The Heroism of Arabs in the Holocaust Years Rob Satloff sees a possible opportunity to bridge differences between Arabs and Jews: highlighting Arabs who acted heroically during the Holocaust. He has nominated one man, a Tunisian Arab Muslim, for recognition by the Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem.
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The Heroism of Arabs in the Holocaust Years

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The Heroism of Arabs in the Holocaust Years

The Heroism of Arabs in the Holocaust Years

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A couple of months ago, Robert Satloff came here to talk about his book "Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust's Long Reach Into Arab Lands." Satloff is an American Jew, a historian of the Middle East, who speaks Arabic, and who felt that the search for Arabs who acted heroically in defense of Jews during the Holocaust might prove a way in for Arabs to acknowledge the enormity of the Nazi genocide. It's frequently minimized or dismissed as irrelevant or sometimes even denied in Arab discourse.

Well, Robert Satloff is back from an unusual lecture tour in Egypt where he spoke about the Holocaust in Arabic. And he's with us once again. Welcome back to the program.

Dr. ROBERT SATLOFF (Author and Historian): Thank you.

SIEGEL: And first a bit of news that you have nominated one of the men you wrote about, a Tunisian Muslim Arab, to the Israeli National Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem.

Dr. SATLOFF: That's right. That's Khaled Abdelwahhab, who is now under consideration by Yad Vashem to be the first ever Arab to be recognized as a righteous - a non-Jew who saved Jews during the Holocaust. And hopefully before too long a final determination on his status will be given.

SIEGEL: Well now the speaking tour. You went to Egypt. Whom did you talk to about the Holocaust?

Dr. SATLOFF: Well, first I was quite pleased to be invited by the State Department to go overseas and talk about this book of mine. And I spoke to real institutions of the state, Cairo University, the Foreign Ministries Training Institute, at Al-Ahram - the national newspaper - even at the Arab League, that citadel of Arabism.

SIEGEL: And what kind of reception did you get?

Dr. SATLOFF: I can't say that everywhere I went I was showered with rose petals. I was pilloried by the opposition press. You know, why should we let this person come in and talk about this when we should be talking about the genocide of the Palestinians, for example.

But I'd say the dominant response was respectful and open and candid. That was certainly the response from officialdom, even at the Arab League, where some of the Arab ambassadors lost their cool in criticizing what I had to say. The secretary general said we have a political conflict with Israel, but it's a political conflict, and for us Holocaust denial is unacceptable.

SIEGEL: Your tour to Egypt - an Arab country, seat of Arab nationalism for many years - came right after the conference that the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, organized in Iran - not an Arab country, a Persian country, not a Sunni Muslim country, but a Shiite country - that was virtually a Holocaust denial conference. Relationship between the two events?

Dr. SATLOFF: Yes. I think that there is a fundamental connection here. Sunni Arab leaders, Sunni Arab intelligencia are apoplectic about the rise of Iranian and more generally Shiite influence that they see throughout the Middle East. They fear that the Iranians have their tentacles out and that they are spreading their influence and they fear the United States is receding. And they are begging the United States help the Sunni Arabs combat the spread of Shia radicalism.

SIEGEL: So perhaps in the approach that you experienced, in their approach to the issue of discussing the Holocaust and Arabs acknowledging the significance of the Holocaust, a Sunni Arab country is saying we are different from those Iranians - or the Arabs might say those Persians - we are not the other, we are with you on this. We understand Western civilization.

Dr. SATLOFF: Yes. I think that is the political message that they are sending. That this apocalyptic, messianic leader of Iran is the adversary. And the Sunni regimes are trying to line themselves more closely with America and the West and even Israel in some respects. And this discussion of the Holocaust is perhaps one tool, one vehicle, through which they're making their case.

SIEGEL: Beyond declarations in conferences in Cairo, any actions by Egypt? Has anyone seized part of this attitude toward the Holocaust?

Dr. SATLOFF: Well, just last week the U.N. General Assembly voted on a resolution condemning Holocaust denial. And one of the first representatives out of his chair was, surprisingly, the Egyptian ambassador to support this resolution. And this was quite ironic, because two years ago the Egyptians led the charge against recognizing Holocaust Remembrance Day. But now, they're leading the charge in support of this.

Even, if you'd like, today there's a new story reporting that the Saudi ambassador attended a reception for the new U.S. envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism and said some very positive things about anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. These are all signs of the political trend that's going on here.

SIEGEL: Now, you're not going too far here and forecasting any great (unintelligible), but there are some different atmospherics in this issue.

Dr. SATLOFF: Yeah. I totally agree. We should be extremely modest in suggesting that there is any mass move toward Jewish/Muslim amity that we're seeing. This is politics, and Sunni Arabs are using this issue as a way to differentiate themselves from Iran.

And I think, however, we live in a political world and we should take advantage of political openings where they present themselves. And I think such is a moment that we have now.

SIEGEL: Robert Satloff, thank you very much for talking with us once again.

Dr. SATLOFF: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Robert Satloff is executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of "Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust's Long Reach Into Arab Lands."

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