Hitler and al-Husseini made a devil’s pact.
Every schoolchild knows that you don’t get bullying to stop by giving the bully your lunch money.
Many political leaders of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have forgotten this schoolyard wisdom.
For the past 100 years, the Jewish people of Palestine and later Israel have been surrounded by bullies trying to conquer and evict them from the region. Many of the bullies—-such as the terrorist organizations Hezbollah and Hamas and the state of Iran—-have threatened genocide against the Jews.
In order to survive, Jews have used the force of arms to stymie their enemies’ intentions. But in every phase of our recent history, many Jewish voices have urged appeasement as a remedy for existential threats.
Appeasement is the practice of giving in to the enemy’s demands in the expectation that this will mollify him and assure peace. It never works.
Today most people associate the word appeasement with Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain was the prime minister of Great Britain in the lead-up to the Second World War. By 1938 Germany had become a formidable military power that threatened its neighbors. There was plenty of evidence that Adolf Hitler, Germany’s Chancellor, had expansionist designs. In a political move called Anschluss, Germany annexed Austria. It menaced the Polish city of Gdansk, pressuring the Poles to return it to German sovereignty.
In September of 1938, in Munich Germany, the leaders of Britain and France met with the Axis leaders of Germany and Italy. In order to avoid war with the Axis, Britain and France agreed to allow Hitler to occupy and annex the Sudetenland, a region of Czechoslovakia with a large population of ethnic Germans. Czechoslovakia had no say in the matter: It was not invited to the meeting.
Chamberlain returned to Britain from the Munich Conference triumphant. He declared that he had achieved “Peace in Our Time.” By ceding the Sudetenland to Germany, he had prevented war. But the history books tell a different story. Not satisfied with Austria and a chunk of Czechoslovakia, a year after the Munich Agreement, Germany invaded Poland. This began the Second World War.
By the time the war ended five years later, all of Europe’s major cities laid in ruins and 50 to 80 million soldiers and civilians had died. Most of Europe’s Jews were dead.
Today Chamberlain and the Munich Conference stand as universal symbols of the folly of appeasement. Less well-known is an appeasement that occurred just 18 years prior: the appointment of radical Islamist al-Husseini to serve as mufti of Jerusalem. Although rarely discussed in the context of today’s Israeli-Arab conflict, this appeasement set the stage for the next 100 years of violence between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East.
Jewish National Home in Palestine
The British and French victory over Turkey and Germany in the First World War spelled the end of 600 years of Ottoman rule over the Middle East. At the San Remo Conference of 1920, the League of Nations established a Mandatory Government in newly British-controlled Palestine and today’s Jordan. By the terms of Britain’s 1917 Balfour Declaration, Britain supported the establishment of a Jewish National Home in Palestine, that is, a Jewish state. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George agreed with this Zionist goal. He appointed Sir Herbert Samuel as the first high commissioner of Palestine.1
Samuel came from a prominent Jewish family in Great Britain. He had served in Parliament and was the first British Jew to hold a seat in a prime minister’s cabinet. To Lloyd George, Samuels’ appointment made sense: Samuels was an ardent supporter of Zionism and thus could be relied upon to usher in the new Jewish state in Palestine. 2
Herbert Samuel and Haj Amin al-Husseini
When Samuel became High Commissioner for Palestine in July, 1920, the Zionist community in Europe and Palestine was delighted to see a vocal Zionist in that role. But excitement would soon turn to disappointment.
As a Jewish Commissioner, Samuel believed he must show fairness to the Arabs of Palestine. Thus, six days after assuming office he granted a full amnesty to all Palestinian Arabs sentenced by British military courts. Al-Husseini had been convicted for directing anti-Jewish riots in Jerusalem but absconded on a ten-year sentence. Samuel issued a special pardon for al-Husseini despite his radical Islamic views and his vehement opposition to the Balfour Declaration and Jewish immigration to Palestine.
In April of 1921, al-Husseini ran in an election for the post of Mufti of Jerusalem, the leading Muslim official in charge of Islamic holy places. The voting rules at the time required that the mufti was to be selected by the high commissioner from the three candidates who received the most votes. With some machinations of the Husseini clan, al-Husseini made it to the top three. The other two finalists were more moderate in their views and less hostile to the British and the Jews.
