Several of Tunisia’s leading intellectuals and an American scholar of the Holocaust vowed Saturday to keep alive memory of the Nazi persecution and incarceration of Tunisian Jewry of Tunisian Muslims who risked their lives to save them during a landmark conference in Tunis on Saturday, December 14.
The conference, one of the first events focusing on the Holocaust ever to be held in an Arab country, was sponsored by the Tunisian Association Supporting Minorities, a Tunis-based NGO which works to defend the rights of the country’s tiny Jewish community, and by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU), a New York-based not-for-profit which endeavors to strengthen Muslim-Jewish relations in countries around the world. The conference in Tunis was part of FFEU’s annual International Weekend of Twinning, during which thousands of Muslims and Jews in more than 30 countries around the world held joint events promoting Muslim-Jewish understanding and trust. The Tunis event is the only one being held in an Arab country.
The conference commemorated an event—the Nazi roundup and incarceration in labor camps of some 5000 Tunisian Jews during their six month occupation of the country in 1942-43–that is nearly a taboo subject in Tunisia today. While a few of the Tunisian Jewish detainees were deported to the death camps of Europe, the vast majority survived their incarceration because of the rapid Allied military conquest of the country in the spring of 1943.
Among those speaking at the conference in Tunis were Tunisian historians, Habib Kazdaghli and Abdelkrim Allegui, Moroccan documentary filmmaker Kamal Hachkar, and Robert Satloff, executive director of the of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and director of the documentary film Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach into Arab Lands, who addressed the conference via Skype from his home in Washington.
Addressing a crowd of about 60 academics, intellectuals and ordinary Tunisians, Kazdaghli, Dean of Humanities at Manouba University, remarked, “It is necessary to shine a light on our true history and make it known to the public. The history of the deportation of Jews is our history and touches every one of us in our humanity…We must show our new generations the Jewish history of our country…”
TASM executive director Yamina Thabet informed the audience, “Our work at this conference is to prevent amnesia and to ensure that something as terrible as the Holocaust should never happen again.” According to Thabet, “The terrible events of 1942-43 show us that we must be vigilant today in defending the rights of all Tunisians—including Jews and other minorities—threatened by religious extremists who in recent months have been allowed to attack their fellow citizens with near impunity.”
In his remarks to the conference, Satloff, whose film narrates the stories of Tunisian Muslims who saved Jews from the Nazis, including Khaled Abdelwahhab, who successfully hid more than 20 Jews in a factory on his property, remarked, “Along with the dark side of history, there was also light – stories of Arabs who helped Jews and even risked their lives to protect Jews. These are important stories. They deserve to be remembered, by both Jews and Arabs. It is important to remember the stories of evil and the stories of hope.”
Rabbi Marc Schneier, President of FFEU, commented, “We are honored to co-sponsor the conference in Tunis together with the Tunisian Association Supporting Minorities. The theme of this year’s International Weekend of Twinning is Jews standing up for Muslims and Muslims Standing Up for Jews. There are no more inspiring examples of this phenomenon than Yamina Thabet and her fellow activists of the Tunisian Association Supporting Minorities.”