Honouring Moroccan King Who Helped Save Jews
The line to enter New York City’s B’nai Jeshurun synagogue recently went around the block. But the 700 people who crowded the sidewalk on West 88th street weren’t there for services. They came to celebrate a king a Moroccan king, to be exact. The ceremony, organized by the KIVUNIM: The Institute for World Jewish Studies as part of their three-day 10th anniversary conference, celebrated the creation of The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Rabbi Abraham Heschel Award and its first recipient, the late King Mohammed V of Morocco, who protected the country’s 250,000 Jews from the occupying Vichy French forces and the Nazis during World War II.
In the early 1940s, Morocco was still a French protectorate controlled by the pro-Vichy government. When, in 1941, the occupying forces attempted to enact legislation discriminating against Jews, the king only 32 years old at the time refused. Thanks to the strong decision of the sovereign, the Moroccan Jewish community was neither detained nor deported or murdered in concentration camps, said Serge Berdugo, secretary general of the Jewish communities of Morocco and ambassador-at-large. “All Moroccans, Jews or Muslims, enjoyed his full protection”, he remarked. This award, Berdugo continued, represents the American Jewish community’s ”recognition of the deep convictions, the moral approach and brave policy,” of the late Moroccan ruler, who died in 1961.
Princess Lalla Hasna, Mohammed V’s granddaughter and sister to Morocco’s King Mohammed VI (and wearing a caftan of Jewish embroidery), accepted the award. KIVUNIM alumni also presented the princess with a khata scarf of the Buddhist tradition, given to the organization by the Dalai Lama.
Andre Azoulay, a Jewish advisor to the king, read out an official speech on his behalf. “Speaking to you as 2015 draws to a close, I am sure you realize that my understanding of the honor bestowed on the Kingdom of Morocco tonight is more than a mere reminder of an exemplary page of history written more than 70 years ago,” he said. “Today, we need, more than ever, to ponder the lessons and relevance of this part of history in order to stand up more forcefully to the deadly aberrations of those who are hijacking our cultures, our faiths and our civilizations. We are living at a time and in a world in which the collective imagination of our societies is too often impaired, not to say poisoned, by regression and archaism. By capitalizing on the depth and resilience of the legacy left by my revered grandfather His Majesty Mohammed V, we can, together, set out to recover the lost expanses of reason and mutual respect which have vanished from many parts of the world.”
Rabbi Gad Bouskila of Brooklyn’s Netivot Israel Congregation opened the festivities with a traditional Moroccan prayer for the king. B’nai Jeshurun’s Rabbi Jose Rolando Matalon then joined Imam Id Youssef Hassan of Farouk Mosque in reciting a blessing of peace. A joint concert of Jewish and Arabic music by David Broza and Mira Awad wrapped up the celebration.