Arts & Culture

Willing Heroes – An interview with Robert Satloff

Robert Satloff, Executive Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy,Holocaustis the author of Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Reach into Arab Lands. From 2002 to 2004, Satloff and his wife, an economist with the World … Read More

By / January 27, 2009

Robert Satloff, Executive Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy,Holocaustis the author of Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Reach into Arab Lands. From 2002 to 2004, Satloff and his wife, an economist with the World Bank, lived in Morocco. There he began to explore a previously unknown chapter of Holocaust history: the plight of North African and European Jews under fascist German, French and Italian occupation in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. I caught up with Satloff when he came to Toronto. Below is our interview in modified form.

Mordecai Drache: Can you first talk about when you decided to write this book, and why?

Robert Satloff: I was in New York City on 9/11, and, to make a long story short, the image of the twin towers in my mind conjured up images of the chimneys of Auschwitz. I came to the conclusion that it was important to respond to the events of 9/11, to find a way of engaging with Arabs of good will about the Holocaust since Holocaust ignorance is one manifestation of the great cultural separation between Arab/Islamic culture and western civilization. The Holocaust is in fact an Arab story, too. It’s [a story] in which they play a role for good and evil.

MD: How many Nazi labour camps were in North Africa?

RS: Today, the German government, in negotiations with the claims conference, has accepted responsibility for about 115 or so Vichy, Italian and German camps that operated in the four North African countries of Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya. Of those, about 30 were German-operated camps with the rest being run by French and Italians. The key contextual point here is to recall that from June of 1940 until May of 1943, these four countries, or at least parts of them, were under fascist control. The forces of Vichy France occupied Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria until November 1942. Mussolini’s Italy was in control of Libya until the withdrawal of Rommel’s forces and the success of General Bernard Montgomery. Then, for six months from November 1942 until May 1943, there was a German occupation of Tunisia, the only Arab country to have a full-fledged German occupation.

MD: How many Jews were interned in these camps?

RS: In Morocco, the Jewish internees were not Moroccan Jews. They were Jews deported from Europe to serve their slave labour in desert camps in eastern Morocco and western Algeria. Except for a small number, Moroccan Jews were not interned. So there were between 2,000 to 3,000 of European Jews who were deported from Europe. In Tunisia, 5000 Jewish men were interned. In Algeria, the exact numbers are difficult to get, so I won’t quote any, but you had thousands of people, including soldiers, political prisoner, all male. Libya was the one country where you had men, women and children interned and there several thousands were interned. Although there were fewer than, say, in Algeria, you had the highest death rates [in Libya], mostly due to the extraordinarily hard conditions of the camp there. One quarter of the inmates [in Libyan camps] died of typhus.

[Note that] Jews were the only ones who went to camps for who they were.

MD: So were there Arabs among the prisoners as well?

RS: Yes, but mostly Arabs were sent to camps for political reasons. At the very end of the six-month German occupation, some Arabs were sent to replace Jews because they needed more workers than Jews could provide

MD: What do you think the ratio was between Arabs who collaborated with the Nazis with those who resisted? How did it compare with Europe?

RS: It seems to me that, both in terms of the general reaction of the population and numerically, you have a similar phenomenon [to Germany] in the sense that the vast majority of the [Arab] population was indifferent to the fate of the Jews, a regrettably large minority collaborated and participated in the persecution, and then a small number, an important number, aided Jews facing persecution.

In Europe, we have the murder of six million Jews and Yad Vashem has recognized 21,000 righteous who risked their lies to save Jews. In Arab lands the total number of Jews who died under fascist rule was 4000 to 5000. I’m sure if scholars made an effort, we would get proportionately about the same number of “righteous gentiles.” This reflects the reality that the DNA is not so different between Catholics and Protestants in Europe and Muslims in Arab countries. The number of willing executioners– be they Ukrainians, Poles, whatever, as Goldhagen terms them in a German context— is a more sensitive issue in the European context than the Arab context. The country that has the best record in Europe is Muslim Albania. It’s the only country in Europe where the Jewish population was larger after the war than before the war.

MD: Let’s turn now to the history of Muslim/Jewish relations, during the Holocaust and before.. Hajj Amin al Husseini, the staunchly anti-Zionist grand mufti of Jerusalem, is often credited as having played a major role in instilling Arab anti-Jewish attitudes during [World War II]. How would you characterize his role?

