Of all the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, Morocco is often viewed as the nation with the most amiable relationship with Jews, both within its borders and in the international arena.
“There are no Jews in Morocco, only Moroccans, and all of them are my subjects.”~ Mohammed V, grandfather of the current King Mohammed VI
Morocco’s king, Mohammed VI, is on record calling the Nazi Final Solution “one of the most tragic chapters in history.” Mohammed V, grandfather of the current monarch, played a key role in saving around 240,000 Jews from occupied France during his reign. He is said to have told the French colonial authorities (at that time under the control of the collaborationist Vichy regime) that: “There are no Jews in Morocco, only Moroccans, and all of them are my subjects.” This story is celebrated by many Moroccan Jews as marking their country for its tolerant treatment of minorities.
The recent demolition of a Holocaust memorial at Ait Faska, southeast of Marrakech, may seem to contradict the rosy picture that is often painted about the relationship between Morocco and its Jewish population. The destruction, which took place on August 27, was carried out on the orders of the Moroccan Ministry of the Interior, despite the fact that the monument had been constructed with the full knowledge of the authorities.
Oliver Bienkowski, the German artist who created the piece, has said that he was inspired to create it when he found his own family name in Israel’s Yad Vashem database. Bienkowski is the founder of Pixelhelper International, a small NGO that supports various political causes. The self-styled “Guerrilla Artist” has lived in Morocco since 2014.
Prior to its demolition, the project consisted of a black wall encircling blocks of cement, mirroring the design of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, and a black steel monument, representing the holocaust itself. “The whole world should see what humans can do to other humans if they are in a dictatorship like Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany,” said Bienkowski.
It is possible that the decision to close the project down came as a result Bienkowski’s increased publicizing of the exhibition on social media throughout August 2019. Following one post on August 9, which was picked up by several news sites within hours, a small group of Moroccans launched an online campaign against what they described as Bienkowski’s “Zionist” project.
Ahmed Wihmane, the president of the Moroccan Observatory against Normalization with Israel, said of Bienkowski: “He presents ideological Zionist ideas about the tragedy of the Jews in WWII. In addition, he is a homosexual. All this should have urged the authorities to do their job before this memorial was built . . . When what had to be done was not done, it emboldened them to go further in their desire to establish a second Israel in the heart of Morocco and the Arab Maghreb.”
Wihmane’s reference to homosexuality relates to the fact that a part of the project consisted of rainbow colored concrete walls—a monument to the LGBTQ victims of the holocaust. Homosexual conduct remains a criminal offence in Morocco, and it is possible that this played a significant part in the decision to demolish the monument. The demolition may therefore say less about Morocco’s relationship with the holocaust than it first appeared.
Following the removal of the monument, Bienkowski began to post more provocatively on social media, highlighting what he sees as Morocco’s responsibility to build a holocaust memorial, because of the number of fascist forced labor camps that existed in Morocco during the French Protectorate. The Vichy regime set up numerous such camps across its many French colonies in Africa, which were used to incarcerate Jewish refugees and political prisoners, among others.
Bienkowski then went for the cultural jugular, suggesting that Mohammed V’s protection of Jews during the Second World War is largely a “myth.” He denounced the former king for expelling Jews from the education system, the media, and the financial sector and noted that the king forced Jewish people to live in walled-off communities (mellahs).
It is likely that this episode will soon be forgotten, but what it reveals is the deep politicization of the holocaust in the Arab world. Many in the region believe that emphasis on the Shoah (another word for Holocaust) provides ammunition for those who support the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. The controversy also reveals deep divisions in relation to historical memory and resentment of the fact that the study of the Second World War is heavily centered around Europe, with the North African story too often forgotten.
The actions of Mohammed V during the Second World War have served as a source of hope for some who dream of peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews.
It may be that Bienkowski’s reaction is doing more harm than good. The actions of Mohammed V during the Second World War have served as a source of hope for some who dream of peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews. As Haaretz reported: “In an elaborate ceremony in December 2015 at the ornate B’nai Jeshurun Synagogue in New York City, Mohammed V was posthumously awarded the inaugural Martin Luther King Jr.- Abraham Heschel Award for his courageous resistance to the Nazi inspired anti-Jewish measures implemented by the French colonial government in Morocco.”
The former King’s image is used as a symbol for some of the student exchange programs that aim to promote Muslim-Jewish coexistence. The partnership between the New York-based gap-year program Kivunim and the Moroccan Muslim student club Mimouna is just one example.
Yet the stated unifying mission of Bienkowski and those like him is not being undermined only by those on the Arab side of this debate. A revealing corollary case is that of the short-lived square and monument built in honor of Mohammed V in the Israeli city of Ashkelon in 1986, under the guidance of its Moroccan-born Mayor, Ali Dayan. The dedication to Mohammed V came initially at the behest of the then Israeli Prime-Minister Shimon Peres, who had met the then King of Morocco, Hassan II (son of Mohammed V), some months earlier.
However, as Haaretz reported: “At the dedication ceremony Peres and Dayan were shouted down by an angry mob of anti-Arab protesters . . . .The dedication of the square in honor of Mohammed V, ‘friend of the Jewish people, and righteous among the nations,’ became a national controversy with international implications: Peres and Labor politicians urged closer relations with Morocco while members of the Likud leadership rejected initiating dialogue with an Arab state with whom Israel has no diplomatic relations.”
Ariel Sharon (then Minister for Commerce and Industry) declared that the square would instead be named in memory of 22 Jews who had recently been killed by a Palestinian terrorist attack on a Synagogue in Istanbul. The plaque commemorating Mohammed V was soon removed after being repeatedly vandalized.
For every gesture aimed at promoting understanding between Jews and Muslims, on either side, it seems there is another aimed at stoking division.
For every gesture aimed at promoting understanding between Jews and Muslims, on either side, it seems there is another aimed at stoking division. Two decades later, on July 21, 2007, Peres again reiterated his desire to honor Mohammed V, during his first week in office as President of Israel. Once again, the attempt was quashed.
Both this Ashkelon monument case and that of the demolition of the holocaust memorial at Ait Faska are about more than just monuments. Both instances, and thousands more like them, betray a deep uneasiness in the Middle East around the issue of the holocaust and of historical memory in general. They reveal how history is being weaponized, both in Israel and the Arab world, for cynical and ultimately petty and short-sighted political goals.