Casablanca is a great movie, and it has long been my favorite. I saw it first well before I ever dreamed that I would end up in Morocco, which is perhaps just as well, since this movie’s relationship to the city in which it supposedly takes place is tangential at best. It is basically an American movie about European problems, particularly noteworthy for the complete absence of Moroccan characters.
Marking the 75th anniversary of the movie, however, today’s Los Angeles Times also makes a more sobering observation. “Civilized” Europe was engulfed in the second cataclysmic war of the century, creating mass death and destruction unimaginable were it not for the catastrophe of the First World War little more than twenty years earlier. Germany was shipping six million Jews — and millions of others — to be gassed and burned in the Eastern death camps, with the complicity of most of conquered Europe.
One bright ray in the vast darkness was the refusal of the Moroccan Sultan, later King Mohammed V, to allow the Nazis and their puppets, the Vichy French, to ship Morocco’s Jews out of the country to be exterminated. The Times quotes his famous dictum:
“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.”
This is not to say that Morocco’s relationship with the Jews is uncomplicated. Most of them departed in the 50’s, to the regret of at least some portion of the people they left behind. Even today, many return from Israel to visit and observe holy days, despite the tensions resulting from the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To say that Europe had much to be ashamed of would be to grossly understate the case, but in this dark moment in history, Morocco had reason to be proud.