The Jewish world is justifiably in an uproar about comments made over the weekend by U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). In an act of monumental chutzpah, Tlaib has made the claim that the Palestinians helped create “a safe haven” for Jews fleeing the Holocaust—a thought, she said, that gave her a “kind of calming feeling.”
Scholars and journalists have rebutted her revisionism by drawing attention to the pivotal role the the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, played in Arab politics, to the Arab-Nazi alliance he spearheaded, and to the anti-Semitic propaganda he broadcast during the four years he enjoyed Hitler’s hospitality in Berlin. They have pointed out that the overwhelming majority of Palestinian Arabs were Nazi sympathizers; the Arabs pressured the British to curtail Jewish immigration into Palestine that could have saved millions of lives. The Arab leadership led an anti-Semitic campaign within Palestine as early as the 1920s.
But few critics of Tlaib’s words have observed that the mufti, as well as other Syrian and Palestinian nationalists, began to sow the seeds of virulent anti-Semitism outside Palestine as early as the 1920s. The result was the mass displacement of 850,000 Jews from the Arab world, most of whom resettled in Israel after 1948. Does this forced exodus, directly attributable to Arab anti-Semitism, also give Tlaib a “calming feeling”?
Wherever the mufti went in the Arab world, persecution and mayhem against the local Jews followed. In 1921, Yemenite Jews in the Yishuv claimed it was due to Palestinian Arab pressure that the decree forcing Jewish orphans in Yemen to convert to Islam was reinstated. This, they said, had come about after a Palestinian Arab delegation had visited Yemen to demand that the Imam stop all immigration to Palestine. The Orphans’ Decree, argues scholar S.D. Goiten, was the single most important reason Jews were desperate to flee Yemen.
In the 1940s, visits of Palestinian Arabs to Aden (then a British crown colony) became more common, and so did the expression of anti-Jewish sentiments.
From December 1931, when he convened a World Islamic Congress in Jerusalem, the Mufti ceased to speak of Zionists, and instead spoke of Jews. All Arabs were exhorted to treat the Jews of their countries “as the Jews treat the Arabs of Palestine.”
The congress was followed by anti-Jewish violence in Morocco—in Casablanca in 1932, Casablanca and Rabat in 1933, Rabat and Meknes in 1937 and Meknes in 1939. In Tunisia, an entente between Tunisian nationalists and the Palestinian Arab Higher Committee sparked violence in Sfax in 1932. The Algerian ulema (religious scholars) declared a boycott against Jews in 1936, obeying the mufti’s instructions.
British reports noted the intense propaganda in Yemen. Jewish refugees tried to make for British-controlled Aden. In 1939, a crowd was incited against the British and the Jews when they were shown fabricated photographs of Arab children hanging from telegraph poles. Other newspapers mendaciously reported that thousands of Arabs had been killed and bombs thrown at the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem. In addition to his relentless his efforts to encourage pro-Nazi officers in Iraq to seize power, the grand mufti of Jerusalem incited the Farhud pogrom in Iraq by inciting the local Arabs against the Jews during his two-year exile in Baghdad.
Palestinian and Syrian exiles played a key role in inciting anti-Semitism in the Arab world. They could be credited for laying the groundwork for the Farhud, the brutal massacre of Iraqi Jews on 1 and 2 June 1941—seven years before Israel was created—in which at least 179 Jews were murdered. The 1941 Farhud against the Jews of Iraq could be termed the first deadly skirmish in the Palestinian Arab war against Jews, not Zionists. By the time the Farhud broke out, there were more than 400 such emigre families in the country. They exerted an influence far beyond their numbers. They were doctors, teachers and intellectuals who had mainly been exiled from Palestine with the mufti after 1936 and were to join him in Berlin as Hitler’s guests after 1941.
However, a contingent of disappointed exiles from Syria and Palestine had arrived as early as 1920. They had accompanied Emir Faisal when he arrived in Baghdad to become the British-installed king. Their aspirations to rule a pan-Arab kingdom from Damascus had been thwarted by the French. At their head was the Syrian ultra-nationalist Sati al-Husri, who became Director General of Education of Iraq and turned it into the “Prussia of Arab nations.” Al-Husri engaged in vicious anti-Semitism, doing his best to undermine Iraq’s first finance minister, the Jew Sir Sasson Heskel.
Al-Husri founded the nationalist Muthanna club. From this club sprang the ringleaders of the wartime Farhud pogrom. Al-Husri was later joined by the Syrian Fawzi al-Quwukji (who fought in the 1948 war against Israel) and other virulent anti-Semites. Some took matters (literally) into their own hands: Palestinian doctor Amin Ruwayba was accused of throwing a hand grenade at a Jewish club in 1936.
Al-Husri promoted Arab nationalism through education. In 1930s’ Iraq, the strident pan-Arab nationalists who surrounded the king had already ensured that there was really no place for Jews within political parties.In Iraqi schools, the teaching of Hebrew was banned and the school curriculum was “Nazified.” In 1937, the director-general of the Iraqi Ministry of Education, Fadel Jamali, was warmly welcomed in Germany and invited to send a delegation to the Nuremberg Nazi Party congress in 1938. The pro-Nazi government under Rashid Ali in Iraq in May 1941 cemented the only official alliance between an Arab country and the Axis powers.
The Palestinian Darwish al-Miqdadi returned to Iraq from studying in Germany and became leader of the pro-Nazi youth brigade, the Futuwwa. The Futuwwa went around daubing the houses of Jews with red khamsas prior to the Farhud in order to indicate to the mob which were the Jewish homes.
Exclusionary Palestinian nationalism, fathered by the mufti, was a hybrid creature of racial and religious anti-Semitism. The strands became impossible to disentangle. Almost from the start, the hostility to Jews at the core of Palestinian nationalism spilled over into the Arab world and was aimed at Jewish citizens.
Lyn Julius is the author of “Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Vanished Overnight” (Vallentine Mitchell, 2018).