Decency Amongst Discord

Strife between Jews and Arabs is an historical anomaly. The situation we find ourselves in today is the result of tampering with the historical record, of a selective memory so erroneous in its recollections, that the opposite is in fact true.

Petain’s Vichy government of the 1940s missed few chances to collaborate with their Nazi masters. In colonial Algeria, Nazi laws requiring the confiscation of Jewish property and assets by the state were followed to the letter.

This significant amount of wealth was to be auctioned off to all non-Jews, Frenchmen and Arabs alike, selling vastly below market price but still making a substantial profit for the middlemen.

The French settler community eagerly snapped up these bargains. However, not a single Arab took part.

In fact, the Muslim religious authorities in Algeria at the time — led by Sheik Taieb El- Okbi — issued a firm pronouncement forbidding Muslims from economic gain at the expense of the Jews.

The Vichy government followed the Nazi line, with anti-Semitic films such as this (“The Jew and France”)

Across The Divide

Robert Satloff has written at length about the Arab support of their Jewish neighbours during the 1930s and 1940s. These stories seem almost fanciful in the light of present day events in Israel, Palestine and Lebanon.

The rise of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ has damaged the idea of progressive, liberal, enlightened Muslims in the minds of many. In many circles throughout the West, the mere mention of the word ‘Islam’ brings to mind intolerance, oppression, and an introverted, insular, ‘fifth column’ community.

Flawed though these notions may be, their prevalence indicates how much the modern public image of Muslims in the West has diverged from historical fact.

Take, for example, the story of Si Ali Sakkat. This privileged descendant of Muslim nobility — the former mayor of the capital city of Tunis — found his countryside retirement interrupted by 60 Jewish labour camp escapees.

Surrounded by war weary German soldiers, officers and artillery, Sakkat gave the Jews lodging, food, and kept them safe under a watchful eye on his farm.

“He hid 60 Jews”

Or consider the story of Khaled Abdul-Wahab, a Tunisian aristocrat. Referred to as the ‘Arab Schindler’, he forestalled the planned rape of a Jewish woman by getting a German officer drunk. He then drove to the woman and collected her and her family, as well as their neighbours and 25 other people.

They stayed at his farm, each person in their own room, in complete safety, until the withdrawal of German troops.

“He saved 25 Jews in Mahdia”

In Algeria, Taieb el-Okbi — a reformist Sheikh, close to Abdelhamid Ben Badis — discovered large-scale incitement of the people, to start pogroms against the Jews. He issued a formal religious proclamation, expressly forbidding any attacks on Jews and Muslims.

Satloff describes how some have likened him to the famous counter-Vichy priests Saliège and Gerlier, although “the level of great personal risk El-Okbi bore for campaigning on behalf of Jews exceeded that of the French Catholic prelates”.

Taieb el-Okbi (right); Ben Badis (left)

In the darker areas of the vast German occupation, amongst the bleak environments of the work camps, solidarity between Jewish deportees, and Arabs opposed to French colonial rule, was commonplace.

“It was not unusual for Arabs and Jews to face the pain and torture of Vichy labor camps side by side” (Satloff). This spirit is unfortunately much harder to find in the Israel of today, where violent segregation tarnishes occupiers and occupied.

Beyond Borders

Tales such as these are not limited to North Africa. In 1941, after heavy aerial bombardment of Sarajavo in Bosnia, the Jewish Kavilio family sought refuge in their workplace. En route, they met Mustafa Hardaga, a Muslim friend. He sheltered them until the end of the war.

A conservative Muslim family, their hospitality became evident when his wife Zejneba Hardaga ceased to wear the veil in the presence of the Kavilios, welcoming the guests into their family, demonstrating their solidarity and unity.

Zejneba Hardaga (4th from right) and family

This story is particularly interesting as, when Bosnia was overcome by warfare in the 1990s and the Hardagas themselves became refugees, the Kavilios successfully petitioned the government of Israel to allow the Hardaagas refuge. Muslim-Jewish hospitality reaches full circle.

Neither is this limited to WWII. In Andalusia, during the 10th to 13th centuries, the thriving commercial city of Cordoba ushered in prosperity for Moors, Christians, and Jews alike. When the Spanish monarchy launched the Crusades, thousands of Jews fled, heading for Islamic North Africa.

The Crusaders sought to punish all heathens — no differentiation was made between Jews, Muslims or any other faith. The Jews knew — from experience — that their only chance of living in peace and prosperity would be with their Muslim neighbours.

It’s difficult to imagine such Jewish-Arab cooperation and solidarity occurring today. But it has happened throughout History — it is the norm. Our present situation deviates from this; perhaps by making more people aware of the historical facts, violence and strife will begin to leave the Levant.

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