The Historical Problem of Haj Amin al-Husseini, “Grand Mufti” of Jerusalem

, August 22, 2016

The present issue of the Jewish Political Studies Review is devoted to the history of Haj Amin al-Husseini and his long shadow. Recently, the issue of the Mufti’s historical responsibility became a subject of public controversy when, on October 20, 2015, the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, stated in an address at the 37th Zionist Congress in Jerusalem that Haj Amin al-Husseini convinced Hitler to change his anti-Jewish policy from forced emigration to extermination. Netanyahu mistakenly argued that Husseini “was one of the leading architects of the Final Solution,” but later retracted this statement.1 The contributor of our lead article, Jeffrey Herf, wrote that “it is important to note that authoritative historians of the decision-making sequence leading to the Holocaust found no such role for Husseini. The implication of their work is that, had he never arrived in Hitler’s Berlin in 1941, the Holocaust would still have taken place.”

* * *

There are several reasons why the history of the Mufti has not received the attention it deserves. The prevalent view among Israeli academics in the early years of the state was that writing contemporary history was suspect and that it was the task of the first generation of researchers to collect sources “while leaving research and publication for the future.” This attitude applied with regard to the writing of the history of the Holocaust and the writing of contemporary history in general.2 It resulted in lost opportunities and major gaps in our knowledge. In addition, the outcome of the Eichmann Trial in the early sixties placed the Holocaust on the agenda of the world and provided the impetus for new research.

More recently, during the 1990s, the ambitious architects of the Oslo Accords maintained that, in order to make peace with the PLO, it was necessary to forget the past. The messianic claim that there could be such a thing as a new beginning in human experience is fraudulent. This form of manipulation, enforced by thought control, closed rational discussion of historical problems of national importance: among them, the role and legacy of the Mufti and the broader issue of Arab antisemitism. Not the least, the imposition of an artificial break with the past distorted the judgment of the same policy makers who ultimately misled themselves.

During the past decades, new archival sources have become available. They include Nazi documents captured by the Red Army, State Department and CIA collections which have become declassified, and related primary sources from Germany. For example, in 1977, the State Department declassified the “Axis in Arabic” files of the US Embassy in Cairo. This valuable collection includes transcripts of the Mufti’s speeches to the Arab world, broadcast from Berlin by shortwave. Although this collection was accessible for some decades, it served as the major source for Jeffrey Herf’s pioneering study, Nazi Propaganda and the Arab World.3 Similarly, we should mention other new publications, such as Barry Rubin and Wolfgang Schwanitz, Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East,4 and David Motadel, Islam and Nazi Germany’s War.5 A new generation of scholarship has emerged which has broadened our knowledge of the era and of the Mufti.

The present issue of the Jewish Political Studies Review has drawn on this new scholarship. Each article covers a different aspect of his activities and their aftereffects. Prof. Jeffrey Herf deals with the basic problem of the Mufti and the Holocaust and the nature of his collaboration. Dr. Matthias Küntzel treats his role in the region in 1947-48 and raises the question whether war in the Middle East could have been prevented. Dr. Joel Fishman studies the post-war career of Prof. Johann von Leers, a prolific Nazi propagandist and member of the SS, whom the Mufti brought to Nasser’s Egypt to spread hatred. Prof. Joseph S. Spoerl discusses the nature of the current campaign against Israel whose goal is delegitimation and politicide. Lastly, Prof. Johannes Houwink ten Cate examines the wider question of the different degrees of European collaboration with Nazi Germany. Ten Cate found that the Mufti demonstrated the highest level of willing participation in the German war effort.

* * *

Mohammed Said Hadshi Amin al-Husseini (1897-1974) was an Arab nationalist and a leader of the Muslim community in Mandatory Palestine. According to the distinguished historian Elie Kedourie, Ernest T. Richmond, assistant secretary of the civil secretary’s office, became the advocate of the Arab cause and, on his personal initiative, single-mindedly pushed Husseini’s candidacy. (Richmond was an architect by profession and the intimate friend of Ronald Storrs.) The British High Commissioner, Sir Herbert Samuel, accepted this appointment in 1920 with some misgivings. Haj Amin did not receive an official letter of nomination and his appointment was not gazetted. He personally appropriated the title of “Grand Mufti.” 6

In order to understand this problem in historical context, we must take into account the workings of the British colonial bureaucracy in Mandatory Palestine. This is important because of its active and partisan role in making and carrying out policy. It was generally hostile to the idea of the Jewish National Home. Elie Kedouri wrote: “Most probably, he [Sir Herbert Samuel] had so far never had to deal with a senior civil servant who believed passionately that it was his duty to alter the machine which his superiors expected him to maintain …. The upshot of the Husaini campaign supported by Richmond was that Haj Amin was allowed tacitly to assume the office of the mufti.”7