In an act of inexplicable appeasement, Samuel appointed the most radical contender, al-Husseini, to the position of mufti. By doing so, Samuel may have believed he would mollify the most strident and violent voices among Palestinians who opposed British rule and Jewish immigration. Instead, he empowered the most radical Islamists. As Samuel’s rule continued, he often sought to receive the support of Palestine’s Arabs by accommodating their concerns and demands.
Samuel’s fateful decisions to pardon al-Husseini and to appoint him as mufti had repercussions in the immediate aftermath of the appointment, up until the present day.
Al-Husseini as Mufti
With his appointment as mufti of Jerusalem, al-Husseini had ascended to one of the most powerful positions in Palestine. But the ambitious al-Husseini envisioned an even more powerful role for himself. In future years, al-Husseini would become the undisputed leader of Palestinian Arabs and one of the most powerful Arab leaders in the Middle East. On the way to this goal the Husseini clan put pressure on those Arabs who opposed al-Husseini’s leadership. Those who got in the way were assassinated by Husseini operatives. In this way, the uncompromising anti-Jewish and anti-British stance of al-Husseini dominated the Palestinian leadership.
In 1922 al-Husseini was elected president of the powerful Supreme Muslim Council. Herbert Samuel and other British Mandatory officials actively supported al-Husseini’s role. The Council was responsible for all Muslim institutions: religious courts, mosques, holy shrines and schools. The Supreme Muslim Council was in charge of the Islamic Waqf, a religious trust that to this day administers Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, as well as Islamic social services. The Council had the power to appoint and dismiss officials of these institutions. To assure his continued power, al-Husseini named a score of his relatives to well-paid positions on the Council.
In this way, al-Husseini secured his position as undisputed religious and political leader of the Arab Palestinians.
Incitement and Pogroms
Al-Husseini believed that Jewish sovereignty in Palestine was an affront to Allah. He looked on with horror as waves of Jewish immigration dramatically increased the Jewish population, and as Jewish towns and farms grew in size. From his perch as leader of the Palestinians he was in a position to do something about the Jews. That something was to incite anti-Jewish violence in the hopes of ridding Palestine of the Jewish newcomers, or at least slowing Jewish immigration.
His tools were those of a typical racist demagogue.
Soon after al-Husseini’s appointment as Mufti, in an act of incitement, he published the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Palestinian newspapers. The Protocols were an invented work that claimed that a powerful international conspiracy of Jews planned to take over the financial institutions and governments of the world. Although the Protocols had been invented by the Russian Czar to stir up Jew-hatred, the Protocol’s conspiratorial theme resonated with radical Arabs in Palestine who feared the growing size and power of Palestine’s Jewish community.
To protest the British policy of Jewish immigration, the Arabs took to the streets of Jaffa. The protests soon reached Jerusalem and then became widespread. Arab attacks against Jews left 47 Jews killed and over one hundred wounded.
In yet another act of appeasement, Samuel called a temporary halt to Jewish immigration. The lesson was not lost on al-Husseini and his followers: Violence pays. Samuel added to the effect by giving a speech in which he assured the Arab Palestinians that their interests would always be protected. This policy of British appeasement of Palestine’s Arabs continued after Samuel stepped down as high commissioner in 1925.
Religious conflicts between Jews and Arabs were intermittent in Jerusalem’s holy sites. Under Ottoman rule the Jews of Jerusalem had to face many Islamic restrictions at the Western Wall. But now under British rule, the Jews challenged these restrictions. With the mufti in charge and able to stir up anti-Jewish incitement, the violence grew worse. In September 1928 a dispute over Jewish religious practices at the Western Wall led al-Husseini to plan and instigate Arab rioting against Jews.
On orders from al-Husseini, Muslims began to harass Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall. Muslims took down a wall that turned the Western Wall Plaza into a thoroughfare, interrupting Jewish prayer. They organized noisy Muslim call-to-prayers timed to coincide with Jewish worship. Al-Husseini spread rumors that the Jews planned to take over the Temple Mount, site of the al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the two holiest Muslim religious sites in Jerusalem. At the mufti’s instructions, faked photographs were widely distributed to local Arabs in order to arouse their fury. One photograph showed the Jewish flag atop the Dome of the Rock. Another showed the Dome of the Rock in ruins with a caption indicating that the Jews sought to destroy the Dome and in its place rebuild the ancient Jewish temple.
To this day, these bogus charges are used by Palestinian leaders to incite the Muslim masses against Jews.
