In search of righteous Arabs

‘Denial of the Holocaust is a recurring theme of Arab politics—a staple not only of radicals,both secular and Islamist, but of the mainstream as well’, writes Robert Satloff, director of policy and strategic planning at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in this important Commentary piece. ‘Borrowing methods and motifs from their European and American counterparts, Arab deniers wrap their arguments in pseudo-scientific scholarship,discounting (or denying) the numbers of dead, equating the Holocaust with lesser crimes, denigrating its historical uniqueness, or reversing history to ascribe to present-day Jews the role of “Nazi” persecutors of Palestinians.

“So routine has this Arab form of Holocaust denial become that it did not seem shocking when the first-ever Palestinian prime minister, the relatively moderate Mahmoud Abbas,turned out to have earned his (Soviet) doctorate with a dissertation expressing doubt about the Nazi extermination of six million Jews. A heartening trend in recent years is that a number of figures in the Arab world have begun to address this pervasive phenomenon, and to deplore its effects. Their motives vary. Some want simply to correct the inaccuracy of Arab historiography. Others seek to remove an ugly stain on Arab intellectual and political culture. Still others seem to hope that Arab recognition of the crime of the Holocaust will induce Jews and Zionists to acknowledge,in turn, the “crime” of Israel’s existence. Finally, some sincerely believe that expressions of empathy with Jewish suffering may help overcome deep-rooted psychological impediments to Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Such, for instance,appears to have been the impulse behind the May 2003 visit to Auschwitz by a joint delegation of Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews.

Despite these halting signs of progress, however,Holocaust denial remains a powerful orthodoxy—so powerful that dissenters often feel compelled to speak under the cloak of anonymity.(…)

Moreover, the dissent is limited in its scope, directed either toward acknowledging the facts of the Nazi Holocaust or displaying sympathy with its victims. Out of bounds is any effort to explore the intersection of the Holocaust with Arab history itself. For the Holocaust, although overwhelmingly a European story, was not solely a European story. It was an Arab story, too, and the dimensions of that story are much larger and more complex than such by now familiar facts as the pro-Nazi exploits of Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem, or the largely unsuccessful propaganda rants by the Nazis’ Arabic mouthpieces on Radio Berlin.

From the outset, German plans to persecute and eventually to exterminate the Jews extended throughout all the lands Germany and its allies hoped to conquer. That included a great Arab expanse in North Africa, extending from Casablanca to Tripoli and onward to Cairo—a region that was home to a half-million Jews. Indeed, the countryby-country plan of extermination laid out at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin in January 1942 makes sense only if the wildly inaccurate figure for the Jews of unoccupied France—700,000—is understood to include France’s North African possessions: the colony of Algeria and the protectorates of Morocco and Tunisia. In the brief period when they had a chance, the Germans and their allies made a significant start toward their murderous goal for North Africa’s Jews. For three years—from the fall of France in June 1940 to the expulsion of German troops from Tunisia in May 1943—the Nazis, their Vichy French collaborators, and their Italian Fascist allies applied in these areas many of the same tools that would be used to devastating effect against the much larger Jewish populations of Europe. These included not only statutes depriving Jews of property, education, livelihood, residence, and free movement, but also forced labor, confiscations, deportations,and executions. Virtually no Jew in North Africa was left untouched. Nearly 10,000 suffered in labor camps, work gangs, and prisons, or under house arrest. By a stroke of fortune, relatively few perished, many of them in the almost daily Allied bombings of Tunis and Bizerte in the winter and spring of 1943 when the Germans forced Jewish workers to stay at their jobs clearing rubble. But if U.S. and British troops had not driven the Germans from the African continent in 1943, the 2,000-year-old Jewish communities of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and perhaps Egypt would almost certainly have met the fate of their brethren in Europe.

Many Arabs today would respond that all this has nothing to do with Arab history. It has to do, rather, with the history of colonialists who played out their designs on Arab soil; Arabs had no part in it, they would say. But they would be wrong. Just as in Europe, most members of the local populace stood by and did nothing; a few helped—the Arab world, too, had its “righteous Gentiles”; and some made matters demonstrably worse. The story of the Holocaust in Arab lands has three main divisions: the extension of Vichy’s “state anti-Semitism” to France’s North African possessions; the imposition of Mussolini’s anti-Jewish regime in Libya; and the six-month occupation of Tunisia by German and Italian troops. Other French possessions in the Levant—Syria and Lebanon— were affected by Vichy, but to a much lesser degree and for a considerably briefer time. There was also the special case of Iraq, which in 1941 witnessed a rapacious campaign against Jews in the course of a short-lived military coup by Rashid Ali al-Gaylani, a Nazi sympathizer; but neither the Germans nor their other European partners were central actors in that drama.

Particularly hard hit was Tunisia, the only Arab country to come under direct German occupation. In just six months, from November 1942 to May 1943, the Germans and their local collaborators implemented a forced-labor regime, confiscations of property, hostage-taking, mass extortion, deportations, and executions. They required thousands of Jews in the countryside to wear the Star of David, and they created special Judenrat-like committees of Jewish leaders to implement Nazi policies under threat of imprisonment or death. Tunisia was also the training ground for some of the most notorious Nazi killers—like SS Colonel Walter Rauff, who had earlier invented the mobile death-gas van.

Nevertheless, of the three European countries that brought the Holocaust to Arab lands, the most malevolent by far was France. In Morocco and, especially, Algeria, France implemented strict laws against local Jews, expelling them from schools,universities, and government employment, confiscating their property, and sending a number of local Jewish political activists to harsh labor camps. In some respects, Vichy was more vigorous about applying anti-Jewish statutes in Arab lands than in metropolitan France.(…)

According to later testimonies, the camp commandants and senior officers, mostly legionnaires themselves, were vicious anti-Semites, sadistic and often drunk,many of German origin or fascist sympathies. They were assisted by Arab and Senegalese guards, notorious for their cruelty. Any Arab or Berber watchman discovered showing sympathy for the Jews, secretly providing them with extra water, blankets, or rations, was quickly assigned to other duties and replaced by local guards whose ruthlessness was more reliable. A 1943 British Foreign Office document, “Barbaric Treatment of Jews and Aliens in Morocco,” records the testimony of Polish Jewish prisoners who made their way to London after being freed by the Allies. (…)

Thus far I have touched but lightly on the role of Arabs themselves in the events I have been recounting. There has been, indeed, scant writing about and little documentation of this side of things. But for the past two years, while living in Rabat, the capital of Morocco, I have tracked down stories of Arabs who played a role in the Holocaust,be they villains or heroes. With the help of researchers and investigators in ten different countries,I have been able to unearth the stories of dozens of such individuals. Their number includes outright collaborators—i.e., Arabs who personally participated in the persecution of Jews. Among these were an Arab sadist who commanded a Jewish work brigade in the Tunisian countryside; another Tunisian, Hassen Ferjani,convicted by a French military tribunal of having informed to the Germans on three Jews fleeing across Allied lines, an act leading to their deportation and eventual beheading; Arab patrolmen who tracked down Jewish escapees from forced-labor camps; Arabs who walked alongside German soldiers, pointing out Jewish homes and property for confiscation; the Arab accomplice to a German soldier who raped a Jewish woman in La Marsa, outside Tunis; and Arab camp guards who urinated on the heads of Jewish forced laborers as they lay buried to their necks in the sands of Algeria.

In addition to these individuals were the hundreds of Arabs who volunteered to join Axis and pro-Axis forces like the Phalange Africaine, the Brigade Nord Africaine, and the German-Arab Training Battalion. And then there were the nameless thousands throughout North Africa who extorted money and property from Jews at their moment of abject weakness. As for the heroes who helped save Jews from pain,injury, indignity, and perhaps death, they included: • the Bey of Tunis and, more famously though less conclusively, the Sultan of Morocco, both of whom bucked their Vichy and German overlords to provide vital moral support to their Jewish subjects, as well as practical help to a number of Jewish personalities and their families; • the Arab country squire who opened his farm to 60 Jews escaping from an Axis forced-labor camp in Tunisia’s Zaghouan valley; • a middle-aged Arab notable in the Tunisian seaside town of Mahdia who, upon learning that a German officer was bent on raping a local Jewish woman, a mother of three, whisked away the entire family in the middle of the night and kept them hidden on his farm for several weeks until the Germans quit the town;* • the Arab politician who secretly warned and offered shelter to his longtime Jewish friends when Nazi SS troops were planning raids against the Jewish leadership in Tunis; • religious leaders in Algiers who forbade any Muslim from serving as a Vichy-appointed conservator of Jewish property; • Arab inmates of a prison camp in the Algerian desert who forged an anti-fascist bond with their Jewish prison mates; • Arab soldiers whose response to shoot-to-kill orders was to fire wide, purposely missing helpless Jewish laborers; • and, in faraway Paris, the rector of the municipal mosque, Si Kaddour Bengabrit, who is said to have given Jewish children counterfeit certificates of good standing as Muslims,thereby enabling them to escape deportation.

