The legendary scene at Rick’s Cafe where refugees, led by Paul Henreid, drown out Nazi officers by singing “La Marseillaise” became an instant inspiration to moviegoers as World War II was raging.
The location of the film was no accident: Casablanca was a haven for those fleeing for their lives. And it was also the scene of a much greater — and real life — act of heroism, one far too little known or recognized: the protection of the Jews of Morocco by the young Sultan Mohammed V.
At a time when anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are on the rise globally, we should honor this overlooked but remarkable example of enlightened leadership.
Born the third son of the reigning sultan’s younger brother, Mohammed was an unlikely ruler from the start and certainly an unexpected hero.
A series of international disputes between France and Germany led to the Treaty of Fez in 1912 and French control of Morocco. Mohammed’s father, Moulay Yousef, replaced his older sibling on the throne when his brother abdicated because of the treaty.
Fifteen years later, upon his father’s death, 16-year-old Mohammed was named sultan largely because the French viewed him as more docile than his older brothers. This turned out to be one of the great misjudgments in French colonial history.
When Paris fell to the Germans in July 1940, the sultan, then 30, was put in a precarious position as Morocco came under the rule of the collaborationist French Vichy regime.
Among their first acts, the new overseers sought to impose anti-Semitic laws in Morocco, as per Nazi protocol.
Jews had lived in that part of the world since well before Carthage fell, and over a quarter of a million called Morocco their home in 1940.
Members of the community had served the sultans’ court as ministers, diplomats and advisors. Mohammed V took seriously his role as Commander of the Faithful, which he viewed to include all “people of the book,” meaning everyone belonging to the Abrahamic faiths — Jews, Christians and Muslims. He bravely, publicly declined to assist in the persecution of his own Jewish citizens.
“There are no Jews in Morocco,” he declared. “There are only Moroccan subjects.”
Vichy authorities soon forced Mohammed V to promulgate two laws restricting certain professions and schools to Jews and requiring them to live in ghettos. In an act of resistance, the sultan declined to fully enforce the laws. A direct descendant of Muhammad, the founder of Islam, through Muhammad’s daughter Fatimah, the sultan refused to be intimidated. A French government telegram, discovered in Paris archives four decades later, reported that relations between France and Morocco became “much more tense since the day” the laws went into effect. In 1941, for the first time, Mohammed V made a point of inviting senior representatives of the Jewish community to the annual banquet celebrating the anniversary of his sultanate and placing them in the best seats next to the French officials.
“I absolutely do not approve of the new anti-Semitic laws and I refuse to associate myself with a measure I disagree with,” he told the French officials. “I reiterate as I did in the past that the Jews are under my protection and I reject any distinction that should be made amongst my people.”
Although there were limits to his power, Mohammed V ensured that there were never roundups of Jews in Morocco; it remained a haven to the extent possible. During Vichy rule — which lasted a little more than two years — no Moroccan Jews were deported or killed; nor were they forced to wear the yellow star. When Allied troops liberated North Africa in November 1942, the Moroccan Jewish community was essentially intact.
The sultan’s actions offer a contrast with other leaders who rallied to the side of the Axis powers in hopes of driving the Jews from Palestine and the British from the Middle East. The grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Husseini, for example, spent the war years in Berlin, courting Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler, plotting the extermination of the Jews and recruiting Eastern European Muslims to fight for the Nazi cause.
Mohammed V, on the other hand, was a strong supporter of the Allies and welcomed President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and French President Charles de Gaulle for four days in 1943 at the historic Casablanca conference. Throughout the sultan’s reign, he continued to protect his Jewish subjects. When the Arab world reacted violently to the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948, the sultan reminded Moroccans that Jews had always been protected in their country and should not be harmed.
Mohammed V died suddenly in 1961, just four years after Morocco became an independent constitutional monarchy and he gained the title king. The outpouring of grief was immense. Some 75,000 Jews publicly mourned, the chief rabbi delivered a memorial address by radio, and Jews were prominent participants at the coronation of his son Hassan II and at the new king’s initial prayer services.
The Moroccan Jewish community has dwindled, but in commemorations to this day, its members declare their “eternal gratitude” to Mohammed V and recall his heroism. At a time when such selflessness is in short supply, we should do the same.
By Richard Hurowitz Los Angeles Times