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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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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. Admittedly, the Holocaust in Tunisia and other Arab countries was marginal compared with what was taking place in Europe: There were, after all, only a few hundred thousand Jews in Muslim countries, and the anti-Semitic regimes of Europe were able to impose their policies in these countries only until the spring of 1943. But apart from the excuse of putting a vast crime "in perspective," it 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 strictly 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.