Tuesday, April 13, 2010

It's Complicated...

As Monthy Python would say, "And now for something completely different".  No book reviews or random thoughts today.  No, today I am still digesting a program I watched on WETA PBS last night called "Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust in Arab Lands"
Among the Righteous
First, this is a subject that is near to my heart.  The conflict between Israel and Palestine and Israel and the Arab world at large is something that has interested me since high school, so much so that it drove me to be a foreign affairs major at UVA.  Seeking to understand the root causes of a decades old conflict that still dramatically affects the shape of our foreign policy to this day has always been vastly interesting to me.  And yet while it is vastly interesting, it also is vastly depressing and disheartening - which is why I work at a local cabinet company instead of a think tank in Washington DC.  So when I read about this program airing, I was very keen to watch and learn more about Jewish and Arab relations.

It was fascinating to say the least.  Whenever the Holocaust is discussed, it mainly focuses on the fate of European Jews and the atrocities that were uncovered at the concentration camps in Europe.  But the fate of Jews living in North Africa during World War II is hardly ever discussed or mentioned.  Truly, unless you take a university history class on World War II, most discourse is focused on the battles that occurred in Europe or the in the Pacific, but hardly ever talk about the campaigns in North Africa, which was where the tide of the war truly started turning.  But did you know that there were more concentration camps across North Africa than there were in Europe?  That Jewish people who had cohabited with their Arab friends peacefully before the war were suddenly singled out by European invaders and forced to either go to one of these concentration camps or wear yellow Stars of David signifying their ethnicity?

What Robert Satloff, the executive director for the Washington Institute of Near East policy uncovers though are tales and stories (that are authenticated and verified through meticulous research and first person interviews) of Arabs who help their Jewish neighbors escape from the fate of concentration camps - much like there were Europeans who helped their Jewish neighbors escape the nightmares of concentration camps.  Satloff sought to show that though these two ethnicities proclaim hatred for each other now, there were some Arabs that saw only their common humanity and were unwilling to be complicit in the suffering of fellow human beings.

What is remarkable, or rather actually sad, about this is how much this history is suppressed by the descendants of these individuals today.  There are some Arabs, because of their political views on Israel, that would rather not acknowledge the heroism of their grandparents during the Holocaust in North Africa.  The view of a common humanity has been replaced with a simmering hatred of Israel and the atrocities that Israel commits against the Palestinians today.  In fact, the documentary showcases a meeting in which Satloff is presenting his findings and a participant becomes so upset that the Holocaust of the Jews is only being discussed and that no mention of the persecution of Palestinians is made, that he storms out of the meeting, shouting and slamming the door on his way out.  It is a reflection of how deep this hurt and hatred runs, that the man could not sit through a presentation about fellow Arabs who helped save their Jewish neighbors from atrocities unimaginable.

The Holocaust served as the catalyst for the creation of a political state based on an ethnicity and religion, and as such its repercussions are as much a part of our present foreign political state as it was in our past.  Without the Holocaust, it is doubtful that Zionists would have been able to make a successful case for the creation of their own political state to the world.  But guilt, coupled with a powerful lobbying force in the United States and the diminished power of the British, helped bring about the state of Israel and the problems of the modern Middle East.  While it might be a stretch to say that if there was no Israel there would have been no September 11th or War on Terror, the justification for those attacks by the terrorists would have been based on other reasons.  And yet, if there had been no Anti-Semitism brought to light by such events like the Dreyfus Affair or pogroms in Russia or most evidently, by the Holocaust, there would have been no need for a Jewish political state.

This is a long tangled history that can fill more than this meager blog post, but "Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust in Arab Lands" has added an interesting layer to these relations that is relevant and almost hopeful, for it shows that when we transcend our ethnic and religious beliefs at times, we find that we are all made of the same cloth.  Hopefully, instead of using religious beliefs to divide, perhaps there will come a time in which we can use them to see what we have in common more than what we don't.

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