Sixty years ago this March, an infamous Nazi collaborator and Palestinian leader held a press conference in Beirut denying both any involvement in the Holocaust, as well as any relationship with one of its foremost architects, Adolf Eichmann. Yet, Amin al-Husseini, commonly known as “Hitler’s Mufti,” did know Eichmann. And studying the relationship between the two men, which spanned across decades and continents, provides an insight into a war against the Jewish people that continued long after the Shoah and remains with us today.
Declassified CIA documents and cables, as well as recent scholarship, help tell the story.
On May 23, 1960, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion announced that Israeli operatives had successfully captured Adolf Eichmann, who had been living under an alias in Argentina. Twelve days earlier, Israeli intelligence officers had seized Eichmann and spirited him away to Israel for trial. While the operation was later celebrated in films and books, helping to burnish the myth of an invincible Mossad, many major Western news outlets initially condemned Israel for its actions.
The Washington Post, for example, “chastised Israel for wanting to ‘wreak vengeance,’ rather than seek justice,” as the historian Francine Klagsbrun documented in her 2017 biography of Israeli premier Golda Meir. The New York Times expressed similar sentiments, intoning that “no immoral or illegal act justifies another.”
As Daniel Gordis noted, the Christian Science Monitor said that Israel’s decision to “adjudicate crimes against Jews committed outside of Israel was identical to the Nazis’ claim on ‘the loyalty of persons of German birth or descent’ wherever they lived.” And for its part, TIME magazine labeled the seizing of a wanted Nazi war criminal as “inverse racism.”
And the press wasn’t alone. Eight countries, including the United States, voted in favor of a UN Security Council resolution which declared that Israel had violated Argentina’s sovereignty and urged the Jewish state to pay reparations.
But Argentina and numerous other nations had provided shelter to Nazi war criminals. Despite their pledges to bring perpetrators of genocide to justice, the world, including the Allies, had turned a blind eye — or worse. Eichmann’s capture and subsequent trial also caused others to ask about the whereabouts and involvement of other Nazi apparatchiks and allies.
Golda Meir, who was then serving as Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, was intent on focusing on one collaborator in particular: Amin al-Husseini.
As the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA) pointed out in a July 27, 2021, Mosaic essay, authorities in British-ruled Mandate Palestine had endowed Husseini with prestige, power, and position, simultaneously hoping to placate and use a Palestinian Arab leader who was inextricably opposed to Zionism, which the British government was pledged to support. Unsurprisingly, the decision to back Husseini for the inaugural position of “Grand Mufti of Jerusalem” and the head of the Supreme Muslim Council proved to be a bad investment by the British.
Husseini incited pogroms in 1920, 1921, and 1929. By 1936, flush with funds from fascist Italy, and later armed and equipped by Nazi Germany, Husseini launched the so-called Arab Revolt, murdering Jews and British officials alike.
The Mufti fled Mandatory Palestine and would later appear in Berlin, where he assisted with SS recruitment, planned operations against Jews in the Middle East, and broadcast wartime propaganda against the Allies, much of it littered with antisemitism. He also successfully intervened to prevent Jewish refugee children from escaping Hitler’s clutches, sending thousands to their deaths.
Meanwhile, Husseini’s henchmen assassinated Arab rivals and critics, working to ensure his dominance as the unquestioned leader of the Palestinian Arabs. Indeed, the Mufti coveted large swaths of the Middle East, hoping that it would be awarded to him in the event of a Nazi victory.
By the 1960s, however, Husseini’s position had deteriorated considerably. Rejecting peace and any accommodation with Zionism, his forces had tried — and failed — to destroy Israel during its 1948 War of Independence. Husseini no longer had a great power patron and was reliant on support from Egypt and later Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, he lived in comparative luxury with a retinue of staff, including a driver for his limousine, and constantly plotted against the Jewish state and the West.
Meir wanted Gideon Hausner, the Israeli Attorney General and prosecutor at Eichmann’s trial, to tie the infamous Nazi to Husseini, and thereby “link Israel’s Arab enemies to the Nazis.” Hausner had Avraham Zellinger, who did research for the trial, investigate the relationship between the two men. Zellinger found an entry in the Mufti’s diary which speaks of the “best of the Arab friends” with the name “Eichmann” written underneath it. But the court, Klagsbrun noted, “went no further than to recognize that Eichmann had met the Mufti once, with no evidence of a close relationship between them.”
It was against this backdrop that Amin al-Husseini held a March 4, 1961, press conference in Beirut. The Mufti, CIA cables reveal, “categorically denied any connection with the persecution of Jews in Germany during the Second World War.” He claimed that “all allegations in this respect were baseless and they were prompted by Zionists’ enmity toward him and the Palestinian national movement.”
The Mufti also distributed a statement in response to a recent book on Eichmann by the American journalist Quentin Reynolds, which alleged that Husseini had several contacts with the SS officer and had toured Nazi death camps. Husseini “said that he did not know Eichmann and that he had no connection whatsoever with him.” Further, “neither he nor any other Arab had plans in the past or at present to annihilate any race, Jews or others.” Husseini closed out the press conference by asserting that “what the Jews have done” in Israel “is similar to what the Nazis did to them in Germany” — a libel that is still echoed by antisemites today.
Husseini’s press conference was replete with lies.
Husseini was well aware of Hitler’s plans for European Jewry. Indeed, he hoped to replicate them in the Middle East.
In his own memoirs, the Mufti recorded a November 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.’”
Many apologists, journalists, and academics spent decades denying that Husseini visited concentration camps, but in 2017, conclusive photographic evidence emerged showing Husseini touring the Trebbin camp near Berlin.
“The photographs,” the historian Wolfgang Schwanitz wrote in Tablet magazine, “provide irrefutable proof” that Husseini “had precise knowledge of the fate of Jews in Hitler’s Germany.” It is also possible that the Mufti visited other camps while in Poland.
Husseini’s claim about Eichmann was similarly a lie.
As Schwanitz and the late historian Barry Rubin detailed in “Nazis, Islamists and the Making of the Modern Middle East,” on December 4, 1941, Eichmann took Husseini “into the map room at the Reich Main Security Office’s Jewish Affairs division to explain how Germany would solve the Jewish question.” This, it should be noted, was before the Wannsee Conference, which officially determined the fate of European Jewry. Husseini even “asked Eichmann to send an expert — probably Dieter Wisliceny — to Jerusalem to be his own personal adviser for setting up death camps and gas chambers once Germany won the war and he was in power.”
Indeed, Husseini had begun his outreach to Germany shortly after the Nazis came to power. And, on October 2, 1937, the Nazis dispatched a then-obscure official to Haifa to meet Husseini. His name was Adolf Eichmann. The British were suspicious, and Eichmann was put on a ship to Egypt, but he nonetheless managed to meet with Husseini’s representatives and aides in Cairo.
Husseini even came to Eichmann’s aid after World War II. As Schwanitz and Rubin note, “Husseini sent his emissary, Husain Haurani, in October 1949 to give Eichmann’s wife, Veronica, money so she and their children could join her husband in Argentina.”
This fact illustrates the depths of Husseini’s hubris: he not only knew Eichmann, but he played a key role in helping the Nazi war criminal.
Eichmann himself would be executed by Israel in 1962. Hitler’s Mufti, however, would escape justice, dying in 1974. But his legacy of virulent antisemitism lives on.
(Note: A slightly different version of this article appeared as an op-ed in the Algemeiner on Aug. 9, 2021)