* In October 2003, this woman’s daughter, Anny Boukris, told her family’s story in detail for the first time to an interviewer I arranged to visit her in Palm Desert, California; she died eight weeks later. I was able to confirm key details of the story in a May 2004 visit to Mahdia. Similarly not to be forgotten are those Arabs who suffered alongside Jews—as prisoners in Vichy concentration camps or, as was the case in Tunisia,as forced-laborers drafted once the Jewish community had exhausted its own manpower. A small number of Arabs and Berbers also participated in one of the war’s most daring and overlooked exploits: the takeover of key sites in Algiers by the predominantly Jewish underground, an action that eased the amphibious entry of thousands of U.S. and British troops on the night of Operation Torch in November 1942.

Taken together, this history is rarely told,and the heroes, in particular, have never been recognized. Of the more than 19,000 “righteous Gentiles” honored by Israel’s Yad Vashem for rescuing Jews from death during the Holocaust, not a single one is an Arab (though there are a number of Muslims, including Turks, Bosnians, and Albanians). In my view, the reason for this lacuna is dual: few have ever looked for “Arab righteous,”and fewer still have had an incentive to be found. For Arabs, the legacy of World War II was soon overshadowed by two other developments: the conflict with Zionism over the fate of Palestine and the struggle for independence against European colonialism. By the late 1940’s—and certainly by the time of the Suez crisis in 1956—the blurring of the state of Israel with “the Jews” was already a deeply embedded theme of Middle Eastern politics. For an Arab, there was little to be gained (and much to be lost) by being identified with the defense of Jews or of Jewish interests. Sultan Muhammad V of Morocco and, to a lesser extent, Habib Bourghiba, the secular leader of Tunisia’s independence movement, were significant exceptions, noteworthy not least for their rarity.

For Jews, the situation was more complex. To many of those remaining in North Africa, memories of their horrible wartime experience were swiftly overtaken by the less systematic but often more violent anti-Zionism that compelled hundreds of thousands to quit their homes for Israel in the late 1940’s and 1950’s. Once in Israel, wartime memories were further obscured by the tension in that country between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews. To the degree that the former jealously guarded their Holocaust legacy—theirs, after all, had been by far the greater calamity—the latter tended not to focus on theirs. Similarly neglectful were Holocaust historians and institutions; even today, one hears debate in Israel over whether it is even appropriate to use the term “survivors” for Jews from Arab countries who suffered Nazi-era racial laws and punitive actions. An additional wrinkle concerns the odd position held by the small and still dwindling remnants of once-grand Jewish communities in Arab countries.

Less than 2 percent of the wartime Jewish population is left in Morocco and Tunisia today; in Algeria and Libya, the communities are effectively extinct. Navigating between the Scylla of Islamic radicalism and the Charybdis of regime indifference to their fate, Jews in these countries have by and large opted for quiescence. This attitude even extends backward to their past history. Although in the course of my research I did come across Sephardi activists agitating for wider acknowledgement of the history of the Holocaust in Arab lands,none actually resides in an Arab land today.

But if these considerations help to explain the obscuring of the Arab encounter with the Holocaust,they hardly excuse it. When I began my research into this hidden history, my secret desire was to organize a commemorative event in May 2003 on the sixtieth anniversary of the Allied liberation of Tunisia. For the obvious reasons, I wanted it to take place in Auschwitz—as it happens, a handful of Tunisian deportees were eventually killed there—and I envisioned a ceremony that would bring together Tunisian government officials,scholars, journalists, local Jewish community leaders, and members of Tunisia’s expatriate Jewish community.

My idea died when, traveling to Tunis, I asked my first interviewee, a prominent Arab historian,about the day his country was “liberated” from Nazi occupation. With a quizzical look on his face,he replied: “Liberation? What are you talking about? The departure of the Germans meant the return of the French, who were infinitely worse!” And this rebuff was nothing compared with my reception by the children of one of my prime candidates for recognition as a “righteous Arab”: Tunisia’s wartime prime minister, Muhammad Chenik. Walking a dangerous line between the Germans and his longtime personal friendships with Jews, this Arab notable, according to various interviewees, had used his connections to warn Jewish leaders of impending arrests and had secured dispensations from forced labor for the sons of Jews he knew from his business days. He very likely saved Jewish lives, perhaps at risk to his own.

