Do tales of Arabs rescuing Jews mislead?

If you go down to the cinematheque in Tel Aviv to see the film Les Hommes Libres, you might be forgiven for coming out thinking that a good number of Arabs saved Jews from the Nazis.

You might also know that Muslim Albanians saved their Jews because their strict code of honour, BESA, demanded it. Or perhaps you thought that Arabs had nothing much to do with the Holocaust – the extermination of the Jews was strictly a European affair.

‘Les Hommes Libres tells the story of how the rector of the Great Mosque in Paris, Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit, gave a 20-year-old up-and-coming North African Jewish singer, Salim Halali, sanctuary during the Nazi occupation of France. He issued a false certificate stating that Halali had converted to Islam. It is even said that a bogus headstone was erected in the name of Halali’s grandfather in the Muslim cemetery, to put his Nazi persecutors off his scent.

Ben Ghabrit saved other Jews too, although it is not known how many. Robert Satloff, author of the book ‘Among the Righteous, reckons at least 100 Jews were issued with false certificates by the Paris mosque. Some say that Ben Ghabrit acted on orders of the king of Morocco, Mohamed V.

‘The film pays homage to the people of our history who have been invisible. It shows another reality, that Muslims and Jews existed in peace. We have to remember that − with pride,” the film’s director, Ismael Ferroukhi, said in an interview with the New York Times.

But reality is rarely that simple. Anti-Jewish attitudes had been evident in North Africa for many years before the war. The climate of opinion among Arabs was generally pro-Nazi. Is Ferroukhi trying to portray a mythical and misleading solidarity between Arabs and Jews? It is important to know that individual Muslims saved Jews, as did French non-Jews. But these brave souls were exceptional.

In North Africa, Robert Satloff is one of the few to have lifted the veil on this murky wartime chapter. He found that some Arabs actively persecuted Jews, that the vast majority did nothing, and that those who did save Jews have not wanted to be found.

The French, whose police force collaborated in the Nazi round-up of Jews in France, as depicted in the film La Rafle, are only now beginning to come to terms with their role in this painful episode of their history. How much more difficult to get Arabs to come to terms with their wartime role, when many are ready to deny the Holocaust happened?

Les Hommes Libres, it seems, is part of a trend to whitewash Arab sympathy for, and collaboration with, Nazism. Gilbert Achcar, a Lebanese academic, in his book The Arabs and the Holocaust, has made strenuous efforts to downplay the alliance of the Palestinian Mufti of Jerusalem with Adolph Hitler. Interfatih groups hold up Muslim Albania as a model of behaviour: The country ended the war with more Jews than it started with, although it only had 200 Jews anyway. On the other hand, thousands of Bosnian Muslims were recruited into SS Divisions in Yugoslavia, and committed unspeakable atrocities.

Calls are mounting for the wartime king of Morocco to be declared a Righteous Gentile. He is said to have ‘saved 200,000 Moroccan Jews’ and even to have asked for yellow stars for himself and his family: yet the Vichy government, to whom Mohamed V was answerable, made no serious attempt to deport Jews. On the negative side, the king signed decree after decree depriving Moroccan Jews of their civil rights. The fact that the king of Morocco did not meet the Righteous Gentile criterion – risking his life to rescue Jews – is dismissed amid accusations of wilful discrimination by Yad Vashem against Arabs.

President Obama appears to be among those who believe that the Holocaust was confined to continental Europe, but Tunisia was under direct Nazi occupation for six months in 1942, and hundreds of Libyan Jews died in the notorious labour camp of Giado under Italian Fascist rule. In Iraq, hundreds of Jews were murdered in a two-day frenzy of violence in 1941 in the wake of a pro-Nazi coup. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Mufti not only enabled the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews, but escaped indictment as a war criminal when the war was over. The Nazi legacy endured: Arab governments with few exceptions were never taken to task  for passing Nuremberg-style legislation resulting in the mass ethnic cleansing of their Jewish communities.

It is a bold film-maker indeed who is prepared to expose the myth that Muslims and Jews have always ‘existed in peace’.

About the Author
Lyn Julius is a journalist and co-founder of Harif, an association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa in the UK. She is the author of 'Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilisation in the Arab world vanished overnight.' (Vallentine Mitchell)