- Aisha Mohamed
The Forgotten Holocaust? How Modern Muslim-Jewish relations haveshaped North African history
The opinions expressed in this article reflect the opinions of its author(s).They do not represent the views of UCL’s Diplomacy Society or Diplomacy Review.
'The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice’ – Mark Twain.
The North African-born Jewish students at The Alliance Israelite School in Morocco (1935)
If you were to ask someone where the Holocaust occurred, most would point to Europe and give details of the Nazi regime’s strict measures against the Jewish community. Very few would even think about placing North Africa within that context, or know about the impositions put onto Jewish people under the Vichy regime in colonial North Africa. Why is it then that so much Jewish experience is centred within the arena of Europe, when the realities were felt intensely outside its boundaries which often championed an interfaith success story? The answer lies in our current world in which this history is received. This impacts how it is interpreted, or in some cases, conveniently omitted. Where interfaith co-existence between Muslims and Jews formed the backbone of early twentieth century North African societies, this history has not been accepted into the modern world which has been tainted through viewing Muslim-Jewish relations through the lens of the more recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So whilst Muslim-Jewish relations formed much of the North African Holocaust, those same relations helped turn this into a forgotten holocaust.
It is important to establish that the Holocaust was not a continental event. The Nuremberg Laws established in the 1930s which formed part of the Holocaust were also copied in colonial North Africa through Vichy France’s racial laws and where Tunisia was the only country in the area to be occupied by the German army in 1942-43. The 450,000 Jews who were living in the whole region were legally barred from certain professions, such as government jobs, and even went as far as the establishment of labour camps across the Maghreb and Sahara where approximately 1000 died. Similar to Europe, there was no universal experience for the Jews in North Africa, and neighbouring countries often had different experiences. Since Algerians were seen as French citizens, Jews were defined as a racial group, with the implication that Jews were determined by their race and not their loyalty to France. This contrasts greatly to neighbouring Morocco where Jews were instead viewed as a religious community and an integral part to their societies. These opposing definitions of what it means to be Jewish, I would argue, formed the basis of Muslim-Jewish relations. The reality was that interfaith co-existence formed the backbone of North African societies, where in places such as Tangier in Morocco, Muslim and Jewish butchers worked in the same gurna (meat site) until 1889.
Unlike mainland Europe where overt public opposition to Jewish discrimination was rare, in North African countries such as Morocco, where Jews were viewed as equal citizens, anti Jewish social propaganda that was circulating had no real effect. So much so that the Sultan of Morocco, Sultan Mohammed V, publicly opposed the anti-Semitic laws in Morocco by claiming ‘Jews remain under [his] protection’ and how he considers Jews to be Moroccans ‘in the same capacity as Muslims’. Combined with numerous instances of Muslims taking Jews into their homes to defend them from colonial violence, it is no surprise then that instances of anti-Jewish violence were rare in the first half of twentieth century North Africa as for the most part it was seen and was an import of Christian settler colonisation in these countries.
This interfaith interaction to prevent the Holocaust within the Middle East region is not unique, and instead follows a similar pattern of Muslim-Jewish relations being overlooked in the wider region. This is best explained by Lior Sternfeld’s transformative research into the importance of the Jews in Iran and their contribution to the Iranian Revolution. Similar to attitudes regarding the Holocaust, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 is assumed to be an Islamic Revolution with Muslims being driving force behind it. Sternfeld challenged this approach by questioning the role of the Jewish community in being equal supporters of the revolution. He discovered the untold story of a Jewish charity hospital in Tehran, the Dr Sapir Hospital that helped nurse many of the wounded revolutionaries. What is significant is that the hospital was not only open for Jewish treatment, but also offered free treatment for Muslims too and throughout the revolution was quite literally a lifeline. The plaque at the entrance reinforced this message with the biblical verse ‘Love thy neighbour as yourself’ written in both Hebrew and Persian, with revolutionary leader Imam Khomeini even sending a letter of gratitude to the hospital and proclaimed the difference between Zionism and Judaism. The reality is Muslim-Jewish relations are constantly being recorded through the modern lens where the history of these events has largely been written by historians with a connection or attachment to Israel. This so called ‘Zionist paradigm’ has created inherent biases on both sides in not only opinion but also historical writing where interfaith interactions are often ignored to suit historians own personal prejudices.
Contemporary issues have always dictated the way history is written. But perhaps for the Holocaust of North Africa where reparations for the victims are still being contested, this holds much more significance. Both Arabs and the establishment of Israel have kept quiet on the North African Holocaust as its connections with interfaith collaborations go against the narrative of irreconcilable religious conflict being promoted as natural, whilst arguably putting to question the legitimacy of the Israel-Palestinian conflict itself. Despite recent efforts to shed light on the North African Holocaust, seen with a representative of the state of Morocco on the virtual seminar on the Holocaust in Columbia in January 2021; the actions of Sultan Mohammed V to go against the Vichy regime to defend Jewish rights is still not honoured in the Yad Vashem – Israel’s official memorial to victims and opposers of the Holocaust. Then, whilst interfaith interaction shaped the North African Holocaust, the absence of it in collective memory reveals larger problems on how current Muslim-Jewish relations are writing history.