The birthfather of the “Al-Aksa is in danger” libel, the first in the new era to claim that the Jews were scheming to destroy the Al-Aksa Mosque and build the Third Temple in its place, was Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini.1 He lived for three-quarters of a century, until 1974, and had a particular impact on Palestine in the first half of the twentieth century. His life and teachings, however, are still relevant today. Regarding the Temple Mount mosques and the “Al-Aksa is in danger” libel, his successors, including the chairman of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, and the current head of the northern branch of the Israeli Islamic Movement, Raed Salah, have carried his torch.
Husseini was born in Jerusalem at the end of the nineteenth century. He was the son of the mufti of Jerusalem at that time, Taher al-Husseini, known as one of the fervent opponents of Zionism. The Jerusalemite Husseini family claims to be descended from Hussein, son of the caliph Ali, and his wife Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. Amin al-Husseini was educated in Jerusalem. At the age of seventeen he went to study at the Islamic university of Al-Azhar in Cairo, where he spent two years. He then traveled to Mecca for the first time and won the title of Haj. When World War I broke out he was enlisted into the Ottoman army, but two years later he came down with dysentery and returned to Jerusalem. He was appointed to his first public post in 1918, in the office of the British military governor of Jerusalem. A year later Husseini was awarded a junior position in the British military administration in Damascus. There he began making contact with the nationalist circles in the court of Emir Feisal bin Hussein, and he took part in bringing representatives of the “Palestine region” to the Pan-Syrian Congress held in July 1919. At that point he was already combining educational work, political activity, and religious activity. When he returned from Damascus, Husseini joined one of the Christian-Muslim societies that were then active in Palestine. The common denominator of all of these organizations was fierce opposition to Zionism and Jewish immigration along with a Syrian orientation.
The first significant event in which Husseini played a role was a particularly violent one. In April 1920, at the end of the Nebi Musa holiday2 as thousands of Muslims returned in a procession from Nebi Musa to Jerusalem, Husseini fired up the crowd. The procession deteriorated into severe violence and on the way five Jews were murdered and 211 injured.3 Leading the procession itself was Husseini’s stepbrother, Mufti Kamel al-Husseini, who, in contrast to Amin, tried (unsuccessfully) to subdue the passions. The British issued an arrest warrant for Amin al-Husseini, who fled across the Jordan and from there to Damascus. In his absence he was given a military sentence of ten years’ imprisonment. Five months later, when Sir Herbert Samuel assumed the post of high commissioner, the exiled Haj Amin was granted a pardon.
When Husseini returned to Jerusalem he was received by the city’s Arabs as a hero, one who had dared rebel against the British and fight against the Jews. Upon the death of his stepbrother, Mufti Kamel al-Husseini, Haj Amin competed over the succession. At first he lost to contenders with higher Muslim religious education than his own, but he and his family refused to give in. They mounted heavy pressure, including public announcements and protests, until finally the appointment went to Haj Amin when he was just twenty-six years old. Two years later, when the Supreme Muslim Council was established, he was elected to lead it.
Now that he held both of the senior religious positions, Husseini launched the enterprise of renovating the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aksa Mosque on the Temple Mount. This further boosted his power and popularity among Muslims both locally and globally. The two mosques had indeed fallen into neglect and disrepair with renovation urgently needed, but this task, which Husseini made sure would attract plenty of publicity, was for him a lever to further goals: exalted personal status in the Muslim world, harnessing the Muslim countries to the national struggle of the Palestinians, and drawing the gazes of millions of Muslims the world over to the holy places of Islam in Jerusalem and on the Temple Mount.4
By the end of 1924 about ninety thousand pounds sterling had been collected, and to further impress the target audience and recruit still more funds, Husseini’s emissaries carried “proofs” of the danger the Jews posed to the Temple Mount mosques. These were apparently leaflets for soliciting contributions to Jewish Torah institutions in Jerusalem (for example, the Torah of Life Yeshiva), and propaganda materials of various Zionist groups, which included drawings of the Al-Aksa Mosque or the Dome of the Rock adorned with Jewish symbols, primarily Stars of David.5 These propaganda materials helped directors of the Jewish institutions in Palestine mobilize funds from Jewish donors abroad. In vain did Yishuv leaders explain that these materials were solely for fundraising, as had already been the practice for many decades. Another issue was the traditional Jewish adornment known as the Mizrach (East), which included a picture of the Temple Mount and its mosques and had been hung in numerous Jewish homes in Palestine and abroad for hundreds of years to mark Jerusalem as the direction of prayer. Husseini and his comrades, however, used the Mizrach to incite against the Jews and the Zionist movement, and kept claiming that the Jews were plotting to destroy the mosques and build the Temple in their stead.6 Husseini himself asserted that “Zionism is both a religious and a political Jewish idea,” and that among its goals were the “rebuilding of the Temple that is called Solomon’s Temple in place of the blessed Al-Aksa Mosque and the conducting of religious worship in it.”7
When Husseini took on the task of renovating the Temple Mount mosques, it was clear how severely they had been neglected. The heritage of the Ottomans, when it came to the maintenance of the two Muslim prayer houses on the mount, was abject. Since the defeat of the Crusaders and the changes Saladin had carried out at the site, over seven hundred years had passed. The earthquake that struck Jerusalem in 1927 had also done its damage. Husseini ordered the destruction of all of the lengthwise walls and arcades on the eastern side of the Al-Aksa Mosque. The old columns were removed, with white marble columns brought from Italy to replace them. The ceilings were reconstructed in an ancient Muslim style, and dozens of rugs, a gift of the king of Morocco, were spread throughout most of the mosque. The upkeep of Al-Haram al-Sharif improved greatly, and within its confines a museum of the history of Islam and a library of religious materials were established.8
Husseini went in two directions at once. With one hand he renovated the mosques and enhanced their status, along with his own. With the other hand he constantly dealt in incitement and outright lies against the Jews. Husseini exploited the Jews’ struggle for their right to pray at the Western Wall, and for better conditions in its narrow prayer plaza, to whip up animosity against them and accuse them of much more ambitious aims: the destruction of the mosques and the building of the Third Temple in their stead.
