Danuta Otfinowski
Danuta Otfinowski

Revisiting the Holocaust Narrative

By writing about North African Arabs who helped Jews escape persecution during World War II, Middle East expert Robert Satloff hopes to build bridges between discordant groups.
Writer: 
June 1, 2007
 

In May 2004, Robert Satloff flew from Morocco to Tunisia in search of Khaled Abdelwahhab. Not the man himself, but information that would confirm what Satloff had heard about Abdelwahhab from a California woman named Anny Boukris.

Satloff '83, a Middle East scholar, was researching a book on the treatment of Jews by Arabs in North Africa during World War II. Much of North Africa, at the time, comprised the colonial holdings of the Italian and French governments. Especially after France fell to the Nazis, North African Jews suffered discrimination and abuse. They were saved the worst of the Holocaust by time and distance, but the Italian and Vichy French governments imported many anti-Semitic policies and established hundreds of labor and "punishment" camps where Jews were interned, forced to perform grueling labor, tortured, and sometimes killed.

Boukris, a Tunisian Jew, had immigrated to the U.S. from Mahdia, a coastal town 200 kilometers south of the capital city of Tunis. Sharing her story with a researcher Satloff had sent to interview her in 2003, Boukris, then seventy-two, told how her family had been evicted from their home by German troops. The Boukrises moved temporarily to a nearby olive-oil factory but were soon taken in by an Arab acquaintance who feared that Anny's mother, Odette, might be sexually assaulted by German soldiers. Boukris told the researcher that the Arab, Abdelwahhab, took her, her family, and other Jews to his family's farm in the village of Tlelsa, where they waited out the occupation in relative comfort.

Arab interest: Egypt's major newspapers, including Al-Wafd, reported on Satloff's visit to the country in January to share his research

Arab interest: Egypt's major newspapers, including Al-Wafd, reported on Satloff's visit to the country in January to share his research

Boukris' story was just the type that Satloff was seeking. Satloff, the director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a leading foreign-policy think tank, studies and writes about the divisions between the West and the Arab world (a world that, he stresses, is in reality too complex and varied to be referred to as "the Arab world.") In the course of conducting research on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other issues, he had become acutely aware of the prevalence of Holocaust denial among Arabs, even some scholars and prominent political leaders. These feelings manifested themselves recently when Iran hosted what many observers described as a two-day Holocaust denial conference featuring speakers like David Duke, a former Louisiana Congressman and Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

A frequent contributor to the opinion pages of newspapers such as The Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun, Satloff had, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, conceived an idea for what he thought would just be another small writing project.

The project began as a simple question: Did any Arabs save any Jews during the Holocaust? The idea, he says, was that if he could find and publicize the story of even one Arab who had helped to save a Jew during the Holocaust, that could begin to bridge what he perceived as a widening gap by giving perhaps one Arab family a sense of pride of accomplishment. Satloff initially believed that his research would be rather cursory. He assumed that stories of Arabs helping Jews were known among historians and that his task would simply be to find those stories and publicize them.

He was wrong. After contacting Holocaust historians in several countries and representatives of major Holocaust memorials in the U.S. and Israel, he discovered that not one Arab had been officially recognized as having rescued persecuted Jews during World War II. Yad Vashem, the Israeli institution that confers "Righteous Among the Nations" status on non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, had honored Muslims from Turkey and Albania, but no Arabs.

In some ways, that finding was not surprising. After all, much of the existing body of Holocaust research has focused on the experiences of European Jews. But to Satloff, it increasingly seemed as if the existing research was providing an incomplete picture.

In a personal sense, the timing for Satloff's research into the experience of North African Jews was perfect. As the project began to develop, he was in the process of moving to Morocco. His wife, Jennie Litvack '85, an economist with the World Bank, had been offered a job in the organization's Rabat office. Their two young children would enroll in local schools. Satloff planned to retain the directorship of the Washington Institute, telecommuting from a small office outfitted with a desk, a computer, and a bookcase across the hall from his bedroom in Rabat.

