Al-Husayni, as the head of religious affairs in Jerusalem, used his position to increase his influence not only among Muslims in Palestine but throughout the Arab world. One way he accomplished this was by fundraising for the Al-Aqsa Mosque built on the Temple Mount.
Despite the often mentioned phrase that "Jerusalem is the third-holiest city in Islam," Islam has never treated Jerusalem as anything other than a slum before modern Zionism. Pictures of the Al-Aqsa mosque from before 1922 show an empty ruin, strewn with weeds and with visible damage.
As photos and history show, Jerusalem was never a place of pilgrimage in Islam. The politically astute Husayni had ample reason to increase Muslim awareness of Jerusalem and increase his own power. He went on a fundraising tour of the Arab world, saying that he was defending the Al Aqsa Mosque from being destroyed by the Jews.
By the late 1920s he had raised enough money to repair and renovate the Dome, he had increased his influence in the Arab world at large as a real Arab leader, and his prestige among Palestnian Muslims skyrocketed. Not incidentally, he also managed to marginalize his family's major Jerusalem rivals, the Nashashibi family. To a large extent, the myth of the extent of Jerusalem's holiness to Muslims is a direct result of the Mufti's activities in te 1920s.
Palestine's Muslims, thirsting for Arab leadership, mostly accepted Husayni in that role. Together with his control of ever-increasing amounts of money his influence continued to grow. And his unbridled hatred for Jews colored every move he made.
Incensed at the Jews who continuously flocked to the Western Wall, Husayni created a story that Mohammed tethered his winged horse to the Wall during his mythical "Night Journey" and therefore the Wall itself was a holy Muslim place as well. Palestine's Muslims were more than willing to believe this new claim, and the Mufti knew his audience well enough to be able to incite them to any violence whenever he wanted.
An interesting aspect of "honor" is that, in the context of conflict, it is something that can be defended but not something that can be initiated. Throwing the first punch is not honorable. Defending one's family, people and religion, however, is praiseworthy.
An Arab leader who seeks the honor that comes from being a great warrior, therefore, needs to find a pretext for attacking - a reason to make his attack look defensive. The flimsiest excuse will do, and the Arab mentality provides the ability to interpret anything at all as a gross insult to the Arab people or to Islam. Here's why:
The guilt culture of the West is based, at least nominally, on reality - facts and results and accomplishments are the building blocks of the Western mindset..
The shame culture of the East, on the other hand, is based on perception, on how one is viewed rather than what he has actually done.
The importance of perception gives rise to the importance of symbolism in Arab culture. A symbol is, after all, only a representation. Symbols do not have any tangible value., but they have huge perceptional value - and perception is everything to Arabs.
The supreme importance of symbols in the Arab world leads to a number of corollaries.
Arab projection will assume that the West places the same importance on symbolism that Arabs do. As a result, during wartime, Arabs choose targets based on symbolic value more often that their strategic value. 9-11 is only one example.
Projection will also assume that the enemy places the same importance on symbolism, and as a result even innocuous actions by the enemy are perceived as huge (symbolic) insults to Arabs - because that is their entire frame of reference. A torn Koran, a damaged mosque, an offhand comment can all take on gigantic importance.
al-Husayni and his fellow religious leaders had already identified his enemy - the Jews. He had already identified his battleground - the Western Wall. Now all he had to do was wait for an event that he could spin as a gross offense that would provide cover for his retaliation, and that he could use to whip up the emotions of the Arabs that accepted him as their leader.
His chance occurred on September 23, 1928, on the afternoon before Yom Kippur. The Jews had erected a temporary, cloth screen to separate men and women during the holy day, and the Arabs sheikhs complained to the British that it must be taken down immediately or else "they would not be responsible for what happened." Such temporary mechitzot had been placed at the Kotel in years and decades past, but coupled with the Mufti's claims of the Jews wanting to take over the Temple Mount, any physical alteration of the site was taken to be an intense provocation and proof of Jewish designs on the entire area.
The British wanted to avoid antagonizing the Arabs, and even when they suggested that perhaps the screen can stay up until the end of the fast day, the Arabs continued to threaten violence. So the British dismantled the screen on Yom Kippur morning, and Husayni won the first round for control of the Western Wall with only threats of violence. But he got his supposed Jewish provocation that he could use an an excuse for violence. He then proceeded to distribute leaflets accusing the Jews of planning to take over the mosque.
In early 1929, the Arabs started their own prayer service opposite the Wall at precisely the same times as the Jewish prayer services. They started herding mules through the area. They "accidentally" dropped bricks from new construction on the mosque above onto the Jewish worshippers. They also applied for, and received, permission from the British for the building adjacent to the Kotel to be converted to a mosque. The British continued to prove to be cowed by threats of Arab violence.
On August 15, 1929, on Tisha B'Av, members of the Betar youth movement held a peaceful demonstration in front of the Wall. The Arabs then started a rumor that Betar attacked Muslims and cursed Mohammed. The very next day, the Supreme Muslim Council marched on the Wall and burned prayer books and notes in the Wall. The day after that, on the Jewish Sabbath, riots continued an an Arab mob killed a Jew in Jerusalem. The "disturbances" of 1929 had started.
Everyone knew that the riots would spread throughout Palestine. The British were warned but did nothing, and some reports had them standing by during actual murders. The Haganah organized and repulsed attacks against some areas, but others - particularly old Jewish communities who had lived in relative harmony with their Arab neighbors for centuries - refused help. Hebron bore the brunt of the Arab gangs, who not only killed all the Jews they could find but also raped and mutilated women and children. (Many of the Hebron victims were American yeshiva students.) In the end, over a hundred Jews had been murdered by the murderous Arab mobs.
It is notable that the victims were, by and large, not Zionist and not new immigrants - Hebron, Safed and Jerusalem each hosted ancient Jewish communities. The attacks, instigated by the Mufti and his cronies, were the purest manifestation of anti-semitism imaginable.
It is unclear who actually participated in the riots. Accounts of the Hebron massacre do not mention any of the victims knowing the Arabs who were attacking. Many in Hebron were in fact saved by their Arab neighbors. It can be guessed that the mobs were most likely comprised of young, unemployed men who were loyal to the Mufti, and this loyalty came both from his charisma and his power. But in the aftermath of these pogroms we find none of the self-criticism that followed the 1921 riots - al-Husayni was now an unchallenged leader and the Arabs who had no problem with the Jews were not going to stand up to him.
The British did their part in the Mufti's playbook as well, recommending in the wake of the Arab riots that they were a reaction to Zionist immigration and recommending to limit the number of Jews that could move to Palestine. The Shaw Commission exonerated the Mufti for his part of the riots, although a later commission in 1937 found that he was far more involved than the British were at first willing to admit. In addition, the British declared that the Wall was owned by the Muslims but allowed certain, specific kinds of worship by Jews there. (The Jews did not claim to own the Wall, saying that it belonged to God.) The British also agreed that the Wall was al-Buraq and holy to Muslims, even while they admitted that the claim that al-Buraq coincided with the Western Wall was relatively new.
The pogrom instigated by the Mufti ended up giving him more power than ever, and the Jews wound up being punished by the British desire to not upset the Arabs. Violence against Jews, proven to be effective twice, was now the preferred modus operandi of the Palestinian Arab leaders for political gain.
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