In late January and early February this year, the Aladdin Project and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs organized a series of first-ever events in ten cities: Rabat, Casablanca, Tunis, Istanbul, Cairo, Baghdad, Erbil, Amman, Jerusalem and Nazareth. Presented in these literary evenings were the Arabic and Turkish translations of “If This Is a Man,” the masterpiece by Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, in the context of January 27, the UN-declared International Day of Commemoration of the Victims of the Holocaust. Anne-Marie Revcolevschi, President of Aladdin Project, answered our questions about these gatherings:
Q: Before discussing the events you have organized in ten cities in the Middle East and North Africa, tell us about the objectives of the Aladdin Project, the NGO which you now chair after many years at the helm of the French Foundation for the Memory of the Holocaust?
A: True to its original vision, the Aladdin Project’s mission is twofold: to combat the plethora of denial and trivialization of the Holocaust, particularly coming from certain spheres in the Arab and Muslim world, while working to promote intercultural dialogue, tolerance and understanding by making Jews and Muslims aware of each other’s history and culture. We seek to achieve these goals through the dissemination of knowledge in the languages of these societies, namely Arabic, Persian, Turkish, French and English, among others.
The propaganda I am referring to is sponsored by certain states, notably Iran, with significant connections to Islamist circles, and is being spread throughout the Muslim world through the use of modern media, including the Internet.
So the Aladdin Project is addressing the public opinion, intellectuals and politicians in these countries to respond to the disinformation by translating for the first time, into Arabic and Persian,books related to this period, and disseminating them through our online library (www.aladdinlibrary.org), and also by providing straightforward information on our multilingual website (www.projetaladin.org) on the Holocaust, Jewish history and Jewish communities in Islamic countries until the end of the Second World War.
We also publish on our website articles from the Arabic, Turkish and Persian media on these subjects. Our other goal is to explain, again through the dissemination of knowledge, the history of Jewish communities in the Muslim world, distinguishing between periods when relations between Jews and Muslims were harmonious or violent.
As far as the Holocaust is concerned, this would also include, for example, the positive roles that Muslim rulers such as the late Mohammed V of Morocco, or Moncef Bey of Tunis, and citizens in several Muslim nations played in protecting Jewish lives. In the spirit of mutual knowledge, we also wish to make Europeans and Westerners more familiar with Arab and Muslim cultures and societies. Let me be clear: there are no double standards in our approach; we oppose all forms of incitement to racial hatred, be it against the Jews in the form of anti-Semitism or against Arabs or peoples from other parts of the Muslim world. And we are certain that education and dissemination of information and knowledge of the “other” are key to overcoming the existing prejudices and stereotypes.
Q: Why did you decide to deal with the history of Jewish communities in Islamic countries and why did you stop at their departure from these countries?
A: My simple answer to your first question is that we did it because this memory and therefore this history are in the process of disappearing in the countries where the Jews left, often forcibly, to resettle in Israel or in other countries. The result is that younger generations today are completely unaware that Jewish communities had been part of the history of their country and have a distorted picture of the Jews. Historians and intellectuals in these countries with whom we work have been the first to tell us how essential it is to recall and to teach this part of our common history, which is not the case today. As for your remark that on our Website we have not gone farther chronologically? You are right and we have plans to develop this section of the site.
Q: Do you have Muslim partners who are going along with you in your projects?
A: Absolutely. The setting up of such a network has been, since the beginning, a priority and an asset. First, our patrons such as Prince Hassan of Jordan, President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal, Princess Haya Al Khalifa of Bahrain, the only Arab woman to have been president of the UN General Assembly, former President Ely Ould Mohamed Vall of Mauritania and Mr Abdurrahman Wahid, former President of Indonesia, who recently passed away. Moreover, our Committee on Conscience, the intellectual and ethical guarantee of our initiatives, is composed of different personalities such as Mr Driss Khrouz, director of the National Library of Morocco, Professor Ilber Ortayli, President of the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul, Dr. Mustafa Ceric, the Great Mufti of Bosnia, Mr Hedi Baccouche, former Prime Minister of Tunisia, Professor Darioush Shayegan, eminent Iranian philosopher…
Our Board of Directors is composed of personalities from different cultures, nationalities and religions: Muslim, Jewish, Christian and lay. Finally, less than a year after the launch of the project at the UNESCO, more than a thousand personalities, about half of them from the Muslim world, have supported the Aladdin Project. Some of them have chosen to speak out publicly on our Website;every day, we receive messages of encouragement, suggestions and corrections from predominantly Muslim visitors to our Website (it has an average of 15,000 visits per month). Our newsletter is sent out to 7,000 people in more than 50 countries. More than 10,000 electronic books that we have translated into Arabic and Persian have been downloaded.
