Doing justice to the liberators of North African Jewry

Lyn Julius, the co-founder of a United Kingdom-based organization that preserves the rich history of the vanished Jewish communities of the Middle East and North Africa, recently published an op-ed article on The Times of Israel website about the 50th anniversary of the forced exodus of the venerable Jewish community of Algeria. “How Algeria Lost its Jews” astutely points out that since “90 percent” of Algeria’s 130,000 Jews immigrated to France, Israeli scholars and journalists have not shown much interest in this neglected chapter of Jewish history.

Similarly, intellectuals in France have been uncomfortable discussing the catastrophic denouement of one of country’s key colonial possessions: the expulsions to metropolitan France of 800,000 French citizens (Pieds-Noirs). Finally, Julius denounces Algeria’s current political, intellectual and religious leaders for unconscionably erasing “all traces of Jewish presence, culture and history” from its everyday life and collective memory.

Unfortunately, Julius’ account of the trials and tribulations of Algerian Jews between June 1940 and November 1942 contains historical omissions as egregious as those that she criticizes as occurring in Israel, France and Algeria. She writes that the “French anti-Semitism reached its zenith” during the war with the abrogation in 1940 of the “Decret Cremieux,” which in 1870 had conferred French citizenship on Algerian Jews. She further notes that under Vichy rule Algerian Jews were also fired from “public service jobs and subject to quotas and restrictions.” Julius concludes her meager three-sentence account of Algerian Jewry during the war by simply stating that in 1943 the “Decret Cremieux was reinstated.”

Thus, she astonishingly omits the critical event for the 600,000 Jews who lived in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt during World War II: Operation Torch, the landings of more than 100,000 soldiers, mostly American but with a small contingent of British, on November 8, 1942 in Morocco and Algeria. In a week of hard fighting, American GIs under the command of Generals George Patton, Lloyd Frendendall and Charles Ryder suppressed the Vichy French armed resistance, who then switched sides and fought with the Allies against the German and Italian soldiers. An excellent account of this campaign in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia can be found in Rick Atkinson’s An Army at Dawn, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History in 2003.

One of the few articles to mark the 70th anniversary of this pivotal event in World War II is my “Obama’s No Churchill,” published on the front-page of The Jewish Press in November. (The essay compares the British Prime Minister’s brilliantly successful military and diplomatic strategies in the Middle East and North Africa between June 1940 and May 1943, with President Obama’s serial failures in the interrelated regions during his 45 months as commander in chief.)

Unfortunately, Julius isn’t the only Jewish writer who has an inexcusably flawed understanding of the military history of World War II in North Africa. Rafael Medoff, the founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, who has a doctorate from Yeshiva University, preposterously claims in a March 2011 op-ed in The Jerusalem Post that, after the Allied landings, it “took the Allies just eight days to defeat the Germans and their Vichy partners in the region.”

First, there were no German soldiers in Morocco or Algeria on D-Day in November 1942. Upon learning of the Allied invasion, Hitler and Mussolini rushed approximately 250,000 German and Italian soldiers by air and boat to Tunisia to prevent the seizure of that strategically-located country. Thirty-eight thousand British Commonwealth, 20,000 American and 19,000 French casualties were required to crush the Axis forces in North Africa. Perhaps, Medoff should visit the American Military Cemetery located 10 miles outside Tunis.

In comparison to a recent article in The New York Review of Books, Medoff at least identifies the protagonists correctly. In an April 26, 2012 review of two recent biographies of Dwight Eisenhower, the Allied commander of Operation Torch, Thomas Powers mind-bogglingly claims that De Gaulle’s Free French forces fought “to repel the invasion.” The funniest part of The New York Review’s unmitigated ignorance about this simplest of facts from World War II is that two months before the Powers article was published, The New York Times described the magazine and its editor for the last half-century, Robert Silvers, as “immensely learned,…obsessive about clarity and factual correctness.”

Sadly, another Jewish-American scholar, Robert Satloff, the director of Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has a doctorate from Oxford, invents an entirely fictitious ending for the North African Campaign in his 2006 book Among the Righteous: Lost Stories From the Holocaust’s Long Reach into Arab Lands. He writes: “When the Allies finally pushed the Germans out of Tunisia, forcing a crazed withdrawal of more than 200,000 German soldiers from the Cape Bon peninsula to Italy, many were left behind.”

