Hitler’s closest Middle East ally worked hard to be worthy of the Fuhrer’s praise. A look at the life and legacy of one of the most impactful anti-Semites of the twentieth century.
Haj Amin al-Husseini, known as the Mufti of Jerusalem, has suddenly become the object of considerable public discussion. The recent controversy over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks—in which he claimed, erroneously, that the Mufti had persuaded Adolf Hitler to exterminate the Jews—has brought sudden attention to one of the most important figures in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
That’s because al-Husseini was not only the founding father of the Arab national movement in Palestine. He was also a fervent anti-Semite, the most important Nazi collaborator in the Arab world, and a political activist who worked tirelessly for the ethnic cleansing and physical destruction of the Jews in Palestine and in the Middle East as a whole.
As Israelis face yet another wave of violence at the hands of Palestinians, and we ask yet again about its causes, a serious look at the Mufti’s role in crafting, justifying, and encouraging such violence becomes crucial for our understanding. For the Mufti not only founded Palestinian nationalism as we know it today, but defined it as an ideology of absolute rejectionism and even genocide. In effect, the Mufti denied that the Jews had any national rights whatsoever, and especially not in the historic Land of Israel.
In this, the Mufti originated the single most important obstacle to peace in the Middle East: The Palestinian refusal to accept Jewish sovereignty and even physical presence in any part of the Land of Israel. In many ways, to understand the Mufti is to understand why the Palestinians, despite numerous opportunities to do so, still refuse to make peace.
In April 1920, the victorious Allied powers convened in San Remo, Italy, to negotiate a peace treaty with Turkey, which had fought on the defeated Axis side during the First World War. As a direct result, Britain was handed the mandate for Palestine, previously a domain of the Ottoman Empire, with the understanding that London would now make good on its commitment to a “Jewish national home” as underlined by the Balfour Declaration of November 1917.
However, British military officers in the field were already casting an anxious eye on Palestine’s Arab inhabitants. While one leading Jerusalem clan, the Nashashibis, was in favor of a more conciliatory policy, their main rivals, the al-Husseinis, were agitating for violent conflict with both the Jewish community and the British.
In 1919, Haj Amin al-Husseini, a prominent scion of the clan, began organizing small groups of terrorists to harass and attack Palestine’s Jews. One year later, as the Allies were deliberating at San Remo, al-Husseini instigated anti-Jewish riots in Jerusalem during the intermediate days of the Passover festival. Six Jews were murdered and more than 200 wounded during an orgy of destruction.
Given al-Husseini’s role in encouraging the violence, the British arrested him. But one year later, newly-installed British High Commissioner Herbert Samuel, eager to dampen down tensions, pardoned al-Husseini and appointed him to the post of Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. This act, Samuel said, would ensure “that the influences of his family and himself would be devoted to tranquility.”
Samuel could not have been more wrong. As a direct consequence of Britain’s empowerment of him as Mufti, al-Husseini was emboldened in pursuing the aim of violently removing the Jewish presence in Palestine. Over the following two decades, al-Husseini’s hardened anti-Semitic worldview, together with his determination to extinguish any prospect of the Balfour Declaration’s promise from being realized, made him a natural Middle Eastern ally of Germany’s Nazi regime once it launched its war of conquest and genocide in 1939.
Within three weeks of his first meeting with Samuel, al-Husseini orchestrated riots in Petach Tikvah and Jaffa which resulted in the murders of 43 Jews. An official British inquiry into these pogroms concluded that “the Arab majority, who were generally the aggressors, inflicted most of the casualties.” Further Jewish immigration in 1925 and 1926 was the pretext for similar anti-Jewish outbursts instigated by al-Husseini, which led a nervous British administration to wonder out loud whether stricter controls on Jewish immigration should be imposed. Correctly judging that more violence would push the British into such restrictions—a policy already advocated by leading Arabists at the Foreign Office who had always opposed the Balfour Declaration—the Mufti achieved his greatest political victory in May 1939, when Colonial Secretary Malcolm MacDonald issued the infamous White Paper that set Britain’s Palestine policy on the course of appeasing Arab desires to see the Zionist state-building project extinguished.
Denounced in the House of Commons by Winston Churchill (who did not become Prime Minister until September that year) as a “moral blow,” the White Paper limited Jewish entry into Palestine to 75,000 over the next five years—this on the eve of the Holocaust. Had it not been for the Arab Revolt of 1936-39, led by al-Husseini, it is distinctly possible that British policy towards Jews fleeing Nazi persecution would have been more benign; indeed, the Peel Commission of 1937 recommended the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states. However, through violent actions so extreme that he was forced to escape the country to avoid being arrested by the British, al-Husseini still managed to secure a change in British policy that condemned thousands of Jews to the burgeoning Nazi extermination program.
The British appointed al-Husseini to be Grand Mufti so that “the influences of his family and himself would be devoted to tranquility.” But he only became emboldened to pursue violent incitement against the Jewish population.
As well as opposing the Peel Commission’s recommendations, al-Husseini fueled violence against the Jews by claiming—much as he did during the 1920s, and much as Palestinian Authority leaders like Mahmoud Abbas do today—that the Jews were intent on conquering Muslim sacred sites in Palestine, and in particular the Temple Mount site housing the al-Aqsa Mosque. This nefarious goal was the pretext for a much larger conspiracy. “Palestine does not satisfy the Jews,” al-Husseini said, “because their goal is to rule over the rest of the Arab nations, over Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, and even over the lands of Khyber in Saudi Arabia, under the pretext that this city was the homeland of the Jewish tribes in the seventh century.”
For much of 1937, al-Husseini dodged the British by holing up inside the al-Aqsa compound, from where he directed the violence and terror. By the time he escaped to Lebanon in October, according to a dispatch from a German diplomat to his superiors in Berlin, “the initially small number of Arabs active in the uprising have managed in the meantime to gain the support of the entire Arab people.”
Al-Husseini’s next move was to Iraq, where he arrived on October 14, 1939. He quickly amassed a group of loyal followers in the Iraqi army and government. In Baghdad, he became the standard-bearer for anti-British and pro-German sentiments. At this time, Iraq was fertile ground for these trends, with many army officers anxious to free Iraq from its dependence on Britain. In January 1941, the pro-German Prime Minister Rashid Ali al-Gailani was forced to step down. With the active backing of al-Husseini, al-Gailani and a group of military officers staged a coup in April 1941. While the rogue government was quickly unseated by a British invasion, the troops couldn’t get to Baghdad fast enough to prevent the Mufti striking out at the largest Jewish community in Iraq.
On June 1, 1941, during the holiday of Shavuot and a day after the Mufti’s hurried flight from Iraq, a pogrom against the Jews of Baghdad broke out. Known as the “Farhud”—a term which Edwin Black, the author of a major study of this horrific episode, translates as “violent dispossession”—the riots resulted in the deaths of nearly 200 Jews, with injuries to more than 1,000. Jewish property was looted and homes were burned indiscriminately.
When the carnage subsided, a commission of inquiry was set up by the new, pro-British Iraqi government. Its investigation found that the Mufti and the Nazi propaganda broadcasts he made on Nazi-sponsored radio were the primary reasons behind the slaughter. The Mufti’s incitement against the Baghdadi Jews, said the commission, served to legitimize violence against them. In effect, the Mufti and his followers were directly responsible for the pogrom.
In his memoirs, the Mufti was unapologetic. He defended the Farhud as a legitimate uprising against the all-powerful Jews. Blaming the Jews for the failure of the coup he fomented, the Mufti wrote, “The Iraqi Jews were a fifth column in Iraq. One of the reports I received was that several Iraqi Jews worked in the telephone company, and they recorded official conversations and sent the contents to the British embassy in Baghdad. Additionally, Jews who worked in the post office passed every important letter they received to the embassy.”
These intrigues, al-Husseini insisted, triggered the Farhud. A far more credible explanation is that the Mufti, faced once again with exile, chose to take revenge on the defenseless Jews of Iraq.
It should not be surprising that by the time he arrived in Berlin for his famous meeting with Adolf Hitler in November 1941, al-Husseini was regarded by the Nazis as their key Arab ally, a leader who could be installed as a collaborationist head-of-state in Palestine in the event that the German army triumphed in the Middle Eastern theater. Al-Husseini had spent over twenty years establishing precisely this position, and was in close contact with the Nazis after Hitler came to power in 1933 (in Iraq, for example, he worked closely with Fritz Grobba, the German Ambassador in Baghdad who went on to play a central role in Nazi propaganda activities throughout the Arab world and in Iran).
Significantly, the meeting with Hitler, during which both he and al-Husseini restated their commitment to the “elimination” of any form of Jewish sovereignty in Palestine, took place despite Nazi Germany’s recent invasion of the Soviet Union. This indicated the value the Nazis placed on their new ally. Indeed, the Nazis quickly appointed the Mufti as the head of their Arabic-language propaganda network. They gave him a monthly budget amounting to tens of thousands of dollars, an office, and dozens of employees who received their salaries directly from the Nazi foreign ministry.
In his new role, the Mufti presided over Arabic-language broadcasts on Radio Berlin. As such, he broadcast a continuing stream of incitement and anti-Semitic propaganda in Arabic for the remainder of the war. He was also responsible for the dissemination of written propaganda in Arab countries, most of which was designed to spark riots against the British and French colonial rulers. The Mufti stayed in Germany until the Nazi defeat in May 1945; during this entire period was involved in espionage, sabotage, and terrorism. Throughout, he worked tirelessly for the expulsion and slaughter of the Palestinian Jews and the Jews of the Arab nations.
For example, on November 2, 1943, the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, the Mufti organized a protest rally in Berlin. In his speech, the Mufti stated,
Twenty-six years ago, the Jews received the Balfour Declaration in order to establish a Jewish national home. The British betrayed the Arabs and Islam for the sake of the Jews. The Jew is an egotistical creature. He thinks he is [a member of] the chosen people, and all the other people must serve him. The Jew is the enemy of Islam. He is the one who killed the prophet Muhammad. …
The British minister, the Jew [Benjamin] Disraeli, bought the Suez Canal, and thus paved the way for the British to conquer Egypt. The Jews of Algiers helped the French to conquer Algeria. … It is incumbent on the Arabs as a whole and Muslims in particular to expel the Jews from the Arab lands. This is the best solution. This solution was used by the prophet Muhammad 1,300 years ago. …
The Versailles Treaty was a disaster for Germany and the Arabs. But the Germans know how to get rid of the Jews. What brings us so close to Germany … is that Germany has never caused damage to Muslims, and it fights against our mutual enemy—the Jews. But above all, they finally solved the Jewish problem for good. Time is working [against the Jews], even if the Allies are helping them.
As the German’s advanced through North Africa in 1942, the same year that the Nazi regime held its Wannsee Conference to implement the Final Solution, al-Husseini was readying Arab participation in the slaughter of the Jews that would accompany German victory. In June 1942, having established close cooperation with Adolf Eichmann, one of the principal architects of the Holocaust, al-Husseini was convinced that the liberation of Palestine, and with it the destruction of the country’s Jews, was imminent. As a German Einstazkommando dedicated to this particular end assembled in Athens to await further instructions, al-Husseini proposed the creation of a “German-Arab Training Department” in Egypt that would create “regular Arab military units that will operate side by side together with troops of the Axis powers.” Continued Al-Husseini: “These units will have a morally favorable impact in the Arab countries and will draw the volunteers in the British army to their side.”
These plans were scuppered thanks to the successful British counteroffensive in North Africa in the fall of 1942. The extermination unit for Palestine’s Jews that had gathered in Athens returned to Berlin. However, as the historians Klaus-Michael Mallman and Martin Cuppers have argued,
The end of the Africa campaign of the Axis powers should not obscure a central fact: in the special strategic situation that developed during the summer of 1942, Rommel’s Panzer Army Africa stood on the verge of a breakthrough into Palestine. The Germans had prepared for this scenario: with the Einsatzkommando under [SS-Obersturmbannführer Walther] Rauff and certain support that could be expected from the Arab side in Palestine, the mass murder of the Jewish population in mandatory Palestine could also have been put into high gear once that breakthrough occurred. Down to the present, this plan has not become part of public historical awareness.
While the prospects for the annihilation of Palestine’s Jews may have dimmed, al-Husseini’s anti-Semitic fervor remained as intense as ever. On March 19, 1943, the Mufti spoke at a mosque in Berlin, where he stated,
With the help of their influence, the Jews succeeded in ruling over England and America. The proof of this is the declaration that Congress recently passed, which allows the Jews to create a national home in Palestine. … The Jews exploited the last war to settle in the Holy Land. The Jewish danger is not only to Palestine, but all the Arab states, because the Allies intend to settle the millions of Jews expelled from Europe in the Arab nations. The Arabs must fight against this scheme with all their might and put an end to these plans.
The Mufti was not satisfied with this, however. Despite the military defeats experienced by the Nazis in the Middle East, al-Husseini continued to plan the annihilation of the Jews of Palestine and the Arab nations. He spoke openly about expelling the Jews of the Arab nations, but in secret, he was planning something much worse. He was working behind the scenes to set up death camps for all the Jews of Palestine and the Arab nations. In effect, he was planning a Holocaust in the Middle East.
