You wrote about “the morphing of “Jews” and “Zionists” in the minds of
Arabs – does this mean that you think the Arab world today is anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist, or both? Can these two things can be separated? Do we want them to be separated?

Best

Rosner

Shmuel,

Thanks for your question because it first gives me an opportunity to dispel a myth.

You asked me whether I think “the Arab world today is anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist or both?” The myth is that there is such a thing as “the Arab world.” As I write in my book, of all of the ideas that stand out after a quarter-century studying the Middle East, one of the most important is 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, nationality and race that produces the range of human passions. The “Arab world,” as such, does not exist – an Omani has very little in common with a Tunisian; a Lebanese Christian has very little in common with a Sudanese Muslim. Of course, various ideologues would like to spread the image of an “Arab world” or a “Muslim world” but we in the West accept this context at our peril; we live and thrive in the world of nation-states and have no interest in advancing the concept of an “Arab world” or a “Muslim world.” Indeed, to view the Middle East this way is to cede the ideological high-ground and lose half the “battle of ideas” even before we start.

As to the specific question, there is no doubt that the political class in Arab countries is largely anti-Zionist – i.e,. most do not accept the proposition that the Jewish people have a right to exercise sovereignty in part or all of the former mandatory Palestine. At the same time, a large proportion of these people, in my view, have come to reconcile themselves to the fact of Israel’s existence and have no desire to expend lives or fortunes to challenge it. Indeed, for a large proportion, the question of Israel is of intellectual, but not practical, interest. (This could change if many Arabs came to believe that Israel was vulnerable.) At the same time, there are those in the political class of the three regions of the Middle East – Levant, Maghreb and Gulf — who recognize the positive role Israel plays in regional security and who appreciate Israel. They are quiet about this but this feeling is real and something to be nurtured. (I say “political class” because, in my view, the vast majority of people in Arab countries are animated by such more pressing issues as housing, sustenance, education and health care than they are the high politics of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.)

In general, my experience is that the urgency of the “Israel/Palestine” issue connects to geography – i.e., the closer to the conflict, the more enduring the practical interest in its outcome. So, for example, Israel’s neighbors care a lot about the conflict and have strong emotions about it that manifest themselves on virtually a daily basis but the interest in the conflict among people in the more distant countries of the Gulf and North Africa is episodic and driven by the news cycle. In other words, Bahrainis and Moroccans do not wake up in the morning worrying about what is going on in Gaza, unless it is the lead item on al-Jazeera. I doubt that a majority of Egyptians do either, but the percentage is higher. It is highest of all in Jordan, both for geographic and demographic reasons.

To be sure, there are many who do wish to act on their anti-Zionism and try to destroy Israel. This remains, regrettably, a very real objective, especially for radical Islamist extremists and their fellow travelers. Some of them believe this objective needs to be their most urgent priority; others – the more dangerous group – believe they should first try to win influence and power in existing states, often via allegedly “democratic” means, and use that position eventually to carry on their anti-Zionist campaign. Israel and its friends need to be alive to this danger.

What probably grabbed your attention about my first posting was my observation about the morphing of Arab anti-Semitism and Arab anti-Zionism. Basically, the story is this: the common Arab narrative is to make a distinction between Arab opposition to Israel and traditional Arab friendship toward Jews. According to this narrative, Arab-Jewish relations were wonderful until 1948, when Israel’s founding soured everything. Even so, this narrative goes, Arabs have done everything they could to separate their enmity toward Israel from their relationship toward Jews.

The reality is much more complex. First, life for Jews in Arab lands may, historically, have been far better than it was for Jews in Christian lands but – given the horrors of the Inquisition, York and the pogroms – that yardstick is pretty low. Apart from the “golden age of Andalusia,” which was defined by both time and space, Jews generally lived as tolerated second-class citizens in most Arab lands, paying special taxes and suffering with special restrictions on residence, occupation, attire, etc. There were also sporadic outbursts of violence against Jewish communities in many Arab countries that dot the history of the modern Middle East.

Second, even a cursory look at post-1948 history and popular culture in Arab states shows that anti-Zionism frequently – even consistently – spilled (and continues to spill) over into anti-Semitism. The fact that so many hundreds of thousands of Jews left Arab lands in the years after 1948 – with a large percentage not making aliyah to Israel – is prima facie evidence of this blurring of anti-Jewishness and anti-Zionism. But it has many other manifestations, such as the use of the term Yahud as a common synonym for Israelis — and the appalling frequency with which the adjective “Nazi” is applied for both. In this regard, it is impossible to separate out the phenomenon of anti-Zionism in Arab societies with the phenomenon of anti-Semitism.