In 1929 a group of nationalist Jews led a march to the Western wall. In retaliation, the mufti organized a counter-march in which the marchers threatened Jewish worshippers and destroyed Jewish religious symbols and prayer books. On the mufti’s instructions, in the mosques, preachers riled up the Arab crowds, telling them that “he who kills a Jew is assured a place in the next world.”3 The next day after mosque services, rioters, again instigated by al-Husseini, stormed into Jerusalem’s Jewish quarter. The result was 133 Jews killed and 339 wounded.
Muslim outrage about the Jew’s purported plans to destroy the Dome of the Rock spread to the ancient city of Hebron, along with Arab attacks against Jews. Arab mobs killed 67 Jews and wounded 60. Old men and women were knifed. Rioters amputated hands and fingers to get at the Jew’s rings and watches. Over 100 Arabs were killed when British troops arrived to restore the peace. But the entire ancient Jewish community of Hebron was forced to evacuate.
In 1936 al-Husseini incited more killing of Jews. He called a general strike of the Arabs to protest Jewish immigration, which had been increasing. The strike turned into innumerable acts of violence against Jews: attacks on busses, Jewish homes, farms and villages, destruction of cattle, crops, and orchards. These attacks were carried out mostly by local Arabs recruited by al-Husseini.
Arab violence continued into 1937. Finally, the British army quelled the disturbances. They outlawed the Arab Higher Committee (a political group organized by al-Husseini) and banished the mufti and other leaders from Palestine. From political exile in Syria, al-Husseini continued to direct Arab attacks against Jews in Palestine until 1939. At the time, there were moderate Palestinian Arab leaders who opposed the mufti’s policies. At al- Husseini’s command, these leaders were assassinated. As a result, no moderate Arab leadership emerged in Palestine.
Al-Husseini’s war against the Jews did not end with his exile. Eventually he cozied up to the Nazis and remained in Berlin throughout the Second World War, as an honored guest of the Fuhrer. Together they plotted the destruction of world Jewry. Al-Husseini became familiar with German efforts to transport and kill masses of Jews, an endeavor he sought to replicate in the Middle East. He successfully blocked the escape of Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe, thereby assuring their destruction in the Holocaust. Al-Husseini delivered pro-Nazi radio broadcasts to the Arab world in support of the German war effort.
At a time when German conquest and military power were at their zenith, Hitler and al-Husseini made a devil’s pact: Hitler would exterminate the Jews of Europe and al-Husseini would do the same to the Jews of the Middle East. 4 Had German forces not been defeated in North Africa in 1942 they may very well have succeeded.
Al-Husseini established a legacy of anti-Jewish violence that inspired new generations of terrorists.
The Wages of Appeasement
In considering the past it is never possible to determine how events might have unfolded differently if this or that action had been taken. But there is no question that British appeasement of Haj Amin al-Husseini and his radical Islamists strengthened the hand of Islamic radicals in the Middle East at the expense of moderate Arab voices.
That legacy lives on today in Israel’s turbulent neighborhood.
- Much of what follows is based on Dalin, D. G., & Rothman, J.F. Icon of Evil: Hitler’s Mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam. Random House: NY, 2008.
- Many other British Jewish leaders at the time opposed the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine. They argued that Zionism was “inconsistent with British citizenship.” One of them opined that the Balfour Declaration was folly: “If you make a statement about Palestine as the National Home for Jews, every anti-Semitic organization and newspaper will ask what right a Jewish Englishman, with the status at best of a naturalized foreigner, has to take a foremost part in the government of the British Empire. (p. 16, Icon of Evil).
The reluctance of the Anglo-Jewish leaders to support a Zionist cause in their own interest was echoed over a quarter century later by the Sulzberger family, publishers of the New York Times. As Jews, the Sulzbergers might be expected to publish news of the mass killings of Jews in Europe. Instead, they suppressed it. Why?
Britain’s Jewish elite in 1912 and the Sulzbergers shared a common interest. That interest was for the Jewish elite to retain prestige and influence among the non-Jews who ran British and American business and government. In both cases, elite Jews chose to protect their own interests over those of the Jewish people. They did so by displaying their British and American loyalties over their Jewish identities. These Jews were not to be accused of dual loyalty—-a split between country and faith—a charge often leveled against Jews then and now.
The Anglo-Jewish elite and the Sulzbergers enacted their own form of appeasement of an establishment on whom their success depended.
- Dalin & Rothman, p. 30.
- Dalin & Rothman, pp. 48-52.