Q: Now let’s talk about the tour of Holocaust conferences that you have just completed. What were your objectives?
A: Last March, representatives from a number of Arab and Muslim countries came to Paris to participate in the launch of the Aladdin Project. With them, we asked ourselves two questions: a) Should the Holocaust be talked about in Islamic countries? For us, the answer was a clear yes. b) Is it possible to talk about the Holocaust in Islamic countries? To find out the answer, we needed to organize these events. So on the occasion of January 27th, the UN-declared International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I proposed that we organize in these countries literary conferences about Primo Levi’s “If This Is a Man” (or “Survival in Auschwitz,” as it is known in the U.S.). We had translated it for the first time in Arabic and Persian. We also wanted to present at the same time the general historical context of the Holocaust.
Q: Why this book?
A: Because it is an exceptional testimony due to its dual dimensions: on the one hand, it testifies about deportation and the Holocaust, and on the other hand, it questions human beings and humankind by questioning the reader, any reader. We thought that reading Primo Levi was the best possible way to explain what had happened and to put an end to amalgams and denials of the Holocaust. And I can tell you straight away, we were right.
Then we asked the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be our partners so that the French cultural centres in these countries would be able to organize these lectures with us, and the Ministry accepted. That is how we were able to organize between January 26th and February 5th literary and historical lectures in the French cultural centers, institutes and French schools in nine cities:Jerusalem, Nazareth, Casablanca, Tunis, Istanbul, Cairo, Baghdad, Erbil and Amman. In Rabat, the event took place in the National Library.
Q: How is such a tour organized?
A: Mainly thanks to the commitment and energy of more than 50 personalities, convinced of the novelty and importance of this project. Having said that, I want first to salute Bernard Kouchner, Minister of Foreign Affairs, whose personal commitment has been a major asset in the proper implementation of this project. We have been able to rely on the full cooperation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and of most of our ambassadors, cultural counsellors, and directors of the cultural institutes and centres in the countries concerned, despite the fact that everything was organized on short notice. In the name of the Aladdin Project, I want to thank all of them. Their support and help were indispensable. We are equally grateful to our Muslim friends, intellectuals whose word is respected and who talked with authority and competence at these ten conferences: Professor Mohammed Dadjani, Professor at the University of Al Qods in Jerusalem, Mr Khaled Kassab and Professor Yossi Chetrit from University of Haifa in Nazareth, Professors Cengiz Aktar and Ilber Ortayli in Istanbul, Professor Mohamed Fantar in Tunis, Professors Jamaa Baida and Dris Khrouz in Rabat, eminent thinker Tarek Heggy in Cairo, Dr. Amira Mostafa in Amman, Professor Adel Al-Kayar and Dr Ali Al-Rufaie, dean of the law faculty of the University of Bagdad, Ambassador Hussein Sinjari and distinguished historian Dr. Kemal Mudhir in Erbil.
