Do Mizrahi Holocaust Commemorative Practices Challenge the Zionist Project?

By Shayna Zamkanei
Submitted to Session P4801 (Mizrahi Cultural Trespassers: Boundary Crossing, Patriotism and Betrayal in Israel/Palestine, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
In 2012, at the “Justice for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries and Iran” conference held in Jerusalem, Meir Kahalon, the Director General of the Central Organization for Jews from Arab Countries and Iran, lamented the lack of recognition for Middle Eastern Jews. Unlike some of the other conference speakers, his concerns were not rooted in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rather, his speech focused on the parallels between the “Shoah” [Holocaust] in Europe, and the “Shoah” of North Africa. His frustration with the lack of formal commemoration for North African Jewry in World War II invites us to consider the role that Holocaust commemoration serves in Middle Eastern Jewish efforts for recognition.

In the past decade, organizations like Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, and Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the Israeli government, have advocated recognizing Middle Eastern Jews as “refugees.” In tandem with these controversial claims, however, less well known are—as seen from Kahalon’s remarks—Middle Eastern Jewish demands for recognition as “Holocaust survivors.” These demands appear strange on two fronts: first, because within and outside of Israel, there has been a longstanding view that Middle Eastern Jews were untouched by the Holocaust, and were, in fact, insensitive to the Zionist establishment’s preoccupation with it; and second, because Middle Eastern Jewish demands for refugee recognition and Holocaust survivor status renders the government of Israel as both an ally and opponent, respectively. Having recently enlisted the support of the government in pursuing refugee claims, why would Middle Eastern Jews jeopardize this support by demanding to be recognized as Holocaust survivors? And what are the political effects of these demands?

In answering this question, I offer a framework for understanding how Jews displaced from Arab countries, now living in Israel and the United States, have come to situate their own experiences of displacement and discrimination in their countries of origin, and then again in the nascent state of Israel, against the backdrop of the Holocaust and European Jewish experiences of persecution. Drawing upon newspaper archives, literary works, and oral history projects, I examine the effects of Middle Eastern Jews' invocation of the Holocaust and appropriation of Holocaust commemorative practices. I argue that while these practices demonstrate an appeal for inclusion in Israeli national memory, they ultimately challenge Zionist hegemony.