Friday, 28 February 2014

Arabs and Jews: things were better under the Nazis

It’s always a pleasure when a film reminds one of when things were better than they are today. Even if that just leaves one wishing they could be as good again.

It’s odd when the setting for such a film is the Nazi occupation of Paris. But that’s what Les Hommes Libres, available in English as Free Men, successfully does.

A Nazi officer in the Paris Mosque, from Free Men
It’s set amongst the North African community in Paris during the Second World War. There had been significant immigration from Algeria and other parts of the Maghreb to France even before the war, though the really big wave came later. Many went home when the Germans invaded, but a large number stayed on, scratching a living as best they could under difficult conditions.

That led to a development that many might find extraordinary, given the state of tensions in the world today. The Muslim community of Paris, which wasn’t persecuted by the Nazis, did what it could to protect as many Jews as it could. It focused on Sephardi Jews, from North Africa themselves, because they spoke Arabic. The main mosque in Paris issued as many as possible of them with certificates attesting to their being Muslim: with similar features and the same language they could pass as part of community.

How many people were saved? Estimates vary between 500 and 1600. A drop, certainly, in the ocean of suffering that was the Holocaust. But for the 500 or 1600, it was literally the difference between life and death.

In protecting Jews, the North Africans of Paris reflected the attitudes of their compatriots and coreligionists back home. In countries under Vichy French or German occupation, Muslims refused in their vast majority to collaborate in persecuting Jews. In Algeria, when the (French) authorities offered expropriated Jewish homes up for new owners, some of the (French) white settlers leaped at the opportunity; Mosques denounced the practice and few Muslims took advantage of the offer.

That was a continuation of a centuries long tradition. When a more extreme Muslim ruling group from Morocco took control of Moorish Spain, many Jews left to live elsewhere in North Africa; when the equally extreme Christians of the “reconquest” took back control of the whole of Spain, others followed.

In the Arab, Muslim world Jews found refuge and forged new careers. Moses Mamonides, of whom Jews still say “from Moses to Moses there arose none like Moses”, lived and flourished in Cairo, where he was a court physician and wrote major works, some in Arabic (strictly Judaeo-Arabic, Arabic written in Hebrew script).

For centuries, Jews and Arabs worked and lived well together across North Africa and the Middle East. Those good relations, as Free Men shows, extended to Paris during the war.

Heartwarming, isn’t it? But a bit of shame that relations between Jews and Muslims today are so much worse than they were under Nazi occupation. With, sadly, no likelihood of their returning to those idyllic conditions any time soon. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The shame is that this tolerance has much changed in the last 50-60 years. I often wonder whether it has anything to do with the creation of Israel.