught that Morocco had opened its doors as early as the 1930s to European Jewish communities who had seen the peril looming on the horizon?'

It is true that Jews from Eastern Europe took refuge in Morocco in the 1930s. During the war, however, the King did not prevent them being deported to the Bou'arfa and Agdiz detention camps on the edge of the Sahara. Nor did we hear a peep from the King when 2,000 Jews (one third of the total) who had served in the defeated French army and the Foreign Legion were interned in forced labour camps. Hundreds died as a result of the inhuman tombeau punishment: people were made to lie in their own filth in the scorching heat of the day and freezing cold of the night.

"Notwithstanding the implacable realities of the French protectorate, which severely constrained his power, His Majesty (Mohammed V) managed to oppose the enforcement of the racist Vichy laws against Moroccan citizens of the Jewish faith. "

Not true - Mohammed V signed every single anti-Jewish decree. There were decrees forcing the Jews back into their ghettos, instituting quotas or bans in higher education and restricting them in their professions. But he procrastinated on some, keeping them in a drawer unsigned for a month, and tried to reassure a Jewish delegation, who came to see him in an armoured truck, that the decrees meant nothing.


It was with the entirely laudable purpose of chipping away at the Holocaust denial engulfing Arab countries that Robert Satloff first wrote his book. If the Arabs came to terms with their Holocaust history - good and bad - perhaps they could, so the thinking went, begin to empathise with the Jews and their state. The net result has been a move virtually to canonise Mohammed V, who is being considered by Yad Vashem in Israel for the honour of Righteous Gentile.

This move has found eager support from Jews in the public eye in Morocco, like Serge Berdugo and Andre Azoulay, who have a vested interest in playing up the Moroccan monarchy, and Israeli president Peres, who thinks it can only lead to relations improving between Israel and Morocco.

In practice the new Arab embrace of the Holocaust has found its expression in the activities of the Aladdin Group, who held a conference last spring. But as Veronique Chemla pointed out, the conference had two dangerous effects: one was to project the revisionist view of Arabs as 'resistors' of the Nazis, minimising such awkward facts as the alliance of the Mufti of Jerusalem with Hitler. The other effect has been to deny the fascist-inspired Arab antisemitism which led to the postwar exodus of Jews from Arab countries.

So while Satloff means well, there is every danger that his initiative, and that of the Aladdin Group to politicise the Holocaust among Arabs and Muslims, might yet backfire.


Véronique Chemla said...

Les archives des protectorats français - Maroc et Tunisie - sont consultables à Nantes. Elles permettent de savoir ce qu'ont fait le roi Mohamed V et le bey de Tunisie. Il serait temps que des livres et articles soient publiés sur le contenu de ces archives.
Il était facile pour le roi Mohamed VI de condamner la Shoah lors de la conférence de lancement du projet Aladin car le monde musulman a été blanchi de tout lien avec la Shoah hormis les justes musulmans et les roi et bey ayant protégé "leurs" juifs comme je l'ai écrit dans mon article à

Véronique Chemla

Véronique Chemla said...

French archives upon Tunisia and Morocco are gathered in Nantes (France). Historians should read them and write books and articles upon what King Mohamad V and Tunisian Bey really did during the Second World War.

Véronique Chemla