Cultivating scholarship and empathy in equal measure

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November 22, 2022. Rabbi Joshua Bittan of the Em Habanim Synagogue with Professor Aomar Boum on the night the synagogue honored Boum for his work. (Reprinted with permission of JNS.)

UCLA International Institute, January 17, 2023 — Cultural anthropologist Aomar Boum has had a very busy last two years, if not a busy last decade.

Over the past seven months alone, the UCLA Maurice Amado Professor of Sephardic Studies has published two books on the history of the Holocaust in North Africa during World War II: a co-edited volume and a graphic novel.

Wartime North Africa: A Documentary History, 1934–1950” (Stanford, 2022), is a collection of translated primary source documents from the region. “Undesirables: A Holocaust Journey to North Africa” (Stanford, 2023), is a graphic novel illustrated by Algerian cartoonist Nadjib Berber that covers the wartime years that came out this month.

RSVP to the book talk here.

These new books follow the publication — only four years ago — of “The Holocaust and North Africa” (Stanford, 2018), a collection of papers from a 2015 international conference organized by Boum and UCLA historian Sarah Abrevaya Stein, his co-editor on that volume and “Wartime in North Africa.”

In November 2022, the Moroccan Muslim scholar was honored by the Sephardim Em Habanim Synagogue in Los Angeles for his lifelong contributions to Moroccan Jewish history and Jewish-Muslim relations. Attended by over 400 people, including Sephardic and Moroccan Jews from LA and elsewhere in California, as well as officials from the California legislature and the Council of Moroccans Abroad, the joyous celebration reflected the long history of respect between the Muslims and Jews of Morocco.

Almost a year to the day earlier, in November 2021, Boum helped launch the Moroccan Jewish Studies program of the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies, where he is an affiliate faculty member. The scholar co-directs the new program with his scholarly collaborator Sarah Stein, who directs the center. Boum works with a team of scholars there to oversee the translation of books on Moroccan Jewish history and culture into Arabic with the goal of making that scholarship widely available in the Middle East.

Given the scope of the collaborative research in which he is engaged — both with colleagues at UCLA and with the U.S. Holocaust Museum — Boum considers the recent honor he received from the Em Habanim synagogue to be a shared honor.

“It was very touching to see them celebrate and acknowledge my work, but I really don’t think about it as only my work. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without UCLA. I’ve been able to do amazing work with the Leve Center for Jewish Studies, the Center for the Near Eastern Studies and the Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at UCLA,” he says.

“We’re working together to open up a space… for undergraduate and graduate students to learn from each other across centuries, across disciplines. It’s about us as an institution serving the Moroccan Jewish community, and as professors and educators, having a space for this community in our syllabi and programming.”

As an educator, Boum uses scholarship and history as a means to develop empathy for ‘the other’ among his students (and the general public) — whether the other represents Jews in Morocco, survivors of the Holocaust or contemporary migrants and refugees.

His newly published graphic novel, “Undesirables,” may be the most potent educational tool that Boum has yet created for reaching a younger generation of Middle Easterners with little direct experience of living alongside Jews. “This book is the fruit of almost 14 years of research,” says Boum.

RSVP for the book talk here.

Although there were no death camps in North Africa, Jews from throughout Europe and other parts of the Middle East were among an enormous wave of displaced international and North African exiles and emigres who ended up in Vichy work camps in the region, including large numbers of Spanish Republicans who fought against Franco.

“Instead of telling the history of the Holocaust from the perspective of a German family in Munich, I shift the lens and tell it from [the perspective of] encounters between a refugee from Berlin, who has some encounters with Senegalese and West Africans in a Vichy camp in North Africa, as well as with nationalists who are fighting for Algerian independence or Moroccan independence.

“The story of Hans Frank [a Jewish journalist], the main character, is a real story, but the book is also a compilation of other stories. The idea is to visualize the sufferings and the struggles of all the migrants and internees who ended up in North Africa.

“It’s an entry point to tell the story of the war, to tell a story of fascism, to tell a story of Nazi policies and racial policies and so on.”

The graphic novel is poised for widespread distribution in the region, having already been translated into both French and Arabic. A Moroccan publisher is already in place, talks with potential French publishers are ongoing and Boum is currently looking for an additional publisher in the Middle East.

The UCLA scholar considers the approach of the graphic novel as “a way to implicate, in many ways, young readers in Morocco and the Middle East in a global history by telling it from their own positionality, and to help them empathize with the story of ‘the other’ in Europe, the story of the descendants of a Jewish family who were killed in Auschwitz and other places.”

“Education is really liberating, it opens up your view of the world,” he says. “And the empathy you develop is central.”

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Published: Tuesday, January 17, 2023