Opinion |

Why Did Morocco Just Demolish a Holocaust Memorial?

A German guerilla artist-activist has revived the stormy debate about who controls the narrative of the Holocaust in Morocco, and its entanglement with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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Guerilla artist-activist Oliver Bienkowski's Holocaust memorial near Marrakesh that was demolished by the Moroccan authorities in late August 2019
Guerilla artist-activist Oliver Bienkowski's Holocaust memorial near Marrakesh that was demolished by the Moroccan authorities in late August 2019Credit: Facebook

Uniquely for the Muslim Middle East and North Africa, Morocco has officially called to commemorate the Holocaust. Its king, Mohamed VI, has declared the Holocaust "one of the most tragic chapters in history," pointing out the role played by his grandfather, Mohammed V, in saving Jews from the discriminatory anti-Semitic measures imposed by the collaborationist Vichy regime ruling Morocco during World War II.

Mohammed V, who led Morocco to independence in 1956, is said to have defiantly pronounced to the French colonial authorities: "There are no Jews in Morocco, only Moroccans, and all of them are my subjects." The story of Mohammed V’s courageous act has become an integral part of the Moroccan national narrative and is celebrated by Moroccan Jews worldwide.

It therefore may seem counterintuitive that a Holocaust memorial under construction at Ait Faska, southeast of Marrakesh, was demolished on August 27, 2019 by the Moroccan authorities on the orders of the Ministry of the Interior.

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Even more surprising than the demolition of the monument was its unauthorized nature - a monument conceived, planned and constructed under the radar of official state bodies.

Its creator was Oliver Bienkowski, a German self-styled social entrepreneur and "guerilla-artist" who has lived in Morocco since 2014. He's a founder of Pixelhelper International SARL, a little-known NGO dedicated to an array of diverse political causes,.

Bienkowski says he launched the project to create a Holocaust educational center, which he proclaimed to be "North Africa’s first ever Holocaust memorial." Bienkowski told the Jerusalem Post that he was inspired to build the monument when he discovered his family name in Israel's Yad Vashem database.

The memorial was intended to educate a new generation of Moroccans about the horrors of the Nazi genocide - and its local manifestations. The regional authorities must have known about this guerilla project - laborers from nearby villages were openly working at the site - but turned a blind eye to it.

At the time of its demolition, a black wall encircled blocks of cement bricks (meant to echo Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe) and a black steel monument to represent the Holocaust. The memorial was to include a section to commemorate LGBTQ victims of the Holocaust with rainbow-colored blocks - to be completed by Hanukkah/December 2019.

Construction of this unsanctioned project continued unnoticed until Bienkowski started exhibiting photo and videos of the installations at the site on his Facebook page in the latter half of August 2019.

Hours after his Facebook posts, Arabic language and Jewish news outlets began picking up the story. Moroccan activists opposed to normalization - or any contact - with Israel launched a national campaign against what they described as a "Zionist" project.

Ahmed Wihmane, the president of the Moroccan Observatory against Normalization with Israel, stated: "He [Bienkowski] 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."

As online activists clamored to demand that the government implement punitive measures towards the project's facilitators, and shortly afterwards the monument was destroyed.

Clearly the government felt it had to act, once international attention was drawn to a freelance Holocaust memorial with neither official sanction nor the approval of the Moroccan Jewish community leaders, and was triggering loud opposition.

The demolition of Oliver Bienkowski's Holocaust memorial near Marrakesh

But the Moroccan government's bulldozing of this rogue monument was not only about its unauthorized construction. It was also about controlling the narrative of the Holocaust in Morocco.

For the Moroccan government today, the story of Mohammed V, protector of the roughly 240,00 Moroccan Jews in the then-French Protectorate, exemplifies Morocco’s open-mindedness and tolerance. Praising Mohammed V’s heroic role defying Vichy to protect the Jews of Morocco is a sine qua non of any Holocaust commemoration in Morocco - and by all indication, this was Bienkowski’s crucial mistake.

Furthermore, in a Morocco where same-sex sexual activity is a criminal offense, it is highly unlikely that commemorating of European LGBTQ victims could ever supported as a significant part of an agenda to educate Moroccan Muslims about the Holocaust.

After the demolition of the memorial, Bienkowski launched new social media posts highlighting the history of North Africa's Vichy-era forced labor camps, declaring that "because foreign Jews died in Morocco, we need our Holocaust Memorial."

Indeed, the French collaborationist Vichy government established a large network of penal, labor and internment camps in its African colonies and in North Africa. It incarcerated European political dissidents, foreign refugees, and Republican partisans of the Spanish Civil War -European Jewish refugees and Spanish Republicans - and in only a few cases, indigenous North African Muslims and Jews.

For the monarchy in Morocco, the forced labor camps are not part of the official Holocaust narrative, since they had no connection to Mohammed V and his protection of Moroccan Jews.

Angered by the demolition, Bienkowski decided therefore to go for the jugular – that protection of Jews that has gained mythic status. He posted on Facebook: "History needs places of memory & no fairy tales…Mohammed V did not protect the Jews."

Oliver Bienkowski's Facebook post in he says 'Mohammed V did not protect the Jews...History needs places of remembrance & no fairy tales'Credit: Facebook

He denounced the wartime king for having issued anti-Jewish decrees expelling Jews from the public education system, forbidding them to engage in professions such as finance and media, and being forced to leave their homes to live in overcrowded Jewish quarters - or mellahs.

