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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Sophomore travels to Morocco to discuss Holocaust

Published: November 4, 2011
Section: Features, Top Stories

While Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad was addressing the United Nations General Assembly in September, again implying a belief that the Holocaust had never happened, Aaron Weinberg ’14 was doing the opposite at a conference organized by Ahmedinejad’s fellow Muslims.

At Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco, a group of Muslim students organized “Mohammed V, Righteous Amongst the Nations: The Holocaust and the Jews of Morocco,” recognized as the Arab world’s first conference remembering the Holocaust, with a focus on Morocco’s involvement.

Weinberg, a Sociology and Near Eastern and Judaic Studies major and a Chicago native with strong ties to the Jewish community, learned of the conference after participating in Kivunim, a gap-year program. The program, based in Israel, attempts to promote a “world consciousness” and develop an “abiding appreciation for difference, pluralism and mutual respect” in students, according to its website.

While in Israel, students study Jewish communities in other parts of the world, ending units with visits to those countries, 10 in total, Weinberg said.

During the winter of his gap year, Weinberg studied Morocco, which he described as an Arab country that throughout history has peacefully coexisted with its Jewish community. “I was blown away by that,” he said. “It served as an incredible and telling model of how [the world] can function.”

While studying Morocco, Weinberg learned of King Mohammed V, for whom the conference was named. The king ruled Morocco during World War II, when the Vichy French government controlled his country and, unlike many heads of state, he refused to turn on his Jewish citizens. “When the Vichy government wanted to give out stars to the Jews of Morocco, he said ‘order 50 more for me and my family,’” Weinberg said.

To Weinberg, King Mohammed V’s story speaks to the possibility of peace between Jews and other communities, particularly in Arab countries. Rather than looking at Morocco’s history as a country with two separate groups of people getting along, he considers it a representation of one society with many similarities who simply practice different religions.

Weinberg learned of the conference from Peter Geffen, founder and executive director of Kivunim. Last year, with Kivunim participants, Geffen visited Al Akhawayn University, meeting with the Muslim students in the Mimouna Club.

After stories of his grandmother’s childhood in the Jewish quarter of Casablanca prompted 24-year-old Political Science major Elmehdi Boudra to learn more about the Jewish history of Morocco, he and several friends founded the Mimouna Club, which delves into Moroccan-Jewish culture and heritage.

When Geffen spoke to Boudra, the younger man asked if Geffen would be able to help with a Holocaust conference the club wanted to hold.

“The whole power of it is that it was their idea,” Geffen said. “Here’s a group of Muslim students, 20-, 21-years-old, on an Arab campus in the Arab world. And to have an intuitive recognition that opening the discussion in the face of widespread Holocaust denial is a major human step forward.”

Geffen, Boudra and others worked for several months to plan the conference, which was held in September. The three-day event included introductions and welcomes by Al Akhawayn President Dr. Driss Ouaouicha, Boudra and Geffen, speakers like Holocaust survivor Elizabeth Citron and André Azoulay, a Jewish adviser to Moroccan King Mohammed VI, and lectures on topics about the history of Jews in Morocco and other Arab countries and the importance of maintaining those cultural and historic memories.

During his introduction, Geffen read the Royal Proclamation on the Holocaust, a statement released in March 2009. In the statement, King Mohammed VI, grandson of King Mohammed V, pointed out the lack of world knowledge of the role Morocco played during the Holocaust.

“We perceive [the Holocaust] as a wound to the collective memory, which we know is engraved in one of the most painful chapters in the collective history of mankind,” the king wrote. While reminding the world of his grandfather’s heroism, he went one step further, promoting dialogue and asking citizens of the world to “re-assert reason” and remember the potential for an ideal world, in which “words of dignity, justice and freedom will express themselves in the same way and will coexist … regardless of our origins, cultures or spiritualities.”

“I think [the proclamation] is one of the most amazing documents ever created,” Weinberg said. “It should be plastered to the hall of every school in the world.”

During the conference, Azoulay addressed members of the Mimouna Club, switching to English to be understood by all.

“You have decided [to do this] by yourself. No one asked you to do it. It was your decision, your vision, your commitment,” he said, reminding attendees that without the initiative of young people who choose to remember, the atrocities of the Holocaust will be forgotten, especially in the face of deniers.

Weinberg pointed out that his generation will be the first to teach their children about the Holocaust without the first-hand accounts of survivors.

“We have a responsibility to tell this to our kids as an example of what the world around us can be,” he said. “There are stories of evil cruelty but we must also tell them of the heroism and the peace and the possibilities for the future in order to build a better tomorrow.”