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
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
"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.