First Arab righteous gentile?

Tunisian Khaled Abdelwahhab was nominated 18 months ago.

Abdelwahhab  224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Abdelwahhab 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The former director of Yad Vashem's Department of the Righteous has expressed his dissatisfaction with Israel's Holocaust Memorial for an "unreasonable" delay in bestowing the august title of Righteous Among the Nations on the first Arab nominated for the award. The unusual criticism of Israel's Holocaust Authority comes 18 months after a Tunisian aristocrat, Khaled Abdelwahhab, was nominated for Yad Vashem's highest honor. "I am amazed what is causing such a delay which is way beyond a reasonable amount of time," said Dr. Mordechai Paldiel, the former director of the Department of the Righteous at Yad Vashem, a position he held for 24 years. Paldiel, who prepared the Tunisian diplomat's file for the Yad Vashem committee studying the case, said that Abdelwahhab met Yad Vashem's strict criteria for recognizing a non-Jew as a Righteous Among the Nations, and that he was surprised to see that the case had not been approved by the committee to date. "I do not understand what is causing this delay," he said. Paldiel, who is currently working with the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, said he felt that if he were still in his previous position, the file would already have been approved. A Yad Vashem spokeswoman said this week that the case was still under discussion. She declined further comment on the issue, in keeping with Yad Vashem's policy of not commenting on such cases while they were under deliberation. Abdelwahhab, who died in 1997, was nominated for the award by Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who uncovered testimony that Abdelwahhab had hidden about two dozen Jews in his farm for four months after hearing that German officers planned to rape a local Jewish woman. The Jews, including the woman and her family, were sequestered by Abdelwahhab until the end of the German occupation. Satloff said that the facts of the case were "without dispute," and that it was "unexplainable" why Yad Vashem was taking so long to bestow the award. "I am not looking for any short cuts [but] given the uniqueness of the case I would have hoped it would have received expeditious review," Satloff said. "What is taking so long is to me unexplainable," he added. Yad Vashem's highest honor is bestowed on non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. The legal definition accepted by the committee of what entails risking one's life has, over the years, been broadened beyond summary execution, Paldiel said, and hundreds - if not thousands - of people have received the award under such criteria, making it puzzling why Abdelwahhab's case has not been approved to date. "Anyone who helped the Jews against the orders of the Nazis was endangering himself, even if that did not always mean that he would be killed," Paldiel said. He added that some committee members apparently did not think that Abdelwahhab took a risk by his actions, and were seeking further "clarifications" in the case, which could put off a decision for years. In an interview, Paldiel, a leading authority on rescue during the Holocaust whose own family was saved by a Catholic priest in France, suggested that part of the delay might have stemmed from the fact that in dealing with a nominee from North Africa, committee members were dealing with relatively uncharted territory, and were in need of a historian with expertise on what happened to the Jews of North Africa during World War II. Tunisia was the only North African country to come under direct Nazi rule, although neighboring Morocco and Algeria were governed by the pro-Nazi collaborators of Vichy France. In November 1942, following the invasion of Algeria and Morocco by the Allies, German and Italian troops invaded Tunisia. The Germans imposed anti-Semitic policies in Tunisia that included fines, forcing Jews to wear Star of David badges, and confiscating property. More than 5,000 Jews were sent to forced labor camps, where 46 are known to have died. Tunisia's Jews were saved from annihilation at the hands of the Germans when the Allies entered the capital, Tunis, on May 7, 1943. In all, more than 22,000 non-Jews from 44 countries have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations, including some 60 Muslims, mostly from the Balkans.