Edited by Aomar Boum and Sarah Abrevaya Stein
Reviewed by Lawrence Rosen for the Jewish Review of Books – Spring 2019
“Victim Enough? The Jews of North Africa During the Holocaust”
Soon after the fall of France in 1940, on the anniversary of his ascent to the throne, the sultan of Morocco, Muhammad V, held a banquet. Present at the palace were officials from the collaborationist Vichy regime who had forced him to sign laws setting educational and occupational quotas for the country’s Jews and requiring them to move back into their ghettos. Present too, however, was a group of rabbis the sultan had sneaked into the palace in a supply wagon and seated next to the French officials. Appalled, a Vichy representative wrote back to his superiors:
For the first time, the Sultan invited representatives of the Jewish community to the banquet and placed them most obviously in the best seats, right next to the French officials. The Sultan had wanted personally to introduce the Jewish individuals present. When the French officials expressed surprise at the presence of the Jews at the meeting, the Sultan told them: “I in no way approve of the new anti-Semitic laws and I refuse to be associated with any measure of which I disapprove. I wish to inform you that, as in the past, the Jews remain under my protection and I refuse to allow any distinction to be made among my subjects.”
On another occasion, the sultan told the Jewish community representatives that “I consider you to be Moroccans in the same capacity as Muslims, and your property, like theirs, will not be touched.” Later, he invited another group of Jews to his son’s circumcision, telling them that “my palace is open at all times.”
Were these the actions of a decent and courageous man, an assertion of sovereignty by a beleaguered sultan, or merely a negotiating tactic by a clever, if powerless, leader? And even if it is only a myth that the sultan threatened to wear a yellow badge himself if the Vichy regime forced them upon the Jews, what is the backdrop to Muslim-Jewish relations in North Africa during World War II that distinguishes it from the European experience?
Indeed, in the absence of death camps, crematoria, and skeletal survivors, is it fair to speak of the experience of Maghrebi Jews and that of their European coreligionists during the Holocaust in the same breath? Aomar Boum and Sarah Abrevaya Stein, the editors of the fine new collection The Holocaust and North Africa, think so, albeit with historical nuance. “[T]he Holocaust was experienced by Jews in North Africa,” they write, “through the implementation of French and Italian racial laws, the expropriation of property and economic disenfranchisement, and internment and forced labor.”
In the years leading up to the war, roughly 470,000 Jews lived in the countries of North Africa: 240,000 in Morocco, 110,000 in Algeria, 80,000 in Tunisia, and 40,000 in Libya. Some of these Jews traced their ancestry to traders who accompanied Phoenicians in the 9thcentury B.C.E., others to those who fled Roman Palestine after the destruction of the Second Temple, still others to those expelled from Spain in 1492. Notwithstanding moments of pillage and chaos, when regimes teetered and tyrants reigned, there was, unlike most periods in Europe, no endemic history of anti-Jewish depredation in North Africa. So long as they remained apolitical and deferential, Jews were often ignored but rarely mistreated. One way of accounting for the position of Jews in North Africa as opposed to those living in Europe is to think of them as intimate and valued strangers who occupied an interstitial place in the organization of Muslim society.
If you have even the most passing notion of the Arab world, it probably includes an image of the bazaar, a marketplace in which hawking and haggling are rampant and the prices depend more on patron-client relationships than impersonal market mechanisms. If you then think of this social world as rather like the bazaar, you can picture a culture in which people are constantly building networks of indebtedness that define who they are. It is a world in which a loan can be repaid with a marital intervention or a political favor, virtually all relationships being negotiable, a matter of what the traffic will bear. In this complex pool of exchange and favor, obligation and ingratiation, the Jew is betwixt and between—too weak to be a potent ally, too distant to be a member of the family, but by that very weakness immunized from certain entanglements.
Not being fully part of the dominant society’s scheme of reciprocity had its advantages: A Jew could, for example, enter a Muslim’s home to repair the plumbing but was not likely to use his knowledge of the house or its inhabitants to help a Muslim acquaintance gain a bargaining advantage; he could keep a Muslim’s confidence but wasn’t likely to convert it into a marital alliance. Since, as the Arabic saying goes, “your neighbor who is close is more important than your kinsman who is far away,” the nearby Jew could be viewed as neither intrusive nor threatening. Like that stranger you meet while traveling and to whom you might tell things you wouldn’t tell a friend, the Jew occupied a crucial space in traditional Muslim society, all of whose other relationships implied claims of obligation. Like women (to whom they were commonly compared) a Jew was both weak and valuable. To this day in North Africa, a house abandoned by departing Jews may be left alone by Muslim neighbors in the belief—at least among an older generation—that in their return a missing part of local self-regard will be restored.
It was into this complex traditional culture that the European colonist—and at the time of World War II the European fascist—intruded. The repercussions, however, were not identical throughout North Africa. Algeria, which had been conquered (though not fully pacified) in 1830, was rendered an integral part of France. As a result, it saw the settlement of tens of thousands of Europeans in both urban and rural areas, many of whom came to regard themselves as a distinct racial population. When Jews were made French citizens by the Crémieux Decree in 1870, Muslims raised few objections, but as nationalistic sentiment clashed with settler interests the sense of Algeria as comprised of separate racial groups increased significantly. Morocco, which became a French protectorate in 1912, contained by far the largest number of Jews in the region in part because, as both traders and noncompetitive neighbors, they played a key role in Moroccan society. In Tunisia, which fell under colonial sway in 1881, the Jews quickly adopted much of French culture and identified heavily with the “civilizing mission” of the colonial power. Libya, which became the Italian prize in the scramble for African colonies, is remembered by Jews who lived there in the prewar years as a place of close familial and community ties, warm relations with immediate Muslim neighbors, and increasing tensions as Mussolini’s policies took hold.