And so, from Rabat, Satloff set off on a journey to find and document the stories of Arabs and Jews who interacted during World War II, research that would eventually yield a book, Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust's Long Reach into Arab Lands (PublicAffairs, 2006). Satloff mined state archives in Europe to piece together official histories. He read journals of survivors and sifted through lists of internees at North African labor camps. He posted notes on message boards frequented by Holocaust survivors and their families.

During the course of his research, he heard from many survivors, including Anny Boukris. In an e-mail message, she told him, "The Arabs saved many Jews, hurt also other Jews. I don't know very well these stories. I remember very well only our story." Satloff was uncertain at first whether to believe her story, and historians to whom he related it were skeptical. Still, he sent the researcher to record Boukris' account, which, transcribed, spanned eighty-three pages. Just two months later, Boukris died. "It was as though somebody had finally taken her seriously," Satloff says. "She had finally told her story, and then she died."

Inspired by her account, Satloff traveled to Mahdia, Tunisia, and, with the help of a phonebook, located two Arab women, childhood friends Boukris had mentioned. He approached them and asked, without providing context, about the Boukrises. He was delighted when they were able to recall not only details about the family, but also confirm that Anny stayed at Abdelwahhab's farm during World War II.

"That was like one of these 'Eureka' moments because it was purely, independently confirmed from people who had no stake in the issue," Satloff says. "I knew, at that moment, that Anny's story, in its core elements, was true. It was a very human moment, too. I had other moments of proof. Those were more documentary moments. But when you have it [directly] from these people, it was very powerful." Satloff recently arranged another very human moment: a meeting between Boukris' daughter and one of Abdelwahhab's daughters during an event at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. He describes the moment as one of the most moving experiences of his career. Abdelwahhab's daughter Faiza Abdul Wahab told NPR's Morning Edition, "We feel like sisters. We just felt very close right away."

She reflected on her father, who died ten years ago. "The relation between Jews and Arabs affected him a lot, and now I understand why, because maybe he was dreaming of a perfect world where Jews and Arabs were families."

Of course, not all Arabs have jumped to embrace Satloff's research. Though several were excited, or at least unsurprised, to hear of their ancestors' deeds, others were less welcoming, ostensibly because such identification might arouse suspicions in the community about their being soft on Zionists. Ebrahim Moosa, associate professor of Islamic studies and director of Duke's Center for the Study of Muslim Networks, says it's a tragedy when such "humanizing" portraits of Arabs are repressed. "The irony is that given the deteriorating environment between Arabs and Muslims and Jews because of the rise of the state of Israel, such acknowledgement has become so politically freighted," he says. "Somehow this good deed is turned into a regret because of the way in which many Arabs and Muslims see former victims becoming oppressors."

History reconsidered: Satloff talks with a local Berber man at the site of a Vichy-era "punishment" camp not far from the Algerian border

History reconsidered: Satloff talks with a local Berber man at the site of a Vichy-era "punishment" camp not far from the Algerian border. Jennie Litvack

It is also worth mentioning that in his book, Satloff doesn't focus solely on the Arab "heroes." In order to provide context, he devotes a large section to a discussion of the official mistreatment of Jews by the colonial governments of the time. He then lists the ways in which some Arabs helped the Nazis and other occupiers—working at labor camps, harassing Jews in public, informing on them in private. It is only with this context established that he begins to investigate the stories of Jews who were saved by Arabs, and the stories of the Arabs who saved them. His explicit message of tolerance and bridge-building is that Arabs can begin to embrace their role as heroes. But implicit in the work also seems to be a counter-argument directed at Arabs, especially Palestinians, who claim that they have, through the creation of Israel, been forced to do penance for what was an entirely European crime.

Among the Righteous

Robert Satloff will be the first to tell you that he is not a Holocaust historian by training. Until the release of Among the Righteous, he was known primarily for his role in guiding the Washington Institute.

