In his 2004 book The Return of Anti-Semitism, Gabriel Schoenfeld declared that “the ancient and modern strands of anti-Semitism” have been “successfully fused today” in the Muslim world, “and from there the hatred of Jews receives its main propulsion outward.” In the 2003 Never Again? The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism, Abraham Foxman added, “Virulent anti-Semitism is widespread throughout the Arab Middle East . . . . Anti-Semitism is tolerated or openly endorsed by Arab governments, disseminated by the Arab media, taught in [Muslim] schools and universities, and preached in mosques. No segment of [Islamic] society is free of its taint.” And in the 1999 Semites and Anti-Semites, Bernard Lewis concluded, “Classical anti-Semitism is an essential part of Arab intellectual life at the present time.”
It is possible to trace modern Islamic anti-Semitism back along a number of different historical and intellectual threads, but, no matter which one you choose, they all seem to pass, at one point or another, through the hands of one figure—Hitler’s mufti, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the viciously anti-Semitic grand mufti of Jerusalem and the leader of Muslim fundamentalists in Palestine, who resided in Berlin as a welcome guest of the Nazis throughout the years of the Holocaust.
The child of a wealthy and influential Palestinian Arab family, al-Husseini was born in Jerusalem in 1893. Living in Jerusalem during the 1920s, he quickly emerged as the recognized leader of the Arabs under the British government in Palestine. From his earliest years, Kenneth R. Timmerman recently noted, al-Husseini was “a ferocious opponent of Jewish immigration to Palestine,” with an unrelenting hatred of the Jews and the British. His career as an anti-Semitic agitator and terrorist began on April 4, 1920, when he and his followers went on a murderous rampage, attacking Jews on the street and looting Jewish stores. He was subsequently convicted by a military tribunal of inciting the anti-Semitic violence that had resulted in the killing of five Jews and the wounding of 211 others.
Sadly, the British—recognizing his status among the Palestinians—disregarded his record and appointed him to the prestigious post of grand mufti of Jerusalem in 1922, which made him both the religious and political leader of the Palestinian Arabs. Only two months after his appointment, his propaganda, including a new translation into Arabic of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, precipitated a second anti-Jewish riot in Palestine. On August 23, 1929, al-Husseini led a massacre of sixty Jews in Hebron and another forty-five in Safad.
Then, in the early 1930s, al-Husseini began to make overtures to the new Nazi government of Germany. The alliance between Adolf Hitler and the Muslim fundamentalist world was initiated and forged by the grand mufti at the very beginning of the new Nazi regime. In late March 1933, al-Husseini contacted the German consul general in Jerusalem and requested German help in eliminating Jewish settlements in Palestine—offering, in exchange, a pan-Islamic jihad in alliance with Germany against Jews around the world. It was not until 1938, in the aftermath of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s infamous capitulation to Hitler at Munich, that Hajj Amin al-Husseini’s overtures to Nazi Germany were officially reciprocated, but by then the influence of Nazi ideology had already grown significantly throughout the Arab Middle East.
In 1934, when the anti-Jewish Nuremberg laws were promulgated, telegrams of congratulations to Hitler were sent from all over the Islamic world—especially, as Paul Longgrear and Raymond McNemar have noted in their 2003 essay, “The Arab/Muslim Nazi Connection,” from Morocco and Palestine, where the German propaganda machine had been most active. Several of the Arab political parties founded during the 1930s were modeled after the Nazi party, including the Syrian Popular Party and the Young Egypt Society, which were explicitly anti-Semitic in their ideology and programs. The leader of Syria’s Socialist Nationalist Party, Anton Sa’ada, imagined himself an Arab Hitler and placed a swastika on his party’s banner.
The pro-Nazi mood and increasingly anti-Jewish worldview of al-Husseini and his cohorts among the new Arab leadership was described this way by a leader of the Baath party in Syria: “We were racists, admiring Nazism, reading its books and the sources of its thought, particularly Nietzsche, . . . Fichte, and H.S. Chamberlain’s Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, which revolves on race. We were the first to think of translating Mein Kampf. Whoever lived during this period in Damascus would appreciate the inclination of the Arab people to Nazism, for Nazism was the power which could serve as its champion, and he who is defeated will by nature love the victor.”
Though he was the grand mufti of Jerusalem, al-Husseini moved his base of operations (and pro-Nazi propaganda) to Lebanon in 1938 and to Iraq in 1939, where he helped establish the strongly pro-German Rashid Ali al-Gaylani as prime minister. His role as a loyal Axis ally was increasingly appreciated by the German government, which invited him to base his activities in Berlin. On the very day that he arrived, November 6, 1941, Husseini met with Ernst von Weizsacker, the German foreign minister. Three weeks later, on November 28, 1941, Husseini met for the first time with Hitler. As Timmerman has correctly argued, “al-Husseini owes his place in history” to this meeting, where he offered to raise an Arab legion to help carry out Hitler’s extermination of the Jews. “The mufti’s close ties to Hitler, and his total embrace of Hitler’s Final Solution,” concludes Timmerman, “provides the common thread linking past to present. If today’s Muslim anti-Semitism is like a tree with many branches, its roots feed directly off of Hitler’s Third Reich.”
From the outset of his stay in Berlin, al-Husseini was portrayed in Nazi propaganda as the spiritual and religious leader of Islam. On January 8, 1942, Radio Berlin reported that the mufti had “announced in a telegram to the German Führer before the whole world his adherence to the Tripartite Pact against Britain, Jews, and Communists.” In a speech announcing his arrival in Germany, he called the Jews the “most fierce enemies of the Muslims” and an “ever-corruptive element” in the world. From his Arab Bureau office in Berlin, al-Husseini mobilized political and military support for the Nazi regime and organized networks of spies throughout the Middle East. As Bernard Lewis has reminded us, even Anwar Sadat, “by his own admission, worked as a German spy in British-occupied Egypt” for al-Husseini.
