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Jewish studies in the Arab world

Aaron Weinberg ’14 attended a Holocaust conference in Morocco

By Celine Hacobian
On October 4, 2011

While Holocaust studies occur regularly in classrooms and places where the tragedy is recognized and accepted as part of history, Morocco is not the first place one would imagine a group of Jewish-American students gathering to discuss the topic. For the first time in the history of the Arab world, college students and experts from all corners of the United States flew to the mountainous west coast of Africa, bringing Holocaust awareness to a new region of the world.

From Sept. 20 to 22, Aaron Weinberg '14 attended the first Holocaust conference in the Arab world, which was held in Morocco. The conference, which took place at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane and the Museum of Moroccan Judaism in Casablanca, joined together those who have studied and experienced the Holocaust, as well as students from both Morocco and the United States.

The goal of the conference was to discuss Jewish education in Morocco. It was co-sponsored by Al Akhawayn University and Kivunim, a gap-year program that provides students with opportunities to study in and travel to Jewish communities around the world.

Weinberg, who participated in Kivunim during his gap-year before college, learned about the conference through an email from Peter Geffen, founding director of the program.

Weinberg was chosen for the conference through an application process, which required applicants to submit a two-page essay explaining why they wanted to attend the conference.

As a student with double majors in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Sociology, Weinberg became interested in Moroccan Jewish History through the NEJS department and is taking a course this semester called "Jews in the World of Islam."

And so, he chose to attend the conference because he would be able to travel to an Arab Muslim country and act as a student delegate on the topic of the Holocaust.

The first day of the conference took place at Al Akhawayn University, an English-speaking university where Weinberg was impressed by "all these kids ... coming together and not speaking French or Arabic," but English.

The conference began with a welcome from the university's president, Dr. Driss Ouaouicha, followed by a welcome by Geffen.

While the number of Moroccan Jews at Al Akhawayn University is relatively few, a small group of students chose to join their American peers at the conference held at their school.

"There's a group of about 15 students [that] have come together and created a club dedicated to Jewish heritage [at Al Akhawayn University]. ... They dedicate time to bringing Jewish culture to campus in a place where there are no Jews on campus," Weinberg said.

The conference consisted of lecturers and their accounts and opinions on various subjects concerning the Holocaust and the fact that the conference was taking place in an Arab country.

Speakers included André Azoulay, senior advisor to the king of Morocco, and a Jewish professor, Michael Berenbaum from the American Jewish University in Los Angeles who spoke and "gave a ... very poignant, insightful and articulate account of the horrific tragedy that was the Holocaust in Europe without sparing any details" and Elisabeth Citron, "an 80-year old survivor [of the concentration camps] who was 12 [during] the Holocaust."

Weinberg found that hearing the juxtaposition of the different types of narratives was particularly interesting.

"It was really quite meaningful because while they are ... not common narratives and they are not the same narrative, putting them side-by-side, I think, really demonstrates the power of the story. It's sort of a mirroring," he said of the lectures.

On the second day of the conference, the students traveled to the Moroccan Jewish Heritage Museum in Casablanca, where they heard a lecture by Brandeis alumnus Forsan Hussein '00, CEO of the Jerusalem International YMCA. Hussein spoke of the lack of and subsequent need for Holocaust education in the Arab world.

In addition to the notable speakers, Weinberg and other students attending the conference had time to meet and discuss the Holocaust and Jewish education in Morocco with one other.

"These people were some of the most brilliant, most humble leaders, peace builders and human beings that I'd ever met," he said of those he met during his time in Morocco.

Weinberg took part in a discussion with other students from across the U.S. about the lack of a Holocaust curriculum in Moroccan schools, one of the main topics the conference was held to address.

The students spoke about whether the Holocaust should be taught in public schools and what the curriculum would consist of, as well as whether the story of the Moroccan Jews should be taught in America, and if so, in what way.

"By asking these questions about Morocco, we're sort of fooling ourselves," Weinberg pointed out.

"[The Holocaust] is being taught in the Arab world whether we like it or not, whether it's a part of our curriculum or not," Weinberg said.

"So the question that we have to ask ourselves is, ‘Do we want to engage ourselves with it or not?" Weinberg said.

Though the conference lasted only a few days and participants have returned to the U.S., Weinberg walked away feeling that the discussions that began in Morocco are ones that need to be continued.

"It's also about us, here in America ... and Jews around the world," Weinberg said of increasing Holocaust education among different groups of people.

"In the face of extremism, in the face of pure evil, there is good. … There are many forces in our communities that are trying to build bridges between people," Weinberg said.


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