Once a year in Israel, a piercing siren is sounded for two minutes. On every road, street and corner of the country, life is temporarily suspended. People stop in the middle of walking, driving or working, to stand in silence, and commemorate the suffering of the Holocaust in honour of Israel’s national day of memorial.
First observed in 1951, the day, referred to colloquially as “Yom Hashoah,” annually falls on the 27th of Nisan in the Hebrew Calendar — unless the 27th falls on the Sabbath. This year it corresponds with April 8th. While International Holocaust Memorial Day dominates global Holocaust remembrance for obvious reasons, Yom HaShoah is a key day of reflection and mourning for Jews in Israel and across the world.
For many of us, the word Holocaust instantly conjures visions of barbed wire fences and concrete gas chambers imposed on European plains or the cramped urban ghettos where Jews awaited deportation and often death — both the backdrops to Hollywood blockbusters such as Schindler’s List and The Pianist. It makes sense. After all, approximately six million Jews were murdered in the Nazi genocide, and well over 98 percent were born in Europe. What we recall as cinematic snapshots were their grim reality. But the horrors of the Holocaust happened outside of Europe too, so how is it that we so commonly fail to acknowledge this?
Of course, the Holocaust was primarily a European phenomenon. Its ideology, although rooted partly in ancient and religious antisemitism, was a wholly modern one. Its philosophy emerged from enlightenment and post-enlightenment concepts of racialised superiority and inferiority, moral relativism and submission to a totalitarian state. However, ideas are not always fated to fare well only within the lands in which they emerged. Nazi antisemitism made its way into the Muslim-majority regions of the Middle East & North Africa, fortifying the antizionist and antisemitic rhetoric already pedalled by Arab nationalist parties in Syria and Iraq, along with Egypt’s Muslim brotherhood. However it was not just free-floating philosophies of hatred that emerged and took root outside of Europe, but accompanying legal discrimination and physical violence.
In June 1940 France’s Prime Minister had surrendered to the Nazis and established a zone of German occupation in northern and western France, with southern France falling under the rule of a new government based in Vichy that would directly collaborate with the Nazis. Vichy North Africa from then on became a breeding ground for the joint forces of French colonialism and Nazi fascism throughout World War II .
In early 1941, the Vichy authorities transferred hundreds of refugees of all genders and ages to Saharan labour camps and detention centres. Many of these detainees were foreign Jews, even if they were not generally arrested because of this. In Algeria, around 2,000-3,000 Jews were interned in camps with various political prisoners.
By the second half of 1941, all Jews holding foreign citizenship in Italian-occupied Libya were deported, mostly to Italian labour camps. Many were then removed to extermination camps in Germany and Eastern Europe. In 1942 Mussolini ordered the Jews of Cyrenaica moved out of the Libyan war zone. Most of the 2,600 Jews deported as a result of his orders were sent to camps at Giado, Buqbuq and Sidi Azaz. Inmates were subjected to forced labour in all the camps, with conditions in Giado proving especially dire. For parts of 1942 and 1943, Tunisia was under direct Nazi rule, and 5,000 Tunisian Jewish men were conscripted to almost 40 detention camps and forced labour facilities.
It is almost certain that a similar level of extermination to that witnessed in Europe would have swept across North Africa if the allies had not been eventually successful in their advance. Moreover, the violent dispossession and deportation of the majority of the Muslim world’s Jewish populations from 1948 proves that an existing Nazi empire was not required to continue the legacy of its guiding ideology: violent antisemitism. But why are these facts so often brushed under the figurative rug? In the case of the Arab and Muslim world, there is not just a lapse of memory, but a deliberate effort to obscure the role of non-European actors in the Holocaust.
As Journalist Lyn Julius — herself of Iraqi-Jewish heritage — highlighted in a 2015 piece on the topic: “The myth of the Arabs as innocent bystanders, who had no responsibility for the Holocaust — and indeed, paid the price for a European crime when Israel was established — is widely believed.” Indeed, works such as Professor Gilbert Achcar’s “The Arabs and the Holocaust” have gone to great lengths to whitewash the complicity of leading Muslim figures such as Fawzi al-Qawuqji, Rashid Ali al-Kelani, Abu Ibrahim al-Kabir, Hassan Salama and Arif Abd al-Raziq and administrations with the Third Reich.
This could not be further from the truth. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini for example, played a central role in plotting the pro-Nazi coup in Iraq. The Mufti aided Heinrich Himmler in recruiting Muslim SS units in the Balkans who went on to murder approximately 12,600 Bosnian Jews. He also barred 4,500 Jewish refugees from exiting Europe and had them sent to Auschwitz and gassed; prevented another 2,000 Jews from leaving Romania and 1000 from leaving Hungary for Palestine. They too were sent to death camps.
Furthermore, although it is clear that the direct occupation of German, French and Italian forces played a huge role in the atrocities against North Africa’s Jews, this does not account for the extensive attempts at collaboration between Muslim leaders and the Nazis against their alleged “common enemies” of Communism, Zionism and the West. Nor does it explain away the Nuremberg-worthy laws imposed on Jews after the collapse of Nazism, nor the fact that Mein Kampf remains a long-standing bestseller in Turkey, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Not to mention that Iraq’s pro-Nazi coup in 1941 occurred a full nine years after its independence from British adminstration. This coup culminated in the Farhud (lit. violent dispossesion) pogrom of 1942, in which hundreds of Iraqi Jews were murdered, beaten and sexually assaulted thousands of miles away from the theatre of Nazi occupation and war — a tragedy that Israeli activist Hen Mazzig tirelessly works to raise awareness of, but one that was never mentioned in my over two decades in the British education system.
In failing to acknowledge the experiences of communities outside Europe and the complicity of non-western actors in the Holocaust, we fail to fully understand what was one of the most devastating and defining moments of the twentieth century, whose implications for the Jewish and non-Jewish world endure today. Although cooperation does seem to be growing in the wake of initiatives such as the Abraham Accords, the prevalence of grassroots antisemitism across the Muslim world is arguably the greatest barrier to peaceful coexistence between Israel and its neighbours. We cannot sensibly approach the present without acknowledging the past, however uncomfortable it may be. In order to honestly evaluate and improve relations between Israel and elements of its Muslim neighbours, we must accept a full picture of history, and abandon the perpetual canard of Israel and its Jews as innately privileged colonial oppressors, and the Arab world as wholly innocent victims of European interference.