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Jewish Journal

Holocaust truth is told on Muslim soil

by Michael Berenbaum

September 27, 2011 | 11:15 am

Elmehdi Boudra

Elmehdi Boudra

While Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was spewing hatred and denying the Holocaust from the floor of the United Nations, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were trading charges as to who is responsible for the nonexistent peace process, I was attending a small but significant event taking place at Al Akhawayn University, an elite English-language college in the picturesque ski resort town of Ifrane, Morocco. It was the first Holocaust Conference — nondenial Holocaust Conference — on Arab soil.

A word about the Moroccan initiative: The conference is the product of the University’s Moadon Mimouna (as their logo says in Hebrew). The Mimouna Club is a student organization dedicated to the study and experience of Moroccan Jewish culture and history ... and the study of Hebrew. It was founded and headed by a young student, Elmehdi Boudra, who has a special interest in Morocco’s Jewish heritage and in intercultural dialogue. This was the third “Moroccan Jewish Days,” exploring Jewish life in Morocco sponsored by Boudra and his colleagues, and the first to tackle the difficult subject of the Holocaust. The club’s name, Mimouna, was chosen deliberately. When more than a quarter of a million Jews lived in Morocco, it was the custom of Muslims to bake bread and pastries and bring them to their Jewish neighbors as darkness fell at the end of the eighth day of Passover, the first moment when chametz was permissible. This evening is known in Morocco as Mimouna.

Boudra partnered with Peter Geffen, the dynamic founder and executive director of Kivunim, a gap-year program that brings American high-school graduates to Israel for a year of study and international travel. They study Hebrew and Arabic, Jewish history and Arab culture, and they visit Central and Eastern Europe, Portugal, Spain, Greece, Turkey, India and Morocco. A veteran of the civil-rights movement and the scion of a distinguished rabbinic family – Geffen’s Atlanta-based grandfather gave the hechsher to Coca-Cola almost a century ago — Geffen, the son of a rabbi and father of two rabbinical students, broke with his family tradition. Among his other accomplishments, he founded the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in Manhattan. Geffen had previously negotiated the inner labyrinth of Moroccan society and politics, organizing the United Nations tribute to Morocco on International Holocaust Commemoration Day on Jan. 27, 2010. He brought his organizational skill and significant contacts in the Moroccan community to the conference planning committee. He invited me to participate.

Jews in Morocco, under the colonial rule of Vichy France, fared far better than the Jews in Vichy France, who faced a collaborationist regime that hunted its Jews. Throughout last week’s conference, stories were shared by the now-aging sons of prominent Jewish leaders, who related conversations between their fathers and the wartime King Mohammed V, who expressed concern for all his subjects, without excluding Jews, a stance so rare during the Holocaust that as I listened to these stories, images of Denmark came to mind. Danish leaders had famously said: “We have no Jewish problem in our country.” Their heroism was to treat Jews as fellow citizens under attack from a hostile occupying force — nothing more and nothing less. Thus, rescue was natural, not the stuff of righteousness but of ordinary decency.

The Jewish leaders of Morocco today, the sons of World War II communal leaders, related stories of regional governors who gave Jewish leaders matches and told them to burn the list of the names, addresses and assets of local Jews. Without lists, it was more difficult to deport the Jews and confiscate their assets.

Like Robert Satloff, who wrote “Among the Righteous: Lost Stories From the Holocaust’s Long Reach Into Arab Lands” on Moslems who saved Jews, Geffen believes the best counterweight to Holocaust denial in the Arab world is to celebrate those in Arab lands who helped Jews and thus provide a positive role model to contemporary Muslims. Let them deny the decency of their people.  He described King Mohammed V as a Righteous Among the Nations. Yet because of the specificity of Yad Vashem’s criteria — a non-Jew who saved without monetary reward or its expectation, or at risk to his own life — the king is unlikely to be so designated by Yad Vashem, as it would be difficult to document that his life was at risk.

Unbeknownst to many, including me, King Mohammed VI, the young and reformist-minded king of Morocco, has issued a proclamation on the Holocaust, a specific and deliberate refutation of Holocaust denial. He said: “Amnesia has no effect on my understanding of the Holocaust or that of my people.”

