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Discussion Papers Series

Holocaust Remembrance and Education in Morocco

By Elmehdi Boudra

Moroccan Jews

Despite some fluctuations in tension that has marked the relations between Jews and Muslims in North Africa, in Morocco Jews and Muslims have historically enjoyed a relatively peaceful coexistence.  At the time of the Holocaust in Europe, Moroccan Jewry constituted the largest Jewish community in the Muslim world and the largest non-Ashkenazi Jewish community.

The roots of this community go back to antiquity and its number grew dramatically after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. Many of these Jews found refuge in Morocco alongside with Muslim Andalusians who were also expelled from Spain by the Inquisition brought about by the Catholic Church. The local Jewish community was called the Toshavim and the Jews from Spain were called the Megorashim. The Megorashim and the Toshavim managed to merge as unique Sephardic traditional community. The two groups were living in the same neighborhoods (Mellah) around all cities in Morocco and many villages. During the Second World War, the Jewish population in Morocco reached 300,000.  

 Between 1948 and 1967 thousands of Jews migrated from Morocco to Israel, France, Canada, United States and South America, which significantly decreased the number of Jews in Morocco. Today, the Moroccan Jewish community living in Morocco does not exceed 4000 members (out of a population of 34 million inhabitants in Morocco). However, this active community remains one of the strongest Jewish communities in Arab countries and retains strong links with the one million jews of Moroccan descent around the world.

Morocco during the Holocaust

The unique bond between the Jewish and Muslim communities was highlighted during the Holocaust. During the Second World War Morocco was under occupation by the Vichy Government of France and the Franco regime of Spain. After the German occupation of France, the Vichy Government took power in France metropolitan and in its different colonies, mandates and protectorates. Morocco was under the protectorate of two fascist regimes: Spanish Franco regime in the North and South, and the Vichy regime in the center of the country. The Sultan Mohammed V was not free to take any decision without the consent of the Vichy Government.

Before Vichy took power in Morocco, the country opened its doors to Jews escaping from the Nazis and their allies. From the moment the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933 and until the end of the Second World War, many European Jews who escaped the Nazis were allowed to enter Morocco and settle primarily in Tangier, which had the status of an international city. For example, the Riechmann Family came from Hungary and settled in Tangier from the late 1930s until the 1950’s, after which they immigrated to Canada.

Many children and adults could enter Tangier especially thanks to few international diplomats, like the American J. Rives Childs, who had assisted 500 Jews from Hungary to enter Tangier. In other parts of Morocco during the Second World War the Vichy Government enforced harsh measures on the Jews. For example, Moroccan Jews were not allowed to live in the European part of the city but instead had to return to the old city and live in its overcrowded Jewish neighborhood (Mellah). Furthermore, many students were forced to quit French schools, and quotas were instituted on Jews that limited their numbers to a maximum of 10 per cent in high school and three per cent in universities. Many professions were also forbidden to Jews and their property was identified and included in a special list.

While the Vichy Government clearly and intentionally discriminated against the Jews, the Muslims also suffered discrimination in many ways.  Moroccan natives were treated differently than the European ruling elites, which further enhanced their solidarity with the Jews.
For example, as stated by Simon Levy during the “Mohammed V Righteous among the Nations” conference, Moroccan(2011) Jews and Muslims were not allowed to enter to public swimming pools where Europeans were swimming. Those anti- Jewish laws in Morocco were published in the ‘Bulletin Officiel’ by the Vichy Government and were observed as State law.

While the Vichy Government was enforcing new discriminatory laws in Morocco, Sultan Mohammed V expressed on many occasions his support for his Moroccan Jewish subjects against the regime.

One such occasion can be found in a telegram retrieved by Haim Zafrani  in 1985 in the archives of the Quai d’Orsay. This official document entitled "Dissidence" was signed on 24 May 1941 by René Touraine, a civil servant in the French Residence of the Vichy Government in Rabat.