The institute is generally regarded as one of the city's more influential foreign-policy think tanks. Former staffers, fellows, and board members have gone on to play prominent roles in each of the last three presidential administrations. "You can see just by browsing a list of staff members, people who have been fellows, visiting scholars, it's kind of a 'Who's Who' of Middle East policy advisers and even policy makers," says Chris Toensing, executive director of the Middle East Research and Information Project. The institute hosts weekly, invitation-only luncheons attended by executive-branch staff members, diplomats, journalists, and other policy experts. Every four years it forms a Presidential Commission on Middle East Policy to put together policy recommendations for the incoming president.

"We made a decision early on that we were never going to be deeply in bed with any administration," Satloff says. "But we never want to be in the wilderness. We never want to be irrelevant. Being relevant is the most important thing." The task has been made easier by the nature of Middle East discussions. Unlike other hot-button political issues, Middle East debates do not fall easily along partisan lines.

Even so, some observers refer to the institute as an arm of the "Israel lobby." This characterization is not completely inaccurate. Martin Indyk, the institute's founding director, was a former research director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and even today the institute's experts often support the policies of the Israeli government.

But while Satloff says he doesn't mind the institute being viewed as pro-Israeli--"among the principles that I think [are] very important and this institute has advanced is that a strong U.S. relationship with Israel is in America's national interest," he says--he argues that the situation is not the zero-sum game that some make it out to be.

"There is no contradiction between having strong relations with Israel and having strong relations with Arab states in the region," he says, pointing out that in the previous two weeks, the institute hosted the Bahraini foreign minister, the Egyptian foreign minister, and the Israeli deputy defense minister.

The decorations in Satloff's office, while understated, also testify to multi-national relationships and interests. On one wall, alongside photos of his children, hangs a tapestry depicting the old city of Tunis, a gift from the Tunis foreign ministry. Nearby is a framed draft of the Israeli Constitution, written in the early days of statehood but never ratified. On a shelf under the window sit trinkets that include a letter opener from the foreign minister of Jordan and a commemorative photo of the minister's family, evocative of the signed George W. Bush photos that hang in many other offices around the city. A coffee table from Morocco stands next to a rug from Iran.

Satloff rummages through his desk, in search of his "prized possession." After a few minutes of searching, he finds it: a signed autobiography of the late King Hussein of Jordan, who almost twenty years ago gave Satloff, then a graduate student conducting research for his dissertation, special access to the state archives.

The policy expert's ability to forge relationships in the Middle East was among the reasons he was tapped to create and host Dakhil Washington, a weekly news and interview program on the U.S. government's Arabic-language television channel, al-Hurra. (He is the only non-Arab to host a program on an Arab satellite channel. For archived episodes: alhurra.com/archive.aspx.)

Satloff was initially critical of the U.S. government's plan to start the station; but once it was approved, he put his considerable weight behind it. "If you're going to do it, do it well," he says. "That's one of my basic principles." The stated purpose of the show is to help Arab viewers get a better understanding of how Washington works. During one segment, Satloff talked with Kenneth Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, about how the U.S. can aid democracy worldwide without forcing the American model on others.

As an undergraduate at Duke, Satloff was already thinking seriously about Middle Eastern issues, studying Arabic and majoring in comparative area studies. Outside class, he served as an editor for The Chronicle, writing, among other things, an investigative piece about a local branch of the Ku Klux Klan and reporting on secret faculty meetings about the proposed Nixon library. He went on to earn a master's in Middle Eastern studies from Harvard University in 1985, then joined the staff of the recently formed Washington Institute. After three years in Washington, he enrolled in a D.Phil. program at the University of Oxford, studying modern Middle Eastern history.

In 1990, he married Litvack, and moved with her to Cameroon, where he wrote his dissertation--he received his D.Phil. in 1991--while she completed her own doctoral research. "I like to say we had a honeymoon in Cameroon," he says.

Government relations: Satloff interviews White House press secretary Tony Snow on <i>Dakhil Washington</i>

Government relations: Satloff interviews White House press secretary Tony Snow on Dakhil Washington. Courtesy of Al-Hurra

Returning to the U.S. soon after, Satloff resumed working for the institute, and when its founding director, Indyk, left in early 1993 to take a position on President Bill Clinton's National Security Council, Satloff took the reins.

