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Jews, Israel, & Antisemitism in the Muslim World

By Jonah Kaufman-Cohen

On Thursday, October 29th, I attended "The Holocaust, Antisemitism and the Memory of the Jewish Past in the Arab World." This panel disscussion dealt with the memory of both the Holocaust and the vanishing Jewish communities in the Muslim world. Elizabeth Thompson, a scholar of Islam and the Middle East, moderated the panel discussion. The panelists were a diverse and accomplished bunch. Mehnaz Alfridi is a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College whose research attempts to understand memory of the Holocaust in the Islamic World. Robert Zatloff is the director of the Center for Near East Policy. His research focuses on the history of the Holocaust in the Arab world. Aomar Boum is a professor of anthropology at UCLA who studies the memory of Moroccan Jewry amongst Muslim Moroccans.

Professor Thompson introduced the topic as an emerging historiography filling an important gap in scholarship. She argued that it is important to understand the impact of the Holocaust, a pivotal trauma for Jews and Europeans, in the Islamic world. Thompson asserted that the Holocaust and colonialism have a shared history that needs to be understood. She highlighted the unfortunate necessity that faced Zionists who, in seeking the safety of their own people, came into conflict with Arabs at a time when the Arab world was fighting to end colonialism. Thompson noted that the young Israeli state made the memory of the Holocaust part of the bedrock of the new country in a way that politicized memory of the Holocaust in the Arab World; however, she asserts that both memory of the Holocaust and the Nakba, the displacment of Palistinians during the 1948 war, have a common root in the struggle against racism.

Professor Alfridi’s work follows a similar line to that of Professor Thompson. She seeks to educate people on the link between the Holocaust and colonialism. Alfridi spoke on being an example of a Muslim who sees the importance of Holocaust remembrance. I found Professor Alfridi’s account of the lack of memory of the Holocaust in Pakistan especially compelling. She spoke of Mein Kampf being sold at bookstores in airports along with other cavalier uses of Nazi symbols. Her work attempts to remedy such casual antisemitism by acknowledging both Jewish trauma stemming from the Holocaust and Muslim trauma stemming from colonization. She argued that the Nazis used propaganda to exacerbate tensions between Jews and Muslims in the Islamic World in order to extend the Holocaust into the Middle East and North Africa.

Robert Zatloff spoke on his research on how the Holocaust played out in North Africa during the three years the Axis powers occupied the region. I was struck by his story of how memory can change over the course of generations. He gave an example of a Tunisian man who had helped Jews escape the Holocaust but whose grandchildren believed that their grandfather had rescued German soldiers instead. Zatloff gave another example of a deeply Islamophobic Jew living in France who was rescued by a Muslim man during the Holocaust. Zatloff argues that Arabs under Axis occupation fell into the same categories as European Christians. They were either collaborators, bystanders, or members of the resistance. Memory of this history has been suppressed or manipulated in the Arab World by a succession of regimes based on their feelings towards Israel. As a result, not only memories of collaboration but also of resistance have been obscured. Zatloff believes that the rediscovery of Arabs’ roles in saving Jews during the Holocaust can be a path towards harmony between the two groups.

Aomar Boum spoke primarily about another important piece of shared Arab-Jewish history. His work focuses on the disappearance of Morocco’s Jewish community following the creation of the State of Israel. Like Zatloff, Professor Boum’s research examines how memories are passed down and changed from generation to generation. He found that the Arab-Israeli conflict influenced the memory of Jews in different ways for each generation. Like Alfridi and Zatloff, Boum hopes that his work will help heal the divisions between Jews and Muslims. To this end, his work is written primarily for a Moroccan audience. He hopes that his work will go beyond college students in Morocco and filter down to a new generation of Morrocans.

The issues of Jewish-Islamic relations raised in this discussion are vital, if fraught, issues. When studying what these distinguished scholars study, one must walk a razor’s edge between finding a shared history and creating false equivalencies. From a historical standpoint, I found Zatloff’s work to be the most compelling. It is important to remember that the Holocaust was not a phenomenon confined to Europe, and survivors from North Africa and the Middle East should have their stories told. It saddened me to hear that Muslim communities in North Africa have had to hide or choose to forget their role in saving Jews, but Zatloff’s project of saving these stories gave me hope. When it comes to comparing the Shoah with the Nakba, one should never draw a moral equivalency; however, I agree with Thompson and Afridi that only by mutually acknowledging one another’s trauma can peace come to both Jews and Muslims in the Middle East. In all I thought this discussion pointed to a valuable way forward towards a world where memories of the Holocaust and displacement are harnessed to bring people together rather than weaponized to drive them apart.

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