The One Week of World War II That Gave Rise to the Modern Middle East

November 10, 2022 | Robert Satloff
About the author: Robert Satloff is the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of several books on the Middle East, including Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach into Arab Lands.

This week marks the 80th anniversary of three seismic events in North Africa that would change the shape of the entire Middle East. On November 8, 1942, Britain and the U.S. launched Operation Torch—the invasion of French North Africa (today Morocco and Algeria). Germany responded the next day by sending its forces to Tunisia, which until then had remained under Vichy control. Then, on November 11, Britain defeated the Nazis at El Alamein in Egypt—winning their first major victory of the war. Robert Satloff reflects on the long-term consequences of these events:

[T]he most lasting impact of the Nazi presence in Tunisia was to give Arabs an up-close look at a model of all-powerful government infused with supremacist ideology. Along with the 1941 arrival in Berlin of the Jerusalem mufti Hajj Amin al-Husseini and Iraqi putschist Rashid Ali, both forced to flee from Baghdad, the Tunisia experience would play a role in building two movements that competed for power in the Middle East for decades to follow—the radical Arab nationalism of Gamal Abdul Nasser and Saddam Hussein and the Islamist extremism of Osama bin Ladin and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Whether both of these movements have been flushed from the Arab political system—or are just passing through a period of reassessment, retrenchment and rebirth—is one of the region’s most profound uncertainties.

As recent scholarship shows, the Germans had designs on Egypt and the Levant that went beyond the purely strategic objectives of controlling the Suez Canal, the eastern Mediterranean, and the oil fields of Arabia. In fact, there is convincing evidence that the Nazis planned to follow on Rommel’s expected sweep into Cairo and then onto Jerusalem with the extermination of the Jewish communities of Egypt, Palestine, and beyond. If the Panzers were not defeated in the Western Desert, this would likely have added more than 600,000 additional Jews to the Holocaust death toll.

This would have aborted any hope of the Zionist dream for a “Jewish national home” in the historic homeland of the Jewish people. The near annihilation of the Jews of Europe fed the desire for Jewish sovereignty; the annihilation of the Jews of the Levant would have killed it. Israel would never have been.

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