In this document Touraine mentions that the Sultan refused to apply Vichy laws in Morocco, as the Sultan claimed that he did not have Jews or Muslims as subjects but only Moroccan subjects. The telegram said: “Credible sources informed us that the relations between the Sultan of Morocco and the French authorities became much tenser the day the Residence put into application the decree of measures against the Jews despite the strict opposition of the Sultan. The Sultan refused to differentiate amongst his loyal people and he was offended to see that his authority was overtaken by the French authorities.”

The Sultan waited for the anniversary of his coronation to publicly announce that he forbade these measures against the Jews. On this occasion, the Sultan generally offered a banquet attended by the French representatives and eminent Moroccan personalities. For the first time, the Sultan invited to the banquet representatives of the Jewish community who were seated next to the French officials. He declared to the French officials, who were surprised by the presence of Jews at this meeting, “I absolutely do not agree with the new anti-Semitic laws and I refuse to associate myself with a measure I disagree with; I reiterate as I did in the past that the Jews are under my protection and I reject any distinction that should be made amongst my people”.

It was eventually only on 8 November 1942, with the landing of the American troops in Morocco and Algeria during Operation Torch, that action to end this discrimination could be taken.

Holocaust Education in Morocco

There are people all around the world in every country that claim the Holocaust never took place.  While Morocco is one of the countries where there were particularly good relations between Jews and Muslims, Holocaust denial has made its way to the young generation of Moroccans, largely due to the lack of Holocaust education in schools and politics in the Middle East. Holocaust education is not mandatory in the schools in Morocco and it is hard to find Holocaust publications, such as The Diary of Anne Frank published in French and nearly impossible to find it in Arabic.  This is why publications such as this journal, produced in all United Nations official languages by the Holocaust and the United Nations Outreach Programme, and others published by the Aladdin Project, are so important. Some Moroccans have openly denied the Holocaust, but fortunately they were challenged by an active civil society.  Discussion about the Holocaust did not take place officially until 2009. While there was no public denial of the Holocaust, there was also no acknowledgment of it.

In denying the Holocaust, we are denying future generations their right to a truthful and full reading of their history. Through such education, we will have a better chance to avoid the same mistakes and atrocities that some of the European leaders committed in the twentieth century.

It is simply absurd to hear such claims of Holocaust denial in light of the historical evidence the world has today. Therefore in Morocco, while Holocaust denial can be observed, the current monarch King Mohammed VI openly recognized the Holocaust in 2009, in a message addressed to the participants at the launch of the Aladdin Project at UNESCO in Paris.  He called upon the world to learn lessons from the past through intercultural and interreligious dialogue. In this way, he set an example and opened the way for young Moroccans to learn more about the Holocaust. Such a change in official policy was in my view, a first step towards achieving justice through historical memory.

Taking this context into account, I founded the Mimouna Club while still a university student with a group of like-minded colleagues who were interested in discovering the Moroccan Jewish identity, history, culture and heritage.  We wanted to explore how this collective memory could be preserved. What should be done in the Arab and Jewish worlds to recognize the horrific history of the Holocaust and the righteous acts of Arabs who saved the lives of their Jewish fellow countrymen and women at the risk of their own lives?

In Morocco, there are still people who remember the time of the Second World War. Such testimonies, as they would best be described, would not be available for future generations to hear if they were not documented now.  In Mimouna Club, while not focused only on documenting such testimonies, we are focused on the broader mission of collecting narratives and primary source stories about Jewish life in Morocco: talking about the role of Mohamed V in protecting his Jewish subjects whilst the Jews of Europe were being massacred during the Second World War was also part of the Club’s mission. This history exemplifies Moroccan openness to its diversity, awareness of the need to protect human life, and the Monarchy’s long standing commitment to respecting the rights of its non-Muslim citizens.

Inspired by King Mohammed VI, the Mimouna Club organized the first conference on Holocaust remembrance in the Arab world titled “Mohammed V Righteous among the Nations”. It was held in September 2011 at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco in partnership with Kivunim, the Casablanca Moroccan Jewish Museum, with the sponsorship of two Moroccan companies, Nora and Marocapres.

