Friday, December 14, 2007

The politics behind honouring the King of Morocco

What is behind moves to have Yad Vashem declare the wartime Moroccan king, Mohammed V, a 'righteous gentile'? Did the king genuinely risk his life to save Jews, or are there more pragmatic diplomatic calculations afoot? Marc Perelman in The Forward reports:

"For Jerusalem, the Yad Vashem move would show its determination to normalize ties with Arab countries. And Morocco could project an image of moderation at a time when it is courting Washington’s support on Western Sahara, a disputed territory that Morocco claims, but also one that a separatist group supported by Algeria would like to become independent. After years of paralysis, Morocco recently unveiled an autonomy proposal for the region and won cautious support from the Bush administration after years of America’s neutrality on the issue.

"Morocco has no official diplomatic relationship with Israel, though it does not observe the Arab League boycott and was one of the few Arab countries to establish low-level diplomatic ties with Israel during the Oslo peace process.

"Over the years, Morocco has, on several occasions, helped the Israeli-Arab process through discreet diplomatic initiatives, such as facilitating the Israeli-Egyptian breakthrough of 1977 and hosting Israeli leaders. This started with a historic visit by Shimon Peres in 1986, at a time when there was no peace process. In addition, the intelligence services of both countries have enjoyed a good relationship over the years, including Israeli tips of plots against the royal family and negotiations over the exodus to Israel of hundreds of thousands of Moroccan Jews, according to books published in recent years. Both the diplomatic and the security ties, which are the exclusive purview of the king and his inner circle, are rarely discussed in Morocco, given the strong public pro-Palestinian sentiment.

"Whether Mohammed V, who died in 1961, will become a member of the Righteous remains uncertain, given Yad Vashem’s strict eligibility rules. Among the 22,000 Righteous, some 70 are Muslims, most of whom are from Turkey and the Balkans. There are no Arabs among them, according to Yad Vashem spokeswoman Estee Yaari, who added that no formal request had been submitted for the late Moroccan monarch.

"The trickiest criterion is determining whether the late king actually risked his life to save Jews during the rule of the pro-Nazi French authorities from mid-1940 to November 1942, when American troops arrived and changed the balance of power. Citing testimonies of the king’s quiet resistance campaign against the French antisemitic edicts, Berdugo claims that the king had indeed done so.

"When the Vichy regime extended its anti-Jewish laws to Morocco in October 1940, the king maneuvered to limit their implementation. A 1941 telegram from the French foreign ministry, uncovered in the mid-1980s, discussed the worsening tensions between the French authorities and the king because of Mohammed V’s unwillingness to distinguish among his subjects. Some Moroccan Jews even claim that he asked the French authorities to bring him yellow stars for his family to wear. Some observers have expressed doubt over the episode, which illustrates the near-mythical aura of the king among Moroccan Jews — the vast majority of whom immigrated to Israel and Europe after Israel’s independence and the 1967 war.

"Richard Prasquier, Yad Vashem’s representative in France, believes that Mohammed V did not risk his life. Prasquier also said that he was never confronted with an official request that they be deported to Nazi death camps. Others suspect that diplomatic calculations are the main impetus behind the campaign.

“It’s a nice political coup,” said Ahmed Benchemsi, editor of the leading independent weekly Tel Quel. The magazine published a story a few months ago about the existence of forced labor camps in Morocco for some 2,000 Jews who had fled Europe during World War II.

"At the time described in Tel Quel’s story, the French authorities were in control of Morocco and oversaw the camps’ administration, leaving little power to the king. But the article raised doubts over his willingness to protect Jews beyond Moroccan ones.

Read article in full

Was the king of Morocco a 'righteous gentile'?

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