There is much evidence to support Netanyahu’s underlying claim that the grand mufti had a substantial influence on the genocide that unfolded in Nazi-occupied Europe.
Some things never change. Earlier this week, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad Hussein, said that Jews never had a temple on the Temple Mount. Last week there was controversy over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech accusing a previous Grand Mufti of Jerusalem of complicity in the Holocaust. In fact, Netanyahu got the late Hajj Amin al-Husseini’s key role basically right. I am writing a biography of the Palestinian leader.
Speaking in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said of the Fuhrer’s well-documented 1941 meeting with Jerusalem Grand Mufti Husseini, “Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews. And al-Hajj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said, ‘If you expel them, they’ll all come here [to Palestine].’” According to Netanyahu, Hitler then asked what he should do with them, to which the mufti replied, “Burn them.”
I have not seen these quotations in the historical record. But there is much evidence to support Netanyahu’s underlying claim that the grand mufti had a substantial (and for a non-European, unparalleled) influence on the genocide that unfolded in Nazi-occupied Europe and that was planned for the Middle East as well.
After years of inciting violence against Jews as Jerusalem’s grand mufti (notably in 1920, 1929 and 1936), claiming “al-Aksa is in danger,” Husseini found an ally in Hitler’s Berlin during the 1930s. Husseini and many other Arabs of his day saw themselves as a defeated and humiliated people, much like the Germans after World War I. Nazi ideology therefore resonated deeply in the Arab world. In 1933, Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, was serialized in Arab newspapers and became a best-seller.
The Germans encouraged the mufti’s activities, even providing funds and weapons for the 1936-39 Palestinian revolt led by Husseini. The mufti had a steady link to the Nazi security service from 1937 on.
That year, Husseini called on all Muslims to rid their lands of Jews and drafted a Nazi-Islamist pact encouraging the spread of Nazi ideology, and boycotts of Jewish goods, among other provisions. In 1941, he instigated the al-Farhud pogrom in Iraq. Above all, the mufti called for the Axis powers to stop any Jewish influx into the Middle East.
On November 28, 1941, the mufti met with Hitler and the two appeared to come to an understanding that Jews would be killed rather than deported, an option hitherto still under consideration. Although Nazi mass shootings of European Jews began soon after the June 1941 invasion of Soviet Russia, plans for their comprehensive extermination came after this first Hitler-Husseini meeting. At that time the Germans expected the Middle East to become the next theater of war and were therefore averse to disrupting their Arab-Islamist alliance by flooding the region with Jewish refugees.
Adolf Eichmann and his subordinates frequently briefed Husseini, who now lived in comfort in Germany, on the ongoing genocide, as if to reassure him that Hitler had not changed his mind. Husseini met six times with Eichmann, who testified in Jerusalem years later about the mufti’s fierce opposition to the mass transfer of Jews to Palestine. SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler met Husseini in mid-1943 and told him that three million Jews had been liquidated so far.
Eichmann’s aide Dieter Wisliceny testified at the Nuremberg trials, “The mufti was one of the initiators of the systematic extermination of European Jewry … He was one of Eichmann’s best friends and had constantly incited him to accelerate the extermination measures. I heard him say, accompanied by Eichmann, he had visited incognito the gas chambers of Auschwitz.”
Husseini certainly believed his encouragement of Hitler and others to destroy the Jews of Europe was decisive in their decision to do so. He wrote in his memoirs that “world Jewry wanted to bring the Eastern European Jews to Palestine … Germany agreed to this … [w]e were able to foil this effort.”
The mufti further explained, “This caused the Jews to put ugly blame on me for being responsible for the liquidation of 400,000 Jews who were then not able to travel to Palestine,” referencing the known number of Hungarian Jews, half of whom perished.
“The Jews demanded to try me in Nuremberg as a war criminal.” Indeed, he put photocopies of those letters in his memoirs.
Beyond this, the mufti’s role in recruiting and indoctrinating Muslim SS troops in the Balkans and Soviet Asia makes him responsible for still more victims.
Netanyahu was not equating Husseini with all Palestinians, then or now. Rather, he was highlighting that the kind of eliminationist Palestinian incitement against Jews that began with the mufti continues today, and it emanates from within the same Islamist ideological line, using the same symbols and rhetoric about “protecting” holy sites from Jews.
“For the murder to stop, the incitement must stop,” Netanyahu said in his speech last week. Al-Hajj Amin al-Husseini is worth remembering because he spent his life repeatedly demonstrating this connection between incitement and murder.
The author is a scholar at the Middle East Forum. He co-authored with Barry Rubin Nazis, Islamists and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Yale UP 2014).