During World War II, the principal focus of the World Jewish Congress understandably was on the annihilation of European Jewry, and, where feasible, rescue efforts however minimal in nature. The immediate post- war years saw the focus shift to providing political and other assistance to Holocaust survivors in the displaced persons (DP) camps of Germany, Austria, and Italy; the creation of the United Nations as successor to the League of Nations; and intensive efforts to establish a Jewish state in what was then Palestine. Very shortly thereafter, the future of North African Jewry received a prominent place on the WJC’s agenda.
Gerhart M. Riegner, then head of the WJC’s Geneva office and later the organization’s secretary-general, recalled that
[a]fter the loss of six million Jews, we began to rediscover some of the surviving communities, especially those throughout the Maghreb; these constituted a population of more than a half-million persons. This rediscovery led the WJC to undertake a series of political actions designed to protect the large Jewish communities in Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. In the face of the profound political transformation that was under way, but which all parties were far from anticipating, the WJC was resolved to follow political developments closely and assist those communities to meet the difficulties they would face. With this objective in mind, in 1949 we created the WJC North African bureau in Algiers under the competent direction of Jacques Lazarus.
Although the best known efforts of the WJC in North Africa occurred after the establishment of the State of Israel, the organization in fact had a connection to the region since its inception. Delegates from Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia took part in the WJC’s founding plenary assembly in Geneva in August of 1936. During the war, the WJC intervened several times on behalf of the North African Jewish communities. In August 1943, for example, after British troops had liberated parts of Italian-occupied Libya, the WJC held talks with the British military officials to rescind the racial laws that had been imposed by the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
The WJC also worked to reinstate the Crémieux Decree of 1870, which had granted French citizenship to Jews in Algeria, and which had been abolished in 1940 by the collaborationist Vichy Government. Following the November 1942 Allied landing in Algeria, General Henri Giraud, the high commissioner of North Africa, confirmed the abrogation of the Crémieux Decree, arguing in a speech of March 14, 1943, that it was discriminatory in that it differentiated between Jews and Moslems in Algeria. Outraged, the WJC joined a delegation of the French Jewish Representative Committee in presenting a memorandum on the issue to US Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles on May 20, 1943, in which the abrogation of the Crémieux Decree was denounced as “the most unjust racial discrimination ever inflicted upon the French citizens of Jewish faith who are natives of Algeria,” and “a violation of the sacred rights of the human personality, and the legal principles respected by all civilized nations, as well as the organic Laws of the French Republic.”
In September 1943, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the chairman of the WJC Executive Committee, received a personal letter from General Charles de Gaulle, assuring Wise that “in the war for human rights . . . we shall continue . . . to make it possible for all men to participate in the benefits of that victory.” De Gaulle and the WJC had had a positive relationship ever since Rabbi Maurice Perlzweig, the chairman of the British Section of the WJC, had recognized the general as the leader of the Free French in 1940. It is unclear whether de Gaulle in fact interceded with Giraud, but on October 21, 1943, the WJC’s British Section was advised by the Free French that the Crémieux Decree had been reinstated, restoring to the Jews of North Africa “their status as French citizens.” Two days later, the French Jewish Representative Committee adopted a resolution stating that “the guidance, authority, solidarity, and devotion of the WJC Executive Committee were instrumental in the success achieved.”
In November 1944, delegates from Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco took part in the WJC War Emergency Conference held in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Over the next twenty years, the WJC would expend much effort on behalf of Jews in the three countries. WJC President Nahum Goldmann wrote:
[O]ur most important—and less known—activities were undoubtedly our contacts with the liberation and independence movements of the new North African states, especially with Algeria and Morocco. In the days of French dominion there were more than a hundred thousand Jews in Algeria and more than two hundred thousand in Morocco, most of them very Gallicized. The WJC had the foresight to realize in time that the process toward independence was irresistible. That being so, it was not hard to imagine some sort of retaliation against the Jews, with persecution perhaps going so far as pogroms. We therefore had to get in touch with the leaders of the independence movements, which required all the more discretion and secrecy because official French Jewry would have made violent protests. We took the precaution of confidentially informing the French government about the step we had taken, and I must say that we found them very sympathetic.
