May 10—the day that Hamas launched 150 rockets into Israel, beginning eleven days of fighting—happened to be the anniversary of Amin al-Husseini’s appointment as grand mufti of Jerusalem. The coincidence was fitting, as Husseini did perhaps more than anyone to set the Palestinian national movement on its current course, a course that, however indirectly, led to the situation Israelis and Palestinians now find themselves in.
Husseini may be best known because of a photograph taken on November 28, 1941, that shows him sitting with Adolf Hitler. The latter can be seen gesturing to an attentive Husseini, who sits with his hands folded and a thin smile on his face. Germany, Hitler told his guest, was determined to “solve its Jewish problem”—first in Europe, and then through “the destruction of the Jewish element residing in the Arab sphere.”
Despite an early hiccup—Husseini had expected, in keeping with Arab tradition, to be served the customary coffee only to be met with lemonade—the mufti’s audience with the Führer went well, and the result, namely Husseini’s endeavor to rally Muslims to the Nazi cause, is widely known. Less discussed, however, is how Husseini came to prominence in the first place, a story that has had lasting effects in Israeli and Middle Eastern history, and carries with it some important lessons for the present.
Husseini’s emergence as the leader of the Palestinian national movement was neither inevitable nor accidental. Rather, it was the result of machinations by British officialdom that were simultaneously cynical and naïve. The decision to elevate Husseini, who had already proved himself unfriendly to Britain’s interests, has long perplexed scholars. But in light of newly available information, the story has become clearer.
This story begins in 1917, as the third year of World War I drew to a close, when British forces successfully drove the Ottoman army from most of historical Judea. A year later, Britain, France, and their Arab allies established the Occupied Enemy Territory Administration (OETA), which placed the British military in control over what is today Jordan and Israel, including the West Bank and Gaza.
With the issuing of the Balfour Declaration on November 2, 1917, the United Kingdom had officially expressed a “declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations.” This was the view held by Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, and others in Whitehall. But it was not shared by many British occupational authorities “in country,” who often viewed Zionism as either impracticable, unjust, or both.
Indeed, in 1920 the director of military intelligence in the Mandate told his superiors in London that OETA’s military and civilian officials were “unanimous in expressing their dislike of any policy favoring the Jews, and [harbor] serious fears of the consequences of such a policy.” Winston Churchill, then serving in the cabinet, estimated that as many as 90 percent of the British army in Mandate Palestine opposed the Balfour Declaration. The idea of political and social equality with Jews, let alone a Jewish state, was likewise anathema to many Arabs. From April 4 to 8, 1920, Arabs attacked Jewish Jerusalemites during the Nebi Musa festival, murdering five and leaving hundreds more injured. The violence shocked London.
In the pogrom’s wake, Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, OETA’s chief political officer, sent a dispatch to London detailing the local military authorities’ hostility toward Zionism and their failure to anticipate the violence. Shortly thereafter, Lloyd George and then-Foreign Secretary George Curzon decided to replace the provisional military government with a civilian administration.
To underscore its commitment to the Balfour Declaration, the cabinet selected Herbert Samuel, a prominent British Jewish politician and a Zionist, to serve as the first high commissioner for Palestine. But opposition to Zionism, among both the Arabs and British in the Mandate alike, remained; it would resurface when anti-Jewish violence erupted in both February and May of 1921. Complicating an already tense situation, on March 21 of the same year Kamil al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, died.
Kamil had held the position of mufti, or chief cleric, of Jerusalem under Ottoman rule, but the British authorities created the new position of grand mufti out of a desire to have someone to turn to as the religious representative of Muslims in Palestine, who could also preside over the various Muslim holy sites in the city. Around the same time and for similar reasons, they created the position of chief rabbi of Palestine, likewise elevating the Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis of Jerusalem to greater prominence. As a result, Israel today has two chief rabbis, and Jerusalem still has a grand mufti.
During his short tenure in office, Kamil al-Husseini had sought to work with the British and accommodate them in every way possible. Perhaps he was grateful to the new rulers for expanding his authority, or perhaps he simply saw good relations with them as the most prudent path. His death not only cost the Mandate a supportive local leader, but also put it in the midst of tensions between two clans.
