Yitzhak Shamir, The Muslim Brotherhood, and the Misuses of History

Although Yitzhak Shamir was a Prime Minister of Israel, his obituaries has focused as much on his activities in the pre-state Stern Gang as his record in the office.

Here’s The New York Times:

“Many of his friends and colleagues ascribed his character to his years in the underground in the 1940’s, when he sent Jewish fighters to kill British officers whom he saw as occupiers. He was a wanted man then; to the British ruler of the Palestine mandate he was a terrorist, an assassin. He appeared in public only at night, disguised as a Hasidic rabbi. But Mr. Shamir said he considered these “the best years of my life”. …

Several histories of the period have asserted that he masterminded a failed attempt to kill the British high commissioner, Sir Harold MacMichael, and the killing in Cairo of Britain’s minister of state of the Middle East, Lord Moyne. When Mr. Shamir was asked about these episodes in later years, his denials held a certain evasive tone …

For a brief period after World War II, the three major Jewish underground groups cooperated — until the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on July 22, 1946. Scores of people were killed, and Mr. Shamir was among those arrested and exiled to an internment camp in Eritrea.”


Here’s The Washington Post:

He quickly dropped out of school and joined the Irgun, which was led by [former Prime Minister Menachem] Begin and the smaller of the two armed Zionist movements seeking to establish a state for the 400,000 Jews living in the territory among 1 million Arabs. When the Irgun split in 1938, Mr. Shamir sided with the smaller, more extreme faction known as Lehi … also known as the Stern Gang after its melodramatic, poetry-spouting leader, Avraham Stern.

After Stern was gunned down by British police in 1942, Mr. Shamir escaped from a detention and became one of a triumvirate of leaders. While mainstream Zionist groups forged a truce with the British to combat Nazism during World War II. Mr. Shamir and Lehi fought on, even offering to cooperate with the Germans to rid Palestine of British rule.

Mr. Shamir was the architect of Lehi’s most daring attack, the 1944 assassination in Cairo of Lord Moyne, Britain’s and a close friend of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. …

After the war, Mr. Shamir was arrested and escaped … returning to Palestine in time to join the war for Israel’s independence in 1948. He helped plot the assassination of United Nations mediator Folke Bernadotte. who was working  on a partition plan to end the war on terms that Mr. Shamir deemed dangerous. Mr.Shamir ambushed Bernardotte’s car at a checkpoint in West Jerusalem.

The focus on Shamir’s pre-State activities is appropriate. The Stern Gang’s violence has always been controversial even among Zionism’s ardent supporters. The moral justification for some of their operations seems, to put it mildly, questionable.

Yet, I’m struck by the failure of most mainstream journalists to similarly profile the history of the Muslim Brotherhood, now that one of its leaders, Mohammad Morsi has assumed the presidency of Egypt. As I pointed out in my last Times of Israel posting, Paul Berman is one of  a number of authors of who have written about the anti-Semitism in the Brotherhood’s ideology, and it’s founder’s (Hussein al-Banna) affinity for collaborators with Nazism. Al-Banna was an especially enthusiastic supporter of the founding father of Palestinian Arab nationalism — the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. The Mufti spent much of World War II in Germany making anti-Jewish radio broadcasts in Arabic that were targeted ti audiences in the Middle East. One would expect that this history would be important for the consumer of news as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood prepares to Egypt’s presidency.

Berman summarized the argument of his book in a Wall Street Journal op-ed:

“In our present age of the Zipped Lip, you are supposed to avoid making any of the following observations about the history and doctrines of the Islamist movement.

“You are not supposed to observe that Islamism is a modern, rather than an ancient,political tendency, which arose in a spirit of fraternal harmony with the fascists of Europe in the 1930’s and ’40’s.

You are not supposed point out that Nazi inspirations have visibly taken root among present day Islamists, notably in regard to the demonic nature of Jewish conspiracies and the virtues of genocide.

And you are not supposed to mention, that by inducing a variety of journalists to maintain a discreet and respectful silence on these awkward matters, the Islamist preachers and ideologues have succeeded in imposing on the rest of us their own categories of analysis.

In the rest of the op-ed, Berman documents how he and others have been attacked in some of America’s most prestigious journals for daring to raise these issues.

New York Times’s  columnist Thomas Friedman is one of the journalists who can be considered to have Berman’s “Zipped Lip”. In his offering on Wednesday of last week, Friedman acknowledged that new Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi belongs to an “illiberal” Muslim Brotherhood that at its “core” holds views that are  “anti-pluralistic”  and “anti-feminist”. Missing from his description is any direct reference to the Brotherhood’s anti-Jewish sentiments — even though the state of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty is the primary focus of Friedman’s column.

Read the rest of the Friedman column, and becomes clear that this omission was deliberate, and that he is obsessed with vilifying Israel and its supporters. He claimed that  “Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Israel” and various unnamed “right-wing analysts” have been arguing that somehow President Obama could have intervened in Egyptian politics, saved President Hosni Mubarak’s, regime, thereby ensuring that Egypt would not renounce its treaty with Egypt. But this, argues Friedman, reflects a “naive” assumption that Israel could make a peace treaty with a dictator like Mubarak without making peace with the 80 million ordinary Egyptians.

