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.

Dr. Haim 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 said.

“They had to pay for their accommodation but they were well treated there.”

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 Remembrance Day.

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 Muslims.

“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 saved.”

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.

Palestinian leader 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 North Africa.

“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.

This was 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.”

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