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4 November 2021

“The Impact of World War II on Jews in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)” 

The 2021 Simon Wiesenthal Memorial Lecture, entitled “The Impact of World War II on Jews in the Middle East and North Africa”, was given on 28 October by Reeva S. Simon, historian and author – in the lead-up to the commemoration of the 1938 Kristallnacht.

Under the auspices of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in the United Kingdom (SWC-UK) and Harif, the UK-based Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), this year’s Zoom meeting focused on the still little known history of MENA Jewry’s suffering during the Holocaust.

See on YouTube:

The Memorial Lecture was opened by Shimon Samuels, Director for International Relations of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, who stressed how “close we are to the 83rd anniversary of Kristallnacht – the 1938 Night of Broken Glass, Prelude to the Holocaust.”

He recalled that, “thirty miles of the Channel lay between British Jews and the Holocaust on the continent. In the Wannsee Protocol, the Nazi death list numbered 11 million throughout Europe... the over 1 million Jews of the Middle East and North Africa region would have been added, if Rommel had won El Alamein... The MENA ‘What If Factor’ of history is less widely known, but MENA Jews had their own Kristallnachten. In Iraq, the Farhud. The internment of Libyan Jews and deportation of European Jewish refugees...”

Lyn Julius, journalist and founder of Harif, author of “Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish civilization in the Arab world vanished overnight”, published in several languages and soon to appear in Arabic.

Julius recalled that this was “the third joint Wiesenthal Centre – Harif event, each occasion raising awareness on the plight of MENA Jews before, during and after World War Two”... In particular, she thanked Reeva Simon for her book “The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa: The Impact of World War II,” that “fills a huge gap in the knowledge of this obscure part of history and corrects the misconception that Jews of MENA were not affected by Hitler’s war and the Holocaust.”

The Memorial Lecture speaker, Reeva Spector Simon, was former Associate Director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. Her lecture presented little known facts:
- Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” was serialized in Arabic newspapers;
- Egyptian Jews boycotted German products in the 1930s;
- Forced labour camps for Jews across the Sahara;
- Tel Aviv and Haifa were bombed by Fascist Italy's Air Force;
- 180 Iraqi Jews were killed overnight in the 1941 Baghdad Farhud;
- Jews in Iran saved children fleeing from Poland;
- Algerian Jews were involved in the Allied invasion of North Africa;
- Jews in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Morocco helped European refugees...

Simon explained how “the story of MENA Jews is an integral part of the World War Two narrative. The Jews of the region went through bombings and invasions, antisemitic regulations, forced labour and deportations, attacks on Jewish communities and their impoverishment. Despite all, local Jews worked and fought together with the Allies and provided assistance to refugees escaping from Nazi occupied Europe.”

Her talk covered the Jewish communities of the MENA region from Morocco to Central Asia, the network of Jewish schools, the integration within the Muslim world and relationship with the successive rulers...

European colonization began changing the geography and politics of the region, as well as the relationship between Jews and Muslims, by reflex sparking nationalisms against colonial powers, kindled by Nazi Germany... The circle entered a new spate of Nazi-inspired antisemitism... new political movements viewing Hitler’s Mein Kampf as a plan of action, Kristallnacht made the Holocaust the objective.

4 November 2021

A Q&A session brought in participants, who as children, lived through the dramatic events recounted by Simon. See Isaak Sadaka’s harrowing personal testimony below.

David Dangoor, Chair of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in the United Kingdom, who had spent his childhood in Baghdad, closed the meeting. He thanked all “participants and, in particular, Reeva Simon and Lyn Julius for giving, through their books, academic rigour to a subject that is now attracting public interest and media attention.”

He added, “today’s initiative will add to a positive change in people’s views, as it goes to the roots of the problems in the Middle East, in particular regarding the capacity to tolerate difference.”

Isaac Sadaka - In memory of the Farhud, June 1941
“I hid in a pit to avoid the massacre of the vicious mob, I was bitten by a snake and experienced an agonizing pain. Yet after a while I gained immunity and the snake bite became a kiss of love. We lived thereafter in harmony and co-existence. After two days of rampage and invasion of the sanctity of our homes by vicious crowds, engaging in butchering men, women and little children, raping wives and throwing the dead bodies of newly born children into the river.
“I did not venture to get out of my hiding pit and look into the eye of those ugly faces that know no mercy and who had eventually escaped justice. I did not want any longer to be an abiding citizen of a country that lacks the moral courage to punish those who were engaged in a barbaric act of heartless savagery. A country that lacks the moral obligation to compensate those families who lost their loved ones by shameful criminal acts of treachery and utter barbarism.”

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“My cause was justice, not vengeance. My work is for a better tomorrow and a more secure future for our children and grandchildren.” (Simon Wiesenthal, 1908-2005)