October 13, 2006

The Holocaust's Arab Heroes

A must-read article, The Holocaust's Arab Heroes:

Not a single official textbook or educational program on the Holocaust exists in an Arab country. In Arab media, literature and popular culture, Holocaust denial is pervasive and legitimized. Yet when Arab leaders and their people deny the Holocaust, they deny their own history as well - the lost history of the Holocaust in Arab lands - which includes stories of heroism by some who took great risks to save Jewish lives.

From June 1940 to May 1943, the Nazis, their Vichy French collaborators, and their Italian fascist allies applied in Arab lands many of the precursors to the Final Solution. These included not only laws depriving Jews of property, education, livelihood, residence, and free movement, but also torture, slave labor, deportation, and execution. Thousands of Jews were consigned to more than 100 brutal labor camps, many solely for Jews. If U.S. and British troops had not pushed Axis forces from the African continent by May 1943, the Jews of Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, and perhaps even Egypt and Palestine almost certainly would have met the same fate as those in Europe.

Arab collaborators were everywhere. Without the help of local Arabs, the persecution of Jews would have been virtually impossible. But not all Arabs joined with the European-spawned campaign against the Jews. The few who risked their lives to save Jews provide inspiration beyond their numbers.

Arabs welcomed Jews into their homes, guarded Jews' valuables so Germans could not confiscate them, shared with Jews their meager rations, and warned Jewish leaders of coming SS raids. The sultan of Morocco and the bey of Tunis provided moral support and, at times, practical help to Jewish subjects. And there is strong evidence that the most influential Arab in Europe - Si Kaddour Benghabrit, the rector of the Great Mosque of Paris - saved as many as 100 Jews by having the mosque's administrative personnel give them certificates of Muslim identity, with which they could evade arrest and deportation. Arabs need to hear these stories - both of heroes and of villains. They especially need to hear them from their own teachers, preachers, and leaders.

The writer, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is author of Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust's Long Reach into Arab Lands (PublicAffairs).