For the first time this year, Haim Taib, the son of Shoah survivors from Tunisia, lit a torch at the Auschwitz March of the Living.
Jews survived six months of Nazi control in 1942 – 5,000 men were sent to 32 forced labor camps. Some died of typhus and several were shot by sadistic guards. At the end of the occupation, some 80 years ago this month, 17 Jews were deported to Europe, never to return.
But official recognition by the Israeli government that Tunisian Jews are eligible for Holocaust reparations has been a long time coming. And some, like Yitzhak Smadar, are still fighting for their rights.
Smadar was a baby during World War II. He had two brothers. Their mother sent the three boys to a monastery in Tunis and later France. Yitzhak Smadar and his brothers never saw her again.
He moved to Israel, in 1951. According to a 1957 law, survivors who moved to Israel before 1953 could receive payment from Germany and other governments via a department of the Israeli Finance Ministry responsible for Israeli Holocaust survivors. But it would not be for 60 years that Tunisian Jews won the right to reparations, after prolonged court battles.
Ambiguity over ruling parties
One reason was the ambiguity over who exactly ruled Tunisia. The Tunisian Jews had not been deported and most held Tunisian citizenship. Yet, the Tunisian regime was not independent – the country was a French protectorate before the Nazis established control in November 1942.
The Tel Aviv court finally ruled, in 2008, that Tunisian Jews could receive monthly stipends. Even so, survivors under 15, like Yitzhak, did not become eligible for reparations until 2000, when the law was amended.
The Finance Ministry agreed to pay his debts: they canceled his reparation payments from the welfare department of the ministry. The government gave him a roof over his head and paid for his national health insurance but nothing else.
Once he had paid his debts, Smadar found that Israel would not renew his reparations payments. He began a long, drawn out battle in the courts.
Smadar pleaded his case in local and district courts, but each time his case was rejected. He tried to appeal to the High Court on five occasions, but all five times his trial was canceled, even though his legal costs had been waived.
After much stonewalling, Smadar’s case was heard in by the Supreme Court, in 1919. The court delivered its verdict on January 6, 2020. Smadar lost his appeal.
He has since written to senior government and opposition politicians, to the prime minister and the president.
According to Professor Yitzhak Kerem, who campaigns for Sephardi rights, the main stumbling block seems to be Meni Mazuz. Ironically, Mazuz, who has served as Israel’s attorney-general, is himself a Tunisian Jew from Djerba. As a High Court judge, he has frequently ruled against Holocaust survivors. Kerem believes Mazuz has a conflict of interest and no empathy with his fellow Sephardim.
Meanwhile, Yitzhak Smadar is still waiting for justice.
The writer is the co-founder of Harif, the UK Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. She is the author of Uprooted: How 3,000 Years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Vanished Overnight.