Given the tensions today between Arabs and Jews, it’s easy to ignore that Arabs in North Africa befriended, assisted and protected Jews during the fascist occupation of North Africa during World War II.
This is the premise of Robert Satloff’s book “Among The Righteous: Lost Stories From The Holocaust’s Long Reach Into Arab Lands.” Satloff spoke at an event sponsored by the Holocaust Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, Wednesday, Nov. 9, at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill.
Satloff’s research on Arabs who saved Jews in North Africa during World War II is especially topical for the Arab world, which today is largely ignorant of the Holocaust or tries to minimize or deny it outright.
How Arabs behaved in North Africa 70 years ago, he said, is “essential to understanding the headlines in the Middle East today.”
Satloff’s interest in the righteous Arabs stems from his attempt to understand the cultural divide between the Arab world and the West. He noted that the greatest divide between the two is over the history of the Holocaust.
“I asked myself … is there something to bridge the division about the understanding of the Holocaust,” Satloff said.
He noted that Arabs’ perspective on the Holocaust is complicated and that the most troubling response is not one of denial.
“Far deeper is the problem of relativity,” Satloff said. According to him, the relativists’ argument is “it happens [the deaths of innocent Jews], war is hell, what’s the difference.”
If Arabs learned how the Holocaust profoundly impacted Arab nations, he reasoned, they “would have to face the realities of their own past. If Arabs saved Jews, that would be something to be proud of. And it would prove that Jews were saved from something.”
Except for mass exterminations, every aspect of the Holocaust that occurred in Europe also occurred in North Africa, including the roundup of Jewish communities and the creation of slave labor camps.
Satloff’s quest to find righteous Arabs turned out to be more difficult than he anticipated. Arabs responded to the Holocaust the same way Europeans did: most were bystanders, some supported it and some bravely hid Jews from their tormentors.
Satloff learned that Arab political leaders and ordinary Arab citizens protected and assisted Jews. Some Arabs went to great lengths to protect Jews by hiding large groups of men and women on their property in the shadow of Nazi occupiers.
“The stories are there, the stories are real,” he said. “They are like the stories of Wallenberg and Shindler.”
Since the publication of his book, Satloff learned of many more Arabs who assisted Jews in North Africa. He asserted that the number of North African Arabs who assisted Jews during World War II is “as proportionate as the number of gentiles who assisted Jews in Europe.”
His research will not change Arabs’ views on the Holocaust overnight or dramatically improve Jewish-Arab relations, he said. His research has produced some small victories, however.
“I am very proud to say that there are cracks in the wall. … I have given this lecture in four dozen different Arab schools,” Satloff said, and the students were as receptive to his research as Jewish audiences were.
In Israel, a Palestinian woman told Satloff that his lecture was “the most empowering talk I’ve heard. … If Arabs could act for the good, maybe we could have a free choice for good today.”
“If even one, two, 10 people [get the message],” Satloff said, “that’s a step in the right direction.”
(Ron Kaplan can be reached at email@example.com.)