The Husseinis and their rivals, the Nashashibis, were Jerusalem’s two principal Arab families. Claiming descent from Mohammad, the Husseinis had held various positions of authority as far back as the early 17th century. While both clans were hostile to Zionism, the Nashashibis tended to favor compromise, while the Husseinis, with the exception of Kamil, did not. In April of 1920, the British appointed Ragheb Bey Nashashibi as mayor of Jerusalem, replacing Musa Kasem al-Husseini.
With Kamil’s death a year later, the Husseinis suddenly feared that they would lose a second key position in Jerusalem. The British decided to follow the Ottoman system of selecting a replacement: elections would be held, and the government would then choose its preferred candidate among the three who obtained the most votes. The Husseinis hoped that Kamil’s twenty-six-year-old half-brother Amin would succeed him, but he came in fourth. The results seemed to shock the British as much as the Husseinis, who subsequently contested the election.
And here is where the British—specifically Herbert Samuel—made one of the most fateful decisions in Middle Eastern history: they pressured Sheikh Husam al-Din Jarallah, the Nashashibi-backed frontrunner, to remove himself from consideration. As a result, Amin al-Husseini, who had previously come in fourth, became an eligible candidate. The Nashashibi clan was outraged. To reduce tensions, the high commissioner did not send Husseini an official letter offering him the position, nor make any formal announcement.
Samuel’s support for Husseini has long perplexed historians. Husseini was young and, while he had briefly studied at Cairo’s prestigious al-Azhar University, he lacked the scholarly bona fides expected for such an office. As the British colonial official Edward Keith-Roach admitted, his “sole qualifications for the post were the pretensions of his family plus shrewd opportunism.” Indeed, there were aspects of his background that were far more worrisome.
Unlike Kamil, Amin took after their father and predecessor as mufti of Jerusalem, who had inveighed against Jewish immigration and urged the Ottoman government to expel or induce to leave any Jews who had arrived after 1891. Amin himself had been a leading instigator of the 1920 riots in Jerusalem, an act for which he was sentenced in absentia—only to be pardoned once Samuel took the helm.
Historians have generally assumed that Samuel pushed Husseini into office to maintain the balance between the two rival clans; if the Nashashibis were to have the mayor’s office, the Husseinis should have the post of chief religious cleric. But while this consideration no doubt played a role in the decision, there was more to it. As for the notion that Mandatory officials sympathized with Husseini because he was anti-Zionist, that hardly explains why the staunchly Zionist Samuel would support the decision.
Rather, it seems that the British sought to find someone with influence upon whom they themselves could exert influence in turn. They were looking for their man. Another Kamil might be pliable, but also weak. Amin al-Husseini’s history, far from being a black mark, seemed to recommend him in their eyes. Perhaps in their estimation, his role in the previous year’s riots demonstrated that he was a force to be reckoned with, and by giving him a position for which he wasn’t particularly well qualified, they could use him to their advantage.
Husseini had demonstrated his skill as a political operator even before the arrival of the British. In a four-year period alone, Husseini served three different, and rival, empires—shifting allegiances to whichever power he felt could best serve his twin aims: permanently ousting Europeans from the Middle East and opposing Zionism. In 1916, at the peak of the Great War, Husseini was a lieutenant in the Ottoman 46th Division. In November he became ill, was given leave, and returned to Jerusalem for three months. He then went into the employ of the Ottomans’ wartime enemy, the British, receiving a salary for his efforts to recruit locals to join the famed Arab Revolt led by T.E. Lawrence—“Lawrence of Arabia.” Husseini signed up as many as 1,500 Arabs. Later, Husseini served the OETA for six months, working for General Gabriel Haddad, the Christian Arab adviser to the British military governor of Jerusalem, Ronald Storrs. As one of very few local Muslims who threw in his lot with the Allies early on, Husseini bought himself a great deal of credit with the British.
When Haddad was sent to Damascus as commissioner of public safety, Husseini followed him, working as a detective for the British military, which then controlled the city. Husseini’s arrival in Damascus afforded him the opportunity to develop new contacts, and he became an active participant in the Arab political organizations whose activities he was supposed to be spying on.
