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Film Reviews – Two Jewish Films – Among The Righteous; Look Into My Eyes – (2 of 2)

May 14, 2010

(Part One of this Two Part Series: Film Reviews – Two Jewish Films – Among The Righteous: Look Into My Eyes – [1 of 2])

Robert Satloff wrote the book and produced the documentary by the same name `Among The Righteous’. It aired on public television last month. It claims to be `lost stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach Into Arab Lands’, but this is overstated as the film concentrates exclusively on the fate of Moroccan and Tunisian Jews (with a snippet of info hardly worth mentioning on Algeria). Although the title suggests a broader subject matter, it is silent on the situation of Jews elsewhere in the Arab world – Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Yemen, etc,  from the outset the subject matter is more restrictive than the title would leave one to believe.  This would be a minor point if not for the fact that it infers a much broader field of inquiry than it actually covers and thus generalizes about the rest.

The film version received generally positive reviews. I wish that I could share in the enthusiasm thus generated, but in fact I cannot. Too many mixed metaphors, too much skewed history. In the end, rather than an honest treatment of what is an interesting subject, the more I think of it, what we get is scrambled history, at some points admittedly moving, but overall an intellectually dishonest piece. 

Think of the theme – the `quest’ of the film: while his wife is installed to oversee World Bank structural adjustment programs in Morocco and squeeze a little more money out of that poor country for Western financial

Abraham Serfaty, Great Moroccan Jewish Marxist and his wife, author Christine Daure-Serfaty

interests, Satloff goes off on a four year journey if there were any Arabs during World War II who helped or protected Jews. That particular hypothesis is itself filled with his own prejudice – that the overwhelming percentage of North African Arabs either did nothing to help the Jews or were complicit with Vichy and the Nazis. What a strange and narcissistic way to begin his project! From the outset he’s tell us that he really doubts that there was any help offered to N. African Jews but that if a person looks hard enough – spends four years doing it, he’ll find a few good Arabs here and there who helped Jews during the war. Ah yes, there were a few, precious few good North African Arabs just like there were `precious few’ good Germans, a few good Poles…who deserve to be acknowledged if only because they went against the mainstream of pervasive antisemitism.

But Satloff has to look really hard to find them. He does:

– a Tunis resident who ran a hammam,

– a rich farmer from the olive producing region of Tunisia south of Sousse near Mahdia,

– a land owner in the Zaghouan region.

– There was also the King of Morocco who told the Vichy Government  `We don’t have Jews here, only Moroccans’. (interestingly I was told that President of Finland during World War II – Mannerheim – told the SS similary `We don’t have Jews here, only Finns’ – although I have not been able to verify the source).

– the imam of the main mosque in Algiers issued a `fatwa’ prohibiting Moslems there from utilizing property expropriated from Algerian Jews

– Even Moncef Bey, Tunisian puppet leader during the French colonial period refused to cooperate with the SS in the round up of Jews.

Granted, that the personal stories dug up of Maghrebian Arabs who protected and defended Jews were honest and moving. So were the scenes of Tunisian Jews, most of whom now live in France,  returning to Tunisia to the scenes of the war, as was the story of the Semla family, three of whose members were executed by the Nazis. (I stayed with Max Semla in Paris 18 years ago, close to my life long friend Dan Cetinich. Max is a part of that family).

Although it is not a secret, the `revelation’ that there were  concentration camps in North Africa set up by the Vichy French in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia and the Italians in Libya is true enough. Not exactly the `new news’ Satloff claims, but still an interesting and disturbing chapter of World War II. I take his word that approximately 1/3 of those incarcerated were Jewish. That 1/3 were, is an indication of the Vichy anti-semitism which both in France proper and in the colonies cooperated with the Nazi authorities to help facilitate `the final solution’. But who were the other two-thirds? And why are they given such short shrift by Satloff, hardly a passing notice just because they weren’t Jewish? Hardly acknowledged, they are not discussed at all, in part because it would detracted from from Satloff’s unspoken claim that Jews were there the main victims of the war in North Africa. In fact, the majority of those in the camps were, combined, supporters of De Gaulle’s Free French Movement, those opposed to the fascification of life under Vichy, members of the French secular and Christian left and just plain democrats – Arabs and French colons alike. There is no mention whatsoever of the North African Arabs incarcerated in those camps, themselves opponents of both French Colonialism and its more virulent form, Vichyism, who suffered and died along with the Jewish victims. Apparently they did not fit into Satloff’s narrative.

