The David Project Perspectives – Issue 4

April 2010

Alex Joffe

The Mufti in the Mirror: Review of Zvi Elpeleg, Through the Eyes of the Mufti, The Essays of Haj AMin Translated and Annotated. (London, Vallentine Mitchell, 2009).

Haj Amin al-Husseini, the ‘Grand Mufti of Jerusalem,’ was born ca. 1895 and died in Beirut in 1974. He studied Islamic law at Al Azhar University in Cairo, was an Ottoman military officer during World War I, and then threw his support to the British in the hope they would cast out the Turks from the Middle East and aid the Pan-Arab movement. Scion of one of Jerusalem’s leading families, he was appointed mufti, cleric in charge of holy places, of Jerusalem by Herbert Samuel in 1920. There he spent almost two decades relentlessly inciting hatred and violence against the Jews.

In his position as mufti and then as head of the Higher Arab Council al-Husseini resisted all cooperation with the Mandatory authorities, schemed against fellow Palestinian politicians, and eventually took over as head of the Arab Higher Committee. In 1936 he incited the rebellion against the British and orchestrated its descent into internecine Palestinian warfare. Fearing arrest, fled to Beirut the following year. From there he fled to Iraq in 1939 and was instrumental in helping orchestrate the pro-Nazi coup. When that failed, he fled to Iran and finally found welcome in Berlin as a Nazi propagandist and confident of Heinrich Himmler. There he broadcast a Nazified Islamic message to Arab lands, helped raised a Muslim SS division, and intervened to ensure that Hungarian Jewish children were slaughtered. Arrested by the French, he was inexplicably released and permitted to return to Egypt, where he directed Palestinian affairs until decisively pushed aside by Arab leaders. Forbidden by Hashemite leaders to enter Jerusalem, he remained in Egypt until 1959 and then relocated to Beirut where he died.

When these 1954 essays, ably translated and studied by former Israeli Ambassador to Turkey Zvi Elpeleg, first into Hebrew and available now in English, were written, the mufti was still in Cairo attempting to defend his reputation. Structured as responses to questions and published in the Egyptian newspaper al-Misri, the essays are by definition defensive. Written in the moment, when criticism for the failure of the Palestinians and their Arab allies was enormous, the essays also necessarily addressed contemporary rather than historical concerns. They therefore occupy a middle ground as historical documents. They are considered and carefully stated, but hardly self-critical.

The 1954 essays are striking for a number of reasons, not least of all because they display a series of tropes that now are standard Palestinian fare. These include:

1.     proclamations of Palestinian weakness and self pity

2.     complaints regarding the strength of the Jewish opponents

3.     proclamations of Palestinian strength

4.     recitation of Palestinian victories

5.     assertions that Palestinian defeats were a result of various conspiracies

6.     assertions that Palestinians were not really defeated; that is, defeat is victory

These themes revolve around one another to produce a tale of unending Palestinian bravery in the face of all-pervasive betrayal. His presentation is instructive since it forms a kind of template for subsequent Palestinian culture and argumentation. For example, when asked about the accusation that Palestinians sold land to Jews, the mufti backtracks and presents the founding myths of the Palestinian national movement: “Palestine was torn to pieces by the claws of British colonialism and World Jewish greed. It began quivering between these two giant forces, with no help and support. Nevertheless, a group comprised of the devoted Sons of Palestine arose and invested their humble efforts, organized their meager ranks and established a modest front in face of those overwhelming international forces. Their only weapon was their faith and devotion.” As a result the British and the Jews had to resort to “political and financial means of seduction” to turn “this holy Arab country into a Jewish homeland.” This failed, and therefore with British support, “Jewish attacks” occurred in 1929, 1936, 1947, and at other times. These too failed. So to execute the “Holocaust of Palestine” other “diabolical means” were needed.

When the mufti turns to the question he was initially asked, about Palestinians having sold lands to Jews, he denies it on one page as “false accusations aimed at smearing their reputation and arousing the hatred of their Arab brethren” and admits it on the next, saying “many of those who sold the lands or who brokered these sales were severely punished by the people.” From there he launches into the tale of the 1947-1948 war. The “Palestinian jihad warriors” were winning until the Arab countries were enticed by the British to enter the war under the command of the “English general Glubb,” who led them astray. Failure resulted from betrayal, but Palestinian steadfastness was a source of strength and thus victory.

The essays were explicitly self-exculpatory and defensive. Even so, it is shocking to note the extent to which the mufti simply lies from the first page to the last. Elpeleg flags some by no means all of these lies. The British hardly supported the Yishuv during the 1947-1948 fighting; quite the opposite. Abdullah and not Glubb was the commander of the Arab armies. “From the Nile to the Euphrates” is not carved in stone on the wall of Knesset. Zionists did not approach Saudi king ‘Abd al-‘Aziz with an offer to buy the city of Medina. The ‘goal’ of Zionism was not to rebuild the temple. The Irgun and the Stern gang were not made up of “religious Jews, clerics and rabbis.” German Jews did not sabotage the German war effort in World War I in exchange for the Balfour Declaration. And there are no Zionist goals to take over Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Sinai and the Nile Delta, not to mention portions of Saudi Arabia. The lies are effortless and told in such a way that the reader cannot help but think that the mufti actually believed them. Like the rhetoric in which they are embedded, they are seamless, looping back and confirming one another in a parallel world formed of what is either boundless paranoia or supremely cynical mendacity. The parallels with modern Palestinian discourse are inescapable.

