FDR, the Nazis, and the Jews of Morocco: A Troubling Episode

The normalization of relations between Israel and Morocco and the  U.S. recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara have stirred interest in the history of Morocco’s Jews, including during the Holocaust years.

Unfortunately, some pundits, in their enthusiasm over these developments, have misleadingly portrayed the Allied liberation of North Africa in 1942 as the simultaneous liberation of the region’s Jews from their Nazi and Vichyite persecutors. That narrative papers over the harsh reality of what happened after the Allies’ victory. The full story of how President Franklin D. Roosevelt treated the Jews in Morocco and elsewhere in North Africa is a deeply troubling chapter in his administration’s history.

On November 8, 1942, American and British forces launched “Operation Torch,” the invasion of German-occupied Algeria and Morocco. In just eight days, the Allies defeated the Nazis and their Vichy French partners in the region. American Jews expected that the liberation of North Africa would also mean liberation for the 330,000 Jews there.

In 1870, the French colonial authorities in Algeria had issued the Cremieux Decree, which granted equal rights to that country’s Jews after centuries of mistreatment by Arab rulers  (although it did not affect the Jews in neighboring Morocco). When the Vichyites took over North Africa in 1940, they abolished Cremieux and subjected all of the region’s Jews to a range of abuses, including restrictions on admission of Jews to many schools and professions, seizures of Jewish property and occasional pogroms by local Muslims that were tolerated by the government.

In 1941–1942, American Jewish newspapers carried disturbing reports that the Vichyites had built “huge concentration camps” in Morocco and Algeria to house thousands of Jewish slave laborers. The prisoners endured backbreaking work, random beatings by the guards, extreme overcrowding, poor sanitation, near-starvation and little or no medical care. According to one report, 150 Jews scheduled to be taken to the camps were so fearful of the conditions there that they resisted arrest and were executed en masse.

With the Allied victory, North African Jews — and their American coreligionists —expected the prisoners to be released and the Cremieux Decree reinstated for Jews living throughout the region. The American Jewish Congress optimistically predicted that the repeal of the Vichy-era anti-Jewish laws would follow the Allied occupation of North Africa “as the day follows the night.” But President Roosevelt had other plans.


At the beginning of “Operation Torch,” the Allies captured Admiral François Darlan, a senior Vichyite leader. FDR decided to leave Darlan in charge of the Allied-occupied North African territories in exchange for Darlan ordering his forces in Algiers to cease fire.

Many prominent liberals in the United States were appalled by this decision. “[It] sticks in the craw of majorities of the British and French, and of democrats everywhere, [that] we are employing a French Quisling as our deputy in the government of the first territory to be reoccupied,” an editorial in The New Republic protested.

The war was supposed to bring enlightened democracy to areas that had been under the boot of fascism — not keep the old tyrants in power.

Not only was Darlan still in power, but he also retained nearly all of the original senior officials of the local Vichy regime. Darlan did dismiss one Vichyite of note, Yves Chatel, the governor of Algeria — but promptly replaced him with Maurice Peyrouton, the very Vichy official who had signed the anti-Jewish laws of 1940. Together, Darlin and Peyrouton deep-sixed the Cremieux Decree and kept thousands of Jews in the slave labor camps.

Rumblings of concern began to surface in the American press. A December 17 editorial in the New York Timesexpressed doubt that Darlan really intended to bring about “the abrogation of anti-Jewish laws [and] release of prisoners and internees.” The editors of The New Republic asked on December 28, “Who controls French Africa, Darlan or the [Allies]? And if the latter, isn’t it high time we cleaned up the remnants of fascism that obviously still exist there?” An investigative report in the New York City newspaper PM on January 1 asserted that the Darlan regime was actively discriminating against Jews, and “thousands” remained “in concentration camps.”

President Roosevelt publicly claimed that he had already “asked for the abrogation of all laws and decrees inspired by Nazi governments or Nazi ideologists.” But he hadn’t. When reporters questioned him at a January 1, 1943 press conference, FDR replied, “I think most of the political prisoners are — have been released.” But they hadn’t.