Husseini exploited the Jews’ struggle for their right to pray at the Western Wall to whip up animosity against them and accuse them of much more ambitious aims: the destruction of the mosques and the building of the Third Temple in their stead.
It is common knowledge that Jews have prayed at the foot of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount compound for hundreds of years. Up to the present they view the wall as the last remnant of the Temple, even if historically speaking it is a wall of the compound as a whole and not of the Temple itself, which was a structure within the compound. Against this backdrop Jews also tried to acquire the narrow prayer plaza at the foot of the wall.9 It became widely known as “the Jewish Wall of Tears,” which tells much about whom it was associated with. Indeed, Jews have visited and prayed at the Western Wall since at least the twelfth century.10 It was most likely in the sixteenth century that regular prayer began in the current area of the plaza, and the Western Wall gained its status as the second holiest place for Jews, after the mount itself. In that century the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Lawgiver (also known as “the Magnificent”) also recognized its status, and granted the Jews a firman (authorization) that acknowledged their right to pray at the spot.11
Before describing the developments that led to intensified conflict over the Western Wall and the outbreak of the 1929 riots, it is worth considering a different process: how the holiness that Muslims attributed to two of the walls of the Temple Mount somehow migrated to the Western Wall. Sura 17:1 of the Koran tells of the Night Journey, in which the Prophet Muhammad was brought from the Holy Mosque (apparently in Mecca) to the Farthest Mosque, whose identity is unknown. Some Muslim oral traditions, however, identified the Farthest Mosque with the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. These traditions say Muhammad came to Jerusalem on the back of a wondrous winged creature called Al-Buraq, and, when he reached the mount, tethered the animal and then ascended from the holy Rock of the mount to the heavens.
Dr. Shmuel Berkovitz, a scholar of the holy places in the Land of Israel, found that until the eleventh century, Muslim scholars disagreed as to the location of the tethering of Muhammad’s steed and pointed to different places on Al-Haram al-Sharif.12 Some said the place of Muhammad’s entry to Haram and the tethering of Al-Buraq was the Eastern Wall. Others said it was the Southern Wall, but no one at all looked to the Western Wall as the place where Al-Buraq was tethered. In the seventeenth century, it was common to identify a spot close to the southwestern corner of the mount as the site of the tethering. The archeologist Meir Ben-Dov believes that the Muslim traditions identifying the place as the Western Wall began at the end of the nineteenth century,13 just when the wall was gradually becoming a symbol of the renewed Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel.14
Apparently not by coincidence, it was soon after, at the beginning of the twentieth century, that the Jews began bringing to the prayer plaza various furnishings and ritual articles: chairs, benches, tables, and Torah volumes, while also renewing the attempts to acquire the plaza, which was owned by the Wakf. Seemingly, then, the identification of the Western Wall as the site of the tethering of Al-Buraq came as a Muslim religio-political reaction to what the Muslims called “the Jewish takeover of the Western Wall.” In this period the Muslims also began pointing to the underground room that is beneath the Al-Buraq Mosque, on the inner side of the Western Wall, as the place where Muhammad tethered Al-Buraq, and to the Berkeley Gate, which is concealed under the Mughrabi Gate, as the one through which Muhammad entered the sacred compound.
When a mechitsa (partition) was put up at the Western Wall in September 1928, so as to separate between men and women in prayer as practiced in Orthodox Judaism, and when benches for sitting were also brought to the prayer plaza as well as ritual objects, the Supreme Muslim Council convened and called on Muslims to oppose “the Jews’ ambitions to take over the holy places of Islam.”
