Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A review of 'Among the righteous'

Lyn Julius reviews Robert Satloff’s book, Among the righteous: lost stories of the Holocaust’s long reach into Arab lands (Public Affairs, 2006):

Albanian, Turkish and Bosnian Muslims have been honoured for saving Jews by Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem - but not a single Arab. This is the starting point for Robert Satloff’s book, Among the Righteous: lost stories of the Holocaust’s long reach into Arab lands. Why are there no righteous Arabs? The answer is simply that, over the last 60 years, no Arab has wanted to be found. And no Jew has tried too hard to find them.

That is, until January this year. Robert Satloff, who is also executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, put forward an Arab as a candidate for an award as a Righteous Gentile. Khaled Abdulwahhad, who died in 1997, had saved Jewish women from a Nazi brothel and sheltered Jewish families on his Tunisian farm during the Nazi occupation.

For Arabs, to admit kindness towards their enemy would seem at best embarrassing, at worst a betrayal, with Arabs and Jews locked in perpetual conflict over Palestine. Arabs have celebrated the Holocaust (‘a pity the Nazis did not finish the job’), but the predominant reaction has been to build a wall of denial (‘the Holocaust never happened’) ; minimise it (‘it was not as bad as the Jews say’); or relativise it (‘there is nothing unique about the Jewish Holocaust; there were many others, including a Palestinian one by Zionists’). The message in the Arab world, where history is written by servants of the ruling regime, is that Israel was expiation for a European crime.

In fact, the Nazis incorporated the Jews of the French Maghreb in their extermination plans at the Wannsee conference. Had fate not intervened, and the Allies not liberated Libya from the Italian fascists - and Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia (under direct Nazi occupation for six months) from the Vichy regime in 1943 - the Jews of the Arab world would have undoubtedly joined their European brethren in the death camps.

During World War II one percent or some 5,000 North African Jews died. (This figure includes North African Jews stranded in metropolitan France.) Many perished in Allied bombing raids. Some 600 died from starvation and typhus in the notorious Giado camp in Libya. European Jews who had enlisted in the defeated French army or foreign legion died from torture and neglect in forced labour camps. Some endured the inhuman tombeau punishment - lying, half-starved, in their own filth, burning by day and freezing by night.

In fact, Satloff ‘s ostensibly modest goal – to find but one Arab who helped a Jew – conceals a subtle political purpose. If Arabs could acknowledge that the Holocaust was their history too, then, for good or ill, they must come face to face with the uniquely horrible plight of the Jews. Moreover, it draws them into engaging with the unique solution – the Jews’ own state.

The idea for the book came to Satloff on the day that the World Trade Centre was attacked in September 2001. It took him five years to write Among the righteous. For two years he lived in Morocco, meticulously researching the cases of the righteous Arabs, dragging his young family on expeditions to find the slave labour camps erected along the track of the trans-Sahara railway before these crumbled for good into the surrounding desert.

At times, researching the book, with its many false trails and dead ends, must have felt like sinking in quicksand. Often it was Satloff himself who supplied the family members of the Righteous with missing pieces of the information jigsaw about their heroic relatives, whom they did not know (or were ashamed to admit) had helped Jews. The difficulty of his task was compounded by a Jewish tendency to downplay or deny their own suffering – a character trait which Satloff attributes to the age-old dhimmi survival instinct. It was thanks to Satloff that Tunisian Jews who had suffered under the Nazis recently became eligible to claim compensation from the German government.

Ranged on the Arab credit side, with the aforementioned Khaled Abdulwahhad, is Si Ali Sakkat, the former mayor of Tunis, who gave refuge to 60 Jewish workers escaping a labour camp; Mohamed Chenik, the philosemitic prime minister of Tunisia who ‘very likely’ saved Jewish lives. The King of Morocco’s refusal to allow the Vichy French to deport his Jewish subjects is well-documented. The Muslim clergy, notably Si Kaddour Benghabrit of the Paris Mosque, saved Jewish lives by issuing certificates stating they were Muslims.

On the debit side are the scores of Arabs who collaborated in the persecution of Jews. Satloff is careful not to distort the record. He doggedly tracks down relatives of the Tunisian informer Hassen Ferhani, who betrayed the Jewish Schemla family to the Nazis (two brothers and their father were deported to their deaths in Dachau). The Vichy regime could not have victimised the Jews without Arab help but, as in Europe, the vast majority were indifferent. They were no better and no worse than Europeans under Nazi occupation.

France was the only country, apart from Nazi Germany, to have stripped its Jews of their rights. But the impression given by Satloff’s book is that the Arabs looked helplessly on from the sidelines while the Vichy regime implemented the ‘statut des juifs’ in the French protectorates of the Maghreb. Real power did not belong in the hands of the Bey of Tunis and the King of Morocco.

Missing from Satloff's account is any sense of the pro-Nazi antisemitism which pervaded the Arab world at the time. And if the Maghreb Arabs were not free agents, Iraq and Egypt cannot as easily be let off the hook: they were already independent states. Nazism provided a model for the Ba’ath party and intellectual inspiration for the Muslim Brotherhood. In the 1930s, Nuremberg-type laws and quotas were already being enacted in Iraq. Nazi youth groups proliferated. Iraq was the only Arab country to have had a Nazi government, if only for a month.

Yet Satloff dismisses the 1941 Farhoud, in which a rioting mob killed 179 Jews, as outside the scope of his book. To him it was another bout of savagery which Arabs periodically inflicted on their minorities - and not a ‘Nazi’ event. Similarly, the role of the pro-Nazi Mufti of Jerusalem in inciting antisemitism throughout the Arab world barely rates a mention.

Satloff could also be criticised for not distinguishing between Arabs and Berbers. He made an understandable decision not to complicate a story that is already very complex. But figures like Benghabrit of the Paris Mosque were Algerian Berbers (Kabyles), as were most Algerians in France who aided Jews. Berbers and Arabs cannot simply be conflated when Kabyle nationalists like Ferhat Mehenni today express sympathy for Jews and Israel.

Aside from these niggles, Satloff is to be commended for an undoubtedly groundbreaking book. It represents years of painstaking research. It reads easily and is gripping like a detective story. And most importantly, Satloff has chipped away at the Arab and Muslim wall of Holocaust denial. Now, more than ever, this wall needs to come down.

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