The different personalities, members of the Aladdin Project, naturally committed themselves fully to the success of these events. Let me start with three of the founding members of the Aladdin Project whose energetic commitment made an important difference: André Azoulay, Advisor to the King of Morocco, who made a groundbreaking speech at the National Library in Rabat; our vice-president, Serge Klarsfeld, who travelled thousands of miles to Tunis, Cairo, Amman, Baghdad and Erbil and spoke tirelessly in public meetings and in private encounters with Muslim personalities about history and his personal memories, and Ambassador Jacques Andréani, president of our Committee on Conscience, whose diplomatic foresight and experience have been an important asset for our initiative. I must also make a special mention of Claude Lanzmann, who had to squeeze in a 24-hour return trip to Istanbul in the middle of his travel itinerary. He spoke passionately about his film, Shoah, and the Aladdin Project, and we look forward to the Aladdin Project’s launch in Turkey of Shoah with Turkish subtitles. Annie Dayan Rosenman gave a commentary on Primo Levi in front of Tunisian intellectuals, teachers and pupils; Jean Mouttapa explained Primo Levi in a Nazareth auditorium packed to rafters and paid tribute to Salem Joubran, author and poet and translator of “If This Is a Man” into Arabic. Dr Aly El Samman, a prominent Egyptian personality, presided with clarity and authority the evening lecture in Cairo; Professor Abdou Filali-Ansary’s remarks placed the evening at the National Library of Morocco on a high intellectual level. François Zimeray, the ambassador for human rights issues, gave us his unsparing support and went to Bagdad to address the literary evening alongside Serge Klarsfeld and Abe Radkin. Finally, other friends joined the project: the historian Jean-François Forge went toIstanbul, Professors Joel Kotek and Luba Jurgenson travelled to Morocco and Professor Philippe Menard went to Cairo. Rabbi Daniel Fahri was invited to the event in Tunis by the French institute. As always when you organize events on this scale, there are “wild cards” that force you to improvise. Thus German historian Peter Schoettler was stuck in Berlin with high fever and had to be replaced at the last minute by French historian François Lafon from the Sorbonne. In short, all this was achieved through a team work coordinated by our excellent executive director, Abe Radkin, who himself was present in several cities.
Q: Where did you go yourself?
A: To Jerusalem, Nazareth, Ramallah and Cairo. And when I heard Egyptian poet, Mr.s Hala Aziz, read in Cairo the account of the “selection” of the Italian convoy in Birkenau death camp by Primo Levi in Arabic and in an impressive silence, I told myself that this common humanity to which we all belong and from which the Nazis had wanted to eliminate us in Auschwitz, was rising from these words, in the depth of the hearts and minds of all of us who were listening.
Q: How did the public react to your events in the ten cities?
A: All the events took place in an atmosphere of civility and mutual respect. The audience listened attentively and they were receptive to the lucid and precise explanations offered by the contributors, even if sometimes they knew the Holocaust history. Often, one could feel emotions rising in the hall when certain contributors such as Serge Klarsfeld or Rabbi Fahri told their personal stories.
Q: Who came to listen to all of you?
A: It varied. The great majority of the people who composed the audience were Turkish, Arab or Kurdish intellectuals, academics, civil society activists, students and of course the personalities who support the Aladdin Project in those countries. The number of guests who were present varied according to the cities. In all, we presented the history of the Holocaust, for the first time, to more than 1,500 persons, who also included four ministers, one deputy minister, five parliamentarians, nineteen ambassadors, four university presidents and eight deans of faculties were among the participants, as were presidents of the Jewish communities in Tunisia, Turkey, Egypt and Morocco.
Q: What were the similarities and differences from one city to another?
A: Of course, although it is difficult to sum up the meetings in so many different cities. First of all, I would like to stress how much the fact that prominent personalities of the Muslim world support Aladdin Project – we projected a short film of the launch conference of Aladdin at UNESCO in all the events – helped people to unwind. The fact that the Aladdin Project has given priority to the transmission of knowledge and to education through translation of books and informative materials was highly appreciated. In all the meetings, the lack of books and documents in Arabic was mentioned. We were also told that the price of our books in paperback is too high for interested people in these countries to afford, particularly as many people do not have access to Internet to download the books free of charge from our online library. One of our next steps will be to publish low-cost editions of these books. And considering the offers which I have already received form a publisher in Morocco, I am optimistic that we will manage to distribute them.
The other similarity which deserves to be underlined is that the reception of this history was made much easier than one would have thought from the moment when it was pointed out that the Holocaust was the consequence of Christian and European anti-Semitism and that some Arab countries had been exemplary in the way they confronted the Vichy policy and Nazism.
