(Note: The following Op-Ed appeared in The Washington Jewish Week on Jan. 10, 2018)
It is deceptively easy to reduce the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict to a series of dates. The 50thanniversary of the June 1967 Six-Day War and the recent centennialof the Balfour Declaration occasioned considerable—if often flawed—media coverage and discussion by policymakers. Yet another—often-underreported—anniversary is perhaps more telling and highlights a long-running theme that was on full display after President Trump’s Dec. 6, 2017 speech recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital: Arab rejection of any Jewish state in the Jewish people’s ancestral homeland.
Nov. 29, 2017 marked the 70thanniversary of Arab states rejecting U.N. Resolution 181. The non-binding recommendation advised the partition of Mandate Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. The Zionist leadership in Mandate Palestine accepted the resolution. Arab nations, including Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, denounced it and promised bloodshed if it were passed.
Threatening to shed Jewish blood a mere two years after the end of World War II and the Holocaust was hardly a winning strategy and Resolution 181 passed, with support from the United States, the Soviet Union, and others.
Yet, by promising to defy the implementation of the partition plan by force, the Arab leaders voided its very terms, which noted that any “attempt to alter by force the settlement envisaged by this resolution” a “threat to the peace.” This hardly dissuaded the Arab states from unsuccessfully seeking to destroy the fledgling Jewish state in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. In this conflict—and those that preceded it—a man named Amin al-Husseini assisted them.
Although Western press outlets seldom mention him today, al-Husseini should be considered one of the seminal figures of the 20thcentury.Revered as a founding “pioneer” by current-Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, al-Husseini loomed over Middle Eastern politics for decades, reshaping much of it in his image.
Born in 1895, al-Husseini came from a wealthy, ruling Jerusalem family. He attended a Turkish government school and then studied at the school of Sheikh Rashid Rida in Cairo. As the historians David Dalin and John Rothmann noted in their 2008 biography of al-Husseini, Icon of Evil, it was there that “young al-Husseini was indoctrinated with a virulent anti-Semitism.”
After a stint in the Ottoman Army, al-Husseini worked as an Arabic translator for Reuters Press Service. According to Richard Rubenstein’s 2011 work Jihad and Genocide, I.A. Abbady, a Jewish scholar who worked as al-Husseini’s Hebrew translating counterpart, later recalled the young man’s promises to massacre Zionists “to the last man. We want no progress, no prosperity [from Jewish immigration]. Nothing but the sword will decide the future of this country.”
Al-Husseini was true to his word. On April 4 and 5, 1920, the first intifada (uprising) against British rule occurred in Mandate Palestine. Responding to wall posters in the city’s Muslim quarter exhorting readers to “Kill the Jews: There is no punishment for killing Jews,” the city’s Arab residents attacked Jewish men, women and children.
Although the British held al-Husseini responsible for inciting the violence, he was later pardoned and appointed to the position of mufti of Jerusalem; the highest Muslim cleric in the land. Although there were other competitors for the post—including many who were less virulently antisemitic—the British were persuaded to help al-Husseini get appointed. As Dalin and Rothmann note, “With his election, radical Islam would prevail over more moderate Islamic voices within the Palestinian Arab community.”
Indeed, the Mufti repaid the favor by playing a double game against the ruling British power and continuing to foment anti-Jewish violence, such as the 1929 Hebron massacre in which 133 Jews were murdered and 339 were wounded. The British response was to often appease al-Husseini, who continued to reject political or social equality with Jews—including a 1937 Peel Commission recommendation that would have given 85% of the land west of the Jordan River to Arabs.
The Mufti saw kindred spirits with the rise of Hitler and European fascism. With aid from Nazi ally Fascist Italy, al-Husseini supported terror attacks against Jews living in Mandate Palestine.
During World War II, the Mufti helped recruit SS regiments in the Balkans, broadcast propaganda to the Arab world, and sought to overthrow pro-Western regimes in Iraq and elsewhere. In his memoirs, al-Husseini noted a Nov. 28, 1941 meeting with Hitler, “Our fundamental condition for cooperating with Germany was a free hand to eradicate every last Jew from Palestine and the Arab world. I asked Hitler for an explicit undertaking to allow us to solve the Jewish problem in a manner befitting our national and racial aspirations and according to the scientific methods innovated by Germany in the
handling of its Jews. The answer I got was: ‘The Jews are yours.’”
The end of Nazi Germany failed to stop the Mufti, who sent forces in what historian Benny Morris termed a “jihad” to destroy Israel after U.N. Resolution 181’s adoption. This too failed and the Mufti, now in exile, continued to reject peace—even sending henchmen in 1951 to murder Jordan’s King Abdullah, who had, at various points, reached out to the Israeli government.
At the time of his 1974 death in Beirut, the Mufti’s mantle as leader of the Palestinian movement had passed to a distant cousin, a Cairo-born named Yasser Arafat. But Arafat—and his successor Mahmoud Abbas—continued the Mufti’s traditions; supporting anti-Jewish violence and rejecting opportunities for statehood if it meant living next to a Jewish state.
This rejectionism—the Mufti’s legacy—is too seldom noted by a press fixated more on dates and embassy locations, and less on Palestinian leaders and the decisions that they make. As Philip Gordon, a White House Middle East coordinator under the Obama administration, recently observed: “There’s nothing new under the sun” when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed.