The mufti and the Holocaust, revisited


A senior British official serving abroad wrote to his superiors in London in1929, “If a man was a Jew, it was good enough for him to be killed or stamped out.”

From where was this gentleman — Maj. Alan Saunders — writing his dispatch? From Munich or Berlin? In fact, no. Saunders was the head of the British police in Palestine during the mandate period, and his statement concerned the massacre by Arabs, in August that year, of 69 Jews in Hebron, a city where their community had been a continuous presence for at least two millennia.

I was reminded of Saunders’s pithy summary of the motive behind the Hebron pogrom when news broke of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, in which he essentially argued that it was the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who crystallized the idea of the mass extermination of the Jews in Adolf Hitler’s mind. But before I talk about the controversy that followed these comments, I want to make some more general observations by way of introduction.

The first is that, while Hitler unarguably remains the most powerful and devastating anti-Semite to ever hold state power, he was far from the only one at that time to approach the “Jewish question” in exterminationist terms. As Saunders related from Palestine about an episode that presaged the Nazi atrocities that were to follow in Germany and then in occupied Europe and North Africa, the same hatred of Jews simply for being Jews was in painful evidence there.

The second is that, as an Israeli Jew, Netanyahu is naturally sensitive to the Palestinian Arab dimension of the broader issue of collaboration with the Nazis, something I can relate to. As a kid, I remember sitting around my grandfather’s table with his relatives from Bosnia — men who had fought with Marshal Tito’s communist partisans against the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia that began in 1941. And yet, when they spoke about the war, their anger really flowed when they remembered the locals who had assisted the Germans. Like Netanyahu now, what they found hardest to stomach was the spectacle of those non-Jewish neighbors collaborating with the Nazi extermination program.

In the pantheon of Nazi collaborators,  Haj Amin al-Husseini is right up there with Pavelic in Croatia, Petain in France, Horthy in Hungary, and all the other quislings who implemented Hitler’s will. It was, ironically, the British authorities who appointed him to his position in 1921. During the 1929 massacre in Hebron, as during the openly anti-Semitic 1936-39 Arab revolt in Palestine, al-Husseini proved himself a confirmed Jew-hater and the natural ally of Hitler in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

It wasn’t until November 1941 that the mufti met Hitler in person. In the official German record of their discussions, it was clear that both Hitler and the mufti were already in agreement that the Holocaust had to be visited upon the Jews. For his part, the mufti expressed his appreciation of Germany’s commitment to the “elimination of the Jewish national home,” while Hitler restated his “active opposition to the Jewish national home in Palestine, which was nothing other than a center, in the form of a state, for the exercise of destructive influence by Jewish interests.”

Had Palestine been conquered by the Germans from the British, there is no doubt that the mufti would have been installed as the local quisling and that the entire Jewish population would have been shipped to concentration and death camps in Europe — assuming that the Germans and their Arab militias didn’t build similar camps in the vicinity, of course. That was the mutual vision expressed in Berlin in 1941, the distinctly Arab contribution to the achievement of the “Thousand Year Reich.”

Ben Cohen is senior editor of and The Tower Magazine. He writes a weekly column for on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

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