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 P├ętain. 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.

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.

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 when he read those sentences, but while acknowledging that he teaches in a North African university, the writer prefers to remain anonymous.

Roger Kaplan is author of Conservative Socialism: The Decline of Radicalism and the Triumph of the Left in France.

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