Among the Righteous

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Thousands of people have been honored for saving Jews during the Holocaust — but not a single Arab. Looking for a hopeful response to the plague of Holocaust denial sweeping across the Arab and Muslim worlds, Robert Satloff sets off on a quest to find the Arab hero whose story will change the way Arabs view Jews, themselves, and their own history.

The story of the Holocaust’s long reach into the Arab world is difficult to uncover, covered up by desert sands and desert politics. We follow Satloff over four years, through eleven countries, from the barren wasteland of the Sahara, where thousands of Jews were imprisoned in labor camps; through the archways of the Mosque in Paris, which may once have hidden 1700 Jews; to the living rooms of octogenarians in London, Paris and Tunis. The story is very cinematic; the characters are rich and handsome, brave and cowardly; there are heroes and villains. The most surprising story of all is why, more than sixty years after the end of the war, so few people — Arab and Jew — want this story told.


Table of Figures
FIGURE 7.1 Dalil Boubakeur handed me this French archival document during our meeting at the Great Mosque of Paris. It attests to the fact that German officers ordered Si Kaddour Benghabrit to stop helping Jews.

Praise for Among the Righteous
"Robert Satloff's new book... is an essential addition to our understanding of this darkest period of the 20th Century... Perhaps this book can help launch a new kind of dialogue between Arabs and Jews. If nothing else, Among the Righteous does an important service in documenting both the good and the evil committed by Arabs towards their Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust."
—ABRAHAM FOXMAN, Holocaust survivor and
National Director of the Anti-Defamation League
"Robert Satloff has written an intense and searching and honest book. He has looked into a great unexplored terrain: the reach of the Holocaust into Arab lands. He has returned with both heartbreaking and bracing stories. A supremely honest author, he has no axe to grind, he is moved only by the search for truth. A book of great integrity, it throws a floodlight on the Middle East and North Africa at a time when all tissues of civilization were torn asunder."
—FOUAD AJAMI, Majid Khadduri Professor
and Director of Middle East Studies Program,
The Johns Hopkins University, Paul H. Nitze
School of Advanced International Studies,
and author of The Foreigner's Gift
"Only when we talk openly about the commonalities and differences of our faiths can we begin to address tensions and misunderstandings. Rob Satloff's book is a starting point toward a better understanding, and a bridge to the future. Many times Muslims say that they cannot be anti-Semitic because they are themselves Semitic. Let the incredible research Rob Satloff has poured into his book be seen as a sign of that commonality."
—GREGG RICKMAN, Special Envoy for Monitoring and
Combatting Anti-Semitism, U.S. Department of State
"[Satloff] speaks objectively about an unknown role of the Arabs in helping the Jews during World War II."
—JIHAD AL-KHAZEN, al-Hayat, London
"Satloff provides inspiring and heartbreaking personal accounts of survivors of this under explored aspect of Holocaust history [and]... raises critical questions about the Nazi campaign that helped disrupt the centuries-old accommodation between Jewish communities and their Muslim hosts in the Middle East."
"Robert Satloff, one of the world's smartest Arabists, reveals other links between the Arabs and the Holocaust in his groundbreaking new book, Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust's Long Reach Into Arab Lands."
—MAX BOOT, Los Angeles Times
"[Satloff] tells a riveting tale... He settles in North Africa, gathers clues and builds a convincing case. By the end of the book, he presents a persuasive case that Arabs did indeed behave as "righteous" men and women in the fight against fascism... The story twists this way and then that way, shuttling back and forth relentlessly from good news to bad news, and from despair to elation. Few political stories come as complex as this one, and few stir up as much passion."
San Francisco Chronicle
"[I]t is not simply as a historian that Robert Satloff sets about raking through the ashes, but as a man on a mission of peace—to discover evidence of as much or as little humanity as it will take for all parties to Arab/Jewish hostilities over the past 60 years to feel better about one another... Among the Righteous ... is an act of gentlemanly civility amid the shouting . . . "
Sunday Times of London
"[Satloff] brings to light a fascinating case of heroism and defiance... While it may be naive to think that a few inspiring stories can break the ice between Arabs and Jews, Satloff is to be commended for digging up such stories in a political climate where many would still prefer them to stay buried."
Montreal Gazette
"A leading expert on the Arab world, and as executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Satloff is uniquely qualified to address the broader issue he raises in this sad and interesting book: During the Holocaust, where were the Arabs? And more precisely, whose side were they on?"
