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Forgotten Friends

Why are there no Arab names at Yad Vashem?

Jan 1, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 16 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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Among the Righteous

Lost Stories From the Holocaust's Long Reach Into Arab Lands

by Robert Satloff

PublicAffairs, 251 pp., $26

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. This occurred at about the same time that General Montgomery successfully counter attacked across Libya, assisted by the Free French (mostly Senegalese infantry) coming up from the south. The Germans decided to dig in, a strategy the Italians reluctantly followed, and for a few months until the spring of 1943, Tunisia, a mild-tempered country that had displayed little interest in military matters since Hannibal, became one of the major battlegrounds of World War II.

With German troops pouring in, the sensible course for Tunisia's Jews was to lie low--or get out.

For families like the Scemlas, this represented the last chapter in an ordeal that began with the fall of the Third Republic in June 1940 and, in the months following, the imposition of anti-Semitic legislation throughout metropolitan and overseas France, including Tunisia, by the Vichy regime of Marshal Philippe Pétain. Overnight, to be a Jew in a French-administered land meant going from full citizenship to full membership in an alien and despised group marked for extermination. Jews lost even the protections accorded non-Muslims in the lands of Islam. Commerce, professions, advanced studies, entry into the civil service or military--all were forbidden. Jews had to hide their assets or see them confiscated. And even as they expected their deliverance at the hands of the advancing Allies, their short-term prospects went from terrible to desperate with the arrival of the German, French, and Italian gestapists whose orders were not just to persecute but to kill.

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. (The informer, by the way, was imprisoned when the Free French restored republican legality in Tunisia, and served a 10-year prison term.)

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. A leading expert on the Arab world, and as executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Satloff is uniquely qualified to address the broader issue he raises in this sad and interesting book: 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. He understands as well as anyone the ambiguous political context of the Arabs in modern times, and the resulting confusions regarding historical events. 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.