With the decline and disappearance of Jewish communities in Arab lands – the only two Arab countries still to have more than 1000 Jews are Morocco and Tunisia – this process will deepen. Fewer and fewer Arabs will live with Jews and see them as real human beings; instead, Jews will only be known as caricatures. This cannot be a positive trend. But are all Arabs anti-Semitic? Definitely not. And that ray of hope needs to be nurtured, too.

Rob

Dear Rob,

My first question is a more general question, as to help the many readers who haven’t yet have a chance to read your new book. You answer this question in the book in much detail, but a shorter version is essential before we can start our discussion: Were there any Arabs who saved Jews during the Holocaust, and why didn’t we know about it until now?

Best,
Rosner

Did any Arabs save any Jews during the Holocaust? I believe the answer is “yes.” Moreover, I believe that the number of Arab “righteous” is probably proportionate to the number of other non-Jews who saved or rescued Jews, relative to the time, place and range of circumstances in which Arabs found themselves.

First, it is important to recall that both World War II in general, and the Holocaust in particular, have a special Arab component.

For several months, Arab lands were the focal point of the war. In late 1942/1943, for example, the major battleground of the European theater was Tunisia, which was the scene of heavy back-and-forth fighting between the Allies and the Axis powers.

Similarly, Jewish communities in Arabs lands were not spared the German-spawned campaign to persecute Jews. In lands governed by Germany’s French Vichy collaborators and Italian Fascist allies, these Axis powers implemented anti-Jewish laws, at times even with greater vigor than in Europe itself.

Vichy deported to labor camps in North Africa more than 2,000 European Jews, often deep in the Sahara desert. Many of these Jews were then dispatched to “punishment camps” for special torture. Italy rounded up thousands of indigenous Jews in especially brutal desert camps in Libya, where hundreds died.

And one Arab country – Tunisia – sustained for six months a full-fledged German occupation that included round-ups of Jews, confiscations, hostage-taking, deportations, executions and the imposition (throughout much of the Tunisian hinterland) of wearing the yellow star.

Throughout this ordeal, most Arabs were indifferent to the fate of the Jews, a substantial minority participated – often fully and willingly – in the anti-Jewish persecution, and a small but powerfully important number helped and even rescued Jews.

In my research, I found stories of Arabs who welcomed Jews into their homes, guarded Jews’ valuables so Germans could not confiscate them, shared with Jews their meager rations and warned Jewish leaders of coming SS raids. The sultan of Morocco and the bey of Tunis provided moral support and, at times, practical help to Jewish subjects. In Vichy-controlled Algiers, mosque preachers gave Friday sermons forbidding believers from serving as conservators of confiscated Jewish property.

I found remarkable stories of rescue, too. During the heat of battle in the Zaghouan valley, west of Tunis, a group of Jewish internees at an Axis labor camp banged on the farm door of a man named Si Ali Sakkat, who courageously hid them until liberation by the Allies. In the Tunisian coastal town of Mahdia, a dashing local notable named Khaled Abdelwahhab scooped up several families in the middle of the night and whisked them to his countryside estate to protect one of the women from the threat of rape by a German officer.

And there is strong evidence that perhaps the most influential Arab in Europe – Si Kaddour Benghabrit, the rector of the Great Mosque of Paris – saved as many as 100 Jews by providing them with certificates of Muslim identity, with which they could evade arrest and deportation. In my view, these men, and others, were true heroes.

Why haven’t we heard these stories of both rescuers and perpetrators over the past 60 years? I believe there are two main reasons: first, Jews did not look too hard and second, Arabs did not want to be found.

By the first, I mean that the intra-Jewish conflict between Ashkenazim and Sephardim (especially, in Israel); the intra-Sephardic tension between remnant communities and expatriate communities; the ideological as well as physical separation between Israel and Arab states; and the obvious fact that the Holocaust was overwhelmingly a European phenomenon all combined in such a way as to limit the interest and activity of Jewish and other Holocaust historians and institutions in researching the on-the-ground, real-life experience of Jews in Arab lands during the war. While some historians have focused on the topic, it has been largely ignored.

By the second, I mean that the Arab-Israeli conflict has been so toxic in many Arab societies that it has not only led to the morphing of “Jews” and “Zionists” (after all, how else can one explain the exile of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab lands post-1948?) but it has transformed perceptions of otherwise noble deeds such as helping Jews during the war into political incorrect actions.

Throughout my research, I was stunned by the extent to which both officials and ordinary Arabs alike were either not happy to learn that their fathers or grandfathers saved Jews or were unhelpful in assisting me to prove that it was so.