Weekly Standard
"Satloff has crafted a book that is partly a history of the Holocaust in North Africa and partly a travelog of his efforts to re-create the stories of the perpetrators, victims, and bystanders in this often overlooked corner of the Shoah ... Satloff adroitly explains how Arab-Muslim attitudes toward the Holocaust, which range from outright denial to profound knowledge, are often shaped not only by the contemporary conflict between Israel and its neighbors but also by Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism."
Library Journal Reviews
"Among the Righteous... has gotten considerable buzz since it came out in the beginning of last month... As an honest historian, [Satloff] tells the whole truth of that time and place as he found it, the good and the bad, and puts things into perspective... [H]e is at once an honest historian and a wellintentioned public intellectual."
Jerusalem Post
"We do not know the Arab role in the Holocaust, which required well-known researcher Robert Satloff to dedicate two years of his life. He spent them in Morocco, to investigate the facts and search for Arabs who saved Jews or Arabs who surrendered them to the Nazis... "
al-Ra'i, Jordan
"Satloff has discovered that contrary to common wisdom and widespread ignorance, there were Arabs in these lands who risked their lives to save Jews... Polished and erudite, Satloff speaks confidently, sometimes sparsely, in well-honed sentences. As a historian, he is not easily pried away from the rigors of his academic training and he avoids what he refers to as 'psychologizing or sociological explanations.' Yet he often draws political and social conclusions, albeit cautiously."
The Jerusalem Report
"Satloff's compelling book details the roles Arabs played in assisting or resisting the Third Reich, Italian Fascism and the Vichy government, and the expansion of the Final Solution into their countries... this is important material, and Satloff's work is groundbreaking for Jewish, Middle Eastern and Holocaust studies."
Publishers Weekly "This book is definitely an eye-opener that sheds light on an all-too-often forgotten aspect of the Holocaust. There are many books concerning the Holocaust on the market today. This one is unique and makes a solid contribution to understanding what happened in Arab lands."
Jewish Tribune
"Robert Satloff's new book is sure to rankle Arabs who insist that the Holocaust never happened."
Moment magazine
"[Satloff's] engrossing and deeply personal study shows how Europeans brought the Holocaust to the Sahara... A thoughtful work showing that hatred—and compassion—can flourish anywhere."
Kirkus Reviews
"This account is bound to be controversial."

Mom and Dad,
Benji and William,
and Jennie

We were educated from childhood that the Holocaust is a big lie.
—Muhammad Al-Zurqani, editor-in-chief of the Egyptian government newspaper Al-Liwaa Al-Islami, which published a July 2004 article, "The Lie About the Burning of the Jews," alleging that the extermination of Jews during World War II was a lie invented by Zionists
We all condemn the policies of Hitler and the Holocaust, but enough is enough. There is a moment of saturation and, let me be very blunt on this, world Jewry is in danger because of the very irresponsible policies of the government of Israel, supported by some unaware leaders of the Jewish community in the United States. I hate to see a day where there is an unleashing of dormant general anti-Semitism, in Europe, particularly, and maybe in the United States. But we Arabs are not part of it. We are not part of the Holocaust. We never persecuted Jews.
—Kamal Abul Magd, prominent Muslim theologian and political moderate, speaking at the American University in Cairo, September 2003
There are many admirable, high-minded intellectuals in the Arab world fighting and risking their lives for issues like human rights, liberty, democracy, justice, and so on, but it is amazing that no one has thought of why and how these issues are pertinent to the Holocaust, nor of why and how reflection on the Holocaust is essential to them.
—Anwar Chemseddine, pseudonym of a professor of English literature at a university in North Africa, from his Internet essay "The Arabs' View of the Holocaust Is Indeed Troubled"
This memorial stands in memory of history's most revolting events. I am disgusted and outraged by what I saw today. The evil and hatred used by mankind in that period is truly disgusting. These events must make us stand together to promote peace and teach tolerance to ensure that such brutality is never repeated. What we saw today must help us change evil into good and hate to love and war into peace.
