This is an edited version of an article that appeared in Sunday’s issue of the Washington Post. A hat tip is due to panchromatica where I saw this article first.
Virtually alone among peoples of the world, Arabs appear to have won a free pass when it comes to denying or minimizing the Holocaust. Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah has declared to his supporters that "Jews invented the legend of the Holocaust." Hamas's official Web site labels the Nazi effort to exterminate Jews "an alleged and invented story with no basis."
Such Arab viewpoints are not exceptional. Not a single official textbook or educational program on the Holocaust exists in an Arab country. In Arab media, literature and popular culture, Holocaust denial is pervasive and legitimized. Yet when Arab leaders and their people deny the Holocaust, they deny their own history as well -- the lost history of the Holocaust in Arab lands, one that reveals complicity and indifference on the part of some Arabs during the Holocaust, but also heroism on the part of others who took great risks to save Jewish lives.
Neither Yad Vashem, Israel's official memorial to Holocaust victims, nor any other Holocaust memorial has ever recognized an Arab rescuer. It is time for that to change. It is also time for Arabs to recall and embrace these episodes in their history. The Holocaust was an Arab story, too.
There were no death camps, but many thousands of Jews were consigned to more than 100 brutal labor camps, many solely for Jews. Indeed, the Arab lands of Algeria and Morocco were the site of the first concentration camps ever liberated by Allied troops. About 1 percent of Jews in North Africa (4,000 to 5,000) perished under Axis control in Arab lands, compared with more than half of European Jews. But if U.S. and British troops had not pushed Axis forces from the African continent by May 1943, the Jews of Algeria, Libya, Morocco would have met the same fate as those in Europe.
The Arabs in these lands were not too different from Europeans: With war waging around them, most stood by and did nothing; many participated fully and willingly in the persecution of Jews; and a brave few even helped save Jews. Arab collaborators were everywhere. These included overseers of Jewish work gangs, sadistic guards at Jewish labor camps and interpreters who went house to house with SS officers pointing out where Jews lived. Without the help of local Arabs, the persecution of Jews would have been virtually impossible.
But not all Arabs joined with the European-spawned campaign against the Jews. The few who risked their lives to save Jews provide inspiration beyond their numbers. Arabs 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 the words of Yaacov Zrivy, from a small town near Sfax, Tunisia, "The Arabs watched over the Jews."
In the hills west of Tunis, 60 Jewish internees escaped from an Axis labor camp and 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 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 predations of a German officer bent on rape.
There is strong evidence that the most influential Arab in Europe -- Si Kaddour Benghabrit, the rector of the Great Mosque of Paris -- saved as many as 100 Jews by having the mosque's administrative personnel give them certificates of Muslim identity, with which they could evade arrest and deportation. These men, and others, were true heroes.
Arabs need to hear these stories -- both of heroes and of villains. They especially need to hear them from their own teachers, preachers and leaders. If they do, they may respond as did that one Arab prince who visited the Holocaust museum. "What we saw today," he commented after his tour, "must help us change evil into good and hate into love and war into peace."