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This article focuses on the meeting ground between two dynamic processes: the development of Holocaust consciousness in Israel and its transformation into a key element in Israeli identity, and the socioeconomic mobility of Jews from Muslim countries (Oriental or Sephardic Jews) who immigrated to Israel. (1) The study traces the way three generations of Oriental Jews--the immigrants to Israel, their children, and grandchildren--relate to the Holocaust as an essential element in Israeli national identity. This identification overlaps Oriental Jewry's move from the socioeconomic periphery to its center.
The processes are described from Sephardic Jewry's perspective--rather than from the establishment's--despite the latter's obvious influence on the events. The three periods under discussion are outlined chronologically. The proposed periodization will try to answer such questions as what did the Oriental Jews know about the fate of European Jewry during the Third Reich and, given this knowledge, how did they explain their own history? Initial awareness of the Holocaust is of great importance. The periodization will enable us to examine the changes in Holocaust consciousness in the children and grandchildren of the immigrant generation.
The first period--1933-1960--references the immigrants to Israel, most of who lived during WW II and came to Israel in the 1950s.
The second period extends from 1960 to 1980, during which Holocaust consciousness deepened and some of the immigrants tried to penetrate the narrative of the Holocaust and connect with it. 1980 was chosen as the cutoff date for the second period because the early eighties mark the maturation of Sephardic Jewry in Israel, and their adoption and cultural recognition by the establishment (in response to their demands). This came in the wake of the historic election in 1977, when the right-wing, predominantly blue-collar nationalist party, Likud, came to power for the first time, thus ending the hegemony of Mapai, the Labor party. The Likud leader, Menachem Begin, was swept into power on the waves of love and support by large numbers of Oriental Jews. Begin listened to their distress and genuinely sought to solve their problems.
The third period--from 1981 to the present (2008)--signals the maturation of third generation Sephardic Jews whose links to the Holocaust are especially surprising and challenging. The last two periods (1960 to the present) are discussed jointly.
Many terms are used to describe Oriental Jewry; a number of expressions are often used inconsistently. (2) The public discourse was especially rife with the terms "Oriental ethnic groups" and "Sephardim", or a combination of "Sephardim" and "members of Oriental ethnic groups". (3) Later, "Second Israel" came into vogue. Such semantic definitions do not always correspond to the self-image of the Jews who came from the non-European, non-Anglo Saxon Diasporas.
Another pejorative label, "Franks", apparently referred to North African Jewish communities because of their French influence. Since the early 1980s the term "Orientals" has taken root, far more than "Arab Jews", (4) which applies exclusively to Jews from Arab countries while omitting Jewish communities from the Mediterranean littoral and non-Arab countries in Asia and Africa.
Historians and political scientists tend to base the unforeseen growth of collective Oriental identity on the negative experiences they underwent upon immigrating to Israel. Thus, the definition of Oriental Jewry relies on research and is left to the scholar's autonomy and discretion. The definition in the context of social and political protest differs from that in our discussion of national identity and trauma memory.
There are a number of directions for research on Oriental Jewry and the Holocaust. For example, we could have examined Jews from Arab and Muslim countries who claim that they are an integral part of the Holocaust narrative, or we could have concentrated on Jewish individuals and families who were fortunate to be spared the Holocaust suffering, such as Yemenite, Persian, and Egyptian Jews. I decided to focus on the first group because the Holocaust impacted them in various ways, albeit often only marginally as in the case of Moroccan Jewry. This group is highly visible in the Israeli discourse, both quantitatively and because of its conspicuous social imprint, especially since the 1970s.
Two other groups are also part of our discussion: Iraqi Jews and Greek Jews. Greece is geographically part of Europe. Its Jewish communities were all but wiped out in the Holocaust. Nevertheless, while collecting material I noticed that Greek Jewry played a central role in the narrative. The sense of "otherness" that accompanied this group from the time it arrived in the Auschwitz concentration camp and the way it became part of the pantheon of Holocaust memory, especially given its cultural and geographical remove from the rest of European Jewry, led many people to view Greek Jewry as a bridge for the rest of Oriental Jewry, a bridge that can be traversed to connect with the Holocaust narrative. Thus, Greek Jewish communities are a key element in shaping Oriental Jewry's memory of the Holocaust.
In the early 1940s Iraqi Jews suffered from riots that erupted under Rashid Ali's pro-Nazi regime. They regarded these pogroms as manifestations of the Holocaust in Iraq and demanded to be part of the general story from the earliest stage. This matter cannot be ignored.