—A young prince from an Arab Gulf state, after visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, February 2004

Casablanca's Lost Story
THE CENTRAL QUESTION OF THIS BOOK is "Did any Arabs save any Jews during the Holocaust?" Trite as it sounds, the idea behind that question came to me as I walked along the white stripe painted in the middle of Fifth Avenue in the eerie emptiness of the afternoon of September 11, 2001. Although this book was originally motivated by the awful events of that day, one of the conclusions I reached in the course of my research was that it could—and should—have been written much earlier.
I am, by training, an historian of the modern Middle East, schooled at Oxford, Harvard, and Duke, and, by profession, an analyst of the politics of the countries and peoples of that region. Almost everything I have ever written has been about Arabs. To do this, I have learned their language, studied their culture, and lived among them. Throughout, I have tried, with great empathy, to understand who they are, where they come from, and what makes them tick.
I am also a Jew—a fact that, I am sure, was responsible for my career choice. I am loyal to my country, America, and proud of my connection to the Jewish homeland, Israel. I came of age, intellectually and politically, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the era of Anwar el-Sadat, the journey to Jerusalem, and Israel's peace with Egypt, a hopeful moment when, to many Americans—and certainly to most American Jews—Arabs stopped being caricatures and started being flesh-and-blood, three-dimensional figures. This was also the time when Islamic extremists, including Sadat's killers, began to set their sights on America as the Great Satan, with Israel relegated to the lesser role of devil's helper. In one of those unspoken decisions that determine one's life, I decided that understanding Arabs was important to my being Jewish. And because of the many ties that bind America and Israel, and because of the rising sense of direct clash between the United States and the Middle East, I decided that understanding Arabs was also an important part of my being American. I have lived my life at the point where those four—America and Israel, Jews and Arabs—intersect.
In the twenty-five years since I started studying Arabic and traveling to the Middle East, two ideas stand out.
First is the fact that "Arab culture" is really many cultures, that "Arab people" are really many peoples, and that "Arab countries" are filled with a combustible mix of ethnicity, religion, nationalism, and race that produces the entire range of human passions. That insight alone, I believe, makes comprehensible much of the seemingly impenetrable politics of the Middle East.
Second is an observation about the role of history in the lives of Arabs and Jews. For both groups, the past is a powerful source of motivation, grievance, and legitimacy. From God's covenant with Abraham to his promise to Muhammad, from the Balfour Declaration to the Sykes-Picot Agreement, from Israel's War of Independence to the Nakba, which is the Arabic term for "catastrophe" commonly used for Israel's birth, the role of history as narrative resonates deeply among both Arabs and Jews.
Jews, both in Israel and the Diaspora, are steeped in the details of history. The United States alone boasts more than fifty separate local Jewish historical associations and another fifty local Jewish genealogical societies, plus all the national Jewish organizations;1 Israel, a country of just 6 million, has more than 215 museums, with more opening every year.2 The intra-Israeli clash between traditional historians and "new historians"—between mainstream Zionists and their "post-Zionist" critics—is the stuff of great national debate.
Similarly, in Arab countries, as throughout most Muslim societies, history excites, inspires, and animates civic life. "The Muslim peoples, like everyone else in the world, are shaped by their history, but, unlike some others, they are keenly aware of it," writes the eminent historian Bernard Lewis. "Middle Easterners' perception of history is nourished from the pulpit, by the schools, and by the media. [It is] vivid and powerfully resonant."3 Across Arab lands, historical allusions more than a millennium old—such as the names of Muslim battlefield victories from the seventh century—adorn freshly built universities (such as Yarmouk and Mu'tah, in Jordan) and even an inter-Arab consortium of satellites (Badr).4
But there is a difference: Jews live predominantly in democracies, where history, like politics, is alive with bustle, debate, and disorder. Most Arabs, by contrast, live in closed societies, where rulers fear uncertainty and spend their nation's wealth controlling it. Although Arab peoples may revere the study, writing, and teaching of history, their leaders are more likely to view a clash of historians as a source of threat, rather than a source of strength.
