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Recognizing Islam’s protection of Jews during World War II

Written By | Feb 17, 2016

WASHINGTON, Feb. 17, 2016 – One of the largely untold stories of the years of the Holocaust in Europe and in the Nazi-occupied countries of North Africa, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco is the brave resistance shown by many Muslims and their commitment to helping to save Jews.

The British newspaper the Independent (Feb. 3, 2016) reported about the work being done by the group “I Am Your Protector” (IAYP) who describe themselves as “a community of people who speak up and stand up for each other across religion, race, gender and beliefs.” The group is attempting to highlight the often forgotten stories of Muslims who helped Jews during the Nazi period.

Among the individuals cited is Islamic diplomat Abdol Hossein Sardar, dubbed the “Iranian Schindler.” He saved thousands of Jews from the Nazi regime by confusing the fascist group with its own propaganda. When the Nazis began implementing anti-Jewish laws in occupied France, Sardari, head of the Iranian consulate in Paris, used the Nazis’ own racial purity laws to convince the group Iranian Jews were actually Aryan and not  subject to the Reich’s racial laws.

Former Muslim Nonie Darwish explains Islam

According to the Independent, “Issuing Iranian passports to occupied Jews, without the consent of his superiors, Mr. Sardari helped 2,000 Jews escape the Nazi regime. Mr. Sardari is just one of many people who feature in a new campaign honoring Muslims who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.”

Others cited by IAYP include Selhattin Ulkumen, a Turkish diplomat in Greece who organized boats to carry Jews to safety in Turkey during the Nazi occupation of Greece. Si Ali Sakkat, former mayor in Tunisia and a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, protected 60 Jewish escapees from a labor camp by hiding them on his estate.

Khaled Abdul Wahab is remembered for saving Jewish families by sheltering them in stables on his farm near Mahdia, Tunisia.

Of particular interest is the story of the most important Muslim institution in Europe at the time of the Nazis, the Great Mosque of Paris. Its leader was Si Kaddour Benghabrit, a native of Algeria who was both a spiritual leader and well connected politically. The mosque provided sanctuary and sustenance to Jews hiding from Vichy and Nazi troops as well as to other fighters in the anti-fascist resistance.

Albert Assouline, a North African Jew who escaped a German prison camp and found refuge in the mosque, wrote an article in 1983 for Almanach duCombattant, a French veterans’ magazine. He wrote, “No fewer than 1,732 resistance fighters found refuge in its [the mosque’s] underground caverns. These included Muslim escapees but also Christians and Jews. The latter were by far the most numerous.”

A 1991 television documentary “Une Résistance Oubliée: La Mosquée de Paris” (“A Forgotten Resistance: The Mosque of Paris”) by Derri Berkani  explores how Muslims sheltered Jews from Nazism during WWII.

The film was widely acclaimed and was shown on French national television.

In his important book, “Among The Righteous,” Robert Satloff, executive director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, reports,

At every stage of the Nazi, Vichy and Fascist persecution of Jews in Arab lands, and in every place that it occurred, Arabs helped Jews. Some Arabs spoke out against the persecution of Jews and took public stands of unity with them. Some Arabs denied the support and assistance that would have made the wheels of the anti-Jewish campaign spin more efficiently. Some Arabs shared the fate of the Jews and, through their experience, forged a unique bond of comradeship. And there were occasions when certain Arabs chose to do more than just offer moral support to Jews. They bravely saved Jewish lives, at times risking their own in the process. Those Arabs were true heroes.

In Algeria, under Vichy law and Nazi occupation, Jewish property owners had to turn over their fixed assets to conservators, who would manage the business affairs in trust. This, in reality, provided a windfall to conservators.

Robert Satloff said,

To their great credit not a single Arab in Algiers stepped forward to accept Vichy’s offer. One Friday in 1941, religious leaders throughout the city gave sermons warning all good Muslims to refuse all French offers to serve as conservators of Jewish property. They even forbade Muslims from purchasing auctioned Jewish goods at below-market prices.