The official transcript of FDR’s meeting with Major-General Charles Nogues, a leader of the post-Vichy regime, in Casablanca on January 17, 1943, provides some insight into the president’s thinking.

Nogues asked President Roosevelt about demands by North African Jews for voting rights. According to the stenographer, Roosevelt replied, “The answer to that was very simple, namely, that there just weren’t going to be any elections, so the Jews need not worry about the privilege of voting.”

The transcript continues, “The President stated that he felt the whole Jewish problem should be studied very carefully and that progress should be definitely planned. In other words, the number of Jews should be definitely limited to the percentage that the Jewish population in North Africa bears to the whole of the North African population.”

FDR explained that he wanted to make sure the Jews would not “overcrowd the professions.” He pointed to what he called “the specific and understandable complaints which the Germans bore towards the Jews in Germany, namely, that while they represented a small part of the population, over fifty percent of the lawyers, doctors, school teachers, college professors, etc. in Germany were Jews.”

In reality, Jews comprised about 16% of the lawyers, 11% of the doctors, 3% of the college professors and less than 1% of the schoolteachers in Germany. It’s striking that the president of the United States was so quick to believe the wildly exaggerated numbers — and to conclude that German hatred of Jews therefore was justified.


As the weeks turned into months and as the fascists remained in power in North Africa, public criticism of the Roosevelt administration intensified.

Near-daily reports by I. F. Stone in PM featured headlines such as “U.S. Policy in North Africa: Why State Dept. Holds Up Repeal of Nuremberg Laws,” and “Hull Admits Anti-Fascist Prisoners Still Being Held in North Africa.”

Reports in the New York Times and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Daily News Bulletin began citing, by name, the camps where North African Jews and political refugees were being enslaved — including one that was just five miles from where “American troops, dedicated to end government by concentration camp, live.”

American Jewish leaders were strongly supportive of President Roosevelt — and some 90% of Jews voted for him repeatedly — but his perpetuation of the persecution of North African Jews was just too much. On February 14, 1943, the American Jewish Congress and World Jewish Congress took the unprecedented step of publicly denouncing the president’s North Africa policy.

In a joint public statement, the two groups charged that “the anti-Jewish legacy of the Nazis remains intact in North Africa.” Despite three months having passed since the Allied liberation, only a few “grudging concessions have been made” to aid the Jews, while no changes “of an important character have been made in the[ir] political and economic situation.”

The statement reminded the president that he had pledged “action to insure that the four freedoms shall without further delay be declared as valid for all the peoples in North Africa, which means the total abrogation of all anti-Semitic laws and decrees and … the release of those of whatever race or nationality who are being detained because of their support of democracy and opposition to Nazi ideology.”

The remarkable statement from those two mainstream Jewish organizations was only slightly milder than the charge by Benzion Netanyahu, executive director of the militant U.S. Revisionist Zionists (and father of the current prime minister of Israel), that “the spirit of the Swastika hovers over the Stars and Stripes” in the administration of North Africa.

Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the founder and longtime leader of the American Jewish Congress, then led a delegation to Washington to personally make their case directly to U.S. officials, and Wise’s co-chair, Dr. Nahum Goldmann, organized a group of prominent French exiles in the United States to present the State Department with a petition of their own.

The Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Reform) also called on the administration to intervene against the Vichyites. These protests induced a number of other prominent individuals to speak up, among them Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, the exiled French Jewish leader Baron Edouard de Rothschild and leaders of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.


In March 1943 — more than four months after the Allies liberated Morocco and the rest of North Africa — the Roosevelt administration finally instructed the local authorities to repeal the anti-Jewish measures.

The implementation process, however, was agonizingly slow. In April, the forced labor camps in North Africa were officially shut down — yet, in reality, some of them continued operating well into the summer.

The Jewish quotas in schools and professions were only gradually phased out. It was not until October 20, 1943, that the Cremieux Decree was at last reinstated. After ten long months of presidential stalling and stonewalling, this disturbing chapter in American foreign policy finally came to a close.

The increased public interest in the history of North African Jewry is a welcome byproduct of Israeli-Moroccan normalization. But discussions of that history should include its less pleasant side; that part, too, has important lessons to offer.

