Middle East

Mufti of Jerusalem was Nazi Germany’s Ally

The Mufti of Jerusalem meets Adolf Hitler in wartime Berlin.
The Mufti of Jerusalem meets Adolf Hitler in wartime Berlin.

Two years ago, the Israeli government charged Sheikh Mohammed Hussein, the mufti of Jerusalem, the cleric in charge of Islamic holy places, with incitment after he was accused of uttering anti-Jewish comments.

At a conference in the West Bank to commemorate the founding of the Fatah movement, he was reported to have said that the Day of Judgment would not dawn until Muslims killed Jews.

Lamentably, he was not the first mufti to have strayed into the malodorous muck of antisemitism.

One of his predecessors, Haj Amin al-Husseini (1897-1974), was a master of the form. An ardent Palestinian nationalist and a fierce opponent of Zionism, he hitched his wagon to the Axis cause before and during World War II, collaborating with both Nazi Germany and fascist Italy and making antisemitic speeches and broadcasts.

In short, he was not the kind of Palestinian leader who advanced the Palestinian cause.

Klaus Gensicke, a German scholar, has written the first book on the mufti based on German primary archival materials.  Translated into English by Alexander Fraser Gunn, The Mufti of Jerusaem and the Nazis: The Berlin Years (Vallentine Mitchell), a fine work of scholarship marred at times by opaque prose, traces the arc of his life from Ottoman and British Palestine to his final years in exile in Beirut, where he died.

Portrayed by the Nazi propaganda machine as a paragon of German-Arab solidarity in the battle against Jews, Husseini was born into one of the leading Palestinian families in Jerusalem. Thirteen of his ancestors, all of them wealthy landowners, were mayors of Jerusalem. His half-brother, Kamil, served as mufti until his death in 1921.

An Ottoman army soldier in World War I, he switched sides and fought against the Turks. Later, Husseini railed against the Balfour Declaration, the 1917 British document that supported the formation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. As Gensicke suggests, the first British high commissioner in Palestine, Sir Herbert Samuel, a Jew, chose Husseini as mufti after he insincerely promised to cooperate with the Mandate authorities.

Samuel lived to regret his decision.

Husseini, a born agitator, was one of the masterminds of the communal distur-bances that convulsed Palestine from the 1920s onward. As head of the Su-preme Muslim Council and the Arab Higher Committee, he pressed Britain to renege on its commitments to the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine.

He demanded the abandonment of the Jewish National Home, the complete stoppage of Jewish immigration, a ban on the sale of Arab lands to Jews and the termination of the mandate. And in keeping with his maximalist views, he opposed the partition of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states.

For the British, the last straw was his role in fomenting the 1936 Arab revolt, a three-year uprising that morphed into a series of general strikes and violent resistance to British rule.

Tipped off of Britain’s intention to arrest him, Husseini fled Palestine in 1937, finding refuge in Iraq and Italy and then in Germany and Lebanon.

Long before his flight, and only two months after Adolf Hitler had been appointed Germany’s new chancellor, Husseini contacted the German consul general in Jerusalem, Heinrich Wolff, to express admiration for the Nazi regime and its policies toward Jews.

He made little headway. Germany considered the Mediterranean basin as Italy’s sphere of influence. Germany, too, was still committed to the 1933 “transfer” agreement with the Zionist movement, an accord that enabled  German Jews immigrating to Palestine to purchase German export goods.

After Wolff’s departure, he met his successor, Hans Doehle, who was far more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Husseini advised him to take a public position against the formation of a Jewish state in Palestine and bar German Jews from settling there.

By this juncture, Germany’s Middle East policy was staunchly pro-Arab, in sharp contrast to Weimar Germany’s pro-Zionist stance.

From his base outside Palestine, Husseini dispatched an envoy to Berlin to solicit financial assistance from Germany in exchange for rallying Arab opinion to the German side.

Husseini, who moved to Baghdad in 1939, frequented pro-Axis circles in the Iraqi capital. According to Gensicke, he was an accessory to the pogrom, the farhud, that broke out in Baghdad in June 1941.

A tireless advocate of Arab-Axis friendship, Husseini made two bold moves in that year. Through an emissary, he dispatched a warm personal letter to Hitler in which he portrayed Britain and Jews as common enemies. And in Rome, he met with Benito Mussolini, the Italian duce.

Carl Friedrich von Weizsacker, a high official in Germany’s foreign ministry, informed Husseini that Hitler was sympathetic to the Arab national struggle, would gladly cooperate with Arabs and would provide them with war materiel. As a result of their correspondence, the German military command established a spy network in the Middle East and incited acts of sabotage and revolts in the region.

As for Mussolini, he assured Husseini that Italy supported his demand for Arab statehood in Palestine.

Following his arrival in Berlin in the autumn of 1941, Husseini met with Germany’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, but much to his disappointment, Germany refrained from issuing a public statement in support of the Arab cause.

Shortly afterward, on Nov. 28, Husseini was received by Hitler himself. Husseini reiterated his objectives, expressed confidence in a German victory and pledged to carry out acts of sabotage, instigate rebellions and form a Muslim legion to assist Germany.

Although Hitler told him he was uncompromisingly opposed to a Jewish homeland in Palestine, he declined to issue a pro-Arab public proclamation, promising to do so after German armies reached the Caucasus in the Soviet Union.

Two months later, however, Von Ribbentrop finally handed him a letter stating that Germany was prepared to recognize the independence of Arab countries. In gratitude, Husseini wrote Hitler a letter assuring him of Muslim friendship and denouncing Jews as warmongers and “the bitterest enemies of the Muslims.”

And in a thunderous speech in Berlin in 1943 on the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, he described Jews as “parasites among the nations.”

As the war ground on, he urged Hungary and Romania to prevent the immi-gration of Jews to Palestine and called on the Luftwaffe to bomb Tel Aviv.
True to his pledge, he  formed a Muslim SS army division, composed primarily of Bosnians from Yugoslavia.

After the war, neither Yugoslavia nor Britain attempted to arrest him. He found refuge in Egypt, but was ordered to leave due to his past connections with the Muslim Brotherhood.

During the postwar era, Husseini played no significant role in Arab politics. But at his funeral in Beirut, Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, was one of the mourners.

Nearly 40 years have elapsed since his death, but his legacy of intransigence, racism and religious fanaticism remains fully intact.