In June of 1952, the WJC convened its first North African Jewish Congress. This was at a time when decolonization was an ever increasingly popular political ideology and the nationalist movements in Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria were on the rise. The principal question the WJC wanted to highlight was how the overall political situation there would affect the Jewish communities. “Our task,” wrote Riegner, “was . . . to make the Jewish communities, beginning with their leaders, familiar with the idea of not considering the status quo as fixed and immutable.” The WJC’s policy was clear. In Riegner’s words, “either the Jewish populations should leave, or they should negotiate with the revolutionary movements in sufficient time that they could reach an understanding in order to preclude attacks.”
In 1954, Goldmann met with French Prime Minister Pierre Mendès- France, who assured the WJC president that his government would take the situation and rights of Jews, as well as other minorities into account in its negotiations regarding the future of North Africa. On the other hand, as Goldmann acknowledged, he personally “had very little to do” with the WJC’s contacts with the North African nationalist leaders. These were undertaken by Alexander Easterman, the WJC’s director of international affairs in London, and Joseph (Joe) Golan, described by Goldmann as “an Israeli WJC official” and in effect a key advisor to Goldmann on North African issues.
For purposes of this chapter, it is clearer to describe the WJC’s activities on a country-by-country rather than a chronological basis.
Initially, the French authorities in Morocco were opposed to allowing Jews— especially young Jewish men of military age— from traveling to Israel. Postwar aliyah (immigration to Israel) from Morocco, therefore, mostly took place within an illegal smuggling framework. Even those lucky enough to obtain legitimate documents often had to acquire them through illegitimate means, such as bribing medical professionals to lie to French authorities. In contrast, aliyah from Spanish Morocco was “often tolerated by the authorities,” according to a 1951 report by Dr. I. Schwarzbart, head of the WJC’s Organizational Department in New York. The first destination for those engaged in illegal aliyah was Algeria, where they would then depart for France and then to Israel, since the French authorities in Algeria generally allowed Jews to leave.
The situation in Morocco began to change in December 1948, when, according to historian Michael M. Laskier, “the French were beginning to sense a decline in Muslim opposition to aliya,” likely due to the evident victory of Israeli forces in the war there; with the Jewish state being an established fact, opposition to emigration (i.e., the Jews leaving) among the local Muslim population fell. At the same time, the French authorities were forced to acknowledge that they could not put a stop to the illegal aliyah. They were ready, and perhaps even eager for some sort of compromise. That same month, Marc Jarblum, a member of the WJC Executive based in Paris, travelled to Morocco “to discuss with French authorities the prohibition on Jews leaving Morocco, and to investigate the situation of Moroccan Jewry.” While in Morocco, Jarblum met with Alphonse Juin, French Resident-General in Morocco. Although Juin remained generally opposed to Jewish emigration, citing the usual reason of local opposition to Jews leaving the country to fight Muslims in Palestine, he conceded that the authorities might eventually have to allow a legal pathway for the many Jews seeking to leave. Juin’s comments indicated that the Residency was open to compromise, but this meeting with Jarblum did not produce it. However, it was becoming clear that the prohibition was unviable; even Francis Lacoste, a Residency official with whom Jarblum had met during his trip, and who had been implacably opposed to aliyah only a year or so earlier, was now open to allowing some emigration. In a letter to French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman, dated June 1949, Lacoste said: “It would not be just to prevent young and healthy Moroccan Jews from emigrating and to confine them to profound social and economic misery.
. . . The only future they would have for improving their lot would be in Israel, which we are going to recognize as having the right to become a member of the family of nations.” In mid-1949, the French authorities began to regularly issue exit visas to Moroccan Jews (albeit, with quotas and restrictions) and allowed for the creation of Cadima, a group founded by Jacques Gershuni that would assist Jews in making aliyah. In 1949, the WJC established a section in Morocco, with its central committee based in Casablanca. This section answered to Jacques Lazarus, who ran the WJC’s North Africa office in Algiers.
While the WJC was supportive of aliyah, it was unwilling to allow the situation for Jews remaining in Morocco to deteriorate. Indeed, given the young State of Israel’s difficulty in absorbing the deluge of refugees from Europe and the Arab world, creating a safe environment for Jews in the Diaspora remained a high priority for the organization. Despite some episodes of violence (including riots) between 1949 and 1953—in 1953 the WJC’s Moroccan Section, in Laskier’s words, “thought it prudent to encourage aliya by quality rather than in quantity” —Jews lived relatively peacefully in Morocco.
Independence was already on the minds of Moroccans, as it was in many of the countries still governed by European powers in the post- war period. Recognizing that French rule would not last, Easterman and Golan established contacts with Moroccan nationalists, including with the progressive wing of the Istiqlal party led by Mehdi Ben Barka, who, according to Laskier, held the WJC in high regard. Indeed, in a 1952 meeting, Goldmann successfully convinced several Moroccan Zionist activists to support the independence movement in Morocco. As independence approached, and violence against Jews increased, the WJC continued to tread carefully on the issue of aliyah. It now recognized that while a number of Jews might prefer to stay in Morocco, options were needed for those who wished to emigrate. In 1955, following the advice of Easterman, who had a more pessimistic outlook than Goldmann, the WJC in Morocco, in tandem with the local Zionist organization, “called for an aliya of at least 5,000 persons per month”— more than double what the Jewish Agency had allotted for the country. Despite the efforts of Goldmann and Meir Toledano, a Moroccan Jewish leader affiliated with the WJC, to bolster Jewish support for independence, Moroccan Jews remained skeptical and did not hide their pro-French sympathies.
The ascendant pro-aliyah camp did meet some internal resistance, particularly from Toledano, who continued to publicly express support for Jewish assimilation in Morocco and sought to influence French policy in the direction of granting independence. The WJC tried to balance support for aliyah on the one hand, and securing the rights of Jews in Morocco on the other. Jacques Lazarus, the director of the WJC’s North African office based in Algiers, spoke out in favor of aliyah but stressed at the same time that aliyah was not the preference of Moroccan Jews of wealth, even modest wealth, and status.
Easterman, arguably the strongest supporter of aliyah within the WJC, was a moderate in comparison to some, including a few Jewish Agency officials, who insisted that Moroccan Jews were facing an immediate existential crisis. Easterman believed that the interests of aliyah were best served by a slow approach that showed deference to post-independence Moroccan leaders. At the same time, the WJC made efforts to cooperate with the emerging political leadership in Morocco. This reasoning was influenced by meetings the WJC leadership had with Moroccan nationalists between 1954 and 1955, prior to independence. These meetings in turn had been facilitated by the personal relationships that Golan had developed with these Moroccan leaders.
One of the relationships cultivated by the WJC was with Mbarek Bekkay, who would become Morocco’s first prime minister following independence. In February 1955, he met with Easterman, Riegner, and Perlzweig, then the WJC’s director of International Affairs in New York, and Armand Kaplan, the secretary-general of the WJC’s French Section. In addition to Bekkay, the leaders of the Istiqlal party and the Democratic Independence Party (PDI) also attended. It was here that the Moroccan nationalists pledged not to harm Jews and even went as far as committing to naming a Jewish cabinet member in the new government. Riegner later held a follow-up meeting with the PDI’s leader, Mohammed Hassan Ouazzani, in Geneva.
Lazarus was more skeptical of the nationalist leaders, whom he feared would buckle under Arab League pressure after independence, and emphasized that the French still had a role to play when it came to the protection of Jews. In October 1955, Easterman, Lazarus, Golan, and Riegner visited Morocco again and attempted to persuade local Jewish officials to adopt a more positive attitude toward the independence movement. However, unlike Goldmann’s meeting with the Moroccan Zionists in 1952, this effort did not prove successful. But the situation for Jews did not dramatically change for the worse as a result. In fact, Sultan Muhammad V—who had helped save Jews during Vichy rule— told the WJC delegation that, “I have always seen my Jewish subjects as completely free citizens, and as Moroccans who are completely equal to my Muslim subjects.”
