JERUSALEM - At the height of World War II, Khaled Abdelwahhab hid a group of Jews on his farm in a small Tunisian town, saving them from the Nazi troops occupying the North African nation.
Now, Abdelwahhab has become the first Arab nominated for recognition as "Righteous Among the Nations," an honor bestowed on non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from Nazi persecution.
The nomination of Abdelwahhab, who died in 1997, has reopened a little-known chapter of the Holocaust in the Arab countries of North Africa.
Abdelwahhab was nominated by Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a U.S. think tank. Satloff said that after the Sept. 11 attacks, he went to Morocco to research what happened during the Nazi genocide in hopes of countering Holocaust denial in the Arab world and tempering some of the sentiments he thought helped pave the way for the 2001 attacks.
"I asked, Did any Arabs save Jews in the Holocaust?" Satloff said. "If they did, these are stories about which Arabs could be proud. It would also entail accepting the context, because it would mean there was something to save Jews from."
The search led to Abdelwahhab, the son of an aristocratic family who was 32 when German troops arrived in November 1942 in Tunisia, then home to about 100,000 Jews.
According to Israel's Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, the Germans imposed anti-Semitic policies in Tunisia that included fines, forcing Jews to wear Star of David badges, and confiscating property. More than 5,000 Jews were sent to forced-labor camps, where 46 are known to have died. About 160 Tunisian Jews in France were sent to death camps.
Abdelwahhab served as an interlocutor between the population of coastal Mahdia and German forces, Satloff said. When he heard that German officers planned to rape Odette Boukris, a local Jewish woman, he gathered her family and several other Jewish families in Mahdia - about two dozen people - and took them to his farm outside town. He hid them for four months, until the occupation ended.
Abdelwahhab still has to be approved by the Yad Vashem commission that grants the honor, which has been conferred on 21,700 people. Yad Vashem spokeswoman Estee Yaari said: "We can't speculate on what the outcome will be."