Morocco challenges Mideast Holocaust mind-set
By ALFRED de MONTESQUIOU
The Associated Press
Sunday, July 26, 2009 12:00 AM
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.
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
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 World War II, 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 World
War II. 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.