Where were the Arabs in the Holocaust?

The good news is that an academic at a North African university has called for the Holocaust to be re-examined as a seminal event in Arab, not only European history. The bad news is that he prefers to remain anonymous. Review of Robert Satloff’s taboo-breaking book on Arabs and the Holocaust in the Weekly Standard by Roger Kaplan.
In December 1942, Joseph Scemla and his family, successful textile merchants in Tunis, suddenly found themselves in grave danger. The Axis armies and their French collaborators, until then in control of the southern shores of the western Mediterranean, and threatening British power in Egypt, were thrown on the defensive by the American invasion of Morocco and Algeria. (…)


With German troops pouring in, the sensible course for Tunisia’s Jews was to lie low—or get out… The Scemla family decided to entrust their property to a Muslim associate and make a run for it. Unfortunately, the associate was an informer who betrayed them to the Germans in early 1943. Three of the Scemla men—Joseph and his two sons—were taken to concentration camps in Germany, where they were killed.

The unusual feature of this bitter story involves the transfer of Jews to Germany: Most of the Jews of Tunisia and nearby lands under Nazi or French fascist control were persecuted in regional camps or prisons. In its substance, however, the story is not unusual. The Jews of the east discovered to their dismay that their neighbors were all too willing to turn into murderers when the Nazis offered them the opportunity. Willing participants or indifferent onlookers, the Muslims behaved no better during the Holocaust than the Christians of Nazi-occupied Europe…

Yet, just as in Europe, there surely were exceptions. This, at any rate, was the notion that led Robert Satloff on his quest for a Muslim Oskar Schindler or Raoul Wallenberg. (…) During the Holocaust, where were the Arabs? And more precisely, whose side were they on?

His answers are tempered by years of immersion in Arabic, Arab history, and contemporary Arab politics… Viewing themselves as the victims of modern European aggression, Arabs find it difficult to acknowledge even passive responsibility for such events as the herding of Jews into concentration camps in the Sahara, where they tortured and killed them under the orders of French or German officers.

Satloff understands the ambivalence of a Tunisian, for example, regarding the war, such as it seemed in 1941 or ’42. Why not root for Germany? The colonial situation in North Africa was unjust and cruel and a German victory might change it. Yet this did not necessarily imply supporting appalling persecutions that, as most leading Muslim authorities knew, could not be condoned by Islam, which explicitly prohibits racism. And indeed, as Satloff reports, there were Muslims who did what they could to block the persecutions.

So why is it, he wonders, that among the more than 22,000 names inscribed at Yad Vashem as “Righteous among the nations” for saving Jews, there is not one Arab? For as he researched stories like the Scemlas’ he found that, while there were Arabs who risked their lives under Nazi noses to save Jews, none of them or their descendants claimed it had much, if anything, to do with Jews. And this was not because they viewed their neighbors as compatriots rather than as Jews—which could be seen as reflecting a strong civic sense—but because they really did not want to make an issue of the Holocaust’s reach into their lands.

But what if this notion were challenged? What if the Arabs (and the Jews) saw that their intermingled histories must include the World War II years? With a shared narrative, including stories of complicity as well as resistance to mass murder, it might be possible to rethink the relations between peoples who seem stuck in a perpetual conflict based on an impossible who-did-what-first argument.

On the surface, Satloff’s idea—his starting question—is absurd: Why should anyone expect Iran’s president or your ordinary Gaza human explosive to take the trouble to even read about the Holocaust, let alone its reaches beyond Europe? Why should a man like Hezbollah’s leader, or one of his storm troopers, even want to think about the implications of what happened in Morocco in 1942 or Tunisia in 1943 or Paris in 1944?

What happened—and Satloff is meticulous in distinguishing between what we can certify from the historical record and what remains legend and folklore—is that Mohammed V, the sultan of Morocco, reluctantly governing under a French protectorate and plotting his eventual restoration of full sovereignty, refused to apply the Vichy anti-Semitic decrees. What happened is that a Tunisian named Khaled Abdelwahhab sheltered close to 2,000 Jews in danger of deportation on his farming estate, part of which the Germans were using as barracks. What happened is that in the Grande Mosque of Paris, the “official” center of French Islam a few blocks from the Pantheon, Kaddour Benghabrit, the leader of what already was a significant French Muslim population (largely made up of World War I veterans from North Africa and their families), sheltered Jewish resistance fighters and others escaping the Nazis.

