Hitler’s ‘Jolly Elf’ and The New York Times
Haj Amin al-Husseini was one of the seminal figures of the 20th century. He was a founding father of Palestinian nationalism and a Nazi collaborator, whose support for terror and rejection of social and political equality for Jews in their ancestral homeland are imprinted on today’s Middle East.
Despite — or perhaps because of — his crimes, al-Husseini was often celebrated in life and whitewashed in death. And an obituary from The New York Times offers some clues as to why.
Born to a ruling Jerusalem family in 1895, al-Husseini did a stint in the Ottoman Army during World War I, and later served as an Arabic translator for Reuters‘ Jerusalem bureau in 1918. Shortly thereafter, he became a leading figure in violently opposing Zionism — the belief in Jewish self-determination.
He helped orchestrate the so-called Nebi Musa riots on April 4 and 5, 1920, in which Jerusalem’s Arab residents attacked Jewish men, women and children. Prior to the riot, posters were placed in the city’s Muslim quarter, exhorting residents to “Kill the Jews: There is no punishment for killing Jews.”
Al-Husseini was convicted in absentia by the ruling British authorities of the Mandate, but he was subsequently pardoned and appointed in 1921 to be mufti of Jerusalem — the highest Muslim cleric in the land. Worse still, al-Husseini was chosen over several “more moderate” and less virulently antisemitic candidates, as the historians David Dalin and John F. Rothmann detailed in their 2008 book, Icon of Evil.
On May 1, 1922, al-Husseini — again with British support — was elected president of the Supreme Muslim Council, a British-created body tasked with administering religious courts, mosques, Islamic holy shrines and schools in the Mandate. He promptly appointed 21 of his own relatives to the council, and threatened any Arab rival or critic with violence.
This was the beginning of what was to be a long-running pattern: Influential powers appeasing Palestinian Arab violence — often in the belief that peace could be achieved by cozying up to “hard-liners.” Nepotism and authoritarian control of multiple institutions would also become par for the course in Palestinian politics.
In August 1929, the mufti played an instrumental role in the 1929 Hebron massacre, in which 133 Jews were murdered and 339 were wounded. The British responded with more appeasement and reneging on promises to help establish “close Jewish settlement on the land” west of the Jordan River, as the League of Nations Palestine Mandate, Article 6 — among other post-World War I items relevant to international law –called for.
The mufti saw Hitler and European fascists as allies in his war against the West and the Jews. Various Arab rejectionist groups — some supplied by Benito Mussolini’s Italian government — took up arms, launching terror attacks against both Jews and the British from 1936 to 1939.
As a result, the British curtailed Jewish immigration from Nazi-dominated Europe, dooming an untold number of Jews fleeing extermination.
During World War II, the mufti disseminated Nazi propaganda, raised SS regiments in the Balkans and worked to install pro-Nazi regimes in the Middle East. After being given refuge in Berlin, al-Husseini toured death camps, was a pen pal with top Nazi officials like Heinrich Himmler and was granted an audience with Hitler himself on at least one occasion.
In his memoirs, al-Husseini detailed what he asked for in that November 28, 1941 meeting with Adolf: “Our fundamental condition for cooperating with Germany was a free hand to eradicate every last Jew from Palestine and the Arab world.”
Indeed, the mufti planned to replicate the Nazi’s death machinery. Only Allied success prevented him from doing so. At war’s end, he managed to escape justice, with considerable help from the French, who refused to turn him over to the British or the Americans.
From a base in Cairo, and later in Beirut, the mufti continued to pursue his objectives, raising terrorist brigades to attack Israel during its 1948 War of Independence, and, in 1951, assassinating Jordan’s King Abdullah, who had, at times, been in secret talks with Zionist leaders.
When he died from cancer in Beirut on July 4, 1974, The New York Times’ obituary noted that, despite dying “in obscurity,” the mufti stayed in “luxurious villas” and maintained a role as a delegate for the Arab Higher Committee. Leadership of the “Palestinian cause” — as the mufti himself defined it — had long-since passed to a distant cousin, Yasser Arafat, who continued his predecessor’s support for terrorism and rejecting peace.
The Times’ obit merely stated that al-Husseini was a “willing collaborator” who simply reviewed a “contingent of Moslem ‘storm troopers’ in Bosnia.” Facts — such as the mufti’s self-stated desire to commit genocide — were simply chalked up as “charges.”
The New York Times even wrote: “When he was a power in the turbulent affairs of the Middle East, he was described as a handsome and soft‐spoken Moslem gentleman. One journalist said his face was that of ‘a jolly elf.’ He had keen and often smiling blue eyes.”
It’s hard to imagine an obituary for a Nazi being written in a similar fashion.
Indeed, the mufti was well-regarded in many quarters while he was still alive. In his posthumously published 1965 book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the author recounted meeting al-Husseini in 1964, describing him as a “cordial man of great dignity,” who was well “well up on world affairs.” The mufti referred to New York as “Jew York” — an occurrence that didn’t seem to trouble Malcolm X. The mufti, Malcolm wrote, “seems well loved.”
Indeed, in a January 4, 2013 speech, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called the mufti a “pioneer.”
The mufti not only escaped justice, he seems to have escaped judgment, as well. Except, perhaps, from those who see his methods as a model.
The writer is a senior research analyst for CAMERA, the Boston-based, 65,000-member Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.