The Vichy France regime, which collaborated with the Nazis, was complicit in the persecution and murder of France’s Jews. And the Vichy government retained its authority over north African colonies such as Morocco. That put Morocco’s 250,000 Jews in a terrifying position. Only one man stood between them and their Vichy persecutors: Morocco’s leader, Sultan Mohammed V.
The Vichy government was set up in France with the approval of Hitler, after his army had conquered the country in 1940. France was divided into an occupied zone and a Vichy zone, with the puppet Vichy government nominally responsible for the whole country.
Vichy officials were all too ready to cooperate with their Nazi overlords. And that included colluding with Nazis to persecute the Jews. Anti-Jewish laws were introduced in 1940 by the Vichy government, led by Marshal Pétain. And, whether they were in the German-occupied north of France or the “free” south, Jews faced the same discrimination and persecution.
In fact, some 150,000 Jews had fled to the southern Vichy area hoping to escape the worst of Nazi persecution. But they were to be sadly disabused of this hope. Indeed, life in Vichy France was no better for Jews than life in the Nazi-occupied north. Jewish businesses were ruined and around 40,000 Jews were consigned to concentration camps, where the conditions were appalling.
And, worst of all, Vichy officials co-operated with the Nazis in their horrific plans to exterminate Europe’s Jews. In 1939 France had a Jewish population of 330,000, with around half of those being recent arrivals who had come to escape Nazi persecution elsewhere in Europe.
But France didn’t turn out to be a safe haven for the Jews. What actually happened was that Vichy officialdom colluded with the Nazis in the Holocaust. Almost 76,000 Jews, some refugees and some French citizens, were arrested in France and deported to Nazi concentration camps where they met their deaths. So, Jews in Morocco, ruled by Vichy France, also had plenty to fear.
Morocco had been an independent country for more than 1,000 years when the French and Spanish colonizers divided the nation between themselves in 1912. And that meant that when France fell to the Germans in 1940 and set up the puppet Vichy government, Morocco was effectively under the sway of the Nazis.
At this point in time, the Moroccan leader was Sultan Mohamed V. Although as sultan of a colonized country, his actual power was severely limited. Nevertheless, he was the figurehead for his people. Indeed, he stood between them and the Nazi-backed Vichy French.
Sidi Mohammed ben Yusef was born in August 1909, the son of Sultan Yusef ben Hassan. The Sultan Yusef had been given the Moroccan throne in 1912 when the French had annexed their part of Morocco. His wife, and Sultan Mohammed’s mother, was a Turkish woman, Lalla Yaqut.
In 1927, at the age of just 18, Mohammed succeeded to the Moroccan sultanate upon the death of his father. Mohammed was, in fact, specifically chosen for the role by the French, in the belief that he’d be easier to dominate than either of his two older siblings. In fact, he proved to be a thorn in the side of the French colonialists, supporting Moroccan nationalists.
In 1940 Mohammed found himself subject to the new French Vichy regime, who were little more than a puppet of the Nazis. And the Nazis expected all of their new lands to follow their lead of persecuting the Jews, although, at that point, mass murder had not yet started.
Now 30 years old, the Sultan was expected to introduce and administer anti-Semitic laws in Morocco. Yet Jews had lived in Morocco for millennia and had played key roles in the country’s venerable history. Indeed, they had filled important ministerial and diplomatic positions on the royal staff.
Mohammed had firmly-held views about the equality of Moroccan citizens. A Muslim himself, he believed that the “people of the book” were all entitled to equal treatment. By the people of the book, he meant Muslims, Christians and Jews, those from the three major Abrahamic religions.
The Sultan felt duty bound to protect the Jews from persecution, just as he would any other Moroccan. In 2017 the Los Angeles Times quoted a famous saying of the Sultan’s. “There are no Jews in Morocco. There are only Moroccan subjects,” were his uncompromising words.
Mohammed was prepared to take a stand on behalf of his 250,000 Jewish subjects by blocking the imposition of discriminatory laws. However, he could not always resist Vichy officialdom. Indeed, he was forced to allow two pieces of legislation on to the statute books. One of those required the Jews to reside in ghettos, while the other barred them from certain professions. Although forced to sign the laws, the Sultan refused to properly enforce them.
In fact, the Sultan was quite explicit in his refusal to persecute the Jews. Speaking to French officials, he’s reported to have said, “I absolutely do not approve of the new anti-Semitic laws and I refuse to associate myself with a measure I disagree with. 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.”
Despite being the subject of Vichy colonial rule, Mohammed ensured that not a single Jew was deported from Morocco, in stark contrast to the situation in mainland France. No Jews found their way into murderous Nazi clutches and Jews in Morocco never wore the demeaning yellow star as they were made to in Europe.
Vichy rule of Morocco came to an end in 1942 with the allied invasion of the country. Operation Torch was a wider mission to attack all of Nazi-controlled North Africa. Led by General George S. Patton, U.S. troops landed on the Moroccan coast. After the defeat of the French forces, the Sultan was more than happy to throw in his lot with the Allies.
There are historians who have questioned how active the Sultan’s opposition to the Vichy French really was. But the fact is that after two years of Nazi-backed Vichy rule, Morocco’s Jewish community was intact. Furthermore, Sultan Mohammed was posthumously recognized for his protection of Morocco’s Jews by the Institute for World Jewish Studies in 2015.
Morocco continued as a French colony after WWII. Mohammed campaigned for independence and was sent into exile for his pains in 1953. Two years later he was allowed to return to Morocco, and in 1957 the country regained its independence as a constitutional monarchy with Mohammed V as king. But, just four years after, he died. The Chief Rabbi gave a memorial speech on radio, recognizing Mohammed’s crucial role in protecting the Jews of Morocco.