Sephardic Jews have the same gut reaction to the Holocaust as their Ashkenazic counterparts? Or do they hearken back to the primary atrocity of their history hundreds of years ago — the Spanish Inquisition?
As an Ashkenazic Jew with tragic family ties to the Holocaust, basic questions pertaining to shared or differing experiences surrounding the Holocaust point to deeper questions regarding what actually divides or unites us as Jews. Is the divide imaginary, and how did it play out during the worst tragedy of Jewish history?
Seismic events of the Holocaust led to the creation of the State of Israel and the rebuilding of Jewish life worldwide out of the ashes — families, yeshivos, Torah learning, communal institutions. Is there any overlap in the tragedy that shaped the Jewish experience post-Holocaust for Ashkenazim and Sephardim? Two generations later, can it bind us in our reaction to current threats of antisemitism?
I brought these questions with me last week to Project Witness’ 7th Annual Worldwide Holocaust Educators’ Conference. This year, the conference was titled, “The Untold Plight: The Sephardic Communities in the Holocaust.” I walked away more educated, more informed, and with more questions.
The conference explored the little-known story of how Sephardic Jews fared during the Holocaust. The tragic and grisly account of Greek Jewry, of whom 87% were murdered during the Holocaust, with many used as Sonderkommandos in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, is more widely known. But the fate of Jews in the North African countries of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algiers, and even in Bulgaria, is lesser known. The conference shone a light on all.
For most Sephardic Jews, geography played the role of savior in countries where the Nazis struggled to gain a foothold. But the tragic fate of the Greek Jews left little doubt as to the Nazis’ intentions had they dominated the countries they invaded or sought to invade.
Edwin Black, the award-winning historian, author, and investigative journalist, spoke at length of the alliance between the Third Reich and Arab leaders in countries like Iraq. It was a partnership amidst a complicated political and ideological milieu that involved Muslims chafing under British colonial rule but was simplified by the ever-coveted prize of oil. The combination of Jew-hatred and a rapacity for the liquid gold needed to advance the war effort combined to cause the Farhud, the violent and bloody pogrom against the Jews of Baghdad in 1941, which resulted in hundreds killed and injured (estimates vary) and over 1,500 businesses and homes damaged and ransacked.
I was puzzled by the strange collaboration between a nation obsessed with blond, blue-eyed Aryans and Arabs. The Nazis must have held their noses to partner with Semitic dark-skinned Muslims. I asked Mr. Black how the ironic but pragmatic partnership was able to trump such an ideological disparity. It seems that greed and Jew-hatred know no bounds. Together, they presented a lethal combination, as evidenced by the Farhud and the lovefest between Hitler and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini.
In contrast to Jews in Arab lands, Dr. Michael Berenbaum, the Holocaust scholar, world-renowned historian, and Director of the Sigi Ziering Institute in Los Angeles, spoke of the catastrophic annihilation of Greek Jews. And he discerned between the overarching, focused, and efficient goal of the Nazis, as opposed to other nationalities, to eradicate all Jews. To the Nazis, Dr. Berenbaum explained, that goal was numbers one, two, and three in priority. He contrasted that to the rising antisemitism of today, particularly in America, where he thinks Jews do not seem to be the number-one most hated group.
America today is not Germany of the 1930s, but ever-increasing antisemitic events in this country have upended the long absence of them post-Holocaust. Especially when terrorist attacks in Israel are proliferating, with many Americans increasingly siding with the Palestinian perpetrators.
The very week of the Project Witness Conference saw too many antisemitic events to chronicle here. They included the neo-Nazi declaration of a national “Day of Hate,” shooting attacks against Jews on the streets of Los Angeles, and antisemitic demonstrations in front of a Chabad Jewish center in Florida. A school district in Maryland dealt with nine reported antisemitic incidents occurring over a five-day period, and the New York City Council approved a plan to name a block in Harlem after antisemitic Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad.
A new AJC poll came out that week documenting the fact that most Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish, think that Jew-hatred is growing. The New York Times ran another article maligning an ultra-Orthodox community in New York. Two Jewish professors at CUNY accused the college of targeting them with retaliatory investigations for their complaints about antisemitism on campus. And CUNY, plagued by antisemitic accusations, selected a former director of the antisemitic Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to host its first “Diversity Dialogue” for employees.
It is said that history repeats itself. In addition to garden-variety white supremacists, another unholy alliance has sprung up between Jew-haters and Muslims. Its name is intersectionality, and it has found a new home among progressives joining forces with Israel-hating Muslims on college campuses, mainstream media, entertainment, and even in the halls of Congress. This time around, the duo has shifted its animosity towards what they deem to be a new colonialist oppressor of Arabs, twisting the truth of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship to justify antisemitism.
To the antisemite, past and present, a Jew is a Jew. There is no difference between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. During the Holocaust, any difference between their experiences was simply a result of circumstance and degree, not intent.
Today, there are practically no more Sephardic Jews in Arab lands. The creation of the State of Israel resulted in another mass expulsion of Sephardim from their longtime homes. Sephardim now live side by side with Ashkenazim both in Israel and the Diaspora, with many intermingling.
To halachic Jews, the division between these two groups is cultural. But that division breaks down in the face of antisemitism. The disparity in past suffering, which might have created gaps in relatability to the greatest Jewish tragedy of our times, ultimately dissipates when facing the present growing danger of Jew-hatred. And it should spur growing unity to confront it. After all, both Sephardim and Ashkenazim read the same Parshas Zachor this upcoming Shabbos.