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 the Second World War. 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 fervour 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.
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.
The recent Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip has further inflamed resentment at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. But Ahmed Hasseni, a Casablanca cab driver, echoes a widely held view that it shouldn’t affect relations with Morocco’s Jews.
“We’re not dumb,” he said. “We don’t confuse the Israeli army with the Jewish people,” he said.
Jews have lived in Morocco for 2,000 years. Their numbers swelled after they were expelled from Spain in 1492, and reached 300,000 before the Second World War, when yet more fled the German occupation and found refuge in Morocco, then a French colony.
Today they number just 3,000, most having emigrated to France, North America or Israel, but they are free to come back to explore their roots, pray at their ancestors’ graves and even settle here.
Simon Levy heads the Jewish Museum in Casablanca, a treasure trove of old Torah scrolls, garments and jewelry illustrating the rich culture of Moroccan Jewry.
“That I still run the only Jewish museum in the Arab world is telling,” he said.
Andre Azoulay, a top adviser to the current king, is Jewish and one of six members of the king’s council in a monarchy that oversees all major decisions. Considered one of Morocco’s most powerful men, he views his country as “a unique case” for the intensity of its Jewish-Muslim relations. “We don’t mix up Judaism and the tragedy of the Middle East,” he told The Associated Press in an interview.
A founding member of the Aladdin project, Azoulay says part of the program’s goal is to show the West that Muslims aren’t hostile to Jews, and that Morocco was among countries that resisted Nazi plans to exterminate their Jewish populations. He points to king Mohammed V, the current ruler’s grandfather, who is credited with resisting French colonial anti-Semitic policies.
Such actions were rare, but not unique in North Africa during the Second World War. In Tunisia, the late Khaled Abdelwahhab hid Jews from the Nazis on his farm, and was the first Arab to be nominated as “Righteous Among the Nations,” a title bestowed by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, on those who risked their lives to save Jews in the Holocaust. His case is still under study.
The Aladdin project is only just beginning. Its work has yet to reach schools or bookstores in Morocco, although the Shoah foundation’s Revcolevschi said Anne Frank’s diary is among Holocaust memoirs available in Arabic and Farsi on the Internet, and is being sold under the counter in Iran.
“People speak of a clash of civilizations, but it’s more a clash of ignorance,” she said. “We’re countering this.”
Hakim El Ghissassi, an aide to the senior Islamic Affairs official who delivered Mohammed’s speech, said the king is uniquely positioned to promote Islam’s dialogue with Judaism, because his titles include “Commander of the believers” – meaning he is the paramount authority for Moroccan Muslims.
“What the king has said on the Holocaust reflects our broader efforts,” said El Ghissassi, listing such reforms as courses to reinforce Morocco’s tradition of tolerant Islam by familiarizing local imams with Jewish and Christian holy books.
“We want to make sure everybody can differentiate between unfair Israeli policies and respect for Judaism,” he said.
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