Many university students who attended the conference learned about the Holocaust for the first time from Dr. Michael Berenbaum, Holocaust historian and former Project Director and Head of the Research Institute  at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. They also had the chance to hear personal testimony from Mrs. Elisabeth Citrom, a Holocaust survivor.  Mrs. Citron was 12 years old when she was deported to the infamous concentration camp of Auschwitz- Birkenau. She speaks frequently of her experiences, but this was the first time she had ever spoken to an Arab audience. She travelled to Morocco with her husband George, also a survivor.  Dr. Robert Satloff, Executive Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, spoke via video conference on the role that Arabs played in saving Jews across North Africa during the Holocaust.

Mr. Serge Berdugo, the Secretary-General of the Council of Moroccan Jews, gave a presentation on the threats to Jewish life under the Vichy regime and the actions of King Mohammed V in response. Mr. Berdugo’s father, then President of the Meknes Jewish Community participated in secret meetings with the Sultan Mohammed V.  Mr. Simon Levy, the director of the Casablanca Jewish Museum, shared with us his personal story living in Morocco under the Vichy Government.

Mr. Andre Azoulay, Advisor to the King of Morocco, explained the importance of teaching the Holocaust in Morocco and in other Arab countries and the role of Mohammed the V in saving Moroccan Jews.

During the second day of the conference a facilitated discussion took place between students from Al Akhawayn University, students from Moroccan Universities throughout the country and the group of Kivunim alumni who had come to Morocco from their college campuses in the United States to participate in the event. This conference was welcomed by many Moroccan scholars, intellectuals and students. However it was also widely criticized by Holocaust deniers.

This conference was part of a larger movement of individual initiatives by civil society organizations, media representatives and educators who all wanted to promote Holocaust education in Morocco and to recognize Arabs who saved Jews in North Africa.  There were also reports made by the Moroccan historians and media about forced labour camps that had been established at this time across North Africa.

In addition, Ismaël Ferroukhi, a Moroccan filmmaker, made a movie called “Free Men”, which narrates the story of the Imam of Paris who saved many Jews during the Nazi occupation of France. Another important development was the visit of a few Moroccan professors to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Israel. Aomar Boum, a Moroccan scholar has written several articles and essays on the subject.

All these individual initiatives have promoted the foundation for Holocaust education in Morocco, although not easy to implement. Mimouna Club, now an Association, continues to be active. It has arranged a number of caravans that have travelled to major cities in Morocco to bring knowledge of this history, and Jewish heritage and culture, to the people. Mimouna also organized a number of presentations in Morocco by Kimberly Mann, the Manager of the Holocaust and the United Nations Outreach Programme. By strengthening our ties with educational institutions and civil society groups, we hope to engage even more people in Morocco in Holocaust remembrance and education activities.


1 Zafrani, H. (2005). Two Thousand Years of Jewish life in Morocco. New York: Ktav publishing house.

2 Levy, S.(2001).Essais d’histoire et de civilisation Judéo-marocaines

3 See letter addressed by Renée Reichmann to J. Rives Childs on 13 June 1945

4 Serge Berdugo speech at the weeklong Holocaust remembrance observance at the United Nations Headquarters in New York in 2010. This event was organized by the Department of Public Information (DPI)

5 Simon Levy statement delivered at the “Mohammed V Righteous among the Nations” conference in Ifrane, 2011

6 Translation of  René Touraine Telegram


Discussion Questions

  1. Describe the Jewish community in Morocco. How did it come about?
  2. What happened to the Jews under the Vichy regime in Morocco during the Second World War ?
  3. What was the position of Sultan Mohammed V towards the Jews in Morocco?
  4. Why do you think intercultural and interreligious dialogue is important?
  5. What are the objectives of Mimouna Association? Do you know of any other places where students have made a difference in their communities? If so, how?

 


The discussion papers series provides a forum for individual scholars on the Holocaust and the averting of genocide to raise issues for debate and further study. These writers, representing a variety of cultures and backgrounds, have been asked to draft papers based on their own perspective and particular experiences.
The views expressed by the individual scholars do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations.

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