The third common factor, which I have already mentioned, was the insistence of our Muslin intellectual interlocutors that the history of the Jewish communities in their countries must be written in Arabic and taught to the young generations. This issue obviously calls for a sustained political will, and I hope we will be able to work with the indigenous historians and associations in the countries who share the same wish, and whose cumulative competence and experience are essential for the success of such a project.
Finally, the question of the Israeli-Arab conflict and the situation of the Palestinians in Gaza were sometimes evoked, but no one drew parallels between the nature of the Holocaust and the political conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The Palestinian issue was, of course, much more dominant in Jerusalem and Nazareth and less so in some of the other countries.
What also was obvious was the wish, I would even say the demand, of Muslim intellectuals to find the words, the tone and the style in which they themselves would teach their fellow-Muslims the history of the Holocaust and the history of Jewish-Muslim relationships in their language.
Conversely, they wished to let the Europeans know better the major works of their thinkers and writers. This is a second imperative of the Aladdin project and we shall be working with our Muslim friends to see how this can be best achieved.
Q: Were you disappointed by the low turnout of Palestinians in Jerusalem?
A: I expected it. The meeting, which was initially scheduled in Ramallah, had to be moved to East Jerusalem at the last minute due to security concerns. There was not therefore enough time to properly invite Arab participants in the city. We thus ended up with some 25 people, and only a handful of them were Arabs. I wasn’t surprised, as several factors contributed to this absence: last minute organization, no translation into Arabic, and of course the proximity of the conflict and the situation in Gaza. Several prominent Palestinians we had invited, including Mr. Yasser Abd Rabbo and Mr. Faisal Al-Husseini, excused themselves for not being present because they had received the invitation only a day before the event. In the meeting, the Palestinian issue was evoked by the Arabs in the room, who did not compare it to the Holocaust, but expressed frustration that the Israelis and the Jews were “indifferent” to the Palestinians’ suffering.
But the silver lining was the speech by Professor Mohammed Dajani from Al Qods University, who chairs the Wasatiya Movement and who is determined to work with us on this issue. He thought we could go further in the teaching of Holocaust history at the university, obviously with the help of Israeli historians. In Nazareth, Professor Yossi Chetrit of the University of Haifa chaired the meeting and the conference hall was packed with a very interested audience.
Q: How did the political class react?
A: Rather well. In Morocco, the official support was confirmed by the fact that we were welcomed at the National Library of the Kingdom of Morocco and by the advisor to the King, André Azoulay. In Tunisia, it was the advisor to President Ben Ali, Professor Mohamed Fantar, who spoke during the event. In Egypt, Mr Hossam Nissar, Deputy Minister of Culture, attended the conference and we discussed with senior Egyptian officials the possibility of organizing a conference at the Library of Alexandria. In Jordan, where the situation was more tense, Serge Klarsfeld and Abe Radkin had a very fruitful meeting with Prince Hassan. Finally, the presence of the Iraqi Minister of Science and Technology, Mr Raid Fahmi, in the Bagdad meeting, and the fact that Mr Raouf Abdurrahman, Minister of Justice (the judge in Saddam Hussein’s trial) and Mr Majid Amin, Minister of Martyrs’ Affairs, attended the Erbil conference, all had the same meaning.
Q: And the press?
A: We are receiving from the different diplomatic posts, the press reviews in order to translate them but we are also reviewing websites and blogs. Dozens of journalists were present, and the conferences were widely covered by the media: television stations (Aljazeera in English and Arabic, France 24 in Arabic, English and French, Iraqi Kurdistan TV, ZDF), radio stations (RFI, RTL, Radio Netherlands Arabic Service, Radio Aswat and Radio Atlantic in Morocco, Radio Iraq Al-Hurr…), news agencies (AFP, Moroccan national news agency MAP, Tunisian national news agency TAP, Iraqi news agency Aswat al-Iraq…) and hundreds of newspapers and websites. The great majority of these “first-hand” reports and articles are positive and have greeted this initiative. Then there was, as we expected, a negative backlash from media close to Islamist or radical circles who criticized Aladdin as a “Zionist” initiative whose aim was to cover up the accusations in the Goldstone Report!