In reality, approximately 250,000 German and Italian soldiers were captured in northern Tunisia in May 1943 and very few escaped by boat or plane to Sicily or mainland Italy. Indeed, the endgame in North Africa was almost as big a calamity for Hitler as the German and Axis surrender at Stalingrad in early February 1943. Indeed, both defeats signaled the turning of the tide in the war against Nazi Germany and her allies.

Perhaps, Satloff is confusing the escape of approximately 125,000 German and Italian soldiers across the Strait of Messina in mid-August 1943, which disappointingly concluded the five-week Sicilian Campaign, with the non-escape of twice as many Axis soldiers from North Africa three months earlier.

Last year, Gerhard Weinberg, the dean of American World War II military historians who arrived in America in 1941 as a 13-year-old Jewish immigrant from Nazi Germany, published an essay, “Some Myths of World War II,” which cogently points out that “most of those who write about the Holocaust do not pay sufficient attention to the way that military developments of the war impacted the subject they study.”

Further proof of Weinberg’s trenchant insight about the one-dimensional superficiality of many writers on the Holocaust is an article in Haaretz by Robert S. Wistrich of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on the 70th anniversary of the Farhud, the despicable pogrom against Baghdad Jews in early June 1941. Wistrich unfairly denounces the British Army, positioned on the outskirts of Baghdad, for not intervening and preventing the pogrom in which 150 Jews were killed and hundreds of other injured. But as British military historian, Robert Lyman, writes in Iraq 1941: The Battles for Basra, Habbaniya, Fallujah and Baghdad, the Commonwealth forces outside the capital numbered only 1,450, as compared to 20,000 Iraqi soldiers in the area.

Professor Wistrich further condemns the British military for behaving “in a similar fashion on several occasions in Mandatory Palestine, in Libya (in November 1945) and in Aden (December 1945) – standing by as Arab mobs killed defenseless Jews.” While I am also disturbed by the inhumane aspects of British policy in the Middle East and North Africa before, during and after World War II, especially its White Paper that prevented endangered Jews from receiving sanctuary in Palestine, the unmistakable reality is that more than 95 percent of the 1.5 million Jews living in the Middle East and North Africa during World War II survived as a direct result of battlefield victories that were wholly or partly attributable to the bravery and sacrifices of British Commonwealth and Empire soldiers, airmen and sailors.

On the 70th anniversaries of the magnificent liberations of North African Jewry, World War II historians in America, Britain, France, Israel, Australia, India, New Zealand, South Africa and other Allied nations whose troops fought in the Middle East and/or North Africa, should hold a conference in Washington to pay tribute to the skill, bravery and sacrifices of the Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen who vanquished the Axis forces in these two regions between June 1940 and May 1943.

Furthermore, Jewish journalists, scholars and politicians in the western democracies must familiarize themselves with these inspiring Allied victories in World War II. The widespread ignorance of these crucial facts is not worthy of an ancient people who prides itself on knowing history and on memorializing those brave men who rescued Jews during our people’s most tragic ordeals.

By contrast, in March 2012, Islamic fanatics in Libya filmed their desecration of a British Commonwealth World War II Cemetery outside Benghazi, several months after the armed forces of the Western democracies assisted in the ouster of the long-term Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The video of this cemetery desecration went viral, and provoked a serious diplomatic crisis between the new Libyan government and the nations whose soldiers’ graves were destroyed.

Sadly, historical amnesia about the enormous human losses that were sustained by the Allies in defeating Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and their allies is widespread among the post-World War II generations – Jewish, Christian and Muslim -in the victorious nations. Nevertheless, the Jews of the world, who now overwhelmingly live in western democracies, in which history is not distorted by the ruling classes for ideological reasons, must repeatedly commemorate the brave men who defeated two of the most evil and destructive regimes that have ever existed.

About the Author
Mark Schulte has written, over the past two decades, about World War II and the liberation of the concentration camps for The Times of Israel, The New York Post, Jewish Press, Weekly Standard, New York Daily News and other publications