This under-examined aspect of al-Husseini’s activity was first uncovered by the Israeli researcher and journalist Haviv Canaan, who wrote several books on Nazi propaganda. Canaan discovered that the Mufti planned to build crematoriums for the Jews in the Dothan Valley in Samaria. He based his conclusions on the testimony of Faiz Bay Idrisi, a senior Arab officer in the British Mandatory police, who stated,
Today, a chill runs through my body when I remember what was said in police circles and among supporters of the Mufti in those months [when German Field-Marshal Erwin Rommel was poised to invade Egypt in the summer of 1942]. Haj Amin al-Husseini was set to enter Jerusalem at the head of his aides, the soldiers of the Arab legion, which was formed out of Muslim soldiers in the German army. The [Mufti’s] master plan was to establish in the Dothan Valley, close to Shechem, giant crematoriums like Auschwitz, into which would be brought the Jews of Palestine, and the Jews of Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and even North Africa, in order to slaughter them with the methods of the S.S. who operated in the death camps in Europe.
Canaan said that he met with an elderly diplomat in Germany who told him, “I cannot say with certainty what was expected in regard to the Jews of the Land of Israel. But I know that their fate would have been bitter and horrific” had Rommel had succeeded in conquering the Middle East.
Canaan’s sources added that after the German defeat at defeat in North Africa in 1942, the Mufti understood that the days of the Third Reich were numbered. As a result, he made additional plans: First and foremost the slaughter of the 250,000 Jews of Tel Aviv. According to his vision, the annihilation of these Jews would rouse the Arabs to rebel against the British in countries like Egypt and spark a holy war—a jihad. The Mufti’s “holy warriors” would then liberate the Arab states under British and French colonial rule. According to Canaan, the Germans invested significant funds in these plans, and even established bases and espionage stations in various Arab states. The plan, Canaan also asserted, was considered by top German military officials and the heads of the S.S., such as Heinrich Himmler, Herman Goering, and others.
Although, thankfully, his plan never came to fruition, the Mufti’s industry of hatred and anti-Semitism did succeed in sparking significant anti-Jewish violence in many Middle Eastern countries. It is not a coincidence that on November 2, 1945—the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration—synagogues in Egypt were burned and dozens of Jews killed on the streets of Cairo. On the same day, the Jews of Libya were also attacked. Hundreds of them were killed and wounded, nine synagogues were desecrated and burned, and hundreds of Jewish houses, stores, and businesses were looted and torched.
The Mufti himself directly advocated the destruction of the Jewish community of Tripoli. In an entry in his diary, he described a meeting in which the Axis powers discussed their policy toward Tunisia at a time when the Nazis occupied both Tunisia and Libya, and were pushing into the rest of North Africa. The Mufti, who was then living in the house of a German Jew who had been sent to a concentration camp, wrote down several notes to bring before the meeting. “To recommend to the committee,” he wrote, “that they decide on the issue of Tunisia to ‘cleanse’ the Jews and take their money in Tripoli before it is evacuated.”
Clearly, the brutal attacks on the Jews of Egypt and Libya were the fruit of the Mufti’s efforts over half a decade to instill Nazism, anti-Semitism, and violence in the hearts of the Arab people as a whole. Nor were his activities restricted to North Africa. In the western Balkans, he raised three SS divisions composed of Bosnian and Albanian Muslims who participated in the killing of Jews in Croatia and Hungary. Once the war was over, the Yugoslav authorities sought al-Husseini’s arrest for war crimes—as so often in his career, in 1946 he escaped French detention this time and traveled to Beirut.
In his memoirs, the Mufti offered the following justification for the Final Solution:
In return for the Balfour Declaration, the Jews took it upon themselves to serve the British and their policies, and to invest their best efforts so [the British] would win the war. For this reason, the Jews played a central role in sabotage and destructive propaganda in Germany at the end of World War I. This is the fundamental reason for Hitler’s war against the Jews and his intense hatred for them. They brought down disaster on Germany and caused its defeat in World War I.
His opposition to Jewish immigration was expressed in the letters he sent to the foreign ministers of various Axis powers. Two of these letters were presented at the 1961 trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, one to German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and the other to his Romanian counterpart.
The Grand Mufti to Reichsminister of the Foreign Ministry Von Ribbentrop,
Your Excellency! The English and American governments have recently conducted negotiations … with the local governments in the Balkans, and first and foremost Bulgaria, the purpose of which was Jewish immigration … to Palestine.
In this regard, the English Colonial Secretary, Sir Oliver Stanley, recently expressed his happiness before the [House of Commons] that the negotiations with the Bulgarian authorities in regard to the immigration of 4,000 Jewish children with 500 adults … to Palestine, have been crowned with success, and he hopes to reach similar results with the authorities of the rest of the Balkan countries such as Romania and Hungary.
