Why Is Only One Arab a Righteous Gentile for Saving Jews During the Holocaust?

Where are the others, and is there really a possibility Yad Vashem will ever recognize them too?

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French actor Michael Lonsdale (left) as Si Kaddour Benghabrit, who saved the lives of Jews during the Holocaust, in the French film 'Les hommes libres.'
French actor Michael Lonsdale (left) as Si Kaddour Benghabrit, who saved the lives of Jews during the Holocaust, in the French film 'Les hommes libres.' Credit: Screenshot from the film
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The exclusive report on Sunday in Haaretz that, for the first time, the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial will bestow the honor of Righteous Among the Nations on an Arab raises some tricky, sensitive and fascinating questions: Why is he the first? And why only now?

Let’s start with the good news: In 2013, Yad Vashem first recognized an Arab as Righteous Among the Nations (Some non-Arab Muslims had previously been recognized) – Dr. Mohamed Helmy, an Egyptian. But his family declined to accept the honor from an Israeli institution for both political and practical reasons.

On Thursday, a grandnephew of Helmy’s will accept the award from Israel’s ambassador to Germany, in a ceremony in Berlin. What happened in the intervening four years? Israeli filmmaker Taliya Finkel, who is making a documentary about this story, says she was able to convince  Prof. Nasser Kutbi that it would be a beautiful gesture to commemorate his relative, and also a lovely scene for her movie.

Ronen Steinke, a German journalist with Israeli roots, assiduously investigated the story and also went to Cairo to meet Helmy’s family. A year ago, the family supplied him with numerous reasons why it was against receiving the honor from Yad Vashem: It is a Zionist institution, it claims responsibility for the entire Jewish world; it is an Israeli political institution; and so on, with most of the arguments based on hostility toward Israel after decades of bloody conflict.

We’ve told the story of Helmy – an Egyptian doctor living in Berlin who hid a Jewish woman in his home – before, and again on Sunday. Helmy is the first Arab to be given the title of Righteous Among the Nations, but not the first one to be nominated for the honor.

In a fascinating article in Haaretz back in 2004, Dr. Robert Satloff, an American Jewish expert on Arab and Islamic politics, discussed why no Arabs had yet been named as “Righteous Gentiles.” In a nutshell, Satloff said: As with the Christians, among the Arabs there were also some people who collaborated with the Nazis, and who persecuted Jews for the sake of personal gain or out of sheer hatred. The majority were indifferent and uninvolved. And in the background there were a few who went so far as to risk their lives to save Jews.

A number of studies indicate that there are a good number of Arabs deserving to be named Righteous Among the Nations, people who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. There is even a potential Arab “Raoul Wallenberg.” But for them to be recognized, we have to be aware of them. And for that to happen, we need to hear the testimonies about them.

But significant developments that occurred following World War II, the founding of the State of Israel in particular, overshadowed this legacy of rescue. “As an Arab, there wasn’t much to gain – but there was a lot to lose – by being identified as a protector of the Jews and their rights,” Satloff noted.

At the same time, Jews, including those who were saved by Arabs, weren’t eager to tell about their Arab rescuers. “To many of those remaining in North Africa, memories of their horrible wartime experience were swiftly overtaken by the less systematic but often more violent anti-Zionism that compelled hundreds of thousands to quit their homes for Israel in the late 1940s and 1950s,” Satloff writes.

For decades, the focus of study was the Holocaust of European Jewry, and historians, scholars and institutions paid much less attention to the legacy of the Holocaust among Mizrahi Jewry. The Jews themselves also did not discuss or study the subject very much.

So there are several reasons for the absence of Arabs being named Righteous Among the Nations: Arabs didn’t volunteer to tell people about how they had saved Jews; Jews didn’t provide information about their Arab saviors; and at the same time, the establishment did not go to great lengths to find those Arab rescuers. Add to all of this the strong trend of Holocaust denial in the Arab world and the result is not very surprising.

Dr. Yaacov Lozowick, the state archivist and former director of the Yad Vashem archives, once wrote in Haaretz, “that if there were an Arab Righteous Gentile, his descendants apparently don’t want to know about it, and this naturally makes it hard to find out about him, since the tales of Jews who were saved are usually discovered through personal testimonies, and not through archival records.” 

Nonetheless, over the years there have been several cases in which researchers or others provided information that could have convinced Yad Vashem to confer the title of Righteous Among the Nations on Arabs. One of the most famous cases is that of Khaled Abdel-Wahab, a Muslim Arab from Tunisia, whom various testimonies credit with saving dozens of Jews. Yad Vashem twice declined to name Abdel-Wahab as Righteous Among the Nations on the grounds that he did not risk his life to save the Jews that he saved. Risking one’s life is a prerequisite for receiving the honor.

Another well-known case is that of Si Kaddour Benghabrit, the founder and rector of the Great Mosque of Paris, who, according to different testimonies, hid Jews inside the mosque, including a rising star at the time, singer Salim Halali. When previously questioned about this case, Yad Vashem replied, “Yad Vashem made a supreme effort to locate survivors whom Benghabrit saved during the Holocaust and also worked very hard to collect archival material related to the rescue activity in the Paris mosque, and also contacted the mosque archives for assistance – but all of these efforts came to naught. No testimonies of survivors or relevant documents were found.”

Now that the title of Righteous Among the Nations is finally being bestowed upon an Arab, will we hear about more such cases? Let us hope so. This glaring hole in the historical record is waiting to be filled. 

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