Husseini’s political pursuits were, to put it mildly, ecumenical. He founded the Arab Club, which supported the establishment of a greater Syria that would encompass what is today Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan. Additionally, he was involved in the General Syrian Congress, which, like many British military officers, wanted to make the Hashemite prince Faisal—whose father had been Lawrence’s prime ally against the Ottomans—king of Syria. But he also supported the Literary Club, which arguably marked the start of an organized Palestinian Arab national movement. By 1920, he also created what was perhaps the first underground anti-Zionist terrorist group, al-Fidiya (“the Sacrifice”), and participated in the Muslim-Christian Association.
In July 1920, the French took over Syria and Lebanon, crushing dreams of a sprawling Levantine kingdom and expelling Faisal and his supporters from Damascus. Yet Husseini was allowed to stay in the city, because, as U.S. intelligence reports document, he was spying for France. Husseini was, it seems, committed to playing every side—provided, of course, that it served his long-term objectives.
Husseini’s work on behalf of the British recommended him for the position of grand mufti. He had the blessing of Storrs, the regional governor of Jerusalem. And, importantly, he also had the support of Storrs’s assistant secretary for political affairs and trusted adviser, the architect-turned-Middle East expert Ernest Richmond. As Samuel observed in a dispatch to London, Richmond was “in close and sympathetic touch with the Arabs.” Sir Gilbert Clayton, the chief secretary, described it more bluntly, noting that Richmond “is regarded” by Arab elements “as to some extent the counterpart of the Zionist Organization.”
The Colonial Office was aware of Richmond’s views and his influence, with one official stating, “I should not personally have one minute’s regret if Mr. Richmond resigned, he is by trade an architect, not a Secretariat officer” and “is a declared enemy of the Zionist policy” and a “very partisan figure.”
By the end of April 1921, Samuel, facing criticism for how the election was handled, was inclined to delay the appointment of Amin al-Husseini. Richmond, however, prevailed upon him to appoint Husseini, even presenting him with a list of Christian and Muslim notables who, he claimed, favored Husseini’s appointment. In the end, Samuel put aside his doubts.
Meinertzhagen, upon hearing of the appointment, wrote in his diary that Husseini was now “in a position where he can do untold harm to Zionism and to the British; he hates both Jews and British. His appointment is sheer madness; . . . sooner or later” it “will be bitterly regretted by us.”
Mandate authorities like Samuel had perhaps hoped that by endowing Amin al-Husseini with titles and power they were effectively coopting a hardliner who, while opposed to Zionism, seemingly had a history of supporting the British. In 1922, they doubled down, naming him president of the Supreme Muslim Council (SMC), a position which gave him control of waqf (religious trusts) and orphan funds, as well as shariah courts. The Mandatory authorities had created the SMC as a sort of Arab counterpart to the Zionist Organization. To this portfolio, the mufti eventually added the leadership of the Arab Higher Committee, and placed relatives in charge of the Arab Executive—giving him near-complete control over Arab politics in the Mandate. The former, unlike the SMC, had been created by Palestinians themselves, and was composed of leaders of the most important clans and political parties.
As a subsequent Palestine Royal Commission report would observe, Husseini, “supported by the National Committees in different towns of Palestine,” could “truthfully be described as the head of . . . a parallel government.”
The British strategy seemed to work, as peace reigned for several years. But Husseini was biding his time and consolidating power. In 1922, he opposed Arab participation in British-supported elections for a representative legislative council that would consist of both Jews and Arabs and, as Samuel noted in a cable to London, “declared a trade boycott by all the Arabs of Palestine of all the Jews.” In 1929, Husseini spread false rumors that Jews intended to desecrate the al-Aqsa Mosque—leading to pogroms that lasted for days and left more than 60 Jews dead. He also established clandestine contacts with Britain’s enemies, Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany, eventually taking funds and support from both.
Armed and equipped by fascist powers, Husseini launched the 1936 Arab Revolt, which could properly be characterized as the first intifada. Armed bands under the mufti’s sway murdered Jewish civilians and British officials alike, and assassinated rivals like the Nashashibis, who had established rival parties and institutions. These had advocated cooperation with Mandate authorities and were rumored to have made secret contact with Zionists.