Lazarus’s caution proved prescient. Mindful of its relations with the Arab world, particularly Egypt, the new Moroccan government was opposed to aliyah on the grounds, among others, that emigrants would join the Israeli armed forces, and that mass emigration could be damaging to the young state. In May 1956, several Cadima (the aliyah-oriented group) leaders were told by government officials to slow down the aliyah process. As the hostility toward emigration increased, thousands of Jews found themselves stranded in Cadima’s transit camp. At this point, the relationships that the WJC had developed over the years proved to be productive. In 1956, Israel’s Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, enlisted Goldmann and the WJC to try to negotiate with the king and government officials on resolving the crisis.
In May 1956, Easterman began a five-month-long trip to Morocco, and met with Leon Benzaquen, the Jewish minister in charge of the postal service. Easterman expressed his disappointment that the nationalists had misled him on their willingness to permit aliyah. When Benzaquen presented the economic and political concerns of the government, Easterman replied that middle class Moroccan Jews were not the ones considering emigration, at least not at this point, and restricting their rights to emigrate would damage Morocco internationally. A split in the Moroccan government led to the next hurdle. While most of its members opposed aliyah, Prime Minister Bekkay was inclined to allow those in the transit camp to leave for Israel. When Easterman was unable to obtain a meeting with Bekkay, Golan was brought into the process. Golan met with Mohammed Laghzaoui, one of Morocco’s top security officials, whom he had helped obtain connections at the United Nations during the independence struggle. Laghzaoui strongly opposed Jewish emigration and considered Cadima’s activities as nothing less than subversive, although he readily acknowledged this was a reversal of previous commitments.
Easterman, perhaps fearing talks would permanently break down, contacted the Moroccan Interior Minister in hopes he could break the log- jam. After listening to Laghzaoui’s long list of allegations against Cadima, the Interior Minister put forward the following compromise: for three months, Cadima would be allowed to function and process visas pursuant to the previous rules, after which Cadima would close and large-scale aliyah would end. Golan and Laghzaoui then continued to meet to work out the details, and reached several understandings. First, camp residents with legal visas would be allowed to leave for Israel “in an orderly fashion.” Second, those emigrating would have to leave at night so as not to draw attention to themselves. Finally, the camp’s closure would also mean the end of the recognition of so-called French “collective exit visas.” The next day, the government reneged and asked that the Cadima camp be shut down and the exit visas cancelled. Goldmann responded forcefully to the government’s reversal. “The Jewish people,” he said, “will never renounce its right to emigrate to Israel or elsewhere and will insist in Morocco as in other countries, on full respect for this fundamental human right.”
Easterman and Golan once again were tasked with trying to resolve the crisis. It turned out that Laghzaoui was the main obstacle. In the end, the Moroccan cabinet voted to approve a plan allowing “the evacuation in small groups of two hundred to three hundred people at a time.” Laghzaoui then added one final condition: the repayment of debts of the emigrants had to be guaranteed. The WJC agreed to cover such debts and the plan proceeded. WJC involvement in Morocco continued over the next few years at a modest pace. As Riegner would later recall:
On balance, our Moroccan policy was quite satisfactory. The evidence of mass emigration without profound upheaval, without any apparent friction . . . and without victims constituted an unquestionable success. The understanding, even friendly, attitude and flexibility of the sultan and Moroccan authorities toward the Jews, often displayed with regard to Israel, were important milestones in our political activity. The small remaining Moroccan Jewish community has for many years taken part in the deliberations of the WJC.
The WJC, along with several other organizations, had been assisting the Jewish community in Tunisia since the end of World War II. According to Riegner, the WJC had extremely positive relations with Tunisia in large part as a result of a meeting Easterman had in August 1954 with the Tunisian nationalist leader and future head of state Habib Bourguiba in the Ferté-Montargis fortress, where Bourguiba was interned. In the course of this meeting, Bourguiba reportedly assured Easterman that Tunisian Jews would enjoy “equality of all civic and political rights including the right to emigrate to Israel” in a future independent Tunisian state.
