Rabat, Morocco - Morocco and Israel have a longstanding relationship veiled in secrecy, one involving quiet diplomatic initiatives and discreet intelligence cooperation. So it is only fitting that it is a stealth campaign that is pushing to have a former king of Morocco become the first Arab admitted to Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations, which recognizes non-Jews who risked their lives to rescue Jews during the Holocaust.
No formal request has been submitted to have Mohammed V, the wartime king, admitted to Yad Vashem. Promoters of the initiative in Morocco and in Israel are reluctant to talk about it publicly and are working behind the scenes.
“There is no formal demand; this is an exploratory phase,” said Serge Berdugo, who heads Morocco’s Jewish community and is a Moroccan ambassador-at-large. “All Moroccan Jews here and in Israel dream about it, but it is a long and difficult process.”
Robert Satloff, executive director of the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, prompted the latest round of activity on the issue. His book “Among the Righteous: Lost Stories From the Holocaust’s Long Reach Into Arab Lands,” published last year, describes the antisemitic persecutions suffered by Jews in Arab countries during World War II and sheds new light on the positive role played by Mohammed V.
After the book appeared, Berdugo quietly inquired with Yad Vashem about the possibility of honoring the late king. He received the endorsement of Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, and that of a number of Israeli politicians of Moroccan origin.
In addition to history, there are some more immediate motivations behind the campaign. The obvious symbol of having an Arab — especially an Arab leader — among the Righteous at a time of turmoil in the Middle East is seen as sending a signal that relations between Israel and the Arab world are slowly improving. The trend is further illustrated by a July meeting in Paris between then-Moroccan foreign minister Mohamed Benaissa and his Israeli counterpart, Tzipi Livni. Morocco also attended the Annapolis, Md., conference last month and is likely to be among the first of those Arab countries without formal ties to Israel to take steps toward normalization if a genuine peace process takes hold.
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.
Satloff, who declined comment for this article, recounts in “Among the Righteous” the hardship of those far-flung camps, but he absolves the king of responsibility.
Satloff has a ready explanation for the fact that no Arabs have made it to Yad Vashem: a collective unwillingness to be associated with the Holocaust, which is perceived in Arab countries as the direct impetus for the creation of Israel.
In order to break this taboo and to respond to the spread of Holocaust denial in the Arab world, Satloff himself submitted a formal request to Yad Vashem early this year for Khaled Abd al-Wahab, a Tunisian aristocrat who hid a Jewish family from the Nazis, based on testimony from a family member. In contrast to Morocco, Tunisia was under direct Nazi rule at the time, which could bolster al-Wahab’s chances. The museum said his application was under consideration.