He proclaimed in 2009: “We must together endeavor to reassert reason and the values which underpin the legitimacy of a space of coexistence where the words of dignity, justice and freedom will express themselves in the same way and will coexist with the same requirements, regardless of our origins, cultures or spirituality. This is our interpretation in Morocco, of the duty of remembrance dictated by the Shoah.”

Notice the word “Shoah”; notice also the word “amnesia.”

After an opening ceremony and greetings, the first presentations began in the presence of faculty and, more important, students.  Simon Levy, director of the Museum of Moroccan Jewry in Casablanca, spoke on the situation of Jews in Vichy France and in Morocco. Simon Levy, director of the Museum of Moroccan Jewry in Casablanca, spoke on the situation of Jews in Vichy France and in Morocco. 

Although this was an academic conference, my own presentation was anything but academic. Whereas presenters at scholarly conferences normally are expected to bring new research to the fore, my assignment here was perhaps more difficult. In the allotted 45 minutes, I was to present an overview of the Holocaust to students who had no background in the Holocaust, none in the study of European history, and none in films and books newspapers and television, which have given the average American and European student considerable knowledge even before they enter the classroom. I was also to speak of the uniqueness of the Holocaust to an audience more aware of Holocaust denial than of history, and who have a natural reluctance to confront the Holocaust because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so dominant in the news, particularly on the days we met. Let others judge my success, suffice it to say that I had complete academic freedom — no one asked to see a copy of my remarks in advance, no one pressured me on what I could and could not say. I spoke exactly as I would speak elsewhere of Zionism and Israel as a haven and a refuge, and I tried to present an overview of the Holocaust that was respectful of a scholarly faculty while informative to the students in the audience.

After my presentation, Elisabeth Citron, a Hungarian survivor of Auschwitz, spoke. We are the last generation to live in the presence of survivors, and while the engagement with those who were at Auschwitz is quite familiar to American, Israeli and European audiences, this was the first time most in the room heard from someone who was there.  Citron was a 12-year-old girl when she was deported to Auschwitz, where she survived the selektion; her mother was not so fortunate. An elegant and eloquent Swedish woman, who only began to speak of the Holocaust when Holocaust deniers gained attention in her adopted homeland, her testimony was riveting. She described hiding in a latrine, suspended by her arms in human waste, to avoid detection as the Nazis searched for young inmates. One could feel the air being sucked out of the room. Her testimony was treated with the respect it merited. The conclusion of her remarks left the room in stunned silence.

After the break, two of the most prominent Jews in Morocco spoke, Ambassador Serge Berdugo, an ambassador-at-large for the King of Morocco and president of the Moroccan Jewish Communities, and Andre Azoulay, the king’s senior adviser. More important, for the purposes of this conference, Berdugo spoke as the son of his father, who was the wartime president of the Jewish community of Mekness and involved with secret meetings with King Mohammed V. Azoulay plays the same role in the king’s court that Larry Summers played in President Barack Obama’s White House, but with greater success, as Morocco has an enviable growth rate of 4.5 percent. Both Berdugo and Azoulay are deeply involved in interfaith relations, both committed Moroccans and committed Jews who see multiculturalism and mutual respect as essential to Morocco’s well-being and indispensible to Jewish survival in Morocco. Morocco is oriented to the West. The elite speak French. They have major economic ties to Europe, and businesses are open on Friday so that they can trade with their European counterparts.

The question-and-answer session was polite but intense. I was asked about the extent of Jewish power during World War II and to address the charge that Jews had collaborated with the Nazis in their own destruction — frank and important questions essential for this audience to confront. To the former, I responded that Jews have never been as powerful as our enemies have imagined us to be and with a few exceptions — the Holocaust being the most important — never as powerless as we imagined ourselves to be. I went through the choiceless choices that Jewish leaders confronted during the Holocaust and the difference between collaboration and coercion.