Taking a Stand on Poland’s New Law

Recently, a new controversial bill was debated by the Polish Parliament, a move condemned by the United States, Israel, others around the world, and was still signed into law by the Polish Prime Minister. The bill addressed Poland’s actions in the Holocaust, specifically addressing the phrase “Polish death camps”. The phrase challenges the historical fact that the Polish government (under German orders) and anti-Semitic Poles were complicit in the building and running of concentration camps by Nazi Germany in World War II, as well as the rounding up of 3 million Polish Jews, sending them to their deaths.

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Since the defeat of Nazi Germany by the Allied Powers in 1945, the subject of the Holocaust has been an emotional topic for the Jewish People, but also for many other groups tied to the atrocities. Mostly unexplored, until the legislation was raised, was the historical revisionism held by the Polish people. As a result of holding back for 70 years, the recent “Polish death camps” bill was an action taken by Poland’s Parliament to try to soften the shame of Poland’s complicity. The phrase was even used by President Obama in his Holocaust remembrance speech in 2012The law imposes a three year prison sentences for using the phrase “Polish death camps” as well as for implying publicly that the country of Poland or the Polish people took part in Nazi Germany’s crimes.

Though the question still remains; on what historical grounds does the Polish Parliament stand to make the claim that they and their government were not involved in the Nazi’s crimes? After much World War II research, consulting with historical experts, and looking over the textual content of the bill, it can been seen that there is just as much falsity than accuracy in the legislation. The truth is that the country of Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany September 1, 1939, and was under the Nazi’s control until the end of the war, therefore clearing the allegation that the Polish government acted by themselves against Jews in Poland. Though, the falsity rests in the fact that the Polish nation as a whole did not act against Polish Jews. This bill therefore takes the responsibility off the Polish government and passes the blame to the Polish people at the time.

Before the war, Poland was referred to as “the most progressive country in Central Europe”, though did this continue during the war? Yad VaShem, Israel’s memorial to the victims of the Shoah (Holocaust), tells the stories of Poles who risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbors and even Jews that had came to them pleading of their lives. It is reported that within Poland there were 6,706 recognized acts of heroism, more than in any other country. Many Polish individuals never took credit for their courageous actions, fearing the possibility fo violence after the war. Significantly, Pope John Paul II (who was just a priest at the time) was heavily involved in helping to rescue Jews during the war, and was praised in the war’s aftermath.

The research shows the other side of the coin too. While many of these heroes who saved Jews were isolated and feared what their neighbors would do, even after the Nazi occupation. During the war, Poles wasted no time ransacking Jewish homes, stores, and other property once the original Jewish owners were taken by the Nazis. Polish individuals guarded the entrances of Jewish ghettos and murdered many Jews running for their lives. Even though the Poles who capitalized on their inner cruelty did not know about the Nazi’s genocidal intentions, they were complicity in crimes against humanity. The “Polish death camps” bill was eventually signed into law by the current Polish Prime Minister, though his predecessor Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz, explained during the bill’s debate that he was embarrassed by the legislation and acknowledged that “of course Poles took part in the Holocaust”. 

In the end, the Polish government may not have had the power to break away from the Nazi regime, but many Poles were complicit in their crimes. Even today, we have yet to see major protests and activism against the law. Not to mention the egregious fact that people are arrested for singing Israel’s national anthem “Hatikvah”, and that they must pay to enter the national museums built at Auschwitz and other concentration camps, a primary source of Holocaust education. This bill might soften the shame that Poles feel, but to face their actions head on, as the German government does with their Holocaust education, will truly prevent history from repeating itself again and again.

Opting Out of Freedom

During the occupation of Poland by Nazi Germany, a young woman found herself traveling on a packed tram. She was Jewish but living in hiding and pretending to be a non-Jew so as to save herself and the few people in her family who were still alive. The tram was not only packed to the brim, but also filled with German officers, raising the risk of her being caught.

The woman was sitting next to a Polish peasant woman who was in town to sell produce. At one point during the ride, an insane impulse grabbed hold of the woman, and she suddenly reached out and pinched the peasant’s leg, right there, in the middle of the packed tram, crawling with Germans.

