Do wartime tales of Arabs rescuing Jews mislead?

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

In this post for the
Times of Israel, Lyn Julius argues that a new film highlighting the efforts of the rector of the Great Mosque in Paris to save Jews is part of a trend whitewashing Arab collaboration with, and sympathy for, Nazism:

If you go down to the cinematheque in Tel Aviv to see the film Les Hommes Libres, you might be forgiven for coming out thinking that a good number of Arabs saved Jews from the Nazis.

You might also have heard that Muslim Albanians saved their Jews because theirstrict code of honour, BESA, demanded it. Or perhaps you thought that Arabs had nothing much to do with the Holocaust – the extermination of the Jews was strictly a European affair.

‘Les Hommes Libres tells the story of how the rector of the Great Mosque in Paris, Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit, gave a 20-year-old up-and-coming North African Jewish singer, Salim Halali, sanctuary during the Nazi occupation of France. He issued a false certificate stating that Halali had converted to Islam. It is even said that a bogus headstone was erected in the name of Halali’s grandfather in the Muslim cemetery, to put his Nazi persecutors off his scent.

Ben Ghabrit saved other Jews too, although it is not known how many. Robert Satloff, author of the book‘Among the Righteous, reckons at least 100 Jews were issued with false certificates by the Paris mosque. Some say that Ben Ghabrit acted on orders of the king of Morocco, Mohamed V.

‘The film pays homage to the people of our history who have been invisible. It shows another reality, that Muslims and Jews existed in peace. We have to remember that − with pride,” the film’s director, Ismael Ferroukhi, said in an interview with the New York Times.

But reality is rarely that simple. Anti-Jewish attitudes had been evident in North Africa for many years before the war. The climate of opinion among Arabs was generally pro-Nazi. Is Ferroukhi trying to portray a mythical and misleading solidarity between Arabs and Jews? It is important to know that individual Muslims saved Jews, as did French non-Jews. But these brave souls were exceptional.

In North Africa, Robert Satloff is one of the few to have lifted the veil on this murky wartime chapter. He found that some Arabs actively persecuted Jews, that the vast majority did nothing, and that those who did save Jews have not wanted to be found.

The French, whose police force collaborated in the Nazi round-up of Jews in France, as depicted in the film La Rafle, are only now beginning to come to terms with their role in this painful episode of their history. How much more difficult to get Arabs to come to terms with their wartime role, when many are ready to deny the Holocaust happened?

Les Hommes Libres, it seems, is part of a trend to whitewash Arab sympathy for, and collaboration with, Nazism. Gilbert Achcar, a Lebanese academic, in his book The Arabs and the Holocaust, has made strenuous efforts to downplay the alliance of the Palestinian Mufti of Jerusalem with Adolph Hitler. Interfaith groups hold up Muslim Albania as a model of behaviour: The country ended the war with more Jews than it started with, although it only had 200 Jews anyway. On the other hand, thousands of Bosnian Muslims were recruited into SS Divisions in Yugoslavia, and committed unspeakable atrocities.

Read post in full

Historian challenged over ‘Muslim saved Jews’ film


  • This is indeed a fascinating story, but it's quite a bit more complicated than this short description suggests. If you are interested in a much fuller discussion of this story, both as history and memory, I encourage you to read its first careful examination by an historian, based on extensive research. That is, there's a recently published, fascinating article on the subject, entitled "Did the Paris Mosque Save Jews? A Mystery and its Memory." Here the article is linked:

  • One of the most salient facts about the Arabs who helped Jews is that many of them did not want to be found and acknowledged.

  • Yes, there is a lot of conflating going on – Berber with Arab, non-Arab and Muslim.

    People like Satloff don't make the distinction between Berber and arab becuase they think the story is complex enough already.


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