Historian challenged over ‘Muslim saved Jew’ film

Michael Lonsdale plays the rector of the Paris mosque in the film Les hommes libres

The Algerian-born ex-Trotskyist Jewish historian Benjamin Stora has been embroiled in controversy after acting as historical consultant to‘Free Men’ (‘Les hommes libres’) – a film inspired by the wartime friendship of the rector of the Paris mosque, Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit with Salim Halali, a Jewish singer in Paris. Ben Ghabrit saves Halali from the Nazis by issuing him with a false certificate to say Halali was a Muslim, The Forward explains. See my comment below:

Benjamin Stora, an Algerian-born writer and political activist who turned 61 in December, has for years combined history and self-history as a North African Jew. Most recently he has become embroiled in a controversy about the role that Muslims may have played in saving French Jews during the Holocaust.

As adviser for the acclaimed French film “Free Men” (“Les Hommes Libres”), the prolific Stora was responsible for its historical accuracy. Released in Paris in the fall, and set for American arrival in the spring of 2012, “Free Men” tells how, in German-occupied Paris during World War II, a young Algerian immigrant unexpectedly joins the anti-Nazi resistance after becoming friends with a Jewish cafe singer. Co-written and directed by Ismaël Ferroukhi, a Frenchman born in Morocco, “Free Men” is inspired by real-life episodes in which Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit, an Algerian-born high-society lover of the arts who served as the rector of the Great Mosque of Paris, managed to save the life of Jewish singer Salim Halali, who would later become a well-known performer of North African music.

Born Simon Halali in Algeria, the singer was performing in Paris by the late 1930s. The artsy and intellectual Ben Ghabrit was also an amateur violinist and oud player. He frequented high-toned Gallic salons, where he was admired as the “most Parisian of Muslims.” He hired Halali to perform at the Café Maure de la Mosquée, a North African-style coffeehouse and tearoom still located within the Great Mosque in Paris’s 5th Arrondissement.

Ben Ghabrit, although required to collaborate with the Nazi-controlled French Vichy government, was also a close friend of Mohammed V, King of Morocco. The latter monarch’s laudable efforts to protect his Jewish subjects during the Second World War have led to his name, among others, currently being bruited about to be named one of the “Righteous Among the Nations,” an initiative that Shimon Peres reportedly supports. As Eva Weisel pointed out in a December 28 Op-Ed in The New York Times, getting Yad Vashem to grant the honorific to a Muslim seems to be unusually difficult*.

If not quite this heroic, Ben Ghabrit did indeed save Halali by issuing him a false certificate of Muslim religion to mislead the Nazis. To back up this document, the name of Halali’s father was even inscribed on a blank headstone in the Muslim cemetery of the Parisian suburb of Bobigny.

“Free Men” cites other cases of such false certificates being issued, although the full number has been a matter of dispute, with undocumented estimates ranging from more than 1,500 to a scant few, depending on the account. After “Free Men” opened, a number of articles on the news and culture website rue89.com alleged that the film exaggerated the number of such salvations. The articles also implied that the filmmakers painted a misleading portrait of solidarity between Arabs and Jews.

In an October reply posted on the website, Stora explained that the film was centered on the true story of Halali as well as that of two little Jewish girls whose rescue by Mosque officials was authentic because Stora had personally interviewed them as part of his previous research. Stora further explained that “Free Men” is a fictional film based on factual incidents, in the manner of Claude Berri’s much loved “Le Vieil Homme et L’enfant,” The Two of Us”, about an old Frenchman who shelters a Jewish child during the Nazi occupation. Stora concluded the polemic over how many Jewish lives were actually saved by Arabs by reminding readers of the talmudic saying “Whoever saves one life, if it is as if they had saved the whole world.”

Precisely the same phrase is cited in a 2006 Washington Post article by Robert Satloff, author of “Among the Righteous: Lost Stories From the Holocaust’s Long Reach Into Arab Lands (PublicAffairs, 2006).” In The Washington Post, Satloff stated: “There is strong evidence that the most influential Arab in Europe — Si Kaddour [Ben Ghabrit], the rector of the Great Mosque of Paris — saved as many as 100 Jews by having the mosque’s administrative personnel give them certificates of Muslim identity, with which they could evade arrest and deportation.”

*Yad Vashem’s decision was justified in thisNY Times letter.

Read article in full

My comment: another historian, Michel Renard, has criticised Storaand the film. Renard implies that the rescue of individuals like Halali was a one-off, and somewhat incidental to the mosque’s work. It is wrong to give the impression that the rector of the Paris mosque headed up some kind of Resistance network in Paris.

Stora has tried to defend himself by arguing that he does nothing of the kind. The Halali case was one of about 100 such cases where the mosque issued false certificates to save Jews, and the film seeks nothing more than to highlight the rescue of an individual Jew.

Fair enough. It is important to know that individual Muslims saved Jews, as did brave French non-Jews. But it is also important to highlight, as Satloff says, that some actively persecuted Jews, and that the vast majority did nothing. The French, whose police force collaborated in the Nazi round-up of Jews in France, are only now beginning to come to terms with their role in this painful episode of history.

Robert Satloff found it almost impossible to find Muslims who would admit to saving Jews in North Africa. Whatever the climate of wartime opinion – and much of it was pro-Nazi – few Muslims would now see Jews as anything other than traitors and enemies.

The three exiles of Algerian Jewry
Was the King of Morocco a Righteous Gentile?
Great Algerian-Moroccan-Jewish singer dies


  • Let's talk about the film, since this post is about whether Ferroukhi has exagerated the benevolence of Sheikh Kaddour. There was one post published last summer about the rector of the Paris Mosque. It is only a film, a fiction based on true story. I have to see it to see at what level this exageration was taken, despite the reknown historian and Algerian Jew Stora's contribution.

    I beleive that because it is a piece of fiction based on one person who saved 10 jews, that there is some exageration by putting him at the pulpit of righteouness. I do not know why I think that. Maybe I cannot stay away from the obvious and perhaps unfair comparison with unbelievable and righteous personalities like Raoul Wallenberg, Yukiko Sugihara, and Aristide de Sousa Mendes. These are the top. Saving hundreds if not thousands of souls, under extreme dangerous position.

    As for those who save one or two souls, they should also be counted too. Robert Satloff's recent documentary "Among the righteous" is a testatment of those Arabs in Occupied North Africa by Rommel forces in the East and Vichy regime in the West, who clearly went beyond their duties and prejudice to save Jewish compatriotes in danger. The case of Khaled Abdul Wahab make the case of the Imam Kaddour look like nothing.

    I am also wondering if the film will bring the arabs and jews for a better understanding of each other. It looks like it did not make a dent in France.

    Again and again regradless of any attempts of possibility of rapprochement, and humanity of the two religions, the creation of the state of Israel will always come up, then add again the Palestinian so called "problem" are the gigantic barriers to any understanding of history and those who trully want to make a difference. Thus, the film will make no impact what so ever on any change… La vie continue comme toujours..

  • I remember a speech by the king that pleased me so much.Mohamed V said:
    With the genius of Jews and our peoples' put together we could do
    great things.
    I don't know how that was received in Morocco.
    sultana latifa

  • Peres has been working for Muhammad V's reputation for many years, I remember rightly. Back in about 1986 or 1987, Peres –as I recall– came to Ashqelon to dedicate a monument to Muhammad V, also because of the many Moroccan Jews living there. What I recall is that local youth were so annoyed by Peres' project that they threw tomatoes and rotten fruit when Peres tried to give a speech on this subject. Somebody who knows better can confirm or correct this.


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