THE FIRST GENERATION
Ya'akov, an Israeli emissary from the socialist, Zionist youth movement "Dror", arrived in Algeria in late October 1949, nearly four years after WW II, and wrote in astonishment: "It's amazing how little influence European Jewry has had on the local Jews. Of course they knew all about the Holocaust, but since most families were not directly affected by it, they don't feel the intensity of the catastrophe ..." (5)
Did North African Jews really know "everything" about the Holocaust and see themselves as part of the Holocaust narrative while the war was going on and shortly afterwards? In retrospect, we can imagine the emissary Yaakov, too, was unaware of the full extent of what happened in Europe, just as the Yishuv (the Jewish community in prestate Israel) lacked information about the scope of the catastrophe at the time. The Holocaust was so unprecedented in terms of human experience that it took considerable time for the information to seep in and for a complete picture to come into focus through meetings with survivors from Europe and reportage from the trials of Nazi war criminals in various countries. More years had to pass until the information crystallized into what is now referred to as "Holocaust consciousness". (6)
Information of the events in Europe reached North African Jewry over three time periods. The first was between 1933 and 1940--when information mainly arrived via newspapers and radio and, most importantly, from direct contact with hundreds of refugees from Europe. "All of the Italian newspapers can be purchased in Tripoli," stated Eliyau Hatav, a Libyan Jew. Regarding refugees, he recalled that "a number of Jews who fled Germany arrived in Tripoli" and remained there. (7) As for the local Jews' attitude toward the refugees, he testified that, "When one [a Jewish refugee] appears he is received with open arms and helped in every possible way." (8)
In the second stage, 1941 to 1943, the entire community insulated itself and dealt with its own problems. It was no longer free to come to the aid of others. Even if someone tried to ascertain what was happening in Europe, he came up against a brick wall. The cutoff from the media and European Jewry was total; no information could be gleaned in North Africa. It is historical irony that this isolation occurred at the height of European Jewry's annihilation.
The third stage began with the liberation of North Africa in mid-1943. Accounts trickled in, always from secondary sources and after having gone through considerable layers of filtering.
All of the sources--eye-witness accounts, eulogies, and literary forms--testify that North African Jews were well-informed about events in Germany in the 1930s. They knew about Hitler's rise to power, his supporters' venomous anti-Semitism, the boycott against Jewish goods, and the annexation of Austria. All of this appears in written accounts. (9)
Avraham Cohen from Libya related his story decades after the events.
Naturally we heard about Hitler's coming to power, his hatred of the Jews, and his sweeping plans. This is why we boycotted all German goods. I remember that I was still in school and we refused to buy German pencil sharpeners because they had 'made in Germany' written on them.
Eliyahu Hatab recalled that, "When the Jewish community heard about the persecutions it ordered all Jewish merchants who imported goods from Germany to cease buying from Germany." When asked if this was a boycott Hatab answered: "It definitely was a boycott!" The newspaper, Le Reve Juif, published in Tunisia, advocated, as early as July 22, 1932, boycotting German merchandise because of Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries in Germany. (10)
The North African Jews' feeling of solidarity with their tyrannized brethren in Europe proves that some of them at least took great interest in what was happening in Europe and felt a deep sense of common Jewish fate and identity. Many accounts mention the thousands of Jewish refugees from Europe who sought a safe haven in Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria, (11) regarded by many as way stations on their route overseas.
The local Jews united to offer as much assistance as possible. Several committees were established to help the Jewish refugees. The Tangier community council set up an aid committee for the refugees, and in Casablanca, the charismatic attorney, Helen Kazes Ben Atar, established a rescue committee on her own initiative.
The term "Germans" is repeatedly used in the accounts of North African Jews, unlike in the thousands of testimonies of European survivors. The term "Nazis" is practically non-existent in North African Jewry's parlance. These Jews (excluding Tunisia) seem to have had no contact with the S.S., only with Vichy government representatives or Axis soldiers. Even when the Jewish communities in Tunisia encountered the S.S., headed by Walter Rauff, (12) the experience was not as traumatic as was their contact with the German army, which conscripted many Jews into forced labor details. At the time, the fate of North African Jewry was viewed within the context of WW II rather than the Holocaust, and the North African Jews themselves were perceived as civilians caught between the German, Italian, and Allied armies rather than as Holocaust victims. (13)
A dramatic feature was the near total lack of information on events in Europe.
We knew that Hitler acceded to power, we knew about the persecution of the Jews, but we knew nothing …