Rather than reach out to the accommodationists or try to bolster them in the 1920s, when they were most popular and had the greatest chance for success, the Mandatory authorities continued to court Husseini. Even after he fled to Syria amid the Arab Revolt in 1937, they sought to appease him by curtailing Jewish immigration and proposing solutions that would eventually have ended the possibility of a Jewish state.
These efforts were in vain. From Syria, Husseini went to Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany where he rewarded nearly two decades of British support by serving as a propagandist for the Axis and helping to recruit soldiers for an all-Muslim SS division. After the war ended, unchastened and still at large, Husseini orchestrated both the 1951 assassination of King Abdullah of Jordan, Britain’s closest ally in the region, as well as the murder of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Riad as-Sulh. Their crime? Openness to negotiations with Zionists.
In short, the British thought they could use Husseini to their own ends, but instead he used them. By giving him the position of grand mufti, they invested him with both power and authority, allowing him to position himself as de-facto leader of the Palestinian people. He used the position to undermine their interests and fight Zionism. And he betrayed Britain twice: once to France and once to Germany. No one can know what might have happened if Samuel had cultivated a pro-British Palestinian leader who might have sought accommodation with the Jews. But there is no doubt that Husseini proved to be a poor investment.
The lessons of Britain’s poor choice remain with us today. Some three decades after his meeting with Hitler, the former mufti held several other meetings in Lebanon with a thirty-nine-year-old Yasir Arafat, who had recently taken the reins of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Arafat, a distant cousin of the mufti, hoped to gain his support, which he received. As the historians Barry Rubin and Wolfgang G. Schwanitz have written, Arafat also got some useful advice. “First,” Husseini recommended, “the movement should gain control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. . . . Next it should use this land as a base for destroying Israel.” It took some time, but this is exactly the strategy Arafat pursued at Oslo. And as recently as 2013, the current head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, praised Husseini as a “pioneer.”
But the connection between the mufti and his successors runs much deeper. It is not just their autocratic tendencies or that they have imitated him in inflaming anti-Jewish violence, endorsing boycotts of Jewish businesses or elections in east Jerusalem, or rejecting offers of a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish one. What unites these leaders above all is that they have been assiduously cultivated, elevated to positions of authority, and generously paid by Western powers. At Madrid in 1991 and at Oslo two years later, the West chose to deal with Arafat’s representatives while sidelining more moderate leaders. And much as Britain created the Supreme Muslim Council and the office of the mufti itself, and then handed these to Husseini, the U.S. granted official recognition to the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people, created the Palestinian Authority, and put Arafat at its head. And just as Husseini took British aid and used it to cement his power through patronage, both of his successors have followed suit. Indeed, all three Palestinian leaders—Husseini, Arafat, and Abbas—have taken Western money and support only to work against stated Western objectives, like reaching peace with the Jewish state.
There is yet one more similarity worth noting: the Mandatory authorities put Husseini in power by subverting an electoral process they themselves had endorsed and implemented. Popular and influential though Husseini was before his appointment, he was not the first, second, or even third choice of most Palestinian Arabs in 1921. Arafat himself rose to power through the decidedly undemocratic organizations of Fatah and the PLO. Although he and Abbas both managed to win one election each, neither dared a second electoral challenge, and have made the Palestinian Authority as autocratic as any other Arab state.
Again, one is left to wonder what might have been if European and American leaders had sought to cultivate Palestinian leaders who eschew violence and are genuinely interested in cooperating with the West and working out some sort of territorial compromise with Israel. Husseini’s involvement in the Nebi Musa riots, much like Arafat’s long career as a terrorist, was well known to his patrons, but did not discourage Samuel or Storrs any more than it discouraged George H.W. Bush or Bill Clinton. Today, accommodationist Palestinian leaders are few and far between. Let’s hope that the next time they emerge, well-meaning Westerners won’t miss another opportunity.
The mufti’s legacy looms large a century after his fateful appointment. For Palestinians living today in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip or Fatah-controlled West Bank, it is still the mufti’s world—and they, along with Israelis, are still living in it.
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