Families butchered like sheep. Bodies buried in the debris of homes in which pogromists had locked the families before setting them on fire. Jewish girls raped. Their breasts cut off. Most bodies, including those of young children, mutilated and their throats slit.
No – this is not a description of the 7 October 2023. It’s an anti-Jewish atrocity which prefigured the Hamas massacre of 1,200 Israelis in the Gaza envelope by nine decades.
The massacre in question took place in the city of Constantine, in Algeria, in 1934. Some 25 Jews were murdered, but the exact number may never be known because Arabs allegedly hid the bodies of many slain Jews.
Jocelyne Shrago was not yet born when the massacre occurred. Her parents were newly married. They were lucky, they were saved from the mob by kindly Arab neighbours. But their family house was ransacked. Many of their possessions were destroyed. Not a single memento of Jocelyne’s parents’ wedding survived the onslaught.
However, Jocelyne does possess one souvenir – a silver tray. The rioters folded the tray on itself. Jocelyne cannot fathom what force they must have used to do this.
Commentators writing or speaking about 7 October have evoked pogroms which afflicted Jews in Europe – Kristallnacht, the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, even the 17th century Chielmniki massacres.
Massacres of Jews living in Arab countries, such as the Constantine pogrom, exhibiting a sadism suddenly familiar to us, are virtually unknown outside those communities which directly suffered them. Yet these events also foreshadowed the pogrom of 7 October. Over the centuries, riots in Morocco were so frequent that Jews had to be locked into a walled Jewish quarter or Mellah. One of the worst massacres of the 20th century occurred in 1945, in Tripoli, Libya, and claimed 130 Jewish lives. And then there was the Farhud, the 1941 pogrom against the Jews of Iraq in which 179 identified Jews were murdered, women raped and babies mutilated.
All these episodes predated the creation of the state of Israel. They belie the common impression that Jews and Muslims coexisted happily until the Jewish state was born, and debunk the myth that violence against Jews can be blamed on Israel. In fact Israel was not the cause, but the solution to pre-existing antisemitism. The oppressed Jews of the Muslim world finally had somewhere to go. There were 850,000 Jewish refugees. Today 50 percent of Jews in Israel have their roots in Arab and Muslim countries.
Jocelyne’s story features in a short film which will be premiered at JW3 on 30 November for the Annual Commemoration of the Departure and Exodus of Jews from Arab Countries and Iran. The film, commissioned by my organisation, Harif, the UK Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, is based on oral histories collected by Sephardi Voices UK.
Two of the testimonies are from Jews who stayed on in Libya and Morocco until the violent reaction to Israel’s victory in the Six Day War finally forced them out.
Israel’s triumph in 1967 precipitated an exodus of tens of thousands of Jews from Tunisia, Morocco and Libya mainly to the West. In the film you will hear Raphael Luzon of Benghazi, Libya, describe his last day at school, and how he had to run the gauntlet of a rioting mob in order to get home. The Libyan authorities lost control and could not protect their 6,000 Jews. Seven members of his family were slaughtered. Luzon’s family was forced to leave in a hurry, with little money and one suitcase.
Corinne Levy Laurent tells how her father, who taught the royal princes and princesses in Morocco classical Arabic – a language he knew better than most Muslims – was given the cold shoulder by the King’s ministers. ‘I am your brother,’ he pleaded. ‘We cannot call you our brother now,” they retorted. Corinne’s father understood that Jews had no future in Morocco and packed off his family to France.
The lesson we can learn from the plight of Jews from the Muslim world is how quickly a feeling of security and wellbeing can unravel. Jews in the UK are feeling it now.
‘The Annual Commemoration to mark the Departure and Exodus of Jews from Arab Countries and Iran is being hosted at 7:30 pm on 30 November by JW3 in partnership with Harif and Sephardi Voices UK. It will be attended by communal leaders and diplomats. Musical entertainment will be provided by Eastern Beats and there will be a light reception. To attend the event in-person book (£5) at: https://www.jw3.org.uk/book/542601