Exposing the myth of the Arab bystander to the Holocaust
The myth that the Arabs were innocent bystanders to the Nazi Holocaust is unfortunately widely accepted at face value
In recent years many writers have attempted to grapple with the history of the Israeli-Arab conflict by trying to create a metaphor to demonstrate a shared injustice perpetrated both against Jews and Arabs.
The general theme is along the lines: “Suppose a man leaps out of a burning building… and lands on a bystander in the street below. Now make that burning building Europe and the luckless man the Palestinian Arabs. Is this a historical injustice?” This metaphor for the conflict was apparently created by writer Jeffrey Goldberg and has been approvingly cited by others, including by polemicist and author Christopher Hitchens.
Quite apart from the facts that the metaphor does not relate to the historical connection of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel, and that the ancient historical impulses for Zionism are unrelated to persecution, it also displays a stunning ignorance of history, especially surrounding the enduring trope that the Palestinians in particular and the Arab world in general were mere bystanders to the Nazi genocide.
This fabrication of history allows for a complete innocence on the parts of the Palestinian and Arab populations during the Holocaust. Nevertheless, the Arab stance toward Hitler and the Nazis has been firmly and historically established as an ally and supporter.
The Arab masses and leadership gleefully welcomed the Nazis taking power in 1933 and messages of support came from all over the Arab world, especially from the Palestinian Arab leader, Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, who was the first non-European to request admission to the Nazi party.
Husseini, who was to be arrested for his role in the bloody Arab Revolt 1936-9, had fled to Germany in 1941 and was immediately granted a special place among the Nazi hierarchy.
The Mufti and Hitler relayed many declarations to each other explicitly stating that the main enemy they shared was the Jews.
However, the Mufti’s ideology transcended words and directed his actions. In 1945, Yugoslavia sought to indict the Mufti as a war criminal for his role in recruiting 20,000 Muslim volunteers for the SS, who participated in the killing of Jews in Croatia and Hungary.
Adolf Eichmann’s deputy Dieter Wisliceny (subsequently executed as a war criminal) in his Nuremburg Trials testimony stated: “The Mufti was one of the initiators of the systematic extermination of European Jewry and had been a collaborator and adviser of Eichmann and Himmler in the execution of this plan… He was one of Eichmann’s best friends and had constantly incited him to accelerate the extermination measures.”
On a visit to Auschwitz, Husseini reportedly admonished the guards running the gas chambers to work more diligently. Throughout the war, he appeared regularly on German radio broadcasts to the Middle East, preaching his pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic message to the Arab masses back home.
Even the Mufti himself explained that the main reason for his close cooperation with the Nazis was their shared hatred of the Jews and their joint wish for their extermination.
“Our fundamental condition for cooperating with Germany was a free hand to eradicate every last Jew from Palestine and the Arab world,” the man who was known as the “Fuhrer of the Arab World” wrote in his post-World War Two memoirs.
However, the affection, emulation and cooperation with the Nazis were not just found among the Arabs of Mandatory Palestine, they were replicated across the Arab world.
Many have suggested that the Ba’ath parties of Assad’s Syria and formerly in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were strongly inspired by the Nazis. The most influential party that emulated the Nazis in the Arab world was “Young Egypt,” which was founded in October 1933.
The party had storm troopers, torch processions and literal translations of Nazi slogans – like “One folk, One party, One leader.”
Nazi anti-Semitism was replicated, with calls to boycott Jewish businesses and physical attacks on Jews.
Sami al-Joundi, one of the founders of the ruling Syrian Ba’ath Party, recalls: “We were racists. We admired the Nazis. We were immersed in reading Nazi literature and books… We were the first who thought of a translation of Mein Kampf. Anyone who lived in Damascus at that time was witness to the Arab inclination toward Nazism.”
There was of course the infamous pogrom in Iraq led by the pro-Nazi Rashid Ali al-Kaylani in 1941. Kaylani also asked of Hitler the right to “deal with Jews” in Arab states, a request that was granted. Apart from the secular pro-Nazi stance, there were many other religious Arab leaders who issued fatwas that the Arabs should assist and support the Nazis against the Allies.
From June 1940 to May 1943, the Nazis, their Vichy French collaborators and their Italian fascist allies applied in Arab lands many of the precursors to the Final Solution. These included not only “racial” laws depriving Jews of property, education, livelihood, residence and free movement, but also torture, slave labor, deportation and execution.
Thousands of Jews perished under Nazi and Axis control and in most cases, like their European counterparts, the local population at times assisted, collaborated and participated in this oppression and murder.
Robert Satloff has written extensively on the Arabs and the Holocaust and he found that much of the local Arab population willingly participated in this institutional Jew-hatred. One example Staloff provides is in an interview with a survivor from the concentration camp in Djelfa, in the Algerian desert. When asked whether the local Arabs who administered the camp were just following orders, he replied “Nobody told them to beat us all the time. Nobody told them to chain us together. Nobody told them to tie us naked to a post and beat us and to hang us by our arms and hose us down, to bury us in the sand so our heads should look up and bash our brains in and urinate on our heads…. No, they took this into their own hands and they enjoyed what they did.”
Satloff’s book Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Reach into Arab Lands chronicles much of the nature of the Holocaust in Arab Lands. He tries to show that there were Arabs who helped rescue and hide Jews during the Holocaust, but just like in Europe these examples are exceptions to a sadly more pervasive assistance or indifference to Jewish suffering and murder.
In Libya, many Jews were sent not only to local concentration camps but also to European camps like Bergen-Belsen and Biberach. In a film titled Goral Meshutaf (“Shared Fate”), some Tunisian eyewitnesses claim that the Nazis had begun building gas chambers there. If the Allies had not won the decisive battle at El Alamain, perhaps the fate of North African Jews would have been the same as befell European Jewry.
A willing or indifferent local population was an important ingredient in the destruction of European Jewry and it was certainly present amongst the Arabs of North Africa.
Many of the current leadership in the Middle East owe their power base to the emergence of their predecessors during those dark times. The Palestinians still revere Husseini and many of terrorist groups are named after groups he founded.
The myth that the Arabs were innocent bystanders to the Nazi Holocaust is unfortunately widely accepted at face value. It is about time that this capricious fallacy was exposed, not just out of respect to those Jews who suffered at the hands of the Nazis and their allies everywhere, but also to deconstruct the simplistic notions used to explain the history of the conflict, especially that the Arabs were not responsible for the suffering that resulted from their continued incalcitrance.
The writer is a Member of Knesset for Yisrael Beytenu and chairman of the Knesset Caucuses for the Rights of Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries and the Struggle Against Antisemitism.