But the Arabs see this Jewish immigration to their lands as a threat to their existential interests, something that causes me to turn your Excellency’s attention to this question and the damage it will cause to the Arabs. The friendly Arab people stood up without hesitation … in support of the Axis in this defensive war against communism and the Anglo-Saxons, and it expects its friends, the Axis powers … [to provide] the solution to the problem of world Jewry by means that will place the Jews under intense supervision and thus prevent the damage and danger expected from them.
The immigration of the Jews from the lands where they have lived up to now, and their concentration in the Near East, will allow them undisturbed contact with the rest of the world’s Jews, and the exploitation of the important warlike knowledge they have collected … and their well-disguised existing organizations to the benefit of the Allies, and in this they would be more dangerous and more damaging than they have been up to now.
I would therefore ask your Excellency to do everything necessary in order to dissuade Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary from carrying out the Jewish-Anglo-American plan and to give this question your special attention. In this way, you would do a service to the friendly Arab people that will never be forgotten, and at the same time, prevent coordination and collaboration by the elements arrayed against you.
With Great Respect,
Rome, June 28, 1943
To His Excellency the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Romania,
It is without doubt known to you that there is a war between the Arabs and the Jews in Palestine, a long and bloody war, the reason for which is [the Jews’] desire to establish for themselves a national home, a Jewish state in the Near East, with the aid of England and the United States of America. This in fact exposes the eternal Jewish ambition: To rule over the entire world from the strategically important center of Palestine. And amongst their main goals was always their plan for the immigration of the European Jews to Palestine and the other Near Eastern countries. However, the war and the certainty of the [Axis powers] regarding the role the Jews played in causing the outbreak of the war and their filthy plots against the nations in which they had found shelter until then … justify placing [the Jews] under vigorous supervision, which would put an end to their immigration to Palestine or elsewhere.
Recently, the unceasing efforts by the Jews and the English to gain permission for the Jews who live in your lands to leave for Palestine by way of Bulgaria and Turkey has come to my attention.
I am also aware that these appeals ended in success, because … a Jewish delegation of 75 people, among them several important figures, arrived in Palestine at the end of March of this year. The Jewish Agency, which supervises the implementation of the Jewish plan, published a bulletin that includes important information on the negotiations undertaken between the English government and the governments of the affected nations in order to transfer the Jews from the Balkans to Palestine.
[The Jewish Agency] emphasizes among other things the attainment of enough certificates … for the immigration of 1,800 Jewish children accompanied by 200 adults. …
Allowing these Jews to leave … will not in any way solve the Jewish problem, and will not defend your nation from their evil attacks. Quite the opposite, this escape will allow them a free hand to unify with the brothers of their race in the enemies’ lands and to establish an entrenched position with dangerous influence over the results of the war. Especially because of and thanks to their long residence in your country, it is inevitable that they have in their hands many secrets about your war effort. In addition to this, there is the great evil that will be done to the friendly Arab people who took part in this war on your side and has only the best feelings and intentions toward your country.
For this reason, I ask your Excellency to … prevent the Jews from leaving your country for Palestine. If there are reasons that require their expulsion, it is more … desirable for them to leave your countries for another place, where they will be under active supervision, such as Poland, for example, and in this way to guard against their dangerousness and prevent the damage you can do. Your Excellency will please accept my greatest admiration.
There can be no doubt that Al-Husseini hold a major share of the culpability for the killing of thousands of Jews who, because of him, could not escape to Palestine. Instead, they were deported to Auschwitz and other concentration camps, where they were condemned to forced labor, brutalized, and murdered. Al-Husseini knew full well that this would be their fate; after all, he had been working towards this end since 1919.
Taken as a whole, the Mufti’s career is one of radical political evil. He fomented anti-Semitic beliefs and anti-Semitic violence in Palestine and throughout the Arab world. Though he was not an architect of the Holocaust, he knew about it, collaborated with it, and did everything he could to ensure that the Nazi extermination machine would ensnare as many Jews as possible. Even worse, perhaps, he worked toward a second Holocaust in the Middle East, one that, together with the European Holocaust, might well have resulted in the near-complete annihilation of the Jewish people.
Almost as important is the Mufti’s influence over the Arab national movement in Palestine that he founded. Today, Palestinian leaders still revere the Mufti and embrace his policy of absolute rejectionism. His tactics of incitement are employed by supposedly moderate groups like Fatah and leaders like Mahmoud Abbas, whose recent claims regarding the Temple Mount were identical to those made by the Mufti. And the Mufti’s openly genocidal stance toward the Jews and his emphasis on radical Islamic ideology finds expression in the actions and beliefs of Hamas. It is only when the Palestinians finally reject the Mufti and his poisonous legacy that peace will, at last, become possible.
Banner Photo: Bundesarchiv / Wikimedia