At the same time, many Tunisian Jews were concerned by the rise of the nationalists and the corresponding likelihood that French sovereignty was likely to come to an end. This subject was debated by the delegates to the first North African WJC conference in Algiers, June 7–10, 1952. According to Laskier, Maître Charles Haddad, the president of the Jewish community of Tunis, said that while he considered the French presence to be essential, he, together with most Tunisian Jews, were reluctant to publicize this view. In contrast, Mathieo Ganem, another Tunisian delegate at the conference, considered Jewish emigration from Tunisia, encouraged by the WJC, to be inevitable.
On the other hand, the WJC looked at the appointment of Tunisian Jewish lawyer Albert Bessis, whom Riegner knew well, to Tunisia’s negotiating team with France as an opportunity to protect the rights of Tunisian Jews. Riegner provided Bessis with numerous documents on the protection of human rights. The WJC also submitted to the French minister for Tunisian and Moroccan affairs a memorandum containing suggestions for insertions into the Franco-Tunisian convention that would be advantageous to the Tunisian Jewish community. The result was a success, with the drafters of the convention adopting the WJC’s recommendation, including a clause that guaranteed all residents of Tunisia “the rights and guarantees of the individual as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
In July 1958 after a four-day visit to Tunisia, Perlzweig told The New York Times that the Jews of that country, numbering between 60,000 and 70,000, were “in no way being discriminated against and the Government is sincere in its efforts to give the Jews an even break.” In the same vein, Riegner observed that, “All the promises of President Bourguiba and the texts of the convention were scrupulously respected. The friendly relations between President Bourguiba and the World Jewish Congress continued for years in mutual confidence and amity.”
Algeria of the 1950s was perhaps the toughest case for the WJC. As was the case in Morocco and Tunisia, the local Jewish communities had a long- standing relationship with France and favored continued French rule. In Algeria, however, the stark differences between the Jewish community and the majority Arab population were amplified. According to Riegner, “The Arabs did not hide their resentment in the face of a situation they judged to be unjust and a status they envied.” Once again, the WJC wanted to prepare for the triumph of nationalist forces over European powers. However, this time the prospects for success in convincing nationalist forces—mainly the National Liberation Front (FLN)—to be inclusive of Jews post-independence were less than certain. Although the FLN often did explicitly instruct Algerians not to target Jews, this did not always translate into policy on the ground, with Jews in the city of Constantine being driven out by violence.48 Therefore, emigration was an option likely to be seriously considered by Jews in Algeria in the event of French rule ending. When it came to aliyah to Israel, the WJC and others trying to warn Jews of coming events in Algeria were also sensitive to the concerns of a French government still committed to Algeria.
In July 1958, the Algerian Jewish Symposium was held at the WJC offices in Algiers. It was a critical moment for Algeria. Although the Franco- Algerian War was already underway, the organizers dedicated several sessions to youth and cultural issues as well as topics such as community activities, Zionism, and social order. The main issue facing the Algerian Jewish community was the lack of positive social change at a time when the war had deprived many young people of hope, particularly in the remote areas of the country.
Lazarus, the director of the WJC office in Algiers, was tasked with organizing the symposium in recognition of the important role that the WJC played in Algeria. The gathering was the first and the last of its kind; four years later, the doors of the WJC Algiers office were shuttered. By the time of the 1958 meeting it was evident that there was a growing schism between the Jewish community and the wider Algerian society, and it was increasingly clear that a Jewish community that had once been an integral part of Arab society would soon be all but extinct. The Jewish community was perceived as strange and foreign. A year earlier, Lazarus had written to Nehemiah Robinson, the director of the WJC’s Institute of Jewish Affairs, that, “in addition to ethnic and religious [prejudices] can be added a nationalist prejudice based in race, meaning that increasingly Arabs buy from Arabs and go to Arab doctors and lawyers, even if, in certain cases, the services offered by Jews proves [sic] more advantageous.”