Why is not one of these individuals inscribed at Yad Vashem? The answer is of stupefying simplicity, and just for bringing this point out Among the Righteous is worth reading: The Arabs themselves do not want to be there. Satloff found that there exists a kind of collective Muslim denial regarding the Holocaust. The Muslims do not want to study the Holocaust, or the part they played in it, even if the part is heroic… [I]t is convenient for Arabs (and their Western sympathizers) to argue that, since 1948 and the creation of the state of Israel, they are paying for a great European crime. This view, recently reiterated by the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (a Persian, not an Arab) to justify wiping Israel off the map, is conventional in Muslim countries.

With this mindset, the Arabs simply cannot touch a subject that would force them to recast the whole history of the past half-century by putting Jews and Israel in a fresh historical light. They are not about to deny that they saved their neighbors when they did—they liked their neighbors—but they refuse to connect this to events that, in their reading of history, were…a European injustice for which they are still paying.

Satloff found amazing examples of this attitude, such as the entire extended family of a true hero, the Tunisian nationalist leader Mohammed Chenik, a great liberal who was brushed aside by the regime of Habib Bourguiba, even though he did as much as any other individual (including Bourguiba himself) to negotiate a relatively peaceful transition to independence in 1956. Chenik saved many Jews when he was one of the primary interlocutors with the Germans in 1942-43. Today there is not a grandchild, nephew, cousin, or friend of Chenik who remembers him rescuing Jews. At one point Satloff thought he had found an Egyptian Wallenberg who served in Berlin at the beginning of the war. But not even the most liberal and cosmopolitan Egyptians, knowledgeable about their country’s diplomatic history, wanted to help him track down the facts on what would have been a case worthy of inclusion at Yad Vashem.

Robert Satloff, always the American in his optimism, notes in conclusion that, lately, Arab voices have been heard calling for a reexamination of the Holocaust as a seminal event not only in European history but in world—and thus certainly Arab—history. As one of them has written: “The genocide’s principal significance today is that it stands out as the archetype of the crime against humanity. It is the crucial relationship between the Holocaust and modernity that Arab opinion fails to understand.”

Satloff would have liked to track down the author of this remarkable essay…but while acknowledging that he teaches in a North African university, the writer prefers to remain anonymous.

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  • Regarding Sassoon Somekh's lecture, his claim that 250 Arabs died while trying to defend their Jewish neighbours is a dangerous piece of revisionism. Those who died were the rioters – to our knowledge no Muslim died saving Jews.

  • Thanks for your comment, anon. I am reading Satloff’s book at the moment and the extent of Vichy French antisemitism was shocking. I don’t think Satloff is trying to make the Arabs any more responsible than they were. He says clearly that they were no better and no worse than Europeans under the Nazis. They had their heroes and their villains, so the story is not back and white, but full of shades of grey. What Satloff is trying to do is record a slice of history that has been totally neglected so far.

  • (excuse me for my awfull english)I was a 8 years jewish boy living in Tunisia when german army invaded Tunisia. Then I studied this period. In North Africa, only Tunisia and Libya were occupied by the Germans.The french colloborateurs were not nazis,just antisemites. It’s very different,you know.We(I) don’t know much about Jews in Lybia at that time. About Tunisia,we know everything. 13 tunisian jews died in holocauste(2 of my “tribe”, they lived in France).There were labour camps(my father and all my tribe’s men) but no one massacre.Most Arabs supported the Germans in the War but they couldn’t persecute or protect the Jews since there were no serious or terrible persecutions.Germans in Tunisia were in full flight,routed.After a six months war all of them were killed or prisonners(200000).It was their duty to exterminate us, they had precise orders but no means,no transportation.If they had had the means it would have been a total massacre, probably with the help of some Arabs fanatically nazi.In Marocco and Algeria there was no one problem with nazis,since german army never occupied those countries. French racism was a completely different story:no killing,no holocauste at all.Most Arabs in Algeria and Marocco, although pro-german,were against the French, publicaly on the jewish side.They supported us against the French.We left our countries in north africa and all arab countries because arab hostility.Isn’t it enough?Why do you want make arabs more responsible than there are?

  • Audio clip lecture from Vanderbilt University


    also see:


    Sasson Somekh, a renowned professor of Arabic literature at Tel Aviv University, delivers a lecture at a Vanderbilt conference, based on his memoir ‘Baghdad Yesterday’. He evokes, with nostalgia, his childhood and youth in the Jewish community of Baghdad in the 1930s and ’40s. Lecture delivered November 30, 2006.

    He pointed out that some 250 Muslim Iraqis died in 1941 while trying to defend their Jewish neighbors being attacked by a pro-Nazi mob. About 150 Jews were killed in the incident, which launched the decline of Jewish community in Iraq, which had thrived there for 26 centuries. The conference, sponsored by the Program in Jewish Studies, continued through Dec. 1.


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