Forgotten chapter

Who are the righteous among the Arabs, and why has the world abandoned them?

satloff book face 298 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
satloff book face 298 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Until now, the general belief - held by Arabs and non-Arabs alike - has been that the Holocaust was not an Arab affair. As far as Israeli Jews are concerned, about the only Arab who figures prominently in the Holocaust was the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el-Husseini, who was an avid supporter of the Nazis. But now Robert Satloff, a well-known Washington-based public intellectual on Middle East affairs, has written the story of how the Arabs of North Africa reacted to the persecution of the Jewish minority living in their midst. The time was 1940-43, when the pro-Nazi Vichy regime took over France's colonial rule of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, while Fascist Italy ruled Libya. His book, Among the Righteous - Lost Stories from the Holocaust's Long Reach into Arab Lands, has gotten considerable buzz since it came out at the beginning of last month. Most of the attention seems to have focused on Satloff's revelation that many Arabs saved Jews during the war, and that at least some merit recognition as "righteous gentiles." (To date, Yad Vashem has recognized 21,310 righteous gentiles, including a number of Muslims, mainly from Albania, but no Arabs. Because of the book, though, that might change.) Still, the story of how the Arabs in North Africa lived with the persecution of the 500,000 Jews among them during World War II turns out not to have been a resoundingly proud chapter in Arab history. Satloff writes: "I believe that Arab behavior during the years when the Germans and their allies controlled their countries was not so different from the behavior of Europeans when Germans and their allies controlled their countries. Specifically, most were indifferent; some played a supporting role in the persecution; and a smaller group did what they could to protect Jews, defend them or just ease their suffering." However, the author, who heads the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, doesn't necessarily agree with the conclusion that Arab behavior during the war was, on balance, a cause for shame. Interviewed by phone at his home, he shied away from passing overall judgment on the North African Arabs of that period. "The real message is that Arabs were actors for good and for bad," he said. Given that he writes in his introduction that his professional life has been dedicated to the study of Arabs, I asked Satloff how his years of research for this book affected his opinion of Arabs. He replied evasively: "It hasn't given me a higher or lower opinion. I think I understand the complexity of Arab culture more now. One of my prime observations has been that they present a kaleidoscope of images, not just one." I put the question to him that if the Arabs under Nazi occupation acted toward the Jews about the way Europeans did, and if even Europe is ashamed of that behavior, shouldn't the Arabs be ashamed as well? And if even the Europeans have realized they owe the Jews an apology, doesn't it follow that the Arabs would owe the Jews an apology of their own? To this, Satloff offered a very forthright, convincing reply: Nazism was born and bred in Europe and imposed on Arab countries by Europeans. "The difference is night and day," he said. "The Holocaust was spawned by a European ideology and implemented by European governments. By contrast, there was no Arab government that said, 'Let us kill our Jews.' That did not happen in any way." If Satloff is at pains to promote the book as a human story, and one that doesn't necessarily make the Arabs look bad - and in fact brings to light stories of Arabs saving Jews from the Nazis - this is for good reasons. Deciding to do the book after 9/11, he set out to find at least one Arab righteous gentile whose story he could present as an answer to the Arab/Muslim fanaticism and violence that had permeated the atmosphere. As an honest historian, he tells the whole truth of that time and place as he found it, the good and the bad, and puts things in perspective. He writes unflinchingly about the North African Arabs' passive collaboration with the Nazis, as well as the active collaborators - the informers, the exploiters, the mobs, the sadistic camp guards. But Satloff clearly is not heartened by these findings, while he clearly is heartened to tell the stories of the righteous Arabs. In other words, he is at once an honest historian and a well-intentioned public intellectual. And as the story of the Arab encounter with the Holocaust is unknown to the public, this is a very important - and well-written - book, regardless of whether it ends up changing one's opinion of Arabs. AMONG SATLOFF'S goals is to get the Arab world to study the Holocaust, a subject no Arab country has in its school curriculum. He devotes a chapter to the various forms of Arab denial or diminishment of the Holocaust, writing that while outright endorsements of Nazism and utter denial of the Holocaust are limited to the Arab extremes, "across the Arab world, it is conventional wisdom to discount the numbers of the dead and to dispute the magnitude of the horror." But since Arab dismissal of the Holocaust is bound up with the fact that Western guilt over the Holocaust has worked tremendously to Israel's favor, and that many of Israel's supporters compare Arab hostility to Israel with Nazism, why expect Arabs to begin learning about their own role in the Holocaust - especially when, for the most part, that role was a shameful one? In reply, Satloff points out that the reaction to the book from Arab readers has been largely encouraging. "The main thrust of Arab reaction has come by mail from North Africa, saying 'thank you very much' for telling the story of Arab heroes and villains, for showing that Arabs are