In this very personal book, Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, recounts his quest to discover whether there were documented cases of Arabs saving Jewish lives or even assisting Jews in the face of persecution during World War II, either in the Arab lands under Vichy or Axis control or in Europe itself. The author actually lived in Rabat with his family for two and a half years while conducting his research so, for practical reasons, the Arab countries surveyed are those of North Africa—Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. The first-person accounts of his experiences interviewing Jewish and Arab informants gives the book its personal and engaging qualities, as do the author's experiences with the vagaries of trying to examine archival records, and his descriptions—at times dramatic—of field trips to concentration and labor camp sites deep in the desert and mountain regions of the interior.
The first half recounts not the heroic acts of the Arab Schindlers or Wallenbergs that Satloff sought, nor even the passive role of the Arab masses during the persecution of their Jewish neighbors, but rather the more sinister participation of some Arabs in the mistreatment of Jews. These included despoiling Jewish property; acting as informants for the Italian Fascist, Vichy French, or Nazi authorities (in the case of Tunisia during the 6-month German occupation); and serving as guards and tormentors in the labor and punishment camps for local and foreign Jews.
The section on the "Righteous" of the title is, alas, considerably shorter. Satloff does, in fact, find individuals who took risks to help Jews: men such as Si Ali Sakkat, a former mayor of Tunis, who sheltered some sixty Jewish escapees from a nearby Nazi labor camp at his farm in the Tunisian countryside, or Khaled Abdelwahhab, who spirited a Jewish family of twelve away in the middle of the night when he learned that the Germans were planning to take the mother of the family away for service in their local bordello. He, too, gave them refuge on his family farm. Satloff also recalls the principled stance of the Muslim spiritual leadership in Algiers who warned their flock from the pulpit not to take advantage of the Vichy authorities' offers to take possession of sequestered Jewish property. He, also, deals with the benevolence shown to their Jewish subjects by the Tunisian bey and the Moroccan sultan. He rightly notes that their personal expressions of sympathy toward Jews, mainly in private but also in public, did help morale and, eventually, took on mythic proportions in the Jewish collective memory.
Satloff finds, to his surprise, that such examples of heroism and humanity are not only unknown to the descendants of these individuals, but that on learning what happened, the family members display no interest or even hostility. The present rector of the great mosque of Paris, Dalil Boubakeur, minimizes the account of an escaped Algerian Jewish prisoner of war who wrote in testimony to the valor of an earlier rector of the same mosque, Si Kaddour Benghabrit, who gave sanctuary to more than a thousand Jews in occupied Paris. This attitude, Satloff concludes, results from the Arab-Israeli conflict and from the Holocaust denial and Holocaust minimization that are ubiquitous in the Muslim world. One Tunisian family wrongly recalls that its forbearer saved fleeing German soldiers, when he, in fact, saved Jews. Satloff concludes that no Arab is listed among the 21,000 "Righteous among the Nations" in Jerusalem's Yad Vashem memorial because just as "many Arabs (or their heirs) didn't want to be found. … for their part, Jews didn't look too hard."