- The Holocaust and North Africa ed. by Aomar Boum, Sarah Abrevaya Stein
This collection of fifteen essays and commentaries by noted scholars constitutes an invaluable contribution to the growing body of literature on the Holocaust, North Africa, and the Middle East.
There was a significant Jewish population of about half a million in North Africa at the outbreak of World War II. These communities were directly affected by the Shoah. Geographical proximity to Europe, the presence of German troops from February 1941 to May 1943, and control over much of the region by the governments of Vichy France and Fascist Italy mean this volume helps fill a gap in Holocaust historiography. As much or more than other recent works, The Holocaust and North Africa expands our knowledge and understanding of the direct and indirect impact of Nazi persecution and mass murder in Europe on the Jews of North Africa. As the editors and several contributors make clear, this book joins other work in breaking what they term the “Eurocentric” character of Holocaust studies, with its tendency to view “victimhood” as applicable only to Ashkenazy communities. While the Sephardim of North Africa did not face systematic mass murder under a German occupation or nearby presence, they did face persecution that originated largely in Europe and was applied directly by French and Italian authorities in a harsh, if uneven, manner.
The title of this collection provides a context for the questions it addresses: definitions of the Holocaust, its geography, and particularly the varying persecution of its victims. That the editors have used “and North Africa” instead of “in North Africa” points to both parallels with Europe and differences from it. The latter here includes the three French-controlled territories of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, and Italian-controlled Libya. These constituted parts of European colonial empires, with Tunisia briefly experiencing some degree of formal German occupation between [End Page 449] November 1942 and May 1943. As several contributors emphasize, the reality of antisemitism overlapped with issues of French and Italian colonialism and (mainly) Muslim anti-colonialism in the Jewish experience in North Africa before, during, and after the war.
Several essays illustrate how persecution of the Jews in these four territories was usually not the result of direct German “orders,” but rather more about the policies of Vichy France beginning in late 1940, or those of Fascist Italy following application of anti-Jewish laws of 1938 in Libya. Nowhere do the contributors relieve Germany of responsibility; some point to postwar German reparations to Jewish survivors from North Africa. Moreover, within the context of a variety of French and Italian colonial structures, interests, and policies—combined with the antisemitism of some local colonial administrators and some among the colonial-settler populations, as well as the geographical separation of North Africa from Europe—the nature of the persecution was quite varied.
That there was nothing comparable in North Africa to the systematic “Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe” is quite clear. Significant evidence indicates that there would have been a comparable Final Solution in North Africa had the Axis powers won the war. This assumes that the Germans could have persuaded the French and Italian governments to permit the mass murder of the Jews in North Africa, given that the Nazis generally did not intend to challenge French and Italian sovereignty there. Nevertheless, this collection demonstrates the direct impact of the Final Solution in Europe on the Jews of North Africa. That impact often depended upon the particular political status of each of the four territories within existing French and Italian colonial structures. It also depended upon the status of individual Jews. For instance, most Algerian Jews had been French citizens since the Crémieux Decree of 1870; in October 1940, however, Vichy France determined that Jews in France and Algeria were to be defined by “race,” and therefore were no longer “French”; Moroccan and Tunisian Jews on the...