When Nazi Germany’s Afrika Korps invaded Tunisia in 1942, panic quickly spread
among members of the local Jewish community, many of whom packed their
belongings and fled to the countryside, fearing persecution.
Saadon of the Hebrew University recalled, in an interview with the The Jerusalem
Post last week, how his parents had to live in hiding until the French colony
was liberated by the allies.
“They remember exactly how they left their
houses and lived in a little village with Muslims in the country,” Saadon
“They had to pay for their accommodation but they were well treated
Relatively good ties between Jews and Muslims in North Africa
during World War II stand in stark contrast to the treatment of their
coreligionists by gentiles in Europe at the same time and is the central theme
of the English-language lecture Saadon is scheduled to deliver at the Ben-Zvi
Institute in Jerusalem on Tuesday, on the occasion of International Holocaust
Whereas in Europe Jews were hunted down by locals – in
Lithuania the Jewish community was almost annihilated by nationalist militias
without the Nazis lifting a finger – the Jews of North Africa were for the most
part left unharmed by Muslims.
“There was no violence towards Jews during
the war from Muslims,” he said.
“Even between 1911 when Libya was
occupied by the Italians, until 1943, there was a lot of tension between the
Italians and the Jews, but the Jews were relatively on good terms with the
“The question is how to explain this difference: Muslims gave
shelter to Jews during the war during the bombardment of Libya. For instance,
Jews lived in Arab villages. They paid money, but their lives were
At the same time there was no particular sense of camaraderie
between members of the different faiths, Saadon said. In fact, in other parts of
the Muslim world some Muslims sided with the Nazis.
Haj Amin al-Husseini famously spent the war in Berlin, where he helped organize
a Muslim unit to fight on the Axis side. In Baghdad, an Axis-supported junta
briefly seized power from the pro- British government.
“North Africa is
not the case of the Middle East,” he said. “Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine
had a different process.”
On one occasion, a Muslim man in the Maghreb
even helped save Jewish lives.
“Khaled Abdul-Wahab was a Muslim from Gsfa
in Tunisia, who had a dye factory,” Saadon said. “When he thought the Germans
were going to take the Jews and kill them, he gave them shelter. A scholar found
the story and asked Yad Vashem to make him a Righteous Among the Nations, but
they have not yet done so yet.”
Still, Saadon was careful to mention that
there were a few notable exceptions to the relatively good Jewish-Muslim ties in
“In November 1942 there were some riots against Jews in
Morocco in response to jubilation by Jews regarding the US invasion of that
country,” Saadon said.
“French officers reacted by inciting Muslims
against Jews but no Jews were killed in the riots.
“In 1945 there was a
pogrom against Jews in Libya. Why? British had conquered the country and tension
existed. One way of showing they cannot govern Libya was to riot, and the Jews
were the target. It lasted three days and 132 Jews were killed.
the most significant pogrom [in the region] since the beginning of the war until
the establishment of Israel.”
As awful as the pogrom in Libya was, it was
still a relatively isolated occurrence compared to the mass murders of Jews by
locals in Eastern Europe, some of which continued after the war, as in Kielce in
1946, where a mob killed 40 Jewish refugees.
How does one account for
good Jewish- Muslims ties during World War II, especially given their quick
post-war deterioration? “The war was marginal to the nationalist movements in
North Africa. They did not see it as their turning point for independence,”
Saadon said. “Only after the war, when they saw how weak France was, did they
accelerate their struggle to have their independence.”