Despite the economic difficulties faced by Arabs during the war, they refused to take advantage of Jewish suffering for personal gain. And true to their imams’ call, not a single Arab took the opportunity of quick financial gain either to serve as a trustee-conservator or to purchase Jewish property at Vichy-mandated fire-sale prices.

In a post-war interview, Jose Aboulker, the hero of  the largely Jewish resistance of Algiers, praised the city’s Arab population

The Arabs do not participate (in the fight against Vichy). It is not their war. But, as regards the Jews, they are perfect. The (Vichy) functionaries (and) the German agents try to push them into demonstrations and pogroms. In vain. When Jewish goods were put up for public auction, an instruction went around the mosques. ‘Our brothers are suffering misfortune. Do not take their goods.’ Not one Arab became an administrator (of property) either. Do you know other examples of such an admirable, collective dignity?

The notion that there has been an ancient enmity between Jews and Moslems is without any foundation in history. In her book “The Ornament of the World,” professor Maria Rosa Menocal of Yale University explores the history of Jews under Muslim rule in medieval Spain:

Throughout most of the invigorated peninsula, Arabic was adopted as the ultimate in…distinction by the communities of the other two faiths. The new Islamic polity not only allowed Jews and Christians to survive but, following Qur’anic mandate, by and large protected them, and both the Jewish and Christian communities in Al-Andalus became thoroughly Arabized within relatively few years of Abd al-Rahman’s arrival in Cordoba….In principle, all Islamic polities were (and are) required by Qur’anic injunction…to tolerate Christians and Jews living in their midst. But beyond that fundamental prescribed posture, al-Andalus was, from these beginnings, the site of memorable and distinctive interfaith relations. Here the Jewish community rose from the ashes of an abysmal existence under the Visigoths to the point that the emir who proclaimed himself caliph in the 10th century had a Jew as his foreign minister.

When Jews were expelled from Spain by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, they were welcomed by the Islamic Ottoman Empire. Jane S. Gerber, in her book “The Jews of Spain,” points out:

In the 15th and 16th centuries…it was the Ottoman Empire, then at the zenith of her power, that alone afforded exiles a place where ‘their weary feet could find rest’…Her sultans—Bayezid II, Mehmet II, Suleiman the Magnificent—were dynamic, farsighted rulers who were delighted to receive the talented, skilled Jewish outcasts of Europe…Bayezid II, responding to the expulsion from Spain, reportedly exclaimed, “You call Ferdinand a wise King, who impoverishes his country and enriches our own.” He not only welcomed Sephardic exiles but ordered his provincial government to assist the wanderers by opening the borders. Indeed, the refugees would find the Ottoman state to be powerful, generous and tolerant.

On a visit to Andalusia, Córdoba, Seville and Granada, among other places, this writer observed the many remaining reminders of this Golden Age of Muslim-Jewish cooperation and amity. They serve to illustrate the lack of historic understanding of those who present the current impasse over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the latest in a long history of strife.

Can there be peace with Islam?

The real story is far different and far more hopeful. A celebration of the many Muslims who saved Jews during the Holocaust is another important part of this story. It should help provide us with a genuine road map for the future.

Recently, about 300 muftis, theologians and Muslim scholars met in Morocco and issued the Marrakesh Declaration, which calls for Muslim countries to protect religious minorities. They cited the Medina Charter, which, said Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah, a professor of Islamic studies in Saudi Arabia, “established the idea of common citizenship regardless of religious belief. Enough bloodshed. We are heading to annihilation. It is time for cooperation.”

The Charter of Medina was established by the Prophet Muhammad after he fled to Medina, in what is now Saudi Arabia, in the seventh century.

Those, like ISIS, who promote religious hatred, are rejecting centuries of religious tolerance in the Islamic world.

Though extremists in each group may deny it, Jews, Christians and Moslems worship the same God. Remembering the Moslems who saved Jews from the Holocaust may help to focus our attention on this historic reality, so different from the divisive rhetoric adopted by those who sow sectarian hatred.


Allan C. Brownfeld

Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.