Historians, including prominent scholars in Israel, quickly pounced upon Benjamin Netanyahu’s charge that Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, inspired Hitler to exterminate the Jews of Europe. They correctly pointed out that the Nazi genocide machine was already in operation when the Mufti met with Adolf Hitler in November 1941. In all fairness, however, it must be noted that attempts to implicate Amin al-Husseini in the Holocaust did not originate with the Israeli Prime Minister.
In my 1990 book, Nazism, the Jews and American Zionism: 1933-1948, I described how Zionists gained hegemony within the American Jewish community during World War II. Their ability to assert that they spoke for the five million Jews of America allowed the Zionists to build a powerful political machine with which to influence American public opinion. It was at a critical moment in the campaign for Jewish statehood that Zionists first found it useful to link the Mufti with the extermination of six million Jews.
During the war, American Zionists used different arguments to woo supporters. Within the Jewish community they argued that Nazi persecution was just the latest link in a long chain of anti-Semitism that would continue until Jewish homelessness, the source of all anti-Semitism, ended. Among Christian audiences, however, the Zionists used a far less ideologically charged rhetoric. Based upon the failure of the United States to respond to the Jewish refugee crisis of the 1930s or news of the extermination (first published in November 1942), the Zionists had concluded that American public opinion and the government would never be swayed by humanitarian arguments. Accordingly, Zionists maintained that the war would end with large numbers of Jews who would be unable to return to their homes. In a devastated Europe, these refugees would be a drain on scarce resources and would certainly exacerbate what was likely to be an already tenuous post-war political situation.
A Jewish state in Palestine, Zionists maintained, would provide these homeless Jews with a haven and a future, contributing to the postwar reconstruction of Europe. Left unsaid was another message: if the refugees went to Palestine there would be little pressure to resettle them in the United States.
When the war did end it became apparent that the dimensions of the Nazi genocide left few survivors, seemingly undermining the American Zionist argument for Jewish statehood. However, to the surprise of Zionists in the United Sates and Palestine, the plight of the Jewish Displaced Persons (DPs) did touch the hearts of many Americans. The Zionists quickly altered their strategy, now arguing that the establishment of a state in Palestine would provide the survivors with a home and the Jewish people with some form of justice.
As sympathy for the DPs increased pro-Zionist sentiment within the American public, anti-Zionist spokesmen faced the difficult problem of responding to the Holocaust. Samir Shamma, an Arab lobbyist in Washington, stated that all Arabs condemned the Nazi extermination of European Jewry as an “abhorrent crime.” Arabs, however, regarded “it as most unfair to suggest that the problem of persecuted Jews be solved by persecuting another nation, the Arabs of Palestine.” C. A. Hourani, as associate of Shamma’s, argued that the DP problem had to be considered separately from the future development of Palestine. Both Hourani and Shamma maintained that the Jewish survivors had to be resettled somewhere else other than Palestine.
The argument which Shamma and Hourani presented, of course, seemed to have some validity. The Germans murdered six million European Jews. The United States and Great Britain callously refused to undertake large-scale rescue efforts and could be justly branded accomplices in the Nazi crimes. But why should the Arabs of Palestine be asked to pay for the misdeeds of others?
The failure of the Arab states to support rigorously the Allied cause during World War II provided Zionist spokesmen with some valuable ammunition to counter their critics. As Rommel’s troops approached the Suez Canal, concerned British officials incarcerated pro-Nazi sympathizers including Anwar Sadat. Few Arab Palestinians joined the thousands of young men of the Zionist Yishuv in volunteering for British military service.
In April 1941, anti-British elements of the Iraqi Army attempted a coup d’état. Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, participated in the Iraqi revolt. When the British-officered Arab Legion of Transjordan crushed the coup, the Mufti found refuge in Berlin where he made propaganda broadcasts for the Hitler regime.
In early 1946, the Mufti, who had been in the custody of French authorities, escaped and fled to Cairo. American Zionist leaders feared that British authorities would permit the Mufti to return to Palestine. They decided to fight this possibility with an aggressive publicity campaign that would document the Mufti’s pro-Nazi activities. Eliahu Epstein, chief of the Jewish Agency’s Arab Department, published a devastating attack on the Mufti in the Nation.
