The Schindlers of the Middle East
AMONG THE RIGHTEOUS
Lost Stories from the Holocaust's
Long Reach into Arab Lands
By Robert Satloff
PublicAffairs. 251 pp. $26
Robert Satloff is a man with a mission. He believes that if contemporary Arabs knew about Arabs who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, they would reject the Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism that are now so prevalent in the Arab/Muslim world. This book tells of his quest to track down the history of those Arabs' deeds.
Satloff begins by relating the oft-ignored story of how Nazi Germany, Vichy France and fascist Italy exported their anti-Semitic policies to North Africa. They deprived Jews of their civil rights, confiscated their property, forced them to do slave labor and established concentration camps across the Sahara. Had Germany prevailed, North African Jews would have been annihilated.
Many Arabs willingly -- and, according to survivors, gleefully -- played an essential role in this persecution, serving as camp guards, clerks, policemen, foremen, overseers and torturers. Some assisted Germans as they went door to door hunting Jews. One Arab volunteer military unit, after being flown to Berlin for training, fought with the Germans in Tunisia. Some Arabs were so closely aligned with the Nazis that they fled to Germany when the Allies landed.
But Satloff has discovered "noble, selfless deeds" by Arabs. In normal times, such acts would have been routine, but during World War II, routine kindness was in short supply. When Vichy officials offered Algerian Arabs windfall profits if they took over Jewish property, not a single Arab in Algiers participated. (Vichy had no trouble finding willing Frenchmen.) On a Friday in 1941, religious leaders throughout Algiers delivered sermons warning Muslims against participation in schemes to strip Jews of their property. Some Jews were able to get false identity papers at the Grand Mosque in Paris. In 1940, two months after the Germans entered Paris, the Germans warned the head of the mosque to cease assisting Jews. In short, Arabs behaved like many Europeans during the Holocaust: Some helped Jews; others persecuted them or benefited from their persecution; the majority looked the other way.
The most interesting aspect of this story is the reluctance of contemporary Arabs to acknowledge noble past acts. Satloff speculates that Arab attitudes toward Jews are now so hostile that to acknowledge the help given Jews by preceding generations would inflame Middle Eastern passions. It would run counter to the prevailing myths in the Arab world about the Holocaust, which range from crude Holocaust celebration (in which Hitler is a hero) to Holocaust denial.
As Satloff notes, the Holocaust has become part of the high-stakes battle against Israel -- a battle in which history itself has been turned into a weapon. Some of the most virulent Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism today emanate from mainstream figures in the Muslim world. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, alas, is not alone. Typical of the anti-Semitic invective that has become so common in the Arab world was a 2002 article by the editor of Egypt's state-owned al-Ahram, the largest newspaper in the Arab world, entitled "Jewish Matza Is Made from Arab Blood." In popular Arab culture, Satloff observes, Zionism is a more heinous crime than Nazism.
Satloff believes that if Jews and Arabs were less reluctant to address the history of Arabs and the Holocaust, relations could be improved. He faults the custodians of Yad Vashem, the Israeli national memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, for not being more energetic in seeking out Arab rescuers. Jews from Arab lands have also been strangely reluctant to address their experiences -- positive and negative -- during the Holocaust.
But Satloff is being a bit naive here. It is strange that the highly respected executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a well-trained historian should have convinced himself that history could serve as an antidote to irrational hatred. Holocaust denial is a form of anti-Semitic prejudice. The etymology of the word "prejudice" illustrates the futility of Satloff's mission: Prejudice means pre-judging. It amounts to saying, "Don't confuse me with the facts; forget evidence; I have already made up my mind."
The deniers' arguments are a tissue of lies. This was the finding of Judge Charles Gray of England's High Court of Justice, who presided when Holocaust denier David Irving sued this reviewer for libel. He concluded that deniers' claims are "unreal," a "travesty," and "unjustified." Deniers, he found, "pervert" and "distort" history. Rationally telling stories of Arab rescuers, however admirable, will not change the minds of those whose views of history are rooted in unreasoning bigotry.
To be sure, Satloff's efforts to tell the story of Arab behavior -- both complicity and heroism -- during the Holocaust are important. The stories of rescuers of all faiths and ethnicities should be told. Not only is their courage part of the history of the Holocaust, but it also gives the lie to bystanders' claims that nothing could have been done. But these stories should be uncovered for the sake of history, not for the purpose of changing irrational attitudes. Satloff has told an important story and told it well, but he has done so for noble but misguided reasons. ·
Deborah Lipstadt is Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University. Her most recent book is "History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving."