EAST MEREDITH, NY – The current hard-line legislation considered by Israeli lawmakers to ensure “loyalty” of Arab citizens reflects tensions and mistrust on both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide. The climate is leading many to believe that maintaining equality between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel is unsafe or unnatural.
But this conclusion ignores the past.
Arab anger towards Jews has not always been there. Likewise, Jewish hostility towards Arabs is rather new. Muslims and Jews – both Semitic peoples – coexisted in relative peace for twelve hundred years. Many activists on both sides who work to bridge the widening gap between Jews and Arabs inside Israel and in the West Bank draw encouragement from positive stories of co-existence throughout history.
Most people are now unaware of this legacy. Stories of Muslims who have shown compassion towards Jews during the Holocaust should be more widely known but for some reason remain hidden. In a recent booklet titled “The Role of the Righteous Muslim Persons,” Fiyaz Mughal proudly documents stories of Muslims who sheltered Jews in their homes, their farms and their workplaces during the Holocaust. The heroes described in the book were from Arab North Africa and Eastern Europe. One example given by Mughal is that of Si Ali Sakkat: “In Tunis, 60 Jewish internees escaped from an Axis labour camp and knocked on the farm door of Si Ali Sakkat, who took the risk of hiding them until they were saved by the Allies.”
This should not come as a surprise, bearing in mind that there had been a thriving Jewish community in the Middle East up until the 1940’s and 50’s, when contemporary tensions eclipsed a history of co-existence.
In 2006, researcher Robert Satloff published a book entitled “Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust in Arab lands,” which placed the good news about Arab compassion in a sobering context. In an article in the Washington Post, he stated that “the Arabs in these lands were not too different from Europeans: With war waging around them, most stood by and did nothing; many participated fully and willingly in the persecution of Jews; and a brave few even helped save Jews.”
Acknowledging those “brave few” is important. Although limited, such acts of heroism are inspirational and circulating them is an expression of hope. Stories depicting acts of moral courage across the religious divide are bound to promote good will among all people, particularly amongst Arabs and Jews.
Unfortunately, like any other Middle East issue, the behaviour of Muslims in the Holocaust is perceived through the distorting prism of the current Arab-Israeli conflict. Western media distorts the record further by incessantly highlighting the rhetoric of provocative Arab and Iranian politicians who deny or downplay the Holocaust. This creates a message that Muslims are anti-Semitic, thereby adding to an Islamophobic socio-political climate. As a result, many in Israel and the West conclude that reports of Arab moral bravery during the Nazi reign are mere distractions in today’s extra-charged political context.
Distractions such reports are not. According to the Jewish as well as the Islamic holy books, in saving one life, the entire humanity is saved. Moreover, inviting Arabs to think of the Holocaust outside the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict can be an act of healing for both Arabs and Jews.
We must remind ourselves that it was only in the past century that competitive state building and a heightened nationalism situated the Arabs and Jews in a deadly political conflict. Colonial manipulation of the two sides has also played a part.
Arab antagonism toward Jews is largely political; it is mainly the result of Palestinian suffering and political humiliation. Similarly, Jewish and Christian antagonism towards Arabs and Muslims has been fuelled by acts of terror of a few who affect the image of millions.
Both Arabs and Jews express their fears of the enemy to add credibility to their moral narratives with inappropriate and exaggerated references to the Nazi era. Some Jews rationalise their elaborate structures of occupation and build exclusionary walls and checkpoints to avoid an alleged future Holocaust. For their part, some Arabs rationalise acts of violence by claiming that they live in a Nazi-like occupation.
Yet there is another way to see the application of the Holocaust narrative to the present day. Stories of Muslims saving Jews in the Holocaust serve the peace process. The sceptic who challenges the significance of these stories is missing the point: these true stories are moral examples that have the potential to bring down some of the walls that have been erected between Arabs and Jews.
The moral heroes of today are those Arabs who forego pride to recognise Israel’s existence, Israelis who sacrifice settlements in the West Bank for a final settlement of the conflict, Jews who advocate territorial withdrawal to honour Palestinian national aspirations, and Palestinians who limit their dreams of unlimited rights of return to contribute to regional stability.
Stories of courage which occurred seven decades ago are comparable to the bravery of contemporary Arabs and Israelis who have learned to forgive and are toiling hard to make peace.
* Dr. Ghassan Rubeiz (email@example.com) is an Arab-American commentator on issues of development, peace and justice. He is the former Middle East Secretary of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 05 August 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
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