RS: One of the most heinous anti-Jewish zealots of the war was indeed Hajj Amin al Husseini. He not only egged Hitler on for the execution of the Jewish population of Europe, but himself organized three divisions of
to fight on behalf of the Germans and to participate in the persecution in the Jews. These troops were Bosnian, not Arab, which is not to say that there weren’t Arabs who supported Germany but it was not among Arabs that the Mufti succeeded in organizing divisions for Hitler. The reality was that the Mufti was less influential among Arab populations than what we retroactively ascribe to him. He was not the principal mover behind the political thinking of Arab populations of the day.

MD: But didn’t he play a role in building anti-Jewish attitudes in Iraq? It’s not well-known amongst Arabs or Jews that there was a pro-Nazi attack against Jews in Baghdad, referred to by historians as the farhud. In April 1941, there was a coup headed up by the pro-Nazi Arab nationalist Rashid Ali al-Gaylani. While there was anti-Jewish harassment and violence during the two-month al-Gaylani occupation, the slaughter of 200 Jews actually happened after the British invaded several weeks later and he had escaped. On June 1, the regent, who was pro-British, arrived in Baghdad without any British troops since it was feared he would look like some sort of stooge of the English if he did. It happened to be Shavuot. Jewish leaders, dressed in their finest clothes for the holidays, went to greet him. Once they were spotted doing so, this sparked the farhud.

RS: The career of the mufti is checkered. He advised Hitler, was on radio Berlin, organized these SS battalions, assisted with the pro-German coup in Iraq [ok?]. I don’t want to say he didn’t have any influence but one would be hard pressed to see him cited as a major political player in North Africa under lands that were controlled by the fascists. You don’t see him being a major propagandist on behalf of the Germans. His political tails didn’t carry very far. There were other local reasons you had pro-Nazi German sentiment in North Africa and the basic one was that Germans were the enemies of the French and the French were the major colonial powers of the region. The major thrust of pro-German sentiment emanated from the Arab proverb of “the enemy of my enemy.”

MD: Which also happened in Iraq with the British.

RS: Yes, the enemy of the colonial French or the colonial British became the ally of local Arab nationalists. There were exceptions to that and they’re very interesting to point out, such as Habib Bourgiba, leader of the Tunisian nationalist movement, who rejected calls from his fellow nationalists to support the Germans. He said, don’t do anything to harm the French. We will fight the French when it is our turn to fight the French but we shouldn’t side with the Germans in the process. So there wasn’t always a knee-jerk support even among the nationalists. It’s not such a black and white story.

MD: Perhaps now might be a good time to talk about the traditional status of Jews in Muslim lands and the rifts that may have been created with the Jews’ changing vision of themselves in Muslim society.

RS: There’s a quite a bit of myth about historical Muslim/Jewish relations. There are some who argue, mostly from an Arab Muslim perspective, that life for Jews [in Arab-ruled lands] was a golden age. On the other hand, there are those who say Jews have always been horribly mistreated throughout the history of Muslim societies. Both stories are untrue.

The truth goes something like this. There is no doubt that for the last 1400 years, you were better off being born a Jew in a Muslim land than being a Jew born in Christendom. The chances that you would be burned at the stake or that your child would be sold into slavery or some other heinous outcome was much less in Muslim lands. That being said, life for Jews in Muslim lands was no rose garden. Other than a brief golden moment in Andalusia, there was a consistent situation of what we would call second class citizenship, toleration if not tolerance of Jews: Jews were tolerated, persecuted, despised, at the same time. There were laws governing what Jews could wear, where they could live, what they could eat, what professions they could hold, higher taxes, all sorts of regulations.

Jews up until 1870 in Algeria and up until the early 1920s in Tunisia were viewed by the colonialists as being on par with local Muslims. Then Algerian Jews and some Tunisian Jews were offered French citizenship, and it was through these laws that you have the first political distinctions between Jews and Muslims [distinctions created by Europeans] that do create some Arab Muslim distrust and anger at Jews for separating themselves from the indigenous community.

In Algeria, during Vichy occupation, a religious decree by imams was instituted against Muslims becoming custodians of seized Jewish property. It was a political judgment made by the Muslim leaders of the day: today go the Jews, tomorrow go the Muslims. [They thought,] We Muslims have no interest in feeding the German or fascist frenzy about indigenous people. Yes, the Germans hate the Jews, but they only hate us slightly less than they hate them and if we think we’re going to reap any long-term benefit from siding with them today, we’re fooling ourselves. For some, the traditional relationship with Jews as dhimma or protected people applied, but [for most Arab leaders] the political calculus was probably a more important factor.

MD: Thank you.

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