By Fred Siegel
Casual observers of Middle Eastern politics must be somewhat confused by reports that the West Bank Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, currently in the 81st month of his 48-month term, plans to roil the region by having the United Nations recognize Palestine as a sovereign state. Leave aside that this proposed state has no currency, no recognized boundaries and no support from a Gaza controlled by Hamas. There are also sizable complications in that the Palestinians are bound by official agreements to negotiate directly with Israel and that they have twice in the last decade refused the very state they’re now asking for from the U.N. In 2000 and 2008, Israel agreed to the creation of a Palestinian state with virtually all of the territory it had before the 1967 war. Unfortunately, Palestinian leaders have never been, and are not now, prepared to permanently give up the claim to all of the land first laid out by their Islamist leaders in the 1920s.
For readers perplexed by the knotted history of a region in which Pan-Arabism turns out to be an artifice of Pan-Islamism, and the reverse, Sol Stern’s new 50-page broadside from Encounter Books, "A Century of Palestinian Rejectionism and Jew Hatred," can smooth your wrinkled brow. “To a degree that has still not been fully appreciated,” explains Stern, who draws on a wide range of recent scholarship, “the Palestinian Arabs’ obsession with the Jews and rejection of all political compromise was inspired by Islamic teachings as well as by European fascism.” (Full disclosure: Stern and I have co-written articles on a range of subjects.)
At the center of his account is the neglected and little known -- yet central -- figure of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Haj Amin al-Husseini. As the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, he was the leader of the Palestinian movement from its inception in the 1920s in the wake of the British Balfour Declaration, into the 1950s, after which he was succeeded by his nephew Yasser Arafat. The mufti exercised power as both a religious and secular leader through the use of death squads to eliminate potential rivals who might compromise with the Jews.
Like Arafat and Abbas after him, time and again the mufti rejected any compromise. Driven by a sense of Islamic entitlement and Arab resentment of the West, insensible to the economic growth made possible by the relative prosperity of the Jews, the mufti urged his followers to embrace implacable hatred. His journalistic flacks insisted that “if we don’t use force against the Zionists and against the Jews, we will never be rid of them.” And violence there was in the pogroms of the late 1920s and in the late 1930s after the mufti once again refused an offer to divide the land, this time on terms even more favorable to the Arabs. The Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann agreed to partition, even if the territory assigned to the Jews “were the size of a tablecloth.” The mufti and his followers -- he had silenced the opposition -- rejected any compromise.
Stern writes that, like his close ally Hassan-al-Banna, the founder of the fascist-inspired Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt, the mufti organized “a Palestinian youth movement modeled after the Hitler Youth, and he sent a Palestine delegation to the Nazi Nuremberg rallies.” In the Arab revolt of the late 1930s, Islamist crowds stormed through the streets of Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter shouting slogans such as “Muhammad’s religion was born with the sword.” The mob killed, looted and burned. Two years of low-level war left the Jews stronger than ever and the local Arab economy in ruins, a scene that has recurred time and again. But the mufti saw hope for his cause in Hitler’s war against the allies and the Jews.
The revolt defeated, the mufti fled first to Baghdad, where his allies imposed a Vichy allied regime in 1943 and launched a pogrom against the Iraqi Jews who had been there for thousands of years. He then moved on to Berlin, where he spent the duration of the war as a prized ally of Hitler living in luxury with a princely stipend -- twice the salary of a German field marshal. Like the Kaiser in World War I, Hitler hoped that the natural congruence between Islam and anti-Western, anti-Jewish sentiment could undermine the allies.
From Berlin the mufti broadcast Nazi propaganda to the Arab world and helped recruit a brigade of Bosnian Muslims for the SS. Had Rommel’s campaign succeeded in North Africa, Hitler planned to install the mufti as the head of a Palestinian state. Together, the Fuehrer and the mufti planned to exterminate the Jews of Palestine. During the Nazi attempt to impose “the final solution," the mufti issued “a canonical statement of the connection between Nazism and Islam" as rooted in the Koranic prescription that “the most hostile people are the Jews.”
In the post-war years, the mufti's intransigence was brought to bear on the U.N. debate over a partition for Palestine. Arab League Secretary General Abdul Rahman Azzam vowed, “This war will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongol massacres and the Crusades.” Appropriately enough, the military commander of the Palestinian Arab Liberation Army in the months before five Arab nations joined the fray in 1948, was Fawzi al-Qawuqji, who had also spent WWII in Berlin. The American left-wing journalist I.F. Stone reported that “German Nazis, Polish reactionaries, Yugoslav Chetniks, and Bosnian Moslems flocked [into Palestine] for the war against the Jews.”
In the wake of the 1948 war, the West Bank now claimed by the Palestinians became part of Jordan and Egypt took Gaza. But there was no thought in Egypt or Jordan or the larger Arab-Islamic world of creating a Palestinian state. The issue then and now was a meld of Islamic entitlement and anti-Western resentment that was tweaked and rebranded as third worldism in the 1960s. Fascist movements in the Arab world were redubbed victims of Western imperialism. The effect was to bury the mufti and his history in clouds of left-wing rhetoric. The great merit of Stern's essay, the prelude to a full scale treatment, is that it rips away the scales of progressive rhetoric to reveal the monstrousness within.