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The True Origin of Palestinian Suffering Was Not 1948

Amin al-Husseini (Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

However, there was one man who positioned himself very early on as an opponent to this growing Jewish presence in his homeland. This man was Haj Amin al-Husseini, who, in 1921, became the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.”

“The Palestine Holocaust is the result of a plot by foreign colonialism and World Jewry.”

—Haj Amin al-Husseini

It is frequently said that the troubles plaguing the Palestinian people go back to 1948, the year of the Nakba, or “disaster.” To a Palestinian nationalist, the Nakba refers to the ethnic cleansing by Jewish soldiers who uprooted hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes and forced them, at gunpoint, into the desert. These soldiers, and their families, would soon be living in these Palestinians’ old homes, with zero intention of ever giving them back. 

Given this context, it is perhaps understandable that the term “Holocaust” was frequently invoked by Palestinian and other Arab notables in their writings on the subject (though it is perhaps unsurprising given that the Arabic word “nakba” means the same thing as the Hebrew word “shoah”). However, there is a broader geopolitical context in which we can see additional moral complexity at work in 1948. The Holocaust being only three years old, the material imperative was compelling for a Zionist project that argued that the Jews would never be safe without a land of their own. The Jews could point to the near destruction of their people and culture in Europe as their Exhibit A. And, shortly thereafter, the Arabs would have the displacement of their people and culture in Palestine as their own Exhibit A. 

This inherent conflict between moral failure and moral imperative has long since been the fuel for many of the emotions underlying the long-running Israel-Palestinian conflict. It clearly has no “correct” answer, or at least not an obvious one if one sees the need for Jewish statehood and abhors imperialistic conquest. Taking that difficult position—as many are attempting to do—inevitably requires us to understand the suffering felt by the Palestinian people over the years. This is why a deeper examination of the relevant history—and the figures driving it—is in order if we are to understand this suffering. 

The Arab Revolt of 1936-1939

There are many valid entry points in the years preceding 1948, but if we take Israel’s existence now as a given—literally and morally—then it is best to start twelve years earlier with the outbreak of what has come to be known in most circles as the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939.While much has been said and written about the Arab Revolt of the late 1930s, no book—at least not in English—has been devoted to that subject. Israeli-American scholar and political analyst Oren Kessler sought to change that, with his 2023 book Palestine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Origins of the Middle East Conflict, the first major contribution in English in decades that covers this underappreciated part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and recent addition to The Wall Street Journal’s Best Books of 2023 list). It might seem counterintuitive to approach this topic so many years before Israel even existed, but Kessler does an admirable job making the case that this three-year period leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War was, “the crucible in which Palestinian identity coalesced.” Continuing, Kessler writes:

“It united rival families, urban and rural, rich and poor, in a single struggle against a common foe: the Jewish national enterprise— Zionism—and its midwife, the British Empire. A six-month general strike, one of the longest anywhere in modern history, roused Arabs and Muslims worldwide to the Palestine cause.”

Until the outbreak of the Great Revolt (as it is also known) in 1936, much of the Arab nationalist project rivaling the ongoing Zionist project had been stymied by various internal squabbles and constant conflict with the more militant soldiers of Zionism, like the Revisionist Zionists under Ze’ev Jabotinsky. The British Empire had been the law of the land since the Mandate for Palestine established in 1920. The Zionists had been given the green light for migration by the Balfour Declaration, issued by the British in 1917. This declaration had largely isolated Palestine, which was already largely seen as a backwater in the Arab world, known only for its holy sites like the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Western Wall. As a result, any interest in Arab Palestinian statehood seemed merely provincial. This predicament would change in the two decades that followed the Balfour Declaration. In the immediate aftermath, however, the only thing seeming to unite Palestinians was a growing discomfort with the increased migration of Jews from eastern Europe, most of whom were escaping pogroms and harsh treatment by state authorities.

However, there was one man who positioned himself very early on as an opponent to this growing Jewish presence in his homeland. This man was Haj Amin al-Husseini, who, in 1921, became the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. In Palestine 1936, Kessler showers appropriate attention on this figure from very early on because, despite what some scholars seemingly more sympathetic to the Mufti have seemed to suggest in the past, he plays a consistently antagonistic role in this story: to the British authorities, to the Zionists, and, most importantly, to the Palestinian people he claimed to be representing. The downstream cost of the Mufti’s intransigence and selfishness was not just measured in Jewish lives but also in those of the Palestinians whose tragic fate in the 21st century so many are inclined to blame on Israel and the West.