The students also confronted the Jewish political leaders on a basic question: Why did Moroccan Jews leave? Once a community of 280,000 strong, 99 percent of the Jews have left Morocco for Diasporas in France and Canada and, of course, in Israel. Every immigration movement is defined by a push-pull phenomenon, by the perceived necessity to leave one’s native land and an attraction, political, economic, ideological or religious, to go elsewhere — and if the push is strong enough, to go anywhere. The political leaders were “diplomatic” in their answers, not untruthful but overtly cautious. The truth is that Moroccan Jews left with the establishment of the State of Israel and after political turmoil in the Arab world following Israel’s wars in 1956, 1967, 1973 and during Intifada I and II. But some remained, along with strong communal institutions — schools and synagogues, kosher butchers and bakeries, Jewish clubs and multiple kosher restaurants. Their presence, even as a small remnant of a community, is noticeable even today. More important, Moroccan Jews living elsewhere return home for visits, and Moroccan Jews are free to visit Israel and Israelis to visit Morocco. The situation is radically different than in some other Arab countries, where a Jewish presence is unwelcome and where the land is Judenrein — without Jews.

A clear illustration of the respect shown to the Jews and to the conference was that a kosher meal was served and Jewish leaders from throughout Morocco came to the festive dinner. And that evening, the university auditorium offered a concert by a Moroccan Jewish performer. Students danced and celebrated Jewish culture and Moroccan culture. Most women were dressed in secular and rather attractive garb, but Muslim head coverings and scarves were also noticeable among the attendees.

The Conference resumed in Casablanca with a visit to the Museum of Moroccan Jewry and a series of presentations on the issue of multiculturalism as a progressive, Europe-oriented Muslim nation grapples with how to deal with its Jews and Christians in a world where polarization seemingly overshadows cooperation and mutual respect. The Muslim curator of the museum, Zhor Rhihel, whose salary is paid by the Ministry of Culture, spoke on how to preserve Jewish culture and the Jewish presence as part of Moroccan national history. Forsan Hussein, CEO of the Jerusalem YMCA, was invited to make a presentation. A handsome and articulate thirty-something Israeli Arab, he described himself, as a “Moslem CEO of a Christian Institution in a Jewish state married to a women whose father was the first ArabIsraeli to serve as an Israeli Ambassador – it doesn’t get better than that.” A graduate of Brandeis, where, when he began his undergraduate studies during Intifada II, he was the full extent of the Palestinian community, Hussein also has advanced degrees from Harvard and Johns Hopkins Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is the embodiment of the multicultural possibilities and sensibilities, a veritable case study in bridging divides.

We also learned of the efforts of the High Atlas Foundation to address poverty by empowering the Mountain people in rural Morocco and of their reverence for their unique rural Jewish heritage. That evening we listened to a concert by Vanessa Paloma,  who came from Los Angeles to Morocco as a Fulbright Scholar to study its Jewish Musical heritage, married a Moroccan Jewish man and stayed, now becoming not only a talented student of the past, but an integral part of the Moroccan Jewish Musical future.

There was something eerily familiar about Morocco. Like Poland and other countries that once had thriving Jewish communities, Morocco must deal with the paradox of “the presence of absence and the absence of presence.” Jews were an integral part of Morocco’s past. Each city has a mellah — a walled ghetto — adjacent to the King’s Palace, where the Jewish community was centered and where Jews sold salt and sugar as part of the richness of the country. Jewish homes are still there. One notices the indentations of mezuzot in many buildings in the Jewish quarter, the place where they once marked the doorpost of a Jewish home. Jews have lived in Morocco since the destruction of the First Temple; many trace their roots to the megurashim, those who were expelled from Spain in 1492 and found a haven in Morocco. Yet, unlike Poland, there is not the same sadness, not the same guilt. Jews migrated, but they were saved, not murdered.

The conference was counter-testimony to our world of hatred and polarization. The Israeli-Palestinian confrontation is the shadow that does not allow the un-ambivalent embrace of this Jewish history, this essential part of Moroccan history. Asked how the Holocaust should be taught to Moroccan students, Rhihel, the curator of the Moroccan Jewish Museum, immediately replied: “It cannot be taught in our schools until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved.” The Moroccan students who were in dialogue with alumni of Kivunim who attended the conference were far more flexible.

Still, I had a sense of purpose being there to help kindle a ray of light, however fragile, away from the venom that, even as we studied together, marked Jewish-Muslim relations at the United Nations.

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University.

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