The result is that historians in most Arab countries are more like the court chroniclers of long-dead dynasties, and the hollow or distorted history they write and teach reflects the difference between intellectual and government employee.5 This phenomenon has produced a generation of Arabs that knows little about the details and texture of their own history, especially the modern history of the republics, monarchies, and principalities in which they live today. I recall that many Jordanians who read a book I wrote on their country's politics in the 1950s, an especially turbulent time for the Hashemite royal family, told me it had filled in an historical black hole for them, telling stories of people and events that no Jordanian had ever done. Western scholars may chafe at rules that control access to official government documents, but they are nothing compared to the restrictions on information that exist in the Middle East. When I was doing doctoral research in the late 1980s, the University of Jordan housed a massive collection of books in what was then called the "forbidden room" of the school's library. Through political connections, I gained access to the room, which contained some hard-to-find volumes written by and about people out of royal favor but certainly nothing that was worthy of labeling secret. Indeed, the very act of writing history in many Arab countries can be risky business. In this part of the world, it is not uncommon for new leaders to airbrush their predecessors out of history—such is the fate, for example, of Egypt's Sadat and Tunisia's Habib Bourghuiba. Woe unto the historian who has already immortalized the ancien régime in print!
But none of this was actually in my mind as I walked down the middle of Fifth Avenue that sunny Tuesday afternoon. I had practical matters to think about—like contacting my wife, who I later learned had been evacuated from her office two blocks from the White House, deciding where I was going to sleep that night, and figuring how I was going to get back home, to Washington. But I also thought a lot about the audacity of the people who took down the towers that day.
Killing, as Cain learned, is an audacious act, and killing on a grand scale is even more so. As genocides have become frequent occurrences, we know that the potential for such killing is always there, from the knives drawn in Rwanda to the death pits of Bosnia. The worst genocide of all, the Holocaust, stands out because it was the most audacious—Germans employed the most scientifically advanced means of the day in the most culturally advanced society in the world to kill the greatest number of people as quickly and efficiently as possible. On a much smaller scale, the killers of 9/11 did just that. Using the most modern of technologies, they exceeded—if just for a couple of hours—the deadly output of Auschwitz, and were the terrorists able to do so, they would have multiplied the killing many times over. To my mind, the plume of smoke rising over the wounded towers conjured to me the chimneys of the death camps, two examples of killers audaciously perfecting murder on an industrial scale.
None of that would have occurred to the perpetrators of the attacks, of course. But that is as much because of the culture that shaped them as the ideology that motivated them. Virtually alone among peoples of the world, Arabs have effectively claimed—and won—exemption from the global campaign to remember the most audacious crime in history. Soon after 9/11, I surveyed Holocaust and tolerance-related institutions and found that not a single module, text, or program for Holocaust education existed in an Arab country, even within the context of studying twentieth-century history, modern genocides, or tolerance education.6
At one level, this phenomenon is easy to explain. Arabs—even many modern, moderate, and enlightened Arabs—opt out of discussions about the Holocaust because of its special relevance to Jews and its role in the creation of Israel. A review of documents at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, for example, shows that only one Arab at or near the highest level of government—a young prince from a Gulf state—ever left a record of an official visit to the museum in its history.7 In the eyes of many Arabs, the catastrophe of Israel's founding would not have occurred if the catastrophe of the Holocaust had not occurred first; accepting the uniqueness and enormity of the latter therefore runs the risk of accepting the validity and legitimacy of the former. As an historian, it is important to recognize the critical role that the Holocaust did play in the founding of Israel—as source of tragic clarity to Jews about the need for independent Jewish sovereignty, as source of cruel stimulus for Jewish immigration to Palestine, and as source of international sympathy for the Jewish people's claim to self-determination. At the same time, it is necessary to point out that the Holocaust provides neither the first, nor the primary, nor the only rationale for the establishment of a Jewish state. By the time German panzers rolled into Poland, modern Zionism was already more than forty years old and the Zionists had attracted so many Jews to Palestine that the British, who governed the territory under a post–World War I mandate, had already proposed to partition the land to accommodate two states for two peoples, one Jewish and one Arab. For most Arabs I have met, that history muddies the image of European colonialists paying with Arab land to atone for their guilt over the fate of the Jews during World War II. To them, the creation of Israel was the world's indulgence to Jews as compensation for the destruction of the Holocaust; validating the latter can only validate the former.
However easy to explain, this phenomenon is not so easy to excuse. In the weeks that followed the 9/11 attacks, as my focus moved from Manhattan to the Middle East, it dawned on me that we do no favors to Arabs to exempt them from this history, whatever connection the Holocaust may have to their political dispute with Israel. To borrow a phrase from another context, sparing Arabs the responsibility of Holocaust remembrance actually exposes the soft bigotry of our own low expectations. And, as the events of 9/11 made clear, it certainly does us no favor either.