Haj Amin was a formidable and resourceful enemy for whom the ends justified the means. He was responsible for inciting anti-Jewish riots during the twenties, including the pogrom in Hebron of August 1929, and he fomented the Arab Revolt in Palestine which broke out in 1936. Beyond his better-known activities, namely his unreserved collaboration with Nazi Germany, several of his initiatives had consequences which may be identified even at present. Martin Kramer documented his efforts to mobilize the Islamic world during the thirties by organizing an Islamic world congress. Using this project, he launched a process that ultimately brought about the globalization of an Islamic political program and spread these ideas in Mandatory Palestine. Kramer notes that the Government of Turkey protested against the principle of an Islamic congress because it combined religion with politics. The Turks were secularists and their objection reflects a basic insight because they identified one of the most important characteristics of modern Islamism. Tevfik Rüştü [Aras] (1883-1972), foreign minister of Turkey under Ataturk (1920-1939), stated:

It is true that we also received invitations from the promotors of the congress, but republican Turkey can have nothing to do with undertakings of this kind, which aim at holding peoples back on their way to progress, and which have, undeniably, deplorable consequences. We are especially opposed to the use of religion as a political instrument in internal and foreign policy. We are watching developments closely. As long as it shows no near or distant connexion with our national affairs, this undertaking will remain a matter of local importance for the regions represented by those assembled there, but immaterial to us.8

Tevfik Rüştü clearly understood the problem, because the Mufti’s initiative ultimately extended beyond a matter of local importance and led to the “deplorable consequences” which he feared.

It is clear that Haj Amin’s model was the First Zionist Congress, convened by Theodor Herzl in Basel in 1897, which formally launched a world Zionist movement and called for the founding of the Hebrew University. Similarly, the Mufti sought to unite the Islamic world and pressed for the establishment of an Islamic university as part of his program. He declared that the purpose of the new Muslim university, which would have a medical faculty, was to counter the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He understood the importance of the Hebrew University and its contribution to Jewish prestige.9 (An eye witness reported that Haj Amin was known to have made good use of Hadassah Hospital where he liked to ogle the Jewish nurses).10 In addition, the Mufti introduced several themes for which he became known throughout his career. He played on the fear that Jews would take over the holy places and called for the abolition of the Balfour Declaration as well as a total prohibition of Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine.11 Convening the Muslim congresses added to his prestige, as Haj Amin presents himself not only as the leader of Palestine but of the Islamic world as well.

Another aspect of Haj Amin’s strategy may be understood in terms of “revealed preference,” namely, his apparent understanding of how Jews reputedly used their influence in world politics. According to the antisemitic tract, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Jews attained their goals by persuading other nations to fight their wars. Malcolm Hay, a Christian Zionist, wrote that “copies of the Protocols circulated openly among British and Arabs; extracts were printed by an Arab daily paper in Jerusalem.”12 Accordingly, the Balfour Declaration could be explained by this conspiratorial interpretation, and if Great Britain emerged as the major enemy of the Arab world, it became necessary to seek out a counterweight.

It appears that Haj Amin eagerly borrowed from what he thought to be the diplomacy of the Zionist movement and actively courted the support of Nazi Germany. At first, German policymakers held back because they did not want to offend Great Britain but eventually they entered into an alliance with the Mufti.

Furthermore, Haj Amin was ruthless in liquidating opposition among his own people and terrorizing his critics. Jennie Lebel summed up the situation as follows: “The Mufti was accused of numerous murders of his own people, which left behind 20,000 neglected orphans and many poor people in the homeland. They also accused him of using humanitarian and religious funds for payments to his followers who practiced terror and carried out crimes. The Sheikh from Jatta accused the Mufti that he had corrupted and subdued the public opinion media by means of arms and confiscated printing presses from their legitimate owners.”13 Similarly, Haj Amin was implicated in the assassination of King Abdullah I of Jordan (July 1951) who planned to make a separate peace with Israel. Were it not for this violent crime, the course of history in our region may have been different.