All the explanations of the Jewish side that it had no intentions to take over the Muslim holy places were to no avail. In November 1928, the National Committee of the Jews of the Land of Israel published an open letter to the Arabs that stated, among other things:
We hereby announce, honestly and sincerely, that no one from Israel has any intention of infringing the rights of Muslims to the places that are holy to them. However, our Arab brothers must also recognize the rights that Israel has in this land, to our own places….Any attempt to describe the desire of the Jews to pray at this holy place, the Western Wall plaza, in peace, with respect and without restriction, as the creation of a strategic base for an attack on the mosques of the Muslims, is nothing but the fruit of a fevered imagination or a malicious libel. The aim of this libel is to sow tumult and confusion in hearts and arouse animosity and conflict between different peoples.15
Not only did this announcement not work, but the Muslim Council further upped the ante. They forged an opening in the southern part of the Western Wall plaza so as to change the Jews’ place of prayer into a passageway for both man and beast, and used various stratagems to further disrupt the Jews’ worship. This campaign was orchestrated by the mufti Haj Amin. Some of the restrooms of homes alongside the prayer plaza were actually adjacent to the wall,16 and from time to time the Muslims would dump feces and garbage in the narrow plaza. In the spring of 1929, the Muslims in those residences abutting the plaza began conducting noisy ceremonies that included shouts, dances, and songs to the sounds of cymbals and drums. For the first time the ceremony known as Dikar was held in that locale, and for the first time it was timed for the hour when Jewish worshippers were there.17
At the beginning of August 1929, Arabs attacked and injured Jews who had come to pray at the Western Wall.18 On August 15, the night of the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av, the Betar movement and the Jewish community in the country brought tens of thousands in an impressive march to the Western Wall. The Arab protest, however, rose to a new pitch, with ceaseless harassment of the Jewish worshippers at the spot and an incitement campaign against the Jews’ supposed aim to take over the Temple Mount and its mosques. This ongoing incitement, in which Husseini played a central role, eventually erupted in large-scale pogroms against Jews, which came to be known as the “1929 riots.” A week after the Tisha B’Av march, the signal came from Al-Aksa. Masses of fellahin from the surrounding villages assembled, bearing clubs and knives. The inflamed Arab mass attacked Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem, and from there the pogroms spread to Jewish agricultural settlements such as Motza, Be’er Tuvia, and Hulda, Jewish urban concentrations such as Haifa and Tel Aviv, and the mixed cities of Hebron and Safed. The mayhem went on for a week. One hundred and thirty-three Jews, mostly in Safed and Hebron, were butchered. Three hundred and thirty-nine Jews were injured. Eight Jewish settlements had to be abandoned, and the events came to be etched as a terrible calamity in the collective memory of the Jews of Israel.19
The historian Prof. Yehoshua Porat later maintained that the renovation of the mosques, and subsequent disruptions at the Western Wall, were the crowning glory of Haj Amin al-Husseini’s activities. “Toward 1929 the mosques on the Temple Mount became a symbol of the struggle against Zionism. This was a tangible symbol, clear and understood to all, which replaced abstract national slogans of self-definition. Under this approach, the problem of the Land of Israel began to exceed the narrow borders of the land and became a pan-Arab and pan-Islamic problem.”20 In other words, Husseini’s behavior did not stem from religious faith alone. He concocted the “Al-Aksa is in danger” libel as part of the building of the Palestinian national ethos, which in those days was still in its earliest stage. He identified the points of ostensible overlap and competition over the holy places of the two religions, emphasized them, and used them as fuel for the fire. The higher its flames rose, the better his purposes were served.
Zvi Elpeleg, a scholar of Husseini who has studied his articles and other writings, found that the sources Haj Amin used supposedly to prove his claims of a Jewish plot were fatally flawed. Elpeleg discovered a selective choice of quotations and a lifting of them from their context.21
Elpeleg pointed, for example, to statements by the mufti that were drawn from the Encyclopaedia Britannica. From there the mufti took the sentence: “The Jews aspire…to rebuild the Temple and reestablish the Kingdom of David in Jerusalem, headed by a prince from the House of David,”22 and made a distorted use of it. Husseini was basing himself on the entry on “Zionism” in the encyclopedia’s 1926 edition. He did not inform his readers that
the words were written in connection to the Prophets, in the context of a vision of the End of Days and the coming of the Messiah. He also did not bother explaining that, while the history of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel and the existence of the Temple indeed form the background of Zionism, the late-nineteenth-century heralds of this Jewish national movement were patently secular individuals. The Zionist movement was political in its goals and methods, and its leaders sought to find a political and territorial solution for the Jews. For them the building of the Temple was not part of that solution. The same Encyclopaedia Britannica article noted that Theodor Herzl, who foresaw the Jewish state, at first was prepared to solve the Jewish problem in an autonomous political framework anywhere in the world, not necessarily in the Land of Israel. That did not stop Husseini from charging Zionism with “schemes” to destroy the mosques and build the Temple.
