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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Among The Righteous: Lost Stories From the Holocaust's Long Reach Into Arab Lands

I've just finished reading a very interesting book by Robert Satloff entitled Among The Righteous: Lost Stories From the Holocaust's Long Reach Into Arab Lands. Satloff is a Jewish-American Middle Eastern specialist and director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The central question of the book is "Did any Arabs save any Jews during the Holocaust?"

While the answer he finds is "Yes", anyone reading this book expecting to find some kind of whitewashing of Arab antisemitism is in for a rude awakening. Satloff's own position can be inferred from an exchange he quotes with a Moroccan friend who told him she firmly believed in Israel's right to exist because "It is not Israelis I hate, it's Zionists". His comment was "I was perplexed. Zionism, after all, is Jewish nationalism, the movement to create a sovereign state for the jewish people. How can a thoughtful, caring highly intelligent person support Israeli's right to exist and at the same time denounce Zionism?"

The book provides a long-overdue insight into the suferings of the Jews of North Africa under the Vichy French (Morocco, Algeria), Germans (Tunisia) and Italians (Libya). It has been all too easy to think of the Holocaust as affecting only the Jews of Europe: Raul Hilberg's classic study of the Holocaust is entitled The Destruction of the European Jews, after all. It is only recently that compensation claims from North African Jews have begun to be recognised, and as recently as 2004 two leading experts on Jewish demography produced wildly different estimates of the number of Holocaust survivors (for the International Commission on Holocasut Era Insurance Claims). "Survivor" was to mean "any Jew who lived for a period of time in a country ruled by the Nazis or their allies". An American scholar estimated 687,900; one from Israel came up with 1,092,000. The second figure included Jews from Arab lands; the first did not.

Satloff points out that the response of the Arab populations to the persecution of the Jews fell into a number of categories. The majority couldn't care less: they didn't cheer the persecutors on but weren't bothered by it. Some did cheer on the persecutors, for a variety of reasons, mostly economic; and a few became active persecutors themselves, working as labour camp guards and so on. Some of the special viciousness of this last group comes across in Satloff's book. Finally, he tells the stories of some Arabs who did indeed help to save Jews from death, forced labour, rape and other horrors, often at considerable risk to themselves. He takes pains to follow the stories up so as to distinguish truth from myth where local traditions have grown up concerning so-and-so's acts of bravery. Nevertheless, he finds several well-attested instances of Arabs who would seem to have a claim to being honoured by Vad Yashem as righteous Gentiles.

While Satloff's uncovering of Arab help for the Jews is a welcome counterbalance to the prevailing myth among modern supporters of Israel that the Arabs were all supporters of Hitler (as though the much-cited Grand Mufti of Jerusalem were to be treated as typical, or even especially influential), the real value of his book for me was the revelation of this whole largely-unknown North African annexe to the Holocaust.


At 10 April, 2011 18:08, Blogger Persephone said...

You've probably encountered this before, but on the topic of "Arab antisemitism". An Arab leader was being confronted by a western journalist sometime in the late seventies. The journalist, in response to some statement, leaned in for the kill: "So you don't care if you're called anti-semitic?" The Arab leader responded wearily: "I'm a Semite, too..."

At 11 April, 2011 01:45, Blogger Rob said...

Unfortunately in language what you see isn't always quite what you get: the term was invented by what we would now call a spin doctor in 19th century Austria as a more acceptable alternative to "Jew hatred".


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