When the Yom HaShoah siren rang today all over Israel, everyone stopped.
If you think that the Holocaust only affected European Jews, think again. Although the effects of World War II and the Holocaust disproportionately hit Europe, to frame the Holocaust as an “Ashkenazi thing” is to ignore entire Jewish communities of North Africa and the Middle East who also greatly suffered under the Nazi regime.
The Italian Fascist Party and Nazi Germany occupied various Jewish communities in Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Libyan and Tunisian Jews, in particular, were brought to detention and labor camps in Italy. In 1938, two years after the Italian Fascist Party entered a pact with Nazi Germany, Libyan Jews were banned from leaving the country and Jewish students were banned from attending high schools and universities. Government employees were fired, and Jewish soldiers were demoted. Jews were put in detention and work camps, and thousands were sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany.
Similarly, in Tunisia, when the Nazi party occupied the area, Tunisian Jews were forced to wear the yellow Star of David badge, were fined, and their property was confiscated. Thousands were sent to labor camps, and Tunisian Jews living in France, as well as activists, were sent to extermination camps.
Although the story of Middle Eastern Jews in the Holocaust is not a widely known narrative, it may be the key to unlocking Holocaust denial in the Middle East. In the context of the Israeli-Arab conflict, Holocaust studies is left out of school curriculums, and many children in the Middle East are taught to deny the Holocaust.
But in the last 10-15 years, scholars in Morocco and Tunisia have been researching the Holocaust and even honoring Tunisian Jews who went to labor camps. Morocco’s government has officially acknowledged the Holocaust, and now, 40% of Moroccan teachers do not refuse to talk about the Holocaust.
In order to continue the small yet growing trend towards openness, the Center for Documentation on North-African Jewry During World War II works to study Jewish communities in the East. They support the research of North African scholars, organize international conferences on the topic, and encourage Israeli-North African research and university cooperation. Their social media pages in French, English, and Arabic reach Muslims around the globe, garnering 300,000 views on each post, and many personal messages from Arabs. Many personal messages from Arabs in North Africa state that they had no idea there was a Jewish history in their countries. Some even tell stories of their Muslim families protecting Jews during the Holocaust.
The Center for Documentation, led by Professor Haim Saadoun, says that documenting this period in North Africa may help promote understanding between North Africa and the Jewish people, as our histories are connected. Hopefully, this will also provide a stepping-stone for Arab-Jewish relations.