The Jew Hatred of the Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini

Most attention that al-Husseini receives has to do with his later alliance with the Nazis after being run out of Palestine and later the Middle East itself in 1941. The most infamous photograph of him shows him with the Führer Adolf Hitler himself, during a much-publicized meeting. The meeting itself has become overrated by the Mufti’s detractors, with even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2015 repeating the lie that al-Husseini was the source of inspiration for the Holocaust. In truth, the meeting with Hitler was characterized more by Hitler’s typical monologuing and his unwillingness to publicly throw his support behind the Arab nationalist cause, even with its newfound hostility toward Jews in general and not just Zionists in particular. To the Mufti’s likely disappointment, Hitler and the Nazis’ own racism made it unlikely that the Arabs would ever see much in the way of public support for their cause. However, the Mufti would develop more contacts within the Nazi hierarchy over the next four years, even developing something of a friendship with Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler and, as evidence has increasingly shown, developing an approving awareness of the genocide of Jews.

As nefarious as this part of the Mufti’s biography is, Kessler demonstrates that it pales in comparison to his role in securing the Palestinians’ fate for the next near century, over a decade before Israel even came into existence. This was made abundantly clear during the central event of Kessler’s book: the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939. This revolt, which was kicked off by the killing of the militant imam Izz ad-Din al-Qassam and his fellow fighters by British forces, served as the moment that seemingly disparate Arab forces finally came together to fight a common foe: the British Empire. This was apparent in the general strike that opened the revolt, called for by al-Husseini. As Kessler summarizes:

“On April 25 the mufti announced the birth of the Arab Higher Committee, a nationwide leadership council, chaired by himself. The AHC declared the general strike would continue until London drastically altered its Palestine policy. That meant three things: an end to Jewish immigration, a prohibition on land sales, and the establishment of representative government to reflect the country’s Arab majority.”

The end of Jewish immigration and prohibition of land sales were the priorities on the Mufti’s mind, but other evidence makes it clear that hatred of Jews was the core animating force of the Mufti’s thinking. Vocal supporters for the Palestinian cause, such as George Antonius, whom Kessler rightfully calls “[f]ar and away Arab Palestine’s most eloquent spokesman,” made the case that “the Arabs’ opposition to Zionism was rooted neither in Jew hatred nor in an inability to compromise” but, instead, on “their aspiration for independence was one on which they feel, rightly in [Antonius’] opinion, that no compromise was possible.” However, this view, held by the Arabs’ defenders in the British government, stands in stark and infamous contrast with al-Husseini’s own words. In the following year, he made a speech titled “Appeal to All Muslims of the World.” In the speech, the Mufti would proclaim the following:

“The Islamic world and the friends of Islam shall be shown how the Jews truly are in their innermost being. Usually, one only sees the Jews with the veneer of civilization, but the Arabs have learned best how they really are, that is, as they are described in the Qur’an and in the sacred scriptures. Then the agonies to which the Arabs in Palestine have been subjected can be understood. And one can imagine how these agonies will increase to the monstrous when the Jews have fully and completely laid their hands on Palestine. I present to my Muslim brothers in the entire world the history and the true experience which the Jews cannot deny. The verses from the Qur’an and hadith prove to you that the Jews have been the bitterest enemies of Islam and continue to try to destroy it. Do not believe them. They know only hypocrisy and guile. Hold together, fight for Islamic thought, fight for your religion and your existence! Do not rest until your land is free of the Jews.”

Such statements made by the Mufti demonstrate not just that his decision-making was compromised in the last year of the Revolt but also the significant role he played in hampering any future chances for Palestinian statehood itself. One of the most significant events described in Palestine 1936 involves the disastrous decision made by the Mufti on May 17th, 1939. A pre-1948 “two-state solution” had already been proposed the year before by the Peel Commission, which had been rejected by both the Arabs and the Zionists. By May of 1939, the British government was still pursuing policies of appeasement, most notably with Hitler and the Nazis, but also in the Arab world. For example, the British circulated what has come to be known to history as the MacDonald White Paper, which was drafted with the purpose of stopping the violence of the Revolt. Kessler summarizes the White Paper’s contents as follows:

“The statement announced unequivocally that it was not government policy that Palestine should become a Jewish state. Instead, the Mandate would be replaced within ten years by neither an explicitly Arab nor Jewish state but an independent ‘Palestine state,’ accompanied by a treaty protecting the Crown’s strategic interests. Until then the country would move toward significantly greater local involvement in governance, and toward restrictions against land sales. As to immigration, the government could not accept the Arab demand for a total stoppage, which would prove ruinous to Palestine’s economy, Jewish and Arab alike. And it could not ignore the predicament of Europe’s Jews, which Palestine ‘can and should make a further contribution’ to alleviating. Immigration, however, would no longer be open-ended. Rather, for the next five years it would be limited to the total figure stated at St. James’s— seventy-five thousand—and thereafter, only with the agreement of all sides. Without that consent, His Majesty’s Government would ‘not be justified in facilitating, nor will they be under any obligation to facilitate, the further development of the Jewish National Home by immigration regardless of the wishes of the Arab population.’ Lastly, in place of [MacDonald’s] earlier ‘double veto’ formula, the Arab veto now stood alone.”