According to Epstein, Haj Amin al-Husseini was not only guilty of collaborating with Nazi attempts to ferment revolts in the Middle East, but had also played a part in the extermination of European Jewry. The Nuremberg judges, the article said, possessed an affidavit from Rudolf Kastner, the former chairman of the Budapest Jewish Council. He had reported that a high-ranking Gestapo official had told him that the Mufti had encouraged Hitler to murder all of Europe’s Jews.
The American Zionist leadership argued that the Mufti’s responsibility for the extermination of European Jews constituted a “crime against humanity” and insisted that he be tried as a major war criminal at Nuremberg. The State Department refused to accept the Zionist position and also resisted persistent requests for the United States government to publish the documents that incriminated the Mufti in the liquidation of European Jewry. The Zionists therefore used their own formidable information apparatus to bring the “facts” to the American media and public.
Arab attempts to respond to the Zionist charge were not particularly effective. Kahil Totah, executive director of the Institute for Arab American Affairs, attempted to put the Mufti’s activities into historical perspective. There had been many examples of alliances between nations and groups based on shared interests, not shared principles. The American revolutionaries of the eighteenth century had fought Great Britain with the assistance of the despotic government of France; Communist Russia under Stalin had even forged a short-lived alliance with Hitler’s Germany. According to Totah, the Mufti, an ardent Arab patriot, had cooperated with the Nazis because he believed a German victory would facilitate the liberation of Palestine from British imperial control. The Mufti was a patriot, Totah said, not a Nazi.
Totah’s defense of the Mufti made little headway. In the late 1940s, Zionists and their supporters could find little reason to doubt the charges brought against al-Husseini. They believed (incorrectly) that he was primarily responsible for instigating the bloody 1936-39 Palestinian revolt. For Zionists it seemed reasonable that the Mufti, whom they believed was a rabid anti-Semite, would transfer his hatred of the Zionists in Palestine to the Jews of Europe. Not coincidentally, the attacks on the Mufti effectively countered Arab Palestinian claims that they were being asked to pay the penalty for a European-engineered crime.
The attacks on the Mufti were part of a larger pro-Zionist education campaign aimed at portraying the Arab leaders of the Middle East as reactionary despots intent on destroying the progressive Jewish experiment in Palestine. Several months before the end of the war, the American Zionist leadership determined that if a Jewish state were to be created, “the idea that the Arabs consent must be obtained . . . must be broken down.” Accordingly, they decided that their propaganda should stress that the Arabs represented “a reactionary element in the Middle East.”
Shortly afterwards, publicist Eliahu Ben-Horin wrote that “Arab social philosophy and the existing forms of Arab society are in harmony with the Nazi-Fascist system rather than our democratic ideas.” The Arab rulers of the Middle East, the last remaining bulwarks of feudalism in the world, “fight bitterly against any democratic or civilizing innovation.”
Zionist depictions of Arab society and Arab nationalism after World War II attempted to deny that there was any basic conflict between the goals of the Jewish settlers in Palestine and the aspirations of the land’s Arab majority. Believing that increased prosperity and better health care could win the loyalty of Palestine’s non-Jewish population, Zionists blamed tensions and unrest in the country on unscrupulous leaders committed to protecting their own selfish interests.
Very few American academics challenged the basic premises of the Zionist discourse in the immediate aftermath of World War II. It is gratifying that many historians of the Holocaust as well as journalists in Israel and the United States quickly rushed in to correct Netanyahu’s absurd charge. Somewhat harder to understand is the prevalent view that the Prime Minister’s statements in someway absolved the Nazis of their responsibility for the Holocaust. A deeper historical analysis reveals that Netanyahu was merely trying to steal a page from an earlier phase of Zionist politics. Even as his government pursues an annexationist policy in the West Bank, as well as a racist one within the 1967 armistice lines, Netanyahu argues that murderous anti-Semitism, not the imminent threat of displacement, motivates those Palestinians who resist the occupation.