We have visual documentation of the Mufti’s relationship with Adolf Hitler in the iconic photograph of the two on November 28, 1941 at the Chancellery of the German Reich in Berlin, and there is a memorandum of their discussions. Present at this meeting were Reich Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and Ambassador Fritz Grobba. During their meeting, the Mufti pressed Hitler for a firm commitment to make him the master of the Middle East. Hitler, however, had commitments to Italy and told the Mufti that he would have to accept his word. He undertook to destroy European Jewry and, after breaking through the Caucasus, to annihilate the “Jews living under British protection in Arab lands.”14 Slightly more than six months later, in one of his table-talks, Hitler gave his impression of the Mufti:

In conversation the Grand Mufti turned out to be an eminently sly fox who, in order to win time to think things over, had some matters translated not only into French but also into Arabic and cautiously went so far as to have certain things written down at once. If he speaks, he weighs his thoughts with every ceremonious word. In his considered cleverness he approaches the Japanese.15

This was quite a compliment. One may ask if Hitler based his observations on the impression of a single encounter, or if other undocumented meetings took place. Over time, however, it was Heinrich Himmler who befriended the Mufti and became his highest placed ally in the Nazi apparatus. The Mufti’s contributions to the Reich include his leading role in broadcasting Nazi propaganda to the Arab world, particularly anti-Jewish incitement;16 blocking the escape of Jews from countries which were allied with the Reich, such as Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, and Italy;17 and, most significantly, recruiting volunteers for the SS from Bosnia and Albania.18

The importance of the Mufti’s ideological collaboration with Nazi Germany should not be underestimated. It combined Islam with politics. His speeches expressed genocidal Judeophobia, hatred of England, and emphasis on the natural affinity of the Islamic peoples and Nazi Germany. On November 2, 1943, the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, he delivered an unforgettable address in Berlin. From its content it is clear that the Mufti was well-apprised of the Holocaust and he heartily approved of it:

The Treaty of Versailles was a disaster for the Germans as well as the Arabs. But the Germans know how to get rid of the Jews. That which brings us close to the Germans and sets us in their camp is that up to today, the Germans have never harmed any Moslem, and they are again fighting our common enemy (applause) who persecuted Arabs and Moslems. But most of all they have definitely solved the Jewish problem. These ties, especially the last, make our friendship with Germany not a provisional one, dependent on conditions, but a permanent and lasting friendship based on mutual interests.19

Additional passages may be found in the Mufti’s speech to the imams of the Bosnian SS-Division on October 4, 1944.20 It is noteworthy that he addressed his remarks, not to the common soldier, but to their spiritual advisers. Here the Mufti describes areas where Islam and National Socialism converge. Several examples include the “Führer Principle,” discipline, and obedience which, according to him, find clear expression in the Qur’an.21 Haj Amin explained:

Islam and National Socialism are close to each other in the struggle against Judaism. Nearly a third of the Qur’an deals with the Jews. It has demanded that all Muslims watch the Jews and fight them wherever they find them. In Khaybar, the Jews tried to poison Muhammad, who was sent by God, and undertook various attacks against him, all of which failed. All of Muhammad’s attempts to bring them to reason failed, so that finally he found himself forced to do away with the Jews and drive them out of Arabia.22

….

I am of the firm conviction that a victory over the Allies will bring with it a victory over Judaism and thus [remove] a great danger for the Muslims and Islam above all. For this reason, each of us must do and give his best for the victory over the common enemy.23

Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, leader of the Muslim community in Mandatory Palestine and counterpart of Chaim Weizmann, was a collaborator with Nazi Germany and a war criminal. For the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Arab public in general, his legacy is not a problem. On the contrary, past collaboration with Nazi Germany remains a source of pride and example for the present. Bernard Lewis wrote,

… a pro-Nazi past was a source of pride, not shame. The mufti with other members of the Ḥusaynî clan, escaped from Germany before the debacle and traveled via Paris to the Middle East, where he was again able to play a role of some importance in the events of the postwar years. Though not admitted by the British to Mandatory Palestine, he was welcomed by the government of Egypt. In 1951, he presided over a world Muslim conference, and in 1955 attended the first Afro-Asian conference at Bandoeng. At no stage did he in any way recant or modify his views on the Jews, though in 1961, at the time of the Eichmann trial, he denied that he had been personally acquainted with Eichmann and that he had visited the death camps.24

For the most part, postwar Germany has repudiated and dissociated itself from its Nazi past and has made a serious commitment to the writing of honest history. In contrast, the Arab world has failed to take this important step. We may not be able to change this reality, but we must make sure that our own understanding of this chapter of history is comprehensive, truthful and accurate. It is a disservice to ignore this part of the past because it is crucial for our understanding of the present and for the responsible formation of policy.