This was nothing short of a crushing blow against the Zionist movement and a resounding victory for the Arab nationalists, including the leadership within the Arab Higher Committee, who were all gathered together in a Beirut apartment at the time of the Paper’s release. The atmosphere in the apartment was remembered by one of the men present as being one of excitement. However, the person who lived in this apartment was not smiling: the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. The rest of the leadership were ready to accept the terms of the White Paper and end the Arab Revolt right then and there, beginning a new era of greater Palestinian self-determination and statehood than had ever previously existed. But the Mufti was having none of it. As Kessler describes it, the Mufti believed the Paper had “too many loopholes” and that “its transition period was too long, and its reference to the ‘special position’ that the future state would have to grant the Jewish national home was an insult.” The rest of the committee was incredulous; as one member recalled, the Mufti’s “negative stand was extremely detrimental to the Arab cause and was serving, unintentionally, the Zionist cause.” But the Mufti had the final say; this was his committee and, thus, his decision to make. And it would be his consequences to bear.

Kessler suspects that the main reason the mufti did not approve of the White Paper was pride, given the “continued British refusal to allow him a triumphant homecoming to Palestine.” Al-Husseini’s hunger for power and recognition was and remains well known, but it is also clear that his seething hatred of Jews also affected his judgment. Years before the establishment of the Jewish state, this addiction to personal power and influence, coupled with a blinding hatred for Jews as a people, robbed the Palestinian people of a chance to determine their own fate as a people, free of the imperial influence they so clearly detested.

It is certainly possible that the Mufti was correct in his cynicism about the motives of the British, or that the more open-ended language of the White Paper allowed for too much wiggle room for the Arabs to be stabbed in the back. But he had no real way of knowing what would eventually happen. Even more sympathetic historians, like Lebanese historian Gilbert Achcar, refer to his decision as, “the major historical error of the Palestinian national movement.” And, yet, both al-Husseini and his decision in 1939 are largely forgotten to history. Kessler has noted that, apart from a single street in Gaza being named for him, very few Palestinians show much recognition of al-Husseini at all. His legacy was partly overshadowed by growing awareness of the horrors of the Holocaust in the years that followed World War II, “render[ing] the mufti a diplomatic pariah,” as Kessler puts it. 

Al-Husseini’s Legacy: Betrayal of the Palestinian People

Al-Husseini continued to hold influence with the Palestinian people. However, by 1948, he had largely lost it all. In 1947, he had reverted to his old ways of declaring boycotts and never compromising on anything—despite or likely because of his diplomatic pariah status. After the defeat of Arab forces in 1948 and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, it was he who was seen as the proper scapegoat. Given the blame he faced and the wartime baggage he carried, he would soon be overshadowed by figures such as Yasser Arafat.

The reality, however, is that al-Husseini had already been seen for the destructive force that he was to the Palestinian people almost a decade earlier. He faced mounting criticism after his decision in 1939 was made public. Kessler points out that many rebels were outraged, “castigating Haj Amin for having ‘desecrated the holy rebellion’ for his own selfish aims,” with another one writing “that there was ‘not even one loyal and perceptive Arab who did not approve of the White Paper.’” These revolutionaries, who possessed just as much agency as anyone else in this conflict, recognized that it was not the forces of colonialism or even “world Jewry” that robbed them of this chance for victory. They saw the thief for who he was. They recognized that the consequences of the Mufti’s decisions—and, in many ways, his decisions alone—would last for generations to come. Indeed, the Mufti’s decision resounds to this very day if we follow the historical causal chain. As Kessler explains in Palestine 1936:

“What is relevant here, yet generally overlooked, is the reality that the Arabs of Palestine had effectively already lost the war, and with it most of the country, a decade in advance. The Great Revolt that had preceded the Second World War had left Palestine’s Arabs mortally wounded for the decisive contest with Zionism that awaited after the peace. Tens of thousands were dead, imprisoned, or in exile. The political, business, and landed elite were profoundly divided; internecine feuding had riven virtually every town and village. The economy was in ruins, but worse, so too was national morale.”

Palestine’s Arabs had had a potential reprieve in 1939. One could even call it an olive branch, or more accurately, a near-decisive victory. But that victory and its rewards—and any relief those rewards might have given future Palestinians—were blatantly betrayed by a man whose only noteworthy place in the historical record is, perhaps rightfully, a photograph of him smiling pleasantly and sitting across from Hitler.

Alexander von Sternberg is a graduate student in history, as well as a writer and podcaster living in Los Angeles. He has written essays and reviews for a number of publications and hosts the historical podcast History Impossible.

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