Q: What is your appraisal of anti-Semitic prejudices in these countries?
A: One cannot seriously answer this question after spending only a short time in these countries. I can tell you, however, that during the dinner hosted by the French ambassador in Turkey, several leaders of the Jewish community in Turkey spoke about the current trends of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial in that country. They were very much in favour of positive efforts, such as what the Aladdin Project is doing, to increase Muslims’ knowledge of Jews and Judaism as an effective means of fighting stereotypes and myths. And it is no news to say, of course, that in many parts of the Arab world, the images of the Israelis as “killers of children” and worn caricatures of the rich and exploiting Jew, stream from the satellites to the TV screens.
I repeat that many of the Muslim intellectuals we met insisted on the necessity of teaching the past history of Jews in the Islamic world to fight against the stereotypes of historical hatred between Jews and Muslims, as if this animosity is in their genes, or fate. If this is not done, it is obvious that anti-Semitism will continue to grow. Mein Kampf and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are still sold in the streets, even though, for the first time, at the Book Fair in Cairo, they were not on the shelves ….On the other hand, you only need to ask for them and they are brought to you the next day with the Arabic translation of Faurisson’s book “with no extra charge”! So there are a lot of efforts that need to be made to get rid of this hate literature from bookshops as well as from the Internet.
Q: Finally, do you think of this totally new initiative of Aladdin as positive?
A: It would be so easy to say yes; but we are in this for the long haul. So many bad winds are gathering to spread hatred and intolerance. The evolution and the change of mentality is the result of long efforts of education, reading, and setting examples. But one of Aladdin’s strengths is to work on long-term goals….and to believe that in the face of adversity, we must cherish our hopes. Anyway, this is my profound conviction. Last year, the representatives of Muslim leaders came to our launch conference at UNESCO in Paris and the door of respect for historical truth and tolerance was half-opened. Today, we went to them and other doors were half-opened, those of intellectuals, teachers and the civilian society. The third step belongs to them: they have to carry on. Of course, we will be there to keep on translating, to help train teachers and researchers and to maintain as many doors opened as possible, doors opened on the history and culture of the other.
Q: What are your next projects?
A: Briefly, first we have to develop our relationship with our interlocutors in the cities where the events took place. This is essential in moving forward with the question of the teaching of the history of Jewish communities, the translation of new books on Holocaust, the diffusion of books already translated and their use in classrooms, particularly the Diary of Ann Frank and If This Is a Man . We are going to have a series of meetings to analyze the conferences with all the people spoke in those 10 cities, and I am convinced that new ideas will come up. We also need to have the film Shoah by Claude Lanzmann translated into Turkish, Arabic and Persian and organize its screening by TV networks. There is a project for an exhibition in Istanbul. The training of history and literature teachers with the help of UNESCO and also a conference in Alexandria are also in the works. Finally, there will be a visit to Auschwitz probably next December at the invitation of the Mayor of Paris, the Aladdin Project and UNESCO. We have just agreed upon it with the new Director General of UNESCO, Mrs. Irina Bokova. But all this takes time and requires means. So we are going to work hard to find the means.
Q: A final word?
A: During the debate on the Aladdin Project in Baghdad, the Iraqi professor Adel Al-Kayar said: “Three Jewish geniuses have changed the face of the modern world: Marx, Einstein and Freud… Is there hope that a new genius will get out of Aladdin’s lamp to bring peace to this region?”
I have no illusions: I know only too well the size of the challenge facing us, but I also know that through hard work and keeping faith, we can make a change. Otherwise, what’s the alternative? As President Abdoulaye Wade said at the launch conference of the Aladdin Project in UNESCO: “The worst attitude is one of doing nothing and waiting, in the hope that somehow things will get better by themselves. We need to be vigilant, ready to fight without concession on every front.”
I can only advise our readers to read and pass on President Wade’s whole speech, inspiring, full of wisdom and lucidity (http://www.projetaladin.org/assets/files/President_Abdoulaye_Wade_ENG.pdf )
Major books on the Holocaust in Arabic and Persian can be downloaded free of charge from Aladdin Online Library. Please visit our website: www.aladdinlibrary.org