This could have been the end of her. The Nazis could have grabbed her and snuffed out her life, as they did with millions of others. The reason I know she did not meet her end is that I would not be here to tell the story if she had: The young woman was my grandmother.

What happened? The peasant woman did not scream out in pain or curse my grandmother. She kept still, quiet and unresponsive to my grandmother’s unprovoked violence. The tram continued on its bumbling way, and my grandmother, perhaps drawing a long breath, was saved by the peasant woman’s grace.

I have thought about this story countless times over the years. My grandmother never gave a straight answer to why she acted in this manner, putting her life at risk on a whim. The more I thought about it, however, the more I came to realize that my grandmother’s act was not necessarily meaningless, even if it was extremely reckless.

I have come to believe that her act — a rather reprehensible act of violence — was an impulsive act of defiance. It was a way of punching fate in the face, as it were, and challenging it to a fight at a time of extreme oppression and total absence of freedom. Showing her hostile and ruthless surroundings that she was there, too, not just a shadow hiding from extinction, but a living being forced to spend her every breathing moment guarding her life from extinction.

But why did the peasant woman keep quiet? She did not know my grandmother and she could have screamed and cursed her, drawing the attention of the German officers. My guess is that this rare woman, stoic as she was, instinctively realized that any pinch from my grandmother was a caress compared to the pain that the Germans would have unleashed and she would have no part of it. She saved herself, most likely, along with my grandmother.

After the war, the occupier’s flag changed and instead of the swastika came the hammer and sickle as the Soviets mercilessly snuffed out any brief euphoria. Eastern Europe was a place bereft of freedom, where the thought police controlled all avenues of communication and the only accepted speech was that parroting the communist slogans of the Soviet politburo.

My grandmother continued her life in this “communist paradise,” where there was no freedom from communist orthodoxy — although conditions in Poland were far from being the worst among the countries behind the Iron Curtain — and where, in the words of George Orwell, if you wanted to keep a secret, it was best to keep it hidden even from yourself.

Having been inoculated against any and all versions of communism and socialism from a very early age — a natural consequence of having felt the effects of those ideologies in real life and not just as “beautiful” theories — I often marvel at the speed with which history is forgotten.

It has only been a quarter of a century since the United States conclusively won the Cold War against the Soviets, yet I often ask myself whether the Soviets aren’t metaphorically jumping for joy from their place in hell, considering how political correctness has permeated public discourse in the United States and Western Europe.

After all — and tragically very few people know this — the standard tropes of political correctness, especially in Israel-related discourse, were conceived by the Soviets. When young people think they are fighting for social justice and freedom, they are often repeating Soviet tropes that would have made Communist Party leader Leonid Brezhnev proud. It was he who, after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, told Yasser Arafat that the invasion amounted to “the same genocide against Palestinians that the Nazis committed against other people during World War II.”

The terrible accusation that Israel is an apartheid state is also a Soviet invention, which has refused to die even after the demise of its inventors. There is a certain irony in the fact that young college-age Americans, who in the old days would have been fighting the Soviets, are now reciting Soviet slogans.

I wonder at the ease with which perfectly free people throw away their freedom of speech in favor of living up to the expectations of political correctness, rigid as they are in all their reductionist groupthink. Living in free societies, they are seemingly incapable of appreciating how precious that freedom is, and how easily it can be snuffed out. Not by invading armies of the totalitarian kind, but by the equally totalitarian impulse to adhere to a particular rendition of reality.

Current generations living in the West have never gone through the experience of being reduced to complete silence, desperately communicating their anger by pinching total strangers on trams. They have the entire world at their feet and still they choose to narrow it to its smallest components, censoring themselves and others who disagree with them, until all that is left is the embarrassing sight of shrunken, small minds, fearful of sticking out in the crowd.

“The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness, and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better,” George Orwell wrote in his satirical book “1984.” Political correctness, and all the ills of intellectual dishonesty and moral cowardice that flow from it, can only become as pervasive as it is when the majority prefers happiness over freedom.

This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.