Lifestyle & Belief

Exhibit highlights role of 'righteous Muslims' during the Holocaust


A pamphlet developed by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and Faith Matters accompanies an exhibit currently touring British schools about 'righteous Muslims' during the Holocaust.

LONDON — The tension from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has long since spilled over into Europe.

The battleground is history, specifically the Holocaust. A strand of Muslim public opinion regards the murder of six million Jews in World War II as an unfair justification for establishing the state of Israel. The view that Muslims in Europe and the Middle East aided in the destruction of European Jewry is common in the Jewish community.

The truth is different. Some Muslims who lived under Nazi occupation helped their Jewish neighbors hide and survive. These "righteous Muslims," whose names are enshrined in the Garden of the Righteous at the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, are the subject of an exhibition currently touring British schools.

The exhibition is the work of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the main representative of of British Jewry in public life, and Faith Matters, a civil society group founded by Fiyaz Mughal.

Mughal's motivation for organizing the exhibition was simple. "There's a lot of revisionism out there," Mughal says. "There are small sections of the Jewish community saying all Muslims assisted the Nazis. Then there are small sections of the Muslim community that don't want to know about the Holocaust, don't want to acknowledge it."

Then Mughal adds, "I say they are small sections, but they are very active, especially in online forums. It's a corrosive narrative."

In the Jewish community, Melanie Philips, columnist of the Daily Mail, framed the debate for some of her co-religionists by writing a book about this narrative called "Londonistan: How Britain is Creating a Terror State Within."

In the Muslim community, much debate in Britain on Israel/Palestine crosses over into anti-Semitism.

Mehdi Hasan, former political editor of the New Statesman, not known for his pro-Israel views, acknowledged the increasingly reflexive anti-Semitism that now characterizes his community in a recent article

Hasan wrote, "I can’t keep count of the number of Muslims I have come across – from close friends and relatives to perfect strangers – for whom weird and wacky anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are the default explanation for a range of national and international events."

At university forums on the Middle East it is not uncommon to see copies of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," the anti-Semitic Tsarist-era tract which purports to be a plan for world domination by Jews.

It was to combat these unthinking and polarizing views that Mughal began putting together the exhibit and accompanying pamphlet, a portable version of the information in its displays.

The stories are inspiring and surprising. Albania is given the lead role.

Virtually all of the country's Jews were saved from the Holocaust because of something called "Besa." Besa is the Albanian code of hospitality, It means "to keep the promise," and is derived from Muslim teachings about giving refuge and sanctuary to those in need.

At the start of the war, Albania's Jewish population was only several hundred, but some Jews fleeing the Nazis made their way into the country from further north in the Balkan Peninsula.

It is estimated that in the entire country, only two people out of a wartime Jewish population of more than 1,000 were ultimately deported to death camps.

The most surprising thing Mughal learned in putting together the pamphlet was, "the scale of the countries involved. It wasn't just Albania or Turkey. But in North Africa: Morocco, Tunisia and Libya, all had examples of Muslims saving Jews from the Nazis during their occupation."

Mughal acknowledges that much of the exhibition's section on North Africa owes a great deal to the research of Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and author of Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust's Long Reach into Arab Lands.

The role of righteous Muslims is a natural extension of the work of Faith Matters, a community group set up by Mughal in 2005.

A scientist by training, Mughal spent two decades working in the voluntary sector (civil society organizations) before setting up Faith Matters. Initially, the group's work focused on Muslim-Jewish relationships but now is omni-sectarian.

Mughal's family is of Pakistani origin but made its way to Britain via east Africa. That means his people, unlike those of most British Muslims, already had the experience of being a minority when they arrived in Britain. Those who emigrated from Pakistan were the ethnic and religious majority in their country of origin. It's a subtle difference, but one that Mughal thinks allowed him to understand his Jewish neighbors. Jews in Britain have always been a minority.

The exhibit tours schools with one person from each community to teach its lessons and answer questions. So far the itinerary is primarily in north London, where the two communities often live side by side without much interaction, keeping their prejudices to themselves.

Aside from educating children, Mughal's great hope for the exhibition is that it encourages academic interest in the subject. "Unless researchers wake up, much of this story will be lost," he says. "Many of the last survivors will be dead over the next five years. It's an oral tradition and it needs to be written down."