My organisation, Harif, aims to tell the story of 2,500 years of Jewish history and culture in what is known as the Arab world. It’s a story with a dramatic ending: 99 percent of these Jews – numbering a million in 1948 – have fled in the space of one generation.
When people learn about the Jewish expulsion, they usually respond with sympathy. Jews from Arab countries are entitled to recognition and redress, they acknowledge.
But that recognition and redress must come from Arab countries, they say.
Indeed, one of the most enduring myths is that Palestinians bear no responsibility for the exodus of the Jews from 10 Arab countries. The Palestinians are innocent of any wrongdoing.
Regrettably, that position is borne of ignorance and wishful thinking. From the outset, the Palestinian cause was a pan-Arab nationalist cause. It has also a powerful Islamist dimension: Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood do not aim to set up a Palestinian state, so much as reclaim Islamic wakf land from the Jews. From an early stage the campaign for Palestine took on an antisemitic hue. If the Fatah and Hamas unity deal lasts, there will be nothing to choose between nationalist and religious rejectionism of a sovereign Jewish state.
Yet the role of the Palestinian Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, in inciting anti-Jewish hatred and violence as early as the 1920s and 30s, is incontrovertible. Not only did the Mufti instigate deadly disturbances in Palestine in 1920 and 1929, it is well known that the riots which led to the murders of 133 Jews in Hebron and Safed were sparked by the lie that the Al-Aqsa mosque was in danger.
Wherever the Mufti went in the Arab world, persecution and mayhem followed against the local Jews.
In December 1931, the Mufti held a World Islamic Congress in Jerusalem. An Iraqi delegate remarked, “If the Jews carry on we will have no choice but to treat the Jews in the only way they know.”
“The only way they know” meant that Jews should be treated as submissive dhimmis, inferior to Muslims and at their total mercy. Following pressure from the Western powers on the Ottoman empire in the 19th century, dhimmitude had been largely abolished. But in 1921, Yemenite Jews claim it was due to Palestinian pressure that the decree forcing Jewish orphans to convert to Islam was reinstated. It happened after a Palestinian delegation had visited Yemen to demand that the Imam stop all immigration to Palestine. The Orphans’ Decree, argues scholar SD Goiten, was the single most important reason why Jews were desperate to flee Yemen.
From 1931 on, the Mufti ceased to speak of Zionists but Jews. All Arabs were exhorted to treat the Jews of their countries ‘as the Jews treat the Arabs of Palestine’.
The congress was followed by violence in Morocco – in Casablanca in 1932, Casablanca and Rabat in 1933, Rabat and Meknes in 1937 and Meknes in 1939. In Tunisia, an entente between Tunisian nationalists and the Palestinian Arab Higher Committee sparked violence in Sfax in 1932. All this well before the creation of the state of Israel.
British reports noted the intense propaganda in Yemen. Jewish refugees tried to make for British-controlled Aden. In 1939, a crowd was incited against the British and the Jews when they were shown fabricated photographs of Arab children hanging from telegraph poles. Other newspapers mendaciously reported that thousands of Arabs had been killed and bombs thrown at the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem.
But the worst incitement, with the deadliest consequences of all, took place in Iraq: In 1939, Palestinian teachers expelled by the British to Baghdad together with the Mufti, along with Syrian and Lebanese emigres, played a key role fanning the flames of Jew-hatred with false propaganda. The Mufti himself plotted a pro-Nazi coup to overthrow the pro-British government. With the British army at the gates of Baghdad, the Mufti was forced again into exile – but not before he had primed the Arabs of Baghdad to unleash the Farhud of 1941. The pogrom claimed the lives of at least 140 Jews, with many mutilated and raped, and 900 shops looted and wrecked.
Thereafter, the Mufti’s collaboration with the Nazis, despite strenuous Arab efforts to downplay it, has been well-documented. Taking refuge in Berlin, he sought Nazi license to exterminate Jews in Arab countries as well as Palestine “in the same way as the problem was resolved in the Axis Countries.” He raised a Bosnian Muslim SS division which slaughtered 80 percent of Bosnian Jewry. Before the mass Palestinian exodus, the Arab League hatched a postwar, coordinated Nuremberg-style plan to persecute their Jewish citizens as enemy aliens.
The Arab League’s decision to launch their ill-fated 1948 war against the fledgling state of Israel came after fierce lobbying by the Palestinian Mufti.
No, the Palestinians are not the innocent victims they claim to be.
The Palestinians must face up to their responsibility not only for driving the conflict with Israel, but playing their part in the ethnic cleansing of the Jews from the Arab world – now 50 percent of Israel’s Jewish citizenry. If their choices have led them down the path of misery and disaster, they have only their leadership to blame.