The time has come to correct these mistakes so that both Israelis and Arabs may look forward with their feet on the ground. It is simply not possible to build upon a foundation of myth and ignorance. The career of Haj Amin al-Husseini represents a major historical problem and the question of his place in history must be placed on the public agenda. It still requires thorough and sustained examination. If we look beyond the individual articles which appear in this issue, we may identify several larger themes: the fusion of religion with politics in the form of a new Islamism; the sickness of Arab antisemitism; and, of course, the Mufti’s historical responsibility. Parallel to these themes are some larger questions. Johannes ten Cate, for example, has brought our attention to the broader issue of European collaboration and the fact that Europeans must still confront their past. Regarding the underlying issue of history and memory, it is clear that the Arabs of Palestine experienced a real failure of leadership which contributed directly to their misfortune. Yaakov Herzog gave expression to the next logical but largely unspoken question when he confronted Arnold Toynbee, “… How can the two events – the destruction of one third of our people and the Arab refugee problem created through a war started by the Arabs themselves – be mentioned in the same breath?”25

* * *

Notes

1 “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Speech at the 37th Zionist Congress,” (October 21, 2015) http://www.pmo.gov.il/English/MediaCenter/Speeches/Pages/speechcongress201015.aspx. Netanyahu’s comments about Husseini’s false assertions regarding Zionist and then Israeli plans to attack or destroy the Al Aqsa Mosque rest on sound evidence. It is regrettable that his comments on that theme were overshadowed by his statements about Husseini’s role in Europe.

2 See, for example Roni Stauber: Laying the Foundations for Holocaust Research: The Impact of Philip Friedman (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2009), 58.

3 (New Haven: Yale, 2009).

4 (New Haven: Yale, 2014).

5 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2015).

6 Elie Kedourie, The Chatham House Version and Other Middle-Eastern Studies (Hanover and London: Brandeis University Press, reprint of 1970 edition), 67.

7 Ibid.

8 Martin Kramer, Islam Assembled: The Advent of the Muslim Congresses (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 131.

9 “Charter of the General Islamic Congress,” Islam Assembled, Appendix Seven, Article 2, p. 192.

10 Personal Communication, the late Professor Alexander M. Dushkin, Jerusalem, 1974.

11 Jennie Lebel, The Mufti of Jerusalem Haj-Amin el-Husseini and National Socialism, tr. Paul Münch (Belgrade: Ĉigoja štampa, 2007), 37.

12 Malcolm Hay, Thy Brother’s Blood: The Roots of Christian Anti-Semitism (New York City: Hart, 1975), 294.

13 The Mufti of Jerusalem Haj-Amin el-Husseini and National Socialism, 58.

14 See: “Hitler’s Visitor on 28 November 1941,” in: Gerald Fleming, Hitler and the Final Solution (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984): 101- 105. Also: Klaus-Michael Mallmann and Martin Cüppers, “’Elimination of the Jewish National Home in Palestine:’ The Einsatzkommando of the Panzer Army Africa, 1942,” Yad Vashem Studies, Jerusalem 2007, 35 (1): 111-141.

15 Conversation of July 2, 1942, lunch at the Wolfsschanze: Henry Picker, ed., Hitlers Tischgeschpräche in Führerhauptquartier: Hitler, wie er werklich war (Stuttgart: Seewald, 1977), 403-404.

16 See particularly: Jeffrey Herf, Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

17 Bernard Lewis, Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice (New York: Norton, 1986), 156.

18 David Motadel, Islam and Nazi Germany’s War (Cambridge, Massachusetts/ London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), 250.

19 Maurice Pearlman, Mufti of Jerusalem: The Story of Haj Amin el Husseini (London: Victor Gollancz, 1947), 49.

The complete text of the German translation of this address, “Rede zum Jehrestag der Balfour-Erklärung, 2.11.1943,” may be found in: Gerhard Höpp, Mufti-Papiere (Berlin: Karl Schwarz Verlag, 2004), 192-198.

20 Hoepp, 219-222.

21 For a description of the Mufti’s ideas, see: Barry Rubin & Wolfgang G. Schwanitz, Nazis, Islamists and the Making of the Modern Middle East (New Haven: Yale, 2014), 182-183.

22 Hoepp, 221.

23 Ibid., 222.

24 Bernard Lewis, Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice, 160.

25 “The Herzog – Toynbee Debate, McGill University, Montreal, 31 January 1961,” in: Misha Louvish, ed., A People that Dwells Alone: Speeches and Writings of Yaakov Herzog (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975), 23.

About Dr. Joel Fishman

Joel Fishman received his doctorate in modern European history from Columbia University in the City of New York. He received a post-doctoral fellowship at the Netherlands State Institute for War Documentation where he carried out pioneering work on the postwar era in the Netherlands. More recently, he has published on political warfare, incitement to hatred and violence, and political anti-Zionism. Fishman is a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs and editor of the Jewish Political Studies Review.