Mizrahi Jews and the Holocaust

PDF of Hebrew version

I am an Israeli Jewish woman, born in Israel to parents who were born in Morocco. As a Mizrahi Jew,1 I always considered the Holocaust to be something that belonged only to the Ashkenazim.2 (I know that many Mizrahi feel this way.) I was not interested in what happened to the Jewish people during the Second World War. I felt disconnected from this significant piece of my and my people’s history.

This year, on Holocaust Memorial Day, I had an urge to check out what happened to Mizrahi Jews during the Holocaust. I discovered that in Morocco, Algeria, Syria, and Lebanon, the authorities legislated race laws as part of the policy of the Vichy Regime (the French regime that cooperated with the Nazis). These laws limited livelihood opportunities for Jews and prevented them from studying in educational institutions. There is evidence that the Nazis planned to invade Morocco and exterminate all the Jews who lived there. Fortunately they didn’t get there, because the Allies3 interfered. The Jewish communities of Tunisia and Libya were severely damaged: The Nazis built work camps and concentration camps, and Jews were made to wear a yellow patch. At least thirty-two camps were built in Tunis. Hundreds of Jews were murdered. A few were sent to concentration camps and death camps in Europe.

This information was new to me and brought up a lot of thoughts: How come I was4 totally unaware of these things about my history and legacy? How come5 nobody in Israel ever talks about this part of Jewish history? Why is there no clear statement that Jews not of European origin also got hurt or were influenced by the Holocaust?

I have discharged about it. Here are some of my thoughts and a re-evaluation:

The Mizrahi Jews that immigrated to Israel were struggling with hard conditions and an oppression that forced them to disconnect from their past in order to make a living and survive in the new country. There was no room for their stories from the past.

The Ashkenazim in Israel appropriated the Holocaust. They thought of themselves as the only victims of it. I heard a story about a teacher who asked which of the pupils had family that survived the Holocaust. A Mizrahi girl raised her hand. The teacher immediately shut her down6 and called her a liar, saying it was impossible, that she was of Mizrahi origin and there was no Holocaust in the Muslim countries.

It’s true that a huge number of European Jews suffered and died in the Holocaust compared to the number of Jews targeted in Muslim countries. However, a huge number of Jews lived in Europe at that time compared to the relatively small number who lived in the Muslim countries. And it was only a matter of time. If the war had not ended as it did, the number of victims in the Muslim countries would have been greater.

The only history taught in Israeli Jewish schools has been the history of European Jews. The history of the Jews from Muslim countries has been treated as a small, unimportant part. Personally, I do not remember learning anything at school related to my history.

The Holocaust has been used as a platform to oppress Mizrahi people in Israel. It divides and separates Jews. It is used as a justification for the Ashkenazim’s existence in this country and their privileged position here. On the other hand, the Holocaust has been expropriated from the Mizrahi, and that means that Mizrahi people have fewer privileges in this country.

I want to reclaim the history of my people. I want Mizrahi children in Israel to learn about their history, just as today they are required to study Ashkenazi history. I want to reclaim my Jewish identity. I am completely Jewish and completely Israeli. The Holocaust was directed against the Jewish people in general. Only now, with this understanding that the Holocaust has been used as a tool of oppression to separate Ashkenazi Jews and Mizrahi Jews, can I, for the first time, open my heart to the suffering of the Ashkenazim caused by the Holocaust.

We must not give a hand to7 anti-Jewish oppression. The cruel external oppression inflicted on the Jewish people has caused internalized oppression between Ashkenazi Jews and Mizrahi Jews. Anti-Jewish oppression has trained Ashkenazi Jews in the oppressor role, and they have targeted their brothers and sisters, the Mizrahi Jews. I invite us to look at this and not let the segregation be part of our reality today.

Merchi Shookroun Lior
Tooval, Israel
Translated from Hebrew by
 Ofer Lior and Guy Cohen Mohr

1 Mizrahi Jews are descendants of Jews from the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. They often identify as people targeted by racism.
2 Ashkenazim are Ashkenazi Jews—Jews of Central and Eastern European descent, who generally identify as white.
3 The Allies were the countries that opposed the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) during World War II.
4 In this context, “how come I was” means why was I.
5 In this context, “how come” means why is it.
6 “Shut her down” means stopped her from speaking.
7 “Give a hand to” means assist, facilitate.

Last modified: 2014-12-19 01:09:06+00