North African tolerance

“Why not build a memorial for the victims of the Israeli Holocaust against the children of Sabra, Shatila, Deir Yassin, Jenin, Gaza and Qana?”

August 29, 2019 21:17
3 minute read.
North African tolerance

THEN-PRESIDENT Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and his wife Rachel Yana’it Ben-Zvi with new immigrants from North Africa, aboard the ship ‘Negba’ in 1955.. (photo credit: ROBERT MILSHTOK/YAD BEN ZVI PHOTO ARCHIVES)

The history of the Jews of North Africa during the Holocaust, and Morocco specifically, is not well-known, which is a shame, because so much can be learned: both of the tragedy, but also of the heroism.

During World War II, when the Nazi-controlled Vichy government issued antisemitic decrees excluding Jews from public functions, King Mohammed V pushed back, refusing to approve anti-Jewish legislation, inviting all the rabbis of Morocco to the 1941 throne celebrations.

In 2009, King Mohammed VI issued a proclamation stating that the Holocaust is “one of the blots, one of the most tragic chapters in modern history. Amnesia has no bearing on my perception of the Holocaust, or on that of my people.” He called for “an exhaustive and faithful reading of the history of this period” as part of “the duty of remembrance dictated by the Shoah.”

So it was somewhat of a surprise to read a report by The Jerusalem Post’s Ilanit Chernick’s on Wednesday that the government had torn down a Holocaust museum and center that was being built in Ait Faska, a small village near Marrakech.

Despite being one of the rare Muslim countries where Jewish heritage is openly celebrated, it seems that those against normalizing ties with Israel – indeed, the organization is called the Moroccan Observatory Against Normalization – protested.

The group’s Aziz El Hannaoui denounced the memorial in a Facebook post, using the usual equation: “Why not build a memorial for the victims of the Israeli Holocaust against the children of Sabra, Shatila, Deir Yassin, Jenin, Gaza and Qana?” And despite King Mohammed VI’s brave stance, Hannaoui said that Morocco “has nothing to do with the Holocaust and doesn’t need to host one of its memorials.”

This is unfortunate, but there is yet hope for Moroccan society. In 2011, the first-ever colloquium in the Arab world for the study of the Holocaust took place at Al-Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco, exploring the Nazi genocide and its repercussions for the country, and the historical relationship between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East.

In 2016, hundreds of people attended the first Jewish film festival in Casablanca, featuring three films about the consequences of the emigration of Jews from the fabric of Moroccan society. And in 2017, Prince Moulay Rachid, brother of Moroccan King Mohammed VI, met in Rabat with Sara Bloomfield, director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, to educate Morocco about the Holocaust and to counter intolerance.

Meanwhile in Cairo last week, fights and clashes erupted during a theatrical production of Sobibor, performed by Egyptian students from Ain Shams University. During the performance there were physical and verbal altercations between the audience and members of the theater group, who were accused of being biased in favor of Israel, and of trying to “sabotage the minds of young people.” Sobibor, said one critic, falsifies history and elicits sympathy for the Jews.

Here too it is surprising. Egypt, like Morocco, is a friendly nation to Israel. Not the warmest, not the best of friends, but on the most important issue of our time – global security – Cairo and Jerusalem are fully in step, shoulder to shoulder, in the battle against terrorism.

No doubt that today there are many such countries that line up on the front lines against all extremists. The difference is that the relationship Israel has with Egypt and Morocco is public knowledge, while the relationships with other Arab countries are mostly hidden.

That puts the two North African countries on the front lines of the Arab world, and they must respond to the challenge: if moderate countries like Egypt and Morocco – open friends of Israel – can’t properly recognize and memorialize the Holocaust, then what does the future hold? If a country can’t recognize this tragic chapter in Jewish history and mankind, how can it have normalized ties with the Jewish state of Israel?

The answer is, it can’t. Not a real one. Egypt and Morocco need to take the lead on this, to bolster the relationship with Israel, to fight against the extremists in their society and further develop historical knowledge and cross-cultural understanding. It is their responsibility.

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