Factor 4: Moroccan Jews under Vichy France

A party held by the Jewish Cerfaty family after the American invasion of Normandy during WWII, Tetouan, 1944. The British Consul (fourth from the left), the American Consul (fifth from the left) and the Belgian Consul (sixth from the left).
From Beth Hatfutsot Photo Archive, Tel Aviv. Courtesy of Avraham Zarfati, Netania.

The fourth factor contributing to massive emigration was the repressive atmosphere experienced by Moroccan Jews under Vichy France from 1940-1942, which convinced them that the Sultan could not protect them, even if he wanted to.

The Nazi victory over France in June 1940 put France’s overseas colonies and protectorates under the control of the Vichy Nazi-collaborationist regime in southern France. Sultan Mohammed V, who already was forced to approve the French colonial policies, now also came under pressure from the Germans via the Vichy regime. Like previous Sultans, he tried to protect his Jewish subjects, but under the Vichy regime, he had little room to maneuver.

In October 1940 and August 1941, the Vichy Government of France under Chief of State Philippe Pétain enacted laws that discriminated against Moroccan Jews. It set quotas on the number of Jewish doctors and lawyers, ejected students from French schools and forced many Jews living in the European quarters to move to the mellahs. Mohammed V negotiated with the French Resident General to limit the impact of the laws, but had no choice but to put his seal on them. (See Robert Assaraf, Mohammed V et les Juifs du Maroc a l’époque de Vichy, Plon, 1997)

Nevertheless, he met privately and publicly with Jewish leaders to demonstrate his opposition to the anti-Semitic laws. The Sultan told Jewish leaders that in his opinion Vichy laws singling out the Jews were inconsistent with Moroccan law. He believed that Jews should be treated equally with Muslims. He emphasized that the property and lives of the Jews remained under his protection. Due to his strong stance and the pragmatism of the Resident General, Vichy administrators did not implement the discriminatory laws and regulations energetically.

While the Vichy Government did not imprison Moroccan Jews, it did send European refugees and political prisoners, many of them Jewish, to work camps along the border with Algeria. Some of them helped to construct an abortive trans-Saharan railway.

On November 8, 1942, American soldiers landed on the Moroccan beaches and took control of Morocco from the Vichy French. The Americans delayed removing the anti-Semitic Vichy laws until March 15, 1943, however, following pressure from American Jewish organizations.

As a result of this experience, the Jews lost some of their hope of being treated equally with Muslims. While Jews were convinced that Mohammed V tried to defend their rights, they recognized that in the end, he was unable to defend them from anti-Semitic policies. Nevertheless, after learning of the Holocaust, the Jewish community nurtured a myth that Mohammed V had saved them from the Nazis. Today, you will find his photo in many homes of Moroccan Jews living in Israel.