Haj Amin al-Husseini and Anti-Semitism in the Arab World

This past week we’ve been overwhelmed by irrelevant arguments about the accuracy of Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent comments regarding Palestinian leader, Haj Amin al-Husseini. While Husseini may have had little influence on the Shoah in Europe, as a paid propagandist for Axis powers, he is responsible for seeding and spreading Nazi propaganda and Anti-Semitism in the Middle East that is alive and well today. During a Radio Berlin broadcast in Arabic on March 1, 1944 he stated: “Arise, sons of Arabia. Fight for your sacred rights. Kill the Jews wherever you find them. Their spilled blood pleases God, history, and religion. That will save our honor.” Haj Amin-al-Hussein’s role as an Arab leader went through many evolutions, but one consistent aspect of his political platform was his virulent hatred of Jews and his desire to see them disenfranchised and dead. His spread of toxic Nazi propaganda and ideology contributed to the absolute destruction of Jewish life in the Middle East and North Africa. For this he is responsible.

In 1941 the anti-Jewish pogrom known as the Farhud swept through Baghdad, Iraq and marked the beginning of the end of Jewish life in Iraq. The Jewish quarter of Baghdad was completely destroyed and over 200 Jews were brutally massacred. The Farhud has been referred to as the “Kristallnacht” of the Middle East, as the rioters were incited by Nazi propaganda, which was eagerly spread in Iraq by Haj Amin Al-Husseini and his Nazi cronies. At the time Baghdad was 40% Jewish.

The same year of 1941, the North African city of Tripoli, Libya boasted over 40 synagogues and its Jewish community comprised nearly 30% of the city’s entire population. In 1942, Germany occupied areas of Libya and sent Jewish men and women to slave labor camps that were established in North Africa, most notably the Giado Camp that was located 45 miles south of Tripoli. In 1945, the rise of Arab nationalism combined with the influence of Nazi propaganda led to the worst anti-Jewish pogrom in North African history. Every synagogue in Tripoli was destroyed, thousands of Jewish owned businesses were plundered, more than 150 Jews were killed, and over 4,000 Jews were left homeless.

The influence of Nazi ideology, propaganda and leadership in North Africa and the Middle East contributed to the destruction of Jewish life not just in Tripoli and Baghdad, but in other Arab countries as well. In 1942, the German army occupied Tunisia and marched in with an SS unit responsible for implementing anti-Jewish policies. Jews in the capitol city of Tunis were forced to establish a Judenrat, which was ordered to select some 5,000 Jews for deportation for forced labor. Under French Vichy rule, Jews of Algeria were subjected to the Jewish Statue laws, that stripped Jews of their rights, forced them to wear identifying marks and forbade them from participation in public life.

When Jewish people reflect on the horrors of the Holocaust and other “Nakbas” or catastrophes that have befallen our people throughout history, we don’t always explore the long-term consequences of these events on the perpetrating parties, their supporters, and their decedents. Nowhere is this truer then in the Middle East. The propaganda of the Nazis spread beyond the shores of Europe and sparked violent waves of Arab Anti-Semitism that continues growing to this very day.

The Nazis found fertile ground to spread their propaganda in the Middle East, partially because of the Anti-Semitic attitudes and policies that had existed there for centuries. Anti-Semitism in the Arab world dates back to the violent Arab conquest and the creation of dhimmi laws, which relegated Jews in Arab countries to an inferior, second-class status. While it may be true that Jews faired better under Islamic doctrine in the Arab world than Christian doctrine in Europe – the fact remains that Jews in Arab countries were second-class citizens who were subjected to the will and mercy of whichever Arab leader was ruling them at the time. Jews in Arab countries and Iran were never free and they certainly were not equal.

While detractors may say that Arab leaders, like Haj Amin al-Husseini aligned with the Germans in their rightful quest to gain independence from British colonial rule – there is absolutely no justification for their promulgation of Anti-Semitic propaganda and hatred. These Arab leaders and their ancestors lived side-by-side Jewish communities for centuries, long before European colonial rule, and their hatred of Jews must never be justified under any context. The Arab world must take full responsibility for their country’s histories of Anti-Semitism and displacement of some 850,000 Jews who lived in the Arab world for over 2,500 years, and were forced out as penniless refugees.

Many in the Middle East still revere Haj Amin al-Husseini ‘s ideologies and role as a founding leader of the Palestinian liberation movement. His spread of Nazi propaganda continues influencing the highest ranks of Arab leadership. At age 16, Yasser Arafat began performing terror operations under Husseini’s guidance and considered him a primary mentor. Gamel el Nasser, who took control of Egypt in 1956, provided refuge to Nazi officials some of whom allegedly helped develop anti-Israel propaganda. In the aftermath of the 1967 war with Israel, under Nasser’s orders, Egyptian Jewish men were rounded up and sent to Egyptian Concentration Camps. Just last week, Palestinian Authority President, Mahmud Abbas, kept Husseini’s legacy alive by publically “welcoming every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem.”

Anti-Semitism in the Arab world continues to grow and in recent weeks we’ve been painfully reminded of just how despised and hated our ancient and current presence in the Middle East is. As the UN passed a resolution backed by Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait, Morocco, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates designating the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s’ Tomb as Muslim sites, and we continue to watch in horror as young, brainwashed Palestinians violently lash out at Israeli citizens – the media seems singularly obsessed with Benjamin Netanyahu’s statements about Palestinian leader Haj Amin al-Husseini.

Rather then criticize and condemn Benjamin Netanyahu for his comments about Haj Amin al-Husseini, this is an opportunity for our world leaders and the media to step up and confront the much more important and pervasive issue of Anti-Semitism and xenophobia in the Arab world. Such an exploration may help the public broaden and deepen our understanding of the unimaginable levels of Anti-Semitism plaguing the Middle East and North Africa and the ongoing structural and physical violence directed against Israel. While the creation of the state of Israel is seen as the ultimate redemption for the Shoah and the ethnic cleansing and displacement of Jews from Arab lands, it is too often unfairly referenced and blamed as the root of Anti-Semitism in the Arab world. What an inaccurate assessment this is.

As I reflect on the power of propaganda and Anti-Semitism, I can’t help but wonder where are the reporters, journalists, commentators, and left-wing activists who are willing to take an unbiased and critical look at the deadly hatred spewing out of parts of the Middle East today? If our media is not willing to address the real problems of the deep seeded Anti-Semitism harbored by Arab political leaders old and new, the Arab League’s refusal to acknowledge the Jewish state of Israel, a UN determine to undermine Israel by keeping Palestinians welfare prisoners of their own Arab brothers, and a region plagued by severe human rights abuses directed against women, journalists, LGBT communities, and religious minorities, then are they complicit?

While Germany continues coming to terms with its country’s painful history of Anti-Semitism, the Arab world continues to blame Israel, and by default – Jews, for the suffering of their people. There are too many Arab leaders who continue to spread Nazi propaganda and proudly call for the death of Jews wherever they are found. They continue to defend Arab leaders who were more focused on the destruction of Jews then on the well being of their own people. Until they are able to come to terms with their own hatred they may very well continue to self-destruct.

About the Author
Sarah Levin is the Executive Director of JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, an advocacy and education institution dedicated to raising awareness to Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran. Sarah has conceptualized and developed a number of campaigns and projects for Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews to explore and preserve their heritage and identity.