At that early date, I decided that the most useful response I could offer to 9/11 was to combat Arab ignorance of the Holocaust.8 The question was how to do it. An adversarial approach, I soon realized, was the wrong way to engage Arabs if I truly wanted to change attitudes on a taboo topic. To do that, I needed to make the Holocaust accessible to Arabs; I needed to make the Holocaust an Arab story.
The answer came to me one autumn evening in 2001. "Whoever saves one life, saves the entire world," says the Qur'an, an echo of the Talmud's injunction "If you save one life, it is as if you have saved the world." 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. It was, I thought, the most positive solution I could imagine.
When that idea first came to me, I figured my work was half done. I am not an expert on the history of the Holocaust, and my assumption was that stories of Arabs who saved Jews already circulated among the cognoscenti but were not widely known. In the context I know best—modern Middle East history—such was the case, for example, in 1929, when a few brave Arabs saved the lives of dozens of Jews from an Arab massacre in the biblical city of Hebron. Surely, I thought, the Holocaust had its share of these stories, too. I would only have to find them, mine them, and popularize them.
I was wrong. After a flurry of e-mails—to Sir Martin Gilbert, the renowned historian; to Walter Reich, the former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum; and, ultimately, to Mordechai Paldiel, the widely respected head of the Department of the Righteous at Israel's national memorial to the Holocaust, Yad Vashem—reality set in: Nearly sixty years after the war, no Arab had ever been officially recognized as a rescuer of Jews. "What an interesting topic," a distinguished scholar wrote in reply to a query from me. "Good luck in your work."9
Two months after 9/11, my wife and I decided to move to Rabat, the capital of the North African kingdom of Morocco. My first encounter with North Africa was as a child, when my father told fascinating, if unnerving, tales from his wartime stops in Casablanca, Algiers, and Oran in 1943, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, but I had never been there myself. For Jennie and me, the decision to move there broke a pattern. Throughout our eleven years of marriage, we had kept our professional lives apart; she, an economist at the World Bank, worked previously on Vietnam, Russia, and sub-Saharan Africa, but never an Arab country. When Jennie received an offer to relocate to the field office in Rabat, we decided not to pass up the one opportunity to live in a country where our interests might overlap. In April 2002, we left Washington with our two young boys and settled into our new home in Morocco.
Over the next two and a half years, my tiny office on the second floor of our white stucco house at 1 Oulad Fares Street became the world headquarters of a far-flung effort to find Arabs who had saved Jews during the Holocaust. My research extended to a dozen countries on four continents; I drew on the skills of a small army of archivists, translators, interviewers, and researchers as well as the advice and counsel of many experts far more knowledgeable than I in the history of the Holocaust. Early on, I realized that it made no sense to focus solely on a narrow search for Arabs who saved Jews. Context matters. Without understanding the Nazi, Fascist, and Vichy efforts to extend their Holocaust-era persecution of Jews to Arab lands, without understanding how the half-million Jews of Europe's Arab possessions fared under this threat, and without understanding the many different roles that Arab populations of these lands played during this experience, there could be no real meaning to specific stories of Arabs who saved Jews—if they existed, at all. What started as a small, boutique effort to find one Arab who saved one Jew mushroomed into the most complex mega-project of my life.
This book contains what I found. It is, I admit at the outset, not the comprehensive account of any of the concentric circles I just described. That mammoth task awaits a team of graduate students who will make their careers combing over each of the more than 100 sites of German, French, and Italian forced labor set up in Arab countries, sketching the personal tales of the thousands of Jews—both Ashkenazim and Sephardim—interned at "punishment camps" in the Sahara, or assessing the way scores of Arab leaders and officials dealt with the competing tugs of their public responsibilities, on the one hand, and their private friendships with Jews, on the other hand. This book is a more modest undertaking. It is part history, part travelogue, part memoir. It is the story of my search for an Arab who saved a Jew during the Holocaust—the "Righteous" of the title—and what I found along the way: the discoveries I made, the personalities I encountered, the lessons I learned.
One of those lessons is that the Holocaust experience of Jews and others persecuted in Arab lands are not "untold stories" but rather "lost stories." Recall, for example, this scene from the movie Casablanca, in which a Gestapo officer urges the devoted wife of the Czech underground leader to convince her husband to return to Paris under German protection.

On Sale
Oct 30, 2006
Page Count
288 pages