Using the words of his New Republic colleague Leon Wieseltier, Friedman further asserted that throughout their history in the Exile, Jews  have “always preferred to have a relationship with the king or bishop so as not to have to engage with the general population, of which they were deeply distrustful — and they often had reason to be distrustful.” Israel, once it became a sovereign state, established similar alliances with Mubarak, the King of Jordan, and other Arab dictators. Peace treaties were established these dictators and not with the citizenry of the Arab states. But now that its neighboring Arab states are undergoing a process of “democratization”, Israel can no longer depend on peace with such autocrats, and it will have to win the friendships of the citizens of these countries, by making peace with their democratically elected leaders. Thus, in Friedman’s portrayal, it is Israel that stands in the way of Egyptian democracy.

Superficially, this argument looks eminently sensible. Look at these words with only a little extra care, and the flaws of Friedman’s and Wieseltier’s  argument soon become apparent. For starters,remember that Israel paid a high price for its peace treaty with Egypt. It gave up valuable military bases and oilfields when it returned the Sinai Peninsula — which it captured in a defensive war — to Egypt. Furthermore, by handing Sinai back to  Egypt, Israel was surrendering the strategic depth that it acquired in the 1967 war. Having the room to absorb an initial attack without fighting in Israel’s population centers could be significant if any new hostilities break out between Egypt and Israel.  If Friedman and Wieseltier thought that Israel’s treaty was somehow illegitimate because it was concluded with an autocratic government; or they believed a freely elected Egyptian government had the right to renounce it, then  they should have spoken up  in 1979, before Israel made these sacrifices. Perhaps Israelis wouldn’t have been willing to pay so a high a price for a treaty that is just conditional.

In fact, before the Arab Spring and the election of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, nobody, including Friedman and Wieseltier, ever suggested that Israel made had an agreement with solely with the Sadat and Mubarak dictatorships, which would not bind any future democratic Egyptian government. This makes it disingenuous for them to now claim that Israel should merely shrug its shoulders if the Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood cancels the treaty and renews the state of war with Israel.

Friedman does not believe that Morsi’s election makes war with Israel more likely  He acknowledges that the Muslim Brotherhood “aspires to lock itself into power and exploit a revolution that it did not initiate.” But he just doesn’t believe that this going to be so easy to do. Egypt, which has no oil, cant survive without tourism, foreign investment, and aid to create jobs, schools, and opportunities for its youth. Also, Friedman predicts that the United States that will not give Morsi the same deal that it had with Mubarak. That is, the United States will not allow the new Egyptian regime to maintain a cold peace with Israel and no constitutionalism at home as long as  the Egyptian arrests the jihadists  that the United States wants to see incarcerated.

However, the respected Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi is far less sanguine. He points out that the same hopes that are now expressed for the Muslim Brotherhood were a few years ago being held out for the Hamas regime in Gaza.

“But since then, Hamas’s rule has become more authoritarian. Internet cafes have been shut down or set on fire, opponents imprisoned and tortured.”

The history of the Muslim Brother’s kinship with Nazism makes Friedman’s vision of Egypt under Brotherhood rule look Pollyannish. For instance, the election of a party that used to have ties to the Nazis lessens the likelihood that the Egyptian revolution will result in the country turning into a democracy..Truly democratic revolutionaries  don’t just overthrow a dictator and stage a single free election. They ensure that the second, third, and eventually all future elections are also free. In turn, that requires that the revolutionary regime be willing to extend to its opponents the freedoms needed to compete fairly in all of those future elections and be willing to surrender power peacefully if it is defeated at the polls. This still has never happened in the Arab world. Of course, not enough time has passed since the beginning of the Arab Spring for anyone to know whether any of the new governments will respect basic democratic rights. But the Muslim Brotherhood’s shameful history of zealous collaboration with the Nazis make it an unlikely candidate for safeguarding democracy in Egypt. (In marked contrast, while Yitzhak Shamir and other leaders of the Likud have often been maligned as right wing extremists, there was really never any danger of them threatening democratic rights in Israel or trying to cling to office if they lost an election.)

It is also unlikely that a Muslim Brotherhood regime, given those historic fraternal relationships with the Nazis, would ever be willing to improve Egypt’s relationships  with a Jewish State. Recently, Mohammed Badie (who Yossi Klein Halevi describes as the “the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood”) called the creation of Israel “the worst catastrophe     ever to befall the peoples of the world”. Moreover, the Brotherhood takes power in a country in which anti-Semitism is already rampant. Yossi Klein Halevi writes,

“Mr. Mubarak faced little criticism for turning the Egypt-Israel peace agreement into a farce. Under his regime, there was virtually no Egyptian tourism to Israel or joint business ventures between Egyptians and Israelis, Egyptians who did visit Israel were subjected to harassment when returning home. The state-owned media was among the Arab world’s most viciously anti-Jewish, promoting Holocaust denial and portraying Israel as the new Nazi Germany,”

It’s not surprising that some of Israel’s fiercest critics hardly acknowledge the history of the ties of the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups in the Arab world to the Nazis, or the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism within the Arab world. When others raise these issues they are often either ignored or demonized as Islamaphobes, even if they, like Paul Berman, have impeccable liberal credentials. How could it be otherwise? Once you admit that the Nazi view of the Jew flourished in the Arab world, it becomes very difficult to credibly attribute Arab-Israeli hostility solely to the presence of Israeli soldiers or Jewish settlers on the West Bank



About the Author
Martin Krossel is a freelance political journalist living in New York