Completely missing from Satloff’s documentary is the complex situation in which North African Jews found themselves, particularly those in Algeria granted French citizenship by the late 19th century Cremieux Decree. As the anti-colonial movements against French colonialism took

Poster Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Egyptian Jewish Communist Henri Curiel. He was assassinated in Paris in 1958. The ultra-right organization OAS claimed credit but this was never substantiated

shape in the early 1900s, North African Jews were pulled in different directions by history. Zionism is not yet much of a force in North Africa at that time, but it is a fact that many Jews, when forced to take sides, threw their lot with the French colonialists rather than with the independence movements. These trends were already well developed by the onset of World War II.  Having cast their fate with French colonialism before the war, especially the Algerian and Tunisian Jews then found themselves really screwed as the pro-colonial but viciously anti-semitic Vichy colonial authorities came to power.

In the documentary, Satloff – a man who speaks decent French and Arabic to his credit – blends Vichy-Arab sentiment as if they were one and the same thing. But it was the Vichy government that was in power and for as much as it was anti-semitic it was even more racist in its views against Arabs. Here is a politically astute participant and observer – he is after all the executive director of the AIPAC linked Washington Institute For Near East Policy – who can’t seem to distinguish French racism from North African anti-colonialism … or doesn’t want to. He should put the onus of anti-semitism where it belongs – on the French fascists, rather than on the Arabs, who like North African Jews share a common fate as victims.

The most egregious  misconception the film suggests is that the people of North Africa – Morocco and Tunisia in particular succumbed to Nazi propaganda and were pro-fascist. The film footage of the citizens of Bizerte and Tunis warmly welcoming US and British troops to their cities as the Nazis were forced to retreat across the Mediterranean to Italy suggest a different picture.

Yes, there were collaborationists, but on the whole – although Nazi propaganda made some inroads – playing the anti-colonial card in both Iraq and Egypt, both Mussolini’s `Islamic policy’ in Libya and Nazi propaganda in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco utterly failed in the Magreb countries. If they flirted with neutrality to see which way the winds were blowing, early on some of the key figures of North African nationalism came out explicitly against Nazism. Ferhat Abbas, during the time of the war an important spokesperson for Algerian nationalism is quoted as saying `if democratic (meaning non-Vichy) France ceased to be powerful, our ideal of liberty would be buried forever’. Tunisian nationalist leader Habib Bourguiba expressed his confidence in an Allied victory `while leaving aside our problem of independence until after the war’. Just after World War II started, the sultan of Morocco – on September 3, 1939, came out publicly in favor of France to which he promised `unalloyed help’. Several Magrebian nationalists were either drafted into the French army or joined up voluntarily. (See Juliette Bessis, 1981 for a more thorough discussion)

All this is very different from the disingenuous picture Satloff paints of North African Arabs in his attempt to inflate the dimension of North African anti-semitism and to suggest its link to Nazism.

Finally to compare Auschwitz with the September 11, 2003 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, to compare the 9-11 hijackers with Hitler is both a poor and cynical comparison. It is yet another attempt to suggest that the Arabs are Nazi-like, portray both the United States and Israel as victims. Neither comparison is accurate. Both are cynical to an extreme.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. atteriinaro permalink
    May 15, 2010 8:51 am

    Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
    I’ve been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!

    Cheers
    Christian, iwspo.net

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