Whatever the motive behind these deeds—personal friendship, old business obligations, simple kindness—they were truly noble. Since I was intending to resurrect the story of this long-forgotten statesman, and bring honor to his name, I had expected his family to embrace the revelations I was offering them, or at the very least to thank me for my efforts. And indeed, the family members who gathered in their comfortable seaside villa to hear my tale were polite, generous, and welcoming,plying me with tray after tray of delicious sweets and several rounds of coffee and tea. But through the smiles and handshakes, it rapidly became clear that they wanted nothing to do with my story of their father’s exploits. We have never heard about any of this, they insisted, and even if what you say is true, it does not amount to anything significant. Although they urged me to return with irrefutable proof, they offered no help, and it was obvious they hoped never to hear from me again. Perhaps the hardest blow has been the silence that has greeted most of my entreaties to moderate, forward-thinking Arabs to assist in shedding light on this chapter of their history. For every positive response to a phone call or a posting on an Internet message board, there have been a dozen cold shoulders, unanswered faxes, or unfilled promises. In October 2003, to take one example, I contacted the prominent Egyptian thinker Ahmed Kamal Abulmagd—widely considered one of the most moderate and open-minded of Muslim theologians,and certainly no Holocaust denier—after his appearance before an audience at the American University of Cairo, where he had participated in an exchange with the American ambassador.

At one point in their discussion, Abulmagd had turned to the ambassador and said: We all condemn the policies of Hitler and the Holocaust, but enough is enough. There is a moment of saturation and, let me be very blunt on this, world Jewry is in danger because of the very irresponsible policies of the government of Israel, supported by some unaware leaders of the Jewish community in the United States. I hate to see a day where there is an unleashing of dormant general anti-Semitism, in Europe, particularly, and maybe in the United States. But we Arabs are not part of it. We are not part of the Holocaust. We never persecuted Jews. In contacting Abulmagd, my purpose was not to persuade him to repudiate his remarks. On the contrary, I wanted to ask him to use his good offices in helping me gain access to Egyptian consular records from the late 1930’s.

Those files, I believe, may contain evidence of an “Arab Wallenberg,” an Egyptian diplomat who I suspect provided marriage or birth certificates to German and Austrian Jews, enabling them to flee to Cairo and from there to freedom in London. Though one might think Egyptian officialdom would be eager to exploit proof of a great humanitarian act by an Egyptian diplomat, one that would burnish Egypt’s bruised image in the United States, none of my requests to Cairo policymakers—some of whom, at the highest levels of government, I have known for more than fifteen years—has ever been acknowledged. That is why I wrote to Abulmagd—twice. Noting the absence of a single Arab among Yad Vashem’s list of “righteous” non-Jews, I begged for his intercession: “Didn’t some Arabs help or rescue some Jews?,” I asked. “And if indeed some Arabs did rescue some Jews, then isn’t this the positive, constructive answer to Arab Holocaust denial?” But the taboo against recognizing any Arab connection to the Holocaust, even in order to celebrate the deeds of a heroic Arab rescuer, is evidently too strong. I am still waiting for an answer. Read article in full (subscription required)


  • The author of the article, Robert Satloff, is also the maker of the film you cite.
    What exactly do you find misinformed?Please give examples.

    It was not the Israeli govt, but the Holocaust centre at Yad Vashem which refused to call Abdel Wahad a righteous gentile. This is because it is not enough to have hidden the Jews, it had to be proven that the righteous gentile had risked his life to do so.

  • Your article is grossly biased and misinformed. I would recommend watching the documentary titled: "Among th Righteous". It is about Arabs who during WW2 , helped protect and hide their fellow Jewish brothers and sisters. But the Israeli government refuses to acknowledge that these individuals had helped the Jews hide.

  • Once again Ignorence shows its too common face, sophia, if you think the HOLOCAUST is used as an Excuse for anything but it what that Human tragedy was then you should stick YOUR head back in the sand and KEEP your comments to yourself.
    If arabs were killed and I'm sure they were they were probably the Righteous this article IS referring too. After the despertion of the Israelites by there conqures in babalyon and the like from THEIR LAND. The fater of lyes set his MYTH in place.

  • Only a tiny minority of arabs collaborated with the Nazis. Remember there were even Jewish collaborators.

  • I don’t think Robert Satloff wanted to use the Holocaust ‘to get at Arabs’. He wrote his book because official Arab history is in total denial about how the attempted Nazi Holocaust against the Jews of North Africa impacted on Arabs. As Satloff implies, Arab heroes need recognising as much as the villains.

    You mention Graziani’s butchery. Of course the Jews are never the only victims of tyranny and fascism and they won’t be the last. The victims of Graziani probably deserve a book to themselves. Sophia,perhaps you should be the one one to write it?

  • People saw right through your search for “righteous arabs” and understood you intentions. You want to use the Holocaust against Arab when in fact they played no role in it’s conception organization and implementation.

    How could you not possibly mention Graziani the “butcher of Libya” who killed hundreds of thousands of Arabs and Berbers in the first prison camps ever in North Africa.
    right before WWII, and before the camps for Jews in Europe and North Africa.

    Also, Shame on you for using the holocaust in such a dubious manner to get at Arabs in a very round about way.


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