The Holocaust was not strictly “a European story,” Robert Satloff correctly states in his important book, Among the Righteous: Lost Stories From the Holocaust’s Long Reach Into Arab Lands, published by Public Affairs.
With the fall of France in 1940, the consolidation of Vichy rule in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya, and Germany’s invasion of North Africa, the lives of some 500,000 Jews were suddenly imperilled.
“Virtually no Jew in North Africa was left untouched,” writes Satloff.
As the Holocaust rolled over Jews in Europe, North African Jews were deprived of citizenship, property, education and livelihood, sent to forced labour camps and subjected to confiscations, deportations and executions.
“Still many more (Jews) lived in a state of perpetual fear and daily privation,” he adds.
By his estimate, 4,000 to 5,000 North African Jews perished, while 1,200 North African Jews trapped in France were deported to Nazi death camps in Poland.
“If Allied troops had not driven the Germans from the African continent in 1943, two years before the fall of Berlin, then the 2,000-year-old Jewish communities of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, and perhaps Egypt and Palestine, too, would almost certainly have met the fate of their brethren in Europe.”
The fate of Jews in North Africa was sealed with Germany’s conquest of France in 1940. In Algeria, a French overseas colonial possession, the Vichy regime annulled the Cremieux decree, which had given Jews the opportunity to become citizens of France. In one fell stroke, 105,000 Algerian Jews lost their French citizenship.
According to Satloff, the cancellation of the Cremieux decree was not made in response to German pressure.
At almost the exact moment, Moroccan and Tunisian Jews lost most of their civil, legal and personal rights under the statut des juifs, which, like Germany’s Nuremberg laws, defined Jewishness.
The statut des juifs, which was also applied in France, were all-encompassing, prohibiting Jews from holding governmental or military positions and jobs in the professions.
Vichy France issued a more severe version in 1941 that limited Jewish enrolment at schools and universities and forced Jews to sell businesses and property.
During this period, Algerian Jews suffered the most. The situation in Morocco and Tunisia was marginally less onerous. In Morocco, however, Jews bore the brunt of a special edict that compelled them to move back to the mellah, the congested ghetto.
The Moroccan king, Muhammed V, did not share the pro-German sympathies of the Arab elite of the day, and was particularly appalled that Vichy’s anti-Jewish laws were based on race, he writes.
According to Satloff, the German occupation of Tunisia, which lasted from November 1942 to May 1943, was “a Hobbesian experience, nasty, brutish and short.”
Although Germany’s occupation force was constantly under attack by Allied armies, the Nazis managed to torment the Jewish population, taking hostages, stealing property, extorting ransoms, dispatching thousands to labour camps and killing prisoners.
As in Europe, Tunisian Jews were required to wear the demeaning yellow Star of David and Jewish councils were compelled to implement Nazi policies.
In Tunis, German soldiers broke into the Great Synagogue, brutalizing men and women. On the island of Djerba, home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in the Diaspora, the Germans demanded a huge ransom.
Throughout Tunisia, 5,000 Jews were sent to 40 labour camps, some controlled by the Italian occupation army.
Conditions were appalling, yet Jews who found themselves in the Italian zone usually received better treatment. “In general,” Satloff writes, “Italian soldiers lacked the antisemitic zeal of their German allies …”
By his reckoning, 2,575 Tunisian Jews died during the German occupation, the majority in Allied bombing raids.
Arabs played a “supporting role” in the persecution of Jews, he says. Some notables, for example, tried to improve their personal finances and political fortunes at the expense of Jews.
Arab mobs, especially in Tunisia, went on rampages. Upward of 13,000 Arab men volunteered for the German army. In only one instance was an Arab arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to prison for having collaborated with foreign forces in the persecution of Jews.
“There may have been others,” he notes, “but their stories are either locked away in the archives of French military tribunals, which remain closed for 100 years, or have been lost with the passage of time.”
Amid instances of Arab collaboration, Satloff stumbled upon “gestures of sympathy” by Arabs.
As he puts it, “At every stage of the Nazi, Vichy and fascist persecutions of Jews in Arab lands, and in every place that it occurred, Arabs helped Jews. Some Arabs spoke out against the persecution of Jews and took public stands of unity with them. Some Arabs denied the support and assistance that would have made the wheels of the anti-Jewish campaign spin more efficiently. Some Arabs shared the fate of Jews… And there were occasions when certain Arabs chose to do more than just offer moral support to Jews. They bravely saved Jewish lives, at times risking their own in the process. Those Arabs were true heroes.”
Citing such cases, Satloff tells of the “fair and exemplary” attitude of Arabs in the Tunisian city of Sfax and in the hinterland and of imams in Algiers who urged local Muslims not to take advantage of Jews for financial gain.
Satloff also praises Si Kaddour Benghabrit, the imam of the Great Mosque of Paris. He saved the life of Salim (Simon) Halali, an Algerian-born Jew who became France’s most celebrated “Oriental” singer.
When Halali was in real danger of being deported, he turned to Benghabrit, one of his fans. Benghabrit supplied him with a certificate of Muslim identity, which enabled Halali to survive the war.
Despite instances of Arab generosity, the vast majority of Arabs displayed “glacial indifference” to Jewish suffering, Satloff concludes.
Satloff also examines Arab attitudes on the Holocaust, contending that “Holocaust minimization” is widespread in the Arab media and in Arab scholarship today.
In addition, he delves into several other topics – the strange phenomenon in which Moroccan and Tunisian Jews play down or ignore the wartime era in their respective countries, the reason why Yad Vashem has yet to honour a single Arab who helped Jews during the Holocaust, and Germany’s decision, in May 2005, to pay compensation to North African Holocaust survivors.