There is also evidence the mufti advised and assisted his German hosts in the destruction of European Jewry. His importance “must not be disregarded,” insisted Adolf Eichmann’s deputy Dieter Wisliceny in 1941. “The Mufti had repeatedly suggested to the various authorities with whom he was maintaining contact, above all to Hitler, Ribbentrop, and Himmler, the extermination of European Jewry.” At the Nuremberg Trials, Wisliceny was even more explicit: “The mufti was one of the initiators of the systematic extermination of European Jewry and had been a collaborator and adviser of Eichmann and Himmler in the execution of this plan. He was one of Eichmann’s best friends and had constantly incited him to accelerate the extermination measures. I heard him say that, accompanied by Eichmann, he had visited incognito the gas chamber of Auschwitz.” On this visit to Auschwitz, al-Husseini reportedly “admonished the guards running the gas chambers to work more diligently.”
In 1943 al-Husseini traveled several times to Bosnia, where he helped recruit a Bosnian Muslim S.S. company, the notorious “Hanjar troopers,” who slaughtered 90 percent of Bosnia’s Jews and burned “countless Serbian churches and villages.” Throughout World War II, al-Husseini preached regularly on radio broadcasts to the Middle East. On November 2, 1943, less than three weeks after the initial Nazi roundup of Roman Jews and the beginning of the Nazi occupation of the Italian capital, he used German radio to broadcast one of his most virulently anti-Semitic messages: “The overwhelming egoism which lies in the character of Jews, their unworthy belief that they are God’s chosen nation and their assertion that all was created for them and that other people are animals” makes them “incapable of being trusted. They cannot mix with any other nation but live as parasites among the nations, suck out their blood, embezzle their property, corrupt their morals.” “Kill the Jews wherever you find them,” the Mufti told his growing Arab radio audience in 1944. “This pleases God, history, and religion.”
“It is hardly accidental that the beginning of the systematic physical destruction of European Jewry by Hitler’s Third Reich roughly coincided with the Mufti’s arrival in the Axis camp,” Joseph B. Schechtmann pointed out in his 1965 book The Mufti and the Führer. And much of the Arab-Muslim leadership in the Middle East learned to share al-Husseini’s ideas about the Jews during the Second World War.
After the defeat of the Axis powers, Hajj Amin al-Husseini escaped indictment as a war criminal at Nuremberg by fleeing to Egypt, where he received political asylum and where, shortly after his arrival, he met the young Yasser Arafat, a teenager then living in Cairo. (Arafat and al-Husseini were, in fact, distantly related: Arafat’s mother was the daughter of al-Husseini’s first cousin.) Arafat soon became a devoted protégé of the grand Mufti, who brought a former Nazi commando to Egypt to teach Arafat and others how to fight. Arafat first shed Jewish blood during terrorist raids against Israel in 1947.
The Mufti’s mission of waging ongoing war against the Jews was continued by Arafat during the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1969, for example, the PLO recruited two former Nazi instructors, Erich Altern, a leader of the Gestapo’s Jewish affairs section, and Willy Berner, an S.S. officer in the Matthausen extermination camp. Another former Nazi, Johann Schuller, was found supplying arms to the Fatah. The Belgian Jean Tireault, secretary of the neo-Nazi La Nation Européenne, also went on the Fatah payroll. Still another Belgian, the neo-Nazi Karl van der Put, recruited the PLO. So, too, the German neo-Nazi Otto Albrecht was arrested in West Germany with PLO identity papers, after the PLO had given him $1.2 million to buy weapons.
Arafat always revered al-Husseini, who died in 1974, as his beloved hero and mentor. In a major address in April 1985, Arafat said he took “immense pride” in being the Mufti’s student and emphasized that the PLO “is continuing the path” he set. Close to thirty years after al-Husseini’s death, Arafat referred in an August 2002 interview to “our hero al-Husseini” as a “symbol of withstanding world pressure, having remained an Arab leader in spite of demands to have him replaced because of his Nazi ties.”
As Robert S. Wistrich has persuasively argued, the anti-Jewish legacy of Nazism “has proven to be especially potent” in the Arab-Islamic world, “where anti-Semitism is once again acquiring a potentially lethal charge.” This new and insidious Islamic anti-Semitism, with its roots in the virulently anti-Jewish ideology of Nazism, has become pervasive throughout the Arab world. In point of fact, as Wistrich demonstrates, “there is currently a culture of hatred that permeates books, magazines, newspapers, sermons, video-cassettes, the internet, television, and radio in the Arab Middle East which has not been seen since the heyday of Nazi Germany.”
Portions of the tradition of Muslim anti-Semitism date from as far back as the Middle Ages, but in recent decades, as Wistrich has suggested, the dehumanizing images of Jews and Israel that have penetrated the body politic of Islam have been sufficiently radical in tone and content to constitute a new “warrant for genocide.” Something different, something new, entered the Arab mind in the twentieth century. And its origins are not particularly hard to trace. Much of this new Muslim-inspired anti-Semitism owes its development to one man: Hajj Amin al-Husseini, who so passionately supported and contributed to Hitler’s Final Solution.
This unholy legacy of virulent anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish terrorism has been an enduring one: In the sixty years since the Holocaust, Hajj Amin al-Husseini has become the hero of the terrorist Palestine Liberation Organization, the founding father of the radical Palestine National Movement, and the inspiration of two generations of radical Islamic leaders to carry on Hitler’s war against the Jews.
David G. Dalin is a professor of history and political science at Ave Maria University. This article is adapted from his new book The Myth of Hitler’s Pope.