However, the closure of the Algiers office certainly did not mean the WJC had abandoned the Algerian Jewish community. In 1961, Golan met with the FLN’s Karim Belkacem in Tunisia, who told Golan in no uncertain terms that he could not protect the rights and safety of Algeria’s Jews, and even suggested they leave the country. Golan did not disagree, believing emigration to be inevitable. However, he also believed that Algerian Jewry should be warned about the dangers of remaining in Algeria. Golan’s meeting with Belkacem put him on a collision course with Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir who was furious with Golan for meeting with the enemy of a close ally in an Arab country. Afraid of angering France, Meir insisted that Golan refrain from communicating Belkacem’s advice to the Jews in Algeria. Meir believed that French protection would ultimately be sufficient for Jews in the country. Golan disagreed strongly and defied Meir’s request and soon found that he could not renew his Israeli passport. Golan, however, was not contrite. Writing in his journal, he observed: “Had I obeyed Golda’s instructions, hundreds of Algerian Jews, maybe even thousands, would have been murdered.”
That same year, Goldmann, Easterman, and Kaplan also met with FLN officials and tried to enlist the help of Tunisia’s Habib Bourguiba, Jr. Although it is unclear whether these meetings resulted in significant changes, the meetings are further evidence of the WJC’s independent policy. It sought a different path than the Government of Israel and was in direct communications with the Algerian nationalist movement. While the WJC’s limited contact with the FLN did not result in preserving the Jewish community in Algeria, its relationship with the nationalists did allow it to see the situation more clearly and determine early on that the Jewish community would not remain safe following a French departure. As Goldmann concluded:
The WJC was the one organization that took a grip on the problem, because all the rest were openly pro-French. Not that we ourselves were anti-French, but we were certain that the independence movements would win the battle in the long run. Our approaches probably saved tens of thousands of Jews: there were no pogroms, and in fact I believe that not a single Jew was killed after independence.
The WJC’s activities in North Africa were not the only WJC initiatives with respect to the persecution and oppression suffered by Jews in Arab countries. WJC leaders regularly met with political leaders in Arab countries in an effort to safeguard the interests of the surviving Jewish communities there. The WJC also took on the task of reminding the international community of its responsibilities toward these communities, highlighting at the United Nations and elsewhere the discrimination and worse to which they were being subjected, As early as January 19, 1948 — four months before the establishment of the State of Israel— the WJC submitted a memorandum to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) calling for “immediate and urgent” consideration of the discrimination and persecution to which Jews and Jewish communities were being subjected in Arab and Muslim countries. In February 1950, to cite just one other example, Dr. Robert S. Marcus, the WJC’s political director, advised ECOSOC that there had been “further deterioration in the position of Iraqi Jewry” since ECOSOC had adopted a resolution calling for the protection of minorities the previous year. And in 1951, the WJC’s Institute of Jewish Affairs provided a comprehensive overview of the conditions of Jews in the Middle East with the publication of an authoritative study, The Arab Countries of the Near East and Their Jewish Communities by Nehemiah Robinson.
The WJC never stopped campaigning to ensure the rights of Jews who had fled or been expelled from Arab countries. In September 2012, at an event held at UN headquarters in New York co-sponsored by the WJC, the Israeli Mission to the UN, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, WJC President Ronald S. Lauder declared:
Now is the time to set the historical, diplomatic, and legal record straight. Lasting peace can only be built on historical facts— both the issues of the Jewish refugees and the Palestinian refugees must be addressed. Only addressing the historical facts can help bring about peace.
The suffering endured by the Jewish communities and by individual Jews in Arab and Muslim countries lies at the heart of the WJC’s mission. In this context, the critical political assistance provided by the WJC to the Jews of North Africa constitutes a page of honor in the organization’s history. As Riegner wrote, “The WJC was the only Jewish organization that foresaw the unfolding of potentially destructive political events in this region. We had no choice but to draw the appropriate dire conclusions.”