not just acted upon but are also responsible actors and for unearthing the fullness of the story," says the author, who lived in Morocco for more than two years while researching the book. It was written up, he notes, in the leading Moroccan weekly magazine, and the Moroccan ambassador to the US recently hosted a reception for him. "Some Arab critics have written things along the lines of, 'Ah hah! Here's Satloff who says that on top of everything else, we were responsible for the Holocaust, too!' But by and large, this has been a very minor opinion among readers," he says. Khaled Mahameed, a Nazareth attorney who has set up a Holocaust museum in his law office with photos purchased from Yad Vashem, and who is mentioned favorably in Satloff's book, said he intended to read it, adding that he'd read reviews of it on Arabic Web sites. "The reviews I've seen say the book shows that the Arabs saved a half-million Jewish people in North Africa," says Mahameed. Told that the book by no means credits the saving of 500,000 North African Jews to Arab heroism (some 4,000-5,000 Jews there were killed, Satloff notes, while the rest owed their salvation to the Allies' early routing of the Nazis in North Africa, thus preempting a likely mass extermination there, too), Mahameed insisted that resident Arabs deserved the credit. This, he said, is one of the main reasons why Arabs need to learn about the Holocaust - because they have much to be proud of in their rescues of persecuted Jews, certainly in comparison to Europeans and Russians. (Mahameed planned to attend this week's Holocaust denial conference in Teheran for the purpose of denouncing Holocaust denial, and arguing that it served the Muslim world's enemies, but Iran, which invited him, refused him a visa on Sunday.) As for the Jewish reaction to the book, the Anti-Defamation League awarded Satloff its Daniel Pearl Prize for promotion of tolerance. Many Jews likely would find their opinion of Arabs raised upon learning that a number of them saved Jews during World War II, sometimes at the risk of their own lives, and that a few Arab leaders, such as the sultan of Morocco, spoke out publicly, even in the midst of Vichy and Nazi pressure, on behalf of the Jews' welfare. Several Jewish readers, however, have found the book to be too "pro-Arab." "The typical criticism I get from Jews is, 'Where's the mufti?'" Satloff notes. "The mufti's story is very important, very powerful. But it's not part of the story of the Holocaust's reach into Arab lands and among Arab people. The mufti had relatively little impact on the reactions of Arab individuals to the Holocaust. His story is not this story." SATLOFF WRITES that while he originally set out to find just one righteous Arab, he "eventually met that goal and more; these pages tell the stories of several Arabs I believe merit recognition under rigorous definitions of 'righteous.'" Among them are Sheikh Taieb el-Okbi, a reformist Islamic leader in Algeria, who prevented pogroms against Algerian Jews; Muhammad Chenik, prime minister of Tunisia during the Nazi occupation, who saved Jews from Nazi labor camps and warned them of impending arrest; Si Kaddour Benghabrit, head of the Great Mosque of Paris and the most prominent Muslim official in Europe, who hid an untold number of Jews in the mosque and forged Muslim identity cards for them; and Khaled Abdelwahhab, a Tunisian notable who saved the girls of a Jewish family from sexual slavery and likely death at the hands of Nazi officers. There were many other Arab heroes in North Africa - "from the highest levels of government to ordinary people in villages, like Arab wet nurses who took in Jewish babies, Arab bakers who baked extra loaves for Jews on the lowest rung of the ration ladder and Arab shepherds who opened their huts to Jews escaping the bombing," says Satloff, adding that there are undoubtedly many more righteous Arabs whom he never uncovered. The reason no Arabs have been recognized as righteous gentiles, he writes, is "first, many Arabs (or their heirs) didn't want to be found, and second, Jews didn't look too hard." Satloff has been in touch with Yad Vashem about filling this gap, and Yad Vashem has been receptive. Mordechai Paldiel, director of Yad Vashem's Department of the Righteous Among the Nations, explains that the decision to recognize someone as a righteous gentile is made by a 25-member commission now headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Ya'acov Turkel and staffed by Holocaust survivors and researchers. On first look, though, Paldiel believes Abdelwahhab, at least, has a good chance of becoming the first Arab righteous gentile. "It's a nice case," he said, because from Satloff's book it appears that Abdelwahhab may well meet the criteria - he risked his life to save Jews, received no material compensation for it and his story is confirmed by testimony from the Jew or Jews he saved. Abdelwahhab's actions, which Satloff heard about from several sources, were confirmed by Anny Boukris, one of the girls he saved. Boukris died early this year, but Paldiel says he "received a transcript of her statement, and it looks promising." As for many of the other Arab heroes in the book, however, Paldiel is skeptical whether the evidence meets Yad Vashem's criteria - often the Jews who remembered what they did don't remember, or never knew, their names; or the recollections came from people who knew these heroes but had not themselves been saved by them. For instance, in the case of Tunisian prime minister Chenik, Paldiel says "his story goes around among people, we know he helped save Jews, but that's not enough for us, we have to have a personal account or valid documents." Paldiel says he is consulting with Satloff and seeking out North African Jewish immigrants in Israel who were saved from the Nazis by Arabs. "Hopefully we'll get some more information," he says. "It's up to people who were rescued to come forward. We're keeping our fingers crossed."