The mufti distorted other “quotes” as well, which he attributed to Ben-Gurion. The latter wrote that “indeed the religious Jews believe…that the Temple will be rebuilt, but this will be done only after the coming of the Messiah. This is a religious belief, and the believers are certain that this will happen through a divine miracle, and not through nature….And no Jew contemplates for a moment touching the holy places of other peoples.”23 Husseini was well aware that the Jews sought nothing more than to exercise their right to pray at the Western Wall. Yet, in his doctored version, this meant the Jews aimed to take over the mosques and do them harm.
Elpeleg, who translated and annotated the mufti’s articles, found that this issue “continued to serve the mufti’s propaganda machine in later periods as well and basically until the end of his life.” Nevertheless, if in the 1920s the mosques sacred to Islam in Jerusalem and the Western Wall stood at the center of the Jewish-Arab conflict, in the 1930s and 1940s, as the struggle over the land’s political future intensified, the holy places lost their centrality. Elpeleg observes that by 1967 the issue had almost disappeared from the Palestinians’ claims.24
Once the mufti’s status began to decline, the mask was removed from his face. His flight from Palestine and cooperation with the Nazis bear dramatic witness to his true path, of which the “Al-Aksa is in danger” libel was part and parcel. In the Muslim Congress of 1931, Haj Amin’s status was still strong and, despite the many rivalries within the Palestinian camp, no one questioned his supremacy. For five years Husseini succeeded to play a double game – a seemingly moderate dialogue partner for the Mandate authorities, and yet, toward his own people, a chauvinist and firebrand. The British then discovered, however, that he was receiving assistance – funds, weapons, and guidance in waging the revolt that he launched in 1936 – from Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany. With that their tolerance ran out, and they sent the police to arrest him. Husseini, however, managed to escape to Jaffa dressed as a woman, and from there made it in a boat to Lebanon,25 where he was arrested by the French coast guard. He was given refuge there but his movement was restricted.26
Now he no longer had to hide his real commitments. He acted against France in Syria and against the British in Iraq, and in the World War II years he found a haven in Germany, serving as an adviser to those carrying out the policy of annihilating the Jews of Europe. In Yugoslavia, Husseini set up a Muslim SS division.27 Documents that surfaced over the years shed new light on the depth of his loathing for Jews. He called Adolf Eichmann “the greatest friend of the Arabs.”28 On November 28, 1941, he met with Hitler and learned that he had “decided to find a solution to the Jewish problem, in stages, step after step, without pause.”29 On another opportunity he looked into a possibility to bomb Tel Aviv,30 and in 1942 he signed a letter together with Iraqi prime minister Rashid Ali al-Kilani that expressed support for Germany and its aim of obliterating the Jewish home in Palestine.31 During his stay in Germany he also gave speeches on Radio Berlin and said: “Kill the Jews wherever you find them. This finds grace in the eyes of God, history and religion.”32
In 1970, the journalist Haviv Canaan disclosed that the mufti had been planning to build crematoriums for Jews in Samaria’s Dotan Valley. Canaan based his words on the testimony of Faiz Bei Adrisi, senior Arab officer in the Mandate police and commander of the village subdistrict of the Jerusalem district, who told him that Haj Amin aimed to enter Jerusalem at the head of his subordinates, the soldiers of the Arab Legion that was organized in the framework of the German army. His great plan was to build in the Dotan Valley, near Nablus, giant crematoriums of the Auschwitz kind, to which the Jews of the Land of Israel as well as the Jews of Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and even North Africa would be brought, so as to annihilate them with the methods used by the SS in the death camps of Europe.33
In the last days of the war, Husseini was captured by French forces on German soil and put in Fontainebleau Prison near Paris. He was declared a war criminal; the Arab states, which demanded his release, viewed him as a national hero. A few weeks later Husseini was snatched from the prison, and after the war he surfaced in Switzerland and went to live in Egypt.
In 1954, the mufti Haj Amin briefly returned to the “Al-Aksa is in danger” allegation, apparently in the context of talks held at that time on the resettlement of Palestinian refugees in Arab countries and feelers for a final agreement between Arab states and Israel. This, in any case, was to be his swansong on the issue. In 1966, a year before Israel unified the two parts of Jerusalem, Husseini managed to visit the Kingdom of Jordan. The establishment of the PLO drew him closer to his historical rivals from the Hashemite royal family. According to one assessment, Husseini hoped to be the leader of the autonomy that Jordan’s King Hussein envisaged for the West Bank; in 1974, however, Husseini died in Beirut. His request was to be buried in Jerusalem, but the State of Israel did not allow it.