The current Israel-Gaza war might indicate a lack of acknowledgement of the common humanity of Muslims and Jews. History, however, and World War II in particular, show that the relationship between Jews and Muslims was once one of solidarity.

During World War II, Jews found refuge in Northern Albania. Seventy percent of Albanians are Muslims and, putting their lives at risk, they sheltered more than 2,000 Jews from the Nazis. According to the International School for Holocaust Studies, the Albanians did not turn in a single Jew to the Germans when they demanded the Albanians provide lists of names of Jews in the country.

This history was illustrated by Norman H. Gershman, an American photographer, who included photos of the Albanians’ descendants still living in the country in a book called BESA: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II. According to Gershman, only two countries in Europe, Denmark and Albania, refused to cooperate with the Nazis.

Besa is an Albanian cultural concept that means “to keep the promise” and “word of honor.” Besa also means taking care of those in need. Both Catholic and Muslim Albanians aided the Jews during WWII by giving them Muslim names, providing them with clothes, and welcoming them as members of their own families.

In the book, Gershman tells the story of an Albanian shopkeeper, Ali Pashkaj. German soldiers appeared at his store where nineteen Albanian prisoners were hiding. Among them was a young Jew whom the Germans planned to assassinate.

Pashkaj spoke excellent German and invited the soldiers into the store and gave them food and wine. While he was distracting the German soldiers, he gave the young Jew a melon containing a message instructing him to jump out of a truck leaving the place at a certain location and run and hide in the woods. The young man followed the instruction given to him and was able to escape to safety.

When they realized that he had escaped, the German soldiers were furious. They threatened to shoot the shopkeeper and set the town on fire if the Albanians did not return the young Jew. The Albanians refused. The Germans left. Pashkaj went to the woods where he found the young man and brought him back to his house where he was safe.

As Gershman told the Jewish Chronicle, “Look, you are not talking to someone who is pro-Arab. It is really quite simple. There are good people in this world. I found Muslims who saved Jews. The perception of the religion of Islam as crazy is nonsense. I am a Jew to my core. I would lay down my life for Israel…However, we have objectified Muslims. They are just people. And in this little people [Albanians] they have a message for the world. I defy anyone to look at these people and say these are terrorists or terrorist sympathizers.”

This is not the only case in which Muslims aided Jewish people. Although Iran was suffering from the 1942-1943 famine, the country became a place of refuge for 116,000 Polish refugees, among whom 5,000 were Jews. Young survivors who arrived in Iran became known as the ‘Tehran Children’.

Mohammed V, who was the king of Morocco during WWII, refused to sign Vichy officials’ laws to impose anti-Jewish legislation, such as the obligation for Jews to wear a yellow badge or to deport 250,000 Jews to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps in Europe. Mohammed V has been honored by Jewish organizations for his role in protecting his Jewish subjects during the Holocaust.

Moncef Bey was governor of Tunis, a de-facto French colony during WWII. He claimed that Tunisian Muslims and Tunisian Jews were his own children. He helped Jews avoid arrest and prevented their deportations. Mathilda Guez, a Tunisian Jew who later became an Israeli politician, wrote that Moncef Bey gathered all the senior officials of the realm at the palace and gave them this warning:

“The Jews are having a hard time but they are under our patronage and we are responsible for their lives. If I find out that an Arab informer caused even one hair of a Jew to fall, this Arab will pay with his life.”

Another example is that of Abdol Hossein Sardari who was an Iranian diplomat who ran the Iranian consular office in Paris during WWII. He issued passports for entire Jewish families and saved between 2,000 to 3,000 Jewish lives. He was dubbed the “Iranian Schindler”.

Those Arabs who risked their lives to save Jewish lives were following the Koran’s dictum: “Whoever saves one life, saves the entire world,” which echoes the Talmud’s assertion: “If you save one life, it is as if you have saved the world.”

These examples of solidarity seem to have been forgotten, only to be replaced by war crimes and genocide. As professor Alfred de Zayas, an international law expert has written, “What humanity most urgently needs is a change of mindset, a recommitment to the spirituality of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a readiness to break the vicious circle of reprisals and counter-reprisals.”