What impact did the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, have on the Nazi enterprise? According to Dani Dayan, chairman of Yad Vashem, the Mufti’s role was limited—so marginal, in fact, that Dayan refused to reinstate a large photo of the Mufti meeting Hitler in November 1941.
The floor-to-ceiling photo used to feature at the Museum before it was redesigned in the 1990s. Denying at first that the photo was ever at Yad Vashem, Dayan even told Haaretz: “Those who want me to put it up aren’t really interested in the Mufti’s part in the Holocaust, which was limited anyway, but seek to harm the image of the Palestinians today. The Mufti was an anti-Semite. But even if I abhor him, I won’t turn Yad Vashem into a tool serving ends not directly related to the study and memorialization of the Holocaust. Hasbara [puboic diplomacy] … is an utterly irrelevant consideration that shall not enter our gates.”
It is certainly true that the Mufti was marginal to the “final solution.” Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was wrong to remark in 2018 that the Mufti “convinced” Hitler to annihilate the Jews.
However, there were instances when the Mufti, who was known to have visited Nazi camps and hobnobbed with Himmler and von Ribbentrop, proved even more extreme than the Nazis. In 1942, a plan to bring 10,000 Jewish children from Poland to Theresienstadt and exchange them for German civilian prisoners was dropped after fierce protests from the Mufti.
The children were sent to their deaths. The Mufti’s Muslim S.S. units in the former Yugoslavia murdered tens of thousands. According to the Mufti’s memoirs, Hitler had given an explicit undertaking to him at their famous meeting in November 1941 that he would be allowed to solve the Jewish problem. “The Jews are yours,” Hitler said.
The Mufti did not have the satisfaction of exterminating the Jews in his sphere of influence, but his alliance with the Nazis was far more ideological than pragmatic.
It is not the Mufti’s effect on the Nazis that Dayan ignores, but rather his impact on the Arabs. And here he had a massive effect, and—many would argue—still has. Wherever he went in the Arab world, the Mufti stirred up trouble against the local Jews. He was the driving force behind the pro-Nazi coup in Iraq leading to the Farhud massacre of hundreds of Jews in June 1941—proof-positive that anti-Zionism had spilled over into outright anti-Semitism.
Escaping to Berlin when he was Hitler’s lavishly funded wartime guest, the Mufti with a group of Arab exiles pumped out poisonous propaganda from the short-wave transmitter at Zeesen, fusing anti-Jewish verses from the Quran with modern anti-Jewish conspiracy theories.
The Mufti was, for various realpolitik reasons, never tried at Nuremberg. This meant that, unlike in Europe, Nazi-inspired anti-Semitism was never discredited in the Arab and Muslim world.
When the war was over, one by-product was the mass ethnic cleansing of almost a million Jews from Arab countries: Arab League states drafted anti-Semitic decrees eerily reminiscent of the Nuremberg laws, stripping Jews of their rights and stealing their property. The effect of Nazi incitement on an illiterate and easily swayed Arab population cannot be discounted. In 1945, pogroms erupted in Egypt and cost the lives of 130 Jews in Libya.
To assert that the Nazis and their Arab sympathizers had no connection with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is historically illiterate. The Mufti was, according to the scholar Matthias Kuentzel, the lynchpin between the Nazis’ great war against the Jews and the Arabs’ small war against Israel.
Nazism inspired paramilitary youth groups, such as Young Egypt. and Arab nationalist parties, such as the Ba’ath and the Syrian Socialist National parties, which still exist today. Nasser’s regime engaged fugitives from Goebbels’ propaganda office, Leopold von Mildenstein and Johann van Leers, among other Nazi war criminals, to spread vicious anti-Semitism in Egypt. One 1956 CIA report pronounced the Arabs “hypnotized” by their efforts.
Nazism and Stalinism both fueled anti-Semitic anti-Zionism. Arab intellectuals, such as Fiyaz Sayegh, who was once a member of the Nazi-inspired Syrian Socialist National Party, exported their anti-Semitic ideologies to the West. Sayegh linked the Palestinian struggle to the international left by pioneering the idea of Zionism as “settler colonialism.” He was the architect of the notorious 1975 ‘Zionism is racism” U.N. resolution.
The Mufti was far from the only pro-Nazi in the Arab world, as he is sometimes portrayed; the Nazis were hugely popular among Arabs. They called Hitler “Muallem” or “Hajji Hitler.” A major cog in the Arabic-speaking propaganda machine was Yunis Bahri, whose “Voice of the Arabs” became so popular that the BBC despaired of competing with his radio broadcasts when the war was over.
The form of Islamized anti-Semitism promoted by the Mufti became ever more influential after World War II. It was the central plank of the philosophy of the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots, such as Hamas. Had there been Jews remaining in Syria and northern Iraq during the ISIS rampage in 2014, they would certainly have been massacred.
The Abraham Accords have been crucial in breaking down hostility towards Jews and Israelis, but there is still a deep current of anti-Semitism awash in the Arab world. To know the present, one needs to understand the past. But history is not hasbara, and it is ill-served by myopic and Eurocentric misconceptions.
Lyn Julius is the author of “Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Vanished Overnight” (Vallentine Mitchell, 2018).