"One of the things Rob brings to the table is his academic background," says Bruce Jentleson, a professor of public-policy studies and political science at Duke who got to know Satloff in Washington while working as a high-level policy adviser. "He has a scholarly understanding to go with his policy positions. Sometimes [in Washington] you find those as either/or."

As a scholar, Satloff has written or edited nine other books and frequent reports for the Washington Institute, but those were, to a large extent, aimed at the foreign-policy crowd. For example, The Battle of Ideas in the War on Terror, published in 2004, comprises a series of essays written between 2001 and 2004 that address questions about U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East. Among the Righteous is the first he's written for a popular audience. The style is more narrative than his previous works. "This is Rob the historian," Jentleson says.

Satloff has been moved by his role as a historian. "These are people whose stories haven't been told for sixty years," he says of his subjects. "At some point in my research, I had this sense of real burden, that, 'Oh my gosh, I'm telling these stories of people who haven't had their stories told for more than half a century, and they've been carrying them around and people haven't listened.' "

The impact of these stories—well documented in the book's extensive footnotes— on the Holocaust narrative and the people who lived through it has been significant. During the postwar period, the German government and German corporations set up funds to pay restitution to Holocaust victims, but most of those funds require substantial documentation before applications are accepted and compensation given. Because of the dearth of research on North African slave-labor camps, applications from survivors from these countries were almost always rejected. Even before Among the Righteous was published, Satloff's research opened the doors to archives that included, among other documents, extensive lists of internees in North African camps and allowed many of those survivors to be recognized officially for the first time.

"What Dr. Satloff has also done is to call greater attention to this part of the history, which generally has been under-researched," says Wesley A. Fisher, director of research for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, a U.S.-based group that helps connect Holocaust survivors with the German funds. "In our grant making, we have since made a call for research projects that deal with Sephardim, and, in particular, the North African Jews." (In return for Satloff's help, Fisher's office made contacts for him among the survivor community, some of whom he contacted in the course of researching his book.)

Satloff has also been in regular contact with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The museum is in the process of translating several exhibitions available on its webpage into Arabic and Farsi (and will also add Urdu, Chinese, and Russian versions, resources permitting). Among the materials being translated are two chapters from Among the Righteous. "Those are language areas where there are no reliable materials available about the Holocaust," says Arthur Berger, a senior adviser to the museum. He says that last year, the museum's website had some 70,000 visitors from Arab and Muslim countries; he expects that number to rise as more translated materials are posted. And Satloff's research may be especially relevant to this new audience.

The reaction to Satloff's book from the Middle East has been varied. Soon after it was published in the U.S., a Moroccan newspaper ran a story implying that Satloff's book blamed Arabs for the Holocaust. Later, under pressure from the local Jewish community, it printed a second story focusing on Satloff's "heroes." Earlier this year, he was invited by the U.S. Department of State to give a series of lectures in Egypt and Israel based on his research. He says the reception was mixed, but he delights in having received front-page coverage in three Egyptian newspapers. "Not everybody liked what I had to say, but everybody was respectful, especially at an official level," he says.

Perhaps most exciting for Satloff is a recent announcement from Yad Vashem, the Israeli memorial. This spring, as a result of the testimonies and documents that Satloff had compiled, Khaled Abdelwahhab, the Boukris family's rescuer, became the first Arab to be considered by a committee for "Righteous Among the Nations" status. If his nomination is approved, Abdelwahhab will become the first Arab officially recognized by Israel for his role in saving Jews.

The significance is not lost on Mordecai Paldiel, who served as head of the memorial's Righteous Among the Nations department for twenty-four years and, based on communications with Satloff, opened the nomination process for Abdelwahhab before retiring this spring.

"Yad Vashem is trying to show that the human spirit is alive and is kicking everywhere," he says. "It doesn't make a difference if you are an Arab or not, Muslim or Christian. People who have an appreciation of life and humanity, they'll step forward and do something. It applies everywhere. This should be no surprise."