On the Vichy regime's forced labor camps in Morocco, he wrote: "Morocco also has a Holocaust story. They call Bouarfa [the main camp] the Auschwitz of the desert."

Behind this probably soon-to-be-forgotten drama looms a much larger issue about the relationship between the Holocaust and North Africa and its politicization, all unfolding against a landscape of Palestinian-Israeli conflict, diplomacy and peacemaking, and ethnic identity politics.

The very question of public memorials connecting North Africa to the Holocaust highlights intensely sensitive, complex and sometimes contrasting feelings about historical memory and WWII among Muslims and Jews.

Europe-centered Holocaust studies, educational centers and memorials have historically ignored the North African story. For many state and non-state actors in the Middle East and North Africa, the topic of the Holocaust is a historical taboo - since its telling is seen as providing ammunition against the Palestinian cause.

But for Moroccan Muslims and for liberal Jews especially in America, anxious to promote interfaith dialogue and understanding, the story of the good Muslim ruler, Mohammed V, saving Jews during the Holocaust is a beacon of hope, amid the ongoing conflict between Muslims and Jews in the Middle East.

Morocco's wartime king Mohammed V with France's postwar president Vincent Auriol. 11 October 1950Credit: Wikimedia

For instance, Mohammed V serves as the symbol of Muslim-Jewish coexistence for a unique partnership between Kivunim, a New York-based gap-year program created by Peter Geffen, founder of the Upper West Side liberal Jewish Heschel School on the on New York, and Mimouna, a Moroccan Muslim student club founded a decade ago dedicated to understanding Morocco's Jewish heritage, and has also been at the forefront of promoting Holocaust education in the Arab world - and Morocco in particular.

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 Bienkowski incident is reminiscent of the debate surrounding another aborted effort at memorialization that took place 33 years ago in the Israeli city of Ashkelon. In September 1986, a monument and "Peace Square" was created in honor of Mohammed V for saving Jews during World War II.

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It came at the initiative of then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres who, just months before, had made an unannounced trip to Morocco to meet King Hassan II in an effort to promote the Middle East peace process and for Morocco to serve as a mediator. His memorial plan was backed by various Moroccan-Jewish leaders, and was approved by the city council of Ashkelon and its Moroccan-born mayor, Eli Dayan.

The monument was short-lived. At the dedication ceremony Peres and Dayan were shouted down by an angry mob of anti-Arab protestors. A day before the ceremony, a resident of Ashkelon, Haim Azran had been stabbed to death in Gaza while shopping in its popular fruit and vegetable market. According to members of Azran’s family, the funeral was postponed a day because of the ceremony, and this sparked the anti-Arab demonstration.

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. There was fury at Azran's funeral the next day, and the cars of Palestinians passing through the city were stoned and set on fire.

Ariel Sharon, then Likud hawk and Minister of Commerce and Industry, denounced honoring King Mohammed V, declaring he would have named the square instead in the memory of the 22 Jews killed by Palestinian terrorists in the attack against the Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul just weeks before.

After Israel's then-PM Shimon Peres addressed the Knesset on peace talks with Jordan, Ariel Sharon (who opposed them) plays with a piece of paper rather than congratulating him. Oct. 28, 1985Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

The plaque commemorating Mohammed V was repeatedly vandalized, apparently by followers of the racist extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane, who held the Kach party's sole seat in the Knesset (the party was banned for racism in 1988).

One week after the dedication, the mayor, fearing repercussions and negative political fallout with Morocco, removed the plaque. That angered a large community of Moroccan Jews in the city who insisted that saw Mohammed V was a righteous "tsadiq."

The debate raged for weeks in the Israeli press, involving politicians from opposing parties, academics, and Moroccan Jewish leaders, on the one side claiming that Mohammed V was an instrument of the collaborationist Vichy regime in carrying out the anti-Jewish policy, while on the other, declaring him a friend of the Jews who saved many during the Holocaust.

Reporters for Ma‘ariv wrote disparagingly about the continuing attachment of Moroccan Jews to Morocco and "their king." The renowned Moroccan Jewish poet, Erez Biton, retorted by proudly expressing the special relationship of the Jews to the monarchy and the role played by Morocco in the peace process .

Over 20 years later, on July 21, 2007, and less than a week after being sworn in as president of Israel, Shimon Peres declared his support for the nomination of Mohammed V as a Righteous Among the Nations to Yad Vashem.

However, the prospective nomination, supported by Moroccan Jewish leaders, never advanced beyond the exploratory stage, and Yad Vashem remained skeptical that Mohammed V had actually took personal risks to save Jews, a necessary criterion to be enshrined among the righteous gentiles in Israel’s national Holocaust memorial.

The enigmatic incident of the Marrakesh Holocaust memorial, promoted by an idiosyncratic German "guerilla-artist," and the heavy-handed destruction of the monument by the Moroccan governing authorities, reveal a much larger angst about the meaning of memorializing the Holocaust and its politicization, one that reverberates between Morocco, Israel, the Arab world and the United States – and one that is far from resolution.

Aomar Boum is associate professor of anthropology at UCLA and Daniel Schroeter is the Amos S. Deinard Memorial Chair in Jewish history at the University of Minnesota.

They are coauthors of the forthcoming "Morocco and the Holocaust: The Story of King Mohammed V Saving the Jews during World War II, 1940-2019"

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