Also notable are the use of terms that clearly explain the mufti’s view of history, or at least how he wished to represent matters to fellow Arabs. These include the terms jihad and jihad warrior for Palestinian guerrillas and terrorists, ‘Palestinian Holocaust’ for the events of 1948, and ‘world Jewry’ to describe Palestinian Jews of the Yishuv and their supporters. These terms greatly clarify the mufti’s view of the conflict are greatly clarified. The term jihad obviously denotes the mufti saw the conflict as a Muslim religious war against the Jews, not simply a territorial or national dispute. Profound abuse of language and concepts are also fully evident. The ‘Palestinian Holocaust’ is an especially insidious expropriation that steals a term denoting a specific genocide against Jews and then debases it by applying it to the wholly different and utterly non-genocidal Palestinian experience. In an instant ‘holocaust’ has no meaning, except to describe that which the Jews ‘inflicted.’ The Orwellian effect is decisive.

What is less apparent from the mufti’s essays is anything that may be plausibly described as Nazi rhetoric, except perhaps in two areas. The first is a passing reference to the ‘stab in the back’ that the Jews inflicted on Germany in World War I. This of course was a persistent Nazi theme. The second is deeper and more problematic, the ‘global Jewish conspiracy.’ Here ancient and authentically Muslim themes about eternal Jewish perfidy going back to the Koran and the hadith (collected sayings of Muhammad) meshed with Nazi fantasies about world Jewry and its tentacles. It was one area of agreement that inclined both parties to work together in spite of what might otherwise have been considerable differences.

The hand of “the Jews” was everywhere. The “Jewish colonialist conspiracy” against the Arabs was executed by the British. “World Jewry infused the Jewish Agency in Palestine with hundreds of millions of pounds.” “Over five million Jews in the United States… have permeated all aspects of life – the press, the radio and other means of propaganda, as well as economic and political circles.” In these motifs “the Jews” with their “avarice” and “premeditated plan” for taking control of Palestine, “a poisoned dagger thrust by colonialism into the body of the Arab nation,” stand above specific Jews, who spied against the Ottomans, who committed “killing, destruction, robbery and pillage,” and so on.

While the 1954 essays do not contain rhetoric about Jews being “vermin”, as Jeffrey Herf has recently demonstrated in his book Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (2009), such phrases were ever-present in Nazi propaganda directed at the Arab world. Herf has also insightfully discussed the paranoid Nazi concept of die Jüdische krieg, “Jewish war,” at once the imaginary war waged by the Jews against the Germans and the very real ideological and exterminationist wars of the Germans against the Jews[1], which find echoes in the mufti’s words and in works by Muslim Brotherhood ideologues like Sayyid Qutb. But this too in effect harmonized traditional Muslim theology regarding the Jews with Nazi ideology; after all, the Koran (5:82) states clearly “You will find that the most implacable of men in their enmity to the faithful are the Jews and the pagans.”

Missing entirely from the mufti’s language are Nazi concepts of race, where blood and descent create a human hierarchy at whose pinnacle stands one ‘master race’ with the rest in fixed positions of inferiority. Missing too are analogs to notions like ‘Greater Germany’ and the constant harping on the ‘national community.’ The mufti’s interest in pan-Arabism should be explored elsewhere but in these essays he openly complains about the Arab states’ neglect of the Palestinians. It may be fair to say that there is little apparent Nazi ‘influence’ in terms of ideology or concept on the mufti, but his imagery or rhetoric have strong echoes, perhaps brought into closer harmony during the years of faithful Nazi service.

Much more could be said about the essays’ ‘prescience.’ For example, the mufti complains that British colonialism shaped Arab countries “according to its interests through the schools, cultural institutions and propaganda. Conquering minds and hearts is a thousand times more pernicious that conquering buildings and even fortresses.” This neatly anticipates Edward Said’s more elaborate ‘Orientalist’ hypothesis. The mufti objects to peace with the Jews which will bring Jewish products into the Arab world and “through the political and economic ties that the Jews are attempting to form with the Arabs, in times of peace they will spread ideas and principles that contradict the spirit of Islam and Arab civilization.” This anticipates the objections to ‘normalization’ voiced daily by Arab elites and professional groups, particularly in Jordan and Egypt.

Less original is the allegation that the “Jewish character” has been “one of the main reasons for their failure throughout their history, and it has caused people to hate and persecute them.” This sort of assertion has been standard among antisemites for centuries. And the idea that resettling Palestinian refugees through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is part of an “elaborate plan” by the United States, “distancing the Palestinian refugees from the borders of their country and destroying their existence – whether by physical hunger and weakness or by integrating them in Western countries,” is hardly valid. UNRWA gave up the idea of ‘resettling’ any of its Palestinian wards decades ago. But the allegation that the “Zionists” seek to “rebuild the temple called the Temple of Solomon in placed of the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque” is as current today as it was when the mufti first promulgated it almost a century ago.

In ways large and small the mufti is the ur-Palestinian. What was real and what was ‘mere’ politics? We cannot say for certain. His world seems infinitely elastic. To peer at it demands we understand that Palestinian weakness is actually strength, but strength is equally weakness, that Palestinian defeat is really victory, but that the denial of Palestinian victory is an insult and that defeat in any event can be explained only through hidden means and machinations, and never through Palestinian miscalculation, weakness or failings. World Jewry, behind the scenes everywhere, unequalled for its cunning and malevolence, the source of all ills that befall the Muslim world, is the force that holds everything together, that explains everything, no matter how obvious or contradictory. This explanation for the mufti is grounded in Muslim theology and should be regarded as being one of the great conditioning features of Palestinian culture, hidden as it were, in plain view. Elpeleg’s lucid translation and thoughtful essays bring additional clarity to those who wish to see.

[1] J. Herf, The “Jewish War”: Goebbels and the Antisemitic Campaigns of the Nazi Propaganda Ministry. Holocaust and Genocide Studies, 19/1, Spring 2005, pp. 51–80.



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