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Scholar Delves Into Arab Heroes of the Holocaust

December 14, 2006 By:
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Just this week, about 60 "scholars" from around the world gathered for a conference on Arab soil to debate the veracity of the Holocaust, and to call for more "proof" on the subject.

Had Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, been invited, he might have told them to simply look outside.

According to Satloff's new book, Among the Righteous, not only did the Holocaust play out in Arab countries like Morocco, Tunisia and Libya, but Arabs themselves were involved -- both as rescuers and perpetrators.

Speaking Monday night at the Jewish Community Services Building in Philadelphia, Satloff framed his 11-country, four-year search into this story as a potential antidote to the trend of Holocaust denial and trivialization in the Arab world.

What's more, Satloff's lecture -- jointly sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Center for Israel and Overseas, the Middle East Forum, the Gershman Y and the National Museum of American Jewish History -- even attempted to put a positive spin on Arab involvement in the Holocaust.

As the scholar writes: "If I could tell the story of a single Arab who saved a single Jew during the Holocaust, then perhaps I could make Arabs see the Holocaust as a source of pride, worthy of remembering, not just something to avoid or deny."

To begin this undertaking, Satloff said that he had to dispel the notion that the Holocaust was strictly a European phenomenon.

Seeking firsthand evidence to support his thesis, Satloff -- who lived in Rabat, Morocco, with his wife and children for 21/2 years during the research process -- interviewed Jewish and Arab witnesses, combed through archives and drove along the route of the Trans-Sahara railway.

During that time, Satloff determined that the 500,000 Jews in French North Africa during World War II experienced "all the precursors of the final solution" that Jews on the European continent did -- anti-Jewish laws, deportations, forced labor camps -- except that they were spared the gas chambers.

He also found that the relationship between Arabs and Nazis ranged from Arabs "in complete cahoots with the Nazis and with Vichy France" to "breathtaking stories of Arabs who, in some cases, risked everything to save Jews."

In fact, his search for an Arab Oskar Schindler yielded Si Ali Sakkat, a former mayor of Tunis, Tunisia, who sheltered 60 Jewish workers when they showed up at his farm, and Si Kaddour Benghabrit, rector of the Great Mosque of Paris, who gave 100 Jews counterfeit Muslim identity papers.

Finding the Stories

Satloff's book also asks a significant question: Why haven't these stories been told?

He offered two answers: "Jews didn't look too hard," and "Arabs didn't want to be found."

Satloff blamed Jews for overemphasizing the Holocaust as an Ashkenazi narrative. But Arabs, too, should be faulted for this omission, he said.

Because many Arabs remain wary of any narrative that paints Jews as victims -- and that could potentially legitimize the founding of Israel -- Satloff said the Arab world has generally regarded Arab Holocaust stories as downright "toxic." But according to the scholar, relaying such information is potentially beneficial for both parties.

Though Satloff admitted that he's "not a romantic on the possibility of making peace between Arabs and Jews anytime soon," he's "encouraged" by e-mail from Arabs assuming responsibility for their actions during the Nazi period.

"Given what is going on in the Middle East today, I'll take whatever progress we can get."


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