Yad Vashem is not biased against Tunisian Arabs that saved Jews' lives during the Holocaust.
- By Irena Steinfeldt<p> Irena Steinfeldt is the director of the Department of the Righteous at Yad Vashem. </p>
The writing of history is shaped by current events, and historians will always struggle to detach themselves from their views. However, they are expected to follow basic standards of objectivity — otherwise, history writing becomes subjugated to a political agenda, distortions, and intentional omissions replace the careful exploration of facts. This seems to be the case of Robert Satloff’s campaign against Yad Vashem.
In his Foreign Policy article, Satloff claimed that Yad Vashem was biased against recognizing non-Jewish persons from the Arab world as Righteous Among the Nations. The decision to award this title — a designation bestowed on those who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust — is made by an independent commission, chaired by a retired justice of Israel’s Supreme Court. The Righteous, according to this definition, were people who were prepared, if necessary, to pay a dear price for their stand and even share the victims’ fate, though they could easily have avoided it. Each rescue case is thoroughly researched, and the commission considers the documentation gathered and determines if the rescue matched the criteria necessary for recognition.
The fact is, however, that not every story meets the criteria for recognition as Righteous Among the Nations. This was the case for the Tunisian examples cited by Satloff.
One case involved Tunisian farm owner Khalid Abdul Wahab, who hosted the Boukhris and Ouzzan families on his estate during the German occupation. Annie Boukhris described the kindness and protectiveness of Abdul Wahab, who offered her family refuge after their house in the coastal city of Mahdia had been billeted by the Germans. In a video testimony, Edmee Masliah, the second witness, spoke to Satloff and vividly described Abdul Wahab as a noble and generous person who supported her family at a time when they had been stripped of their rights and property.
Regretfully, Satloff chose to ignore the part of Masliah’s story that clearly showed Abdul Wahab took no risks and broke no law by hosting the Jewish families. She explained that the Germans would come from time to time to Abdul Wahab’s estate and check if they were all present. She described how, when seeing the Germans approach, they would put on their yellow badges and wait for the Germans to count them. According to Boukhris, the men of the family continued their forced labor service under German supervision and would come and go as ordered. On Thursdays, to prepare for Shabbat, the family would join the other Jews of Mahdia on a Jewish-owned farm in Sidi Alouan, not far from the Abdul Wahab estate.
Consequently the commission concluded that hosting the Jewish families posed no threat for Abdul Wahab, and therefore decided that the case did not fall within the framework of the Righteous program. The reason was not the short period of the German occupation — a fact Satloff is well aware of, because it was communicated to him on several occasions. However, in order to make his case, Satloff preferred to take a general comment by the Yad Vashem chairman about the historical background in North Africa and leave out the historical specifics.
The other case raised by Satloff is that of Hamza Abdul Jalil, who ran a bathhouse in Tunis and allegedly provided refuge to Joseph Naccache, a Tunisian Jew. Unfortunately, a careful examination of the case raises many contradictions and open questions about Naccache’s testimony.
While he was shooting his film "Among the Righteous," Satloff interviewed the 88-year-old Joseph Naccache, a frail and ailing old man. The survivor mentions Abdul Jalil only fleetingly, and his comments are often fragmentary. When asked what happened when they saw the Germans, Naccache says: "We escaped when we saw them. We escaped. We went up the stairs and went to Abdul Jalil."
Yet, in his film, Satloff enters the bathhouse from the street, clearly on the ground floor. His camera zooms into a small space, which he declares was probably Naccache’s hiding place (in his Foreign Policy article, the place is defined as "the bowels of his bathhouse"). It doesn’t make any sense that Naccache would escape "up the stairs" if he was hiding on the ground floor of the building.
Naccache’s brief comment was insufficient to establish the circumstances of his stay with Abdul Jalil. Yad Vashem therefore contacted his daughter and half-brother, who said that Naccache spent time in his aunt’s house, with his own parents, and briefly with Jalil. Since Naccache also said that he was taken to forced labor camps, it is not clear when these events took place, and unfortunately, in the absence of witnesses, it is impossible to reliably reconstruct the circumstances.
Thus, Abdul Jalil has not been honored as a Righteous — not because Yad Vashem rejects Arabs outright, but because there is insufficient evidence of what actually occurred.
Like Satloff, we remain ever hopeful that the accounts of these brave men and women who assisted Jews — wherever they lived and however they extended their help — will continue to inspire future generations. But it will only be historical fact that determines who is designated as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.