Morocco challenges Mideast Holocaust mind-set

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
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 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.

Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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