Sunday, August 30, 2020

The Mufti’s seminal antisemitic pamphlet

Matthias Küntzel in the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs:

A thirty-one-page booklet in Arabic entitled Islam and Jewry, published in Cairo on August 18, 1937, served as an effective propaganda tool. 11 As far as we know, this publication is the first written evidence of Islamic antisemitism. In 1938, the Berlin-based publishing house Junker und Dünnhaupt released it under the title Islam–Judaism: Call of the Grand Mufti to the Islamic World in 1937, explicitly attributing that screed to al-Husseini for the first time. 12 In subsequent editions released by the Nazis during World War II, the Mufti continued to be named as the author. Whether al-Husseini was in fact the sole initiator and author of this pamphlet remains an open question.

While classical Islamic literature treats Muhammad’s struggle with the Jews as a minor episode in the life of the Prophet, now “Muhammad’s conflict with the Jews [was being] portrayed as a central theme in his career and their enmity to him given a cosmic significance.” 13 The anti-Jewish verses of the Qur’an were generalized and considered valid for the twentieth century. Finally, for the first time, religious tropes were combined with elements of conspiracy theory. Since Muhammad’s days, according to Islam and Jewry, the Jews have constantly been trying to “destroy Muslims.” The brochure concludes:

[T]he 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 only know hypocrisy and cunning. Hold together, fight for the Islamic thought, fight for your religion and your existence! Do not rest until your land is free of the Jews. 14

Here, the Muslims are presented as eternal victims in order to legitimize new forms of aggression more reminiscent of the policies of the Nazis than the attitudes of the Prophet. In September 1937, days after its publication, the booklet reached a wide audience through its distribution at the National Arab Congress in Bludan, a health resort in Syria, fifty kilometers northwest of Damascus.

The Spread of Islamic Antisemitism

This first pan-Arab congress, held from September 8–10, 1937, was organized by al-Husseini. He also “provided the funds to rent the two largest hotels in Damascus and Bludan and grant a large number of penniless participants rooms without charge.” 15 No wonder, then, that the congress attracted 411 attendees, although only 250 were allowed into the hall of the Grand Hotel of Bludan, where the congress took place. The Mufti could not attend because he was in hiding in Jerusalem after a failed July 1937 attempt by the British authorities in Palestine to arrest him. 16 In October 1937, he fled to French-controlled Beirut. Nevertheless, the delegates named him honorary president of the assembly.

The congress was not a public event; even newspaper reporters were not allowed inside. However, Colonel Gilbert MacKereth, the British consul in Damascus at the time, arranged for a person in his confidence to attend. Based on the reports of the spy, MacKereth described the event as “a manifestation of Judeophobia.” He referred to “a startlingly inflammatory pamphlet entitled ‘The Jews and Islam,’ which was handed to each member of the congress on his arrival. It had been printed in Egypt.” Annex V of MacKereth’s memorandum, written by his confidante, bears the title “Description of a violently anti-Jewish Pamphlet printed in Cairo for the Palestine Defense Committee there, which was given to each of the persons attending the Bludan congress.” The summary of the pamphlet’s contents presented in an annex to the report leaves us with no doubt that he was referring to the Cairo publication of August 1937. 17

The Nazis viewed Islam and Jewry as an especially valuable tool. During the war, Berlin printed and disseminated this text nearly unchanged in several languages and editions. For example, there is proof that in 1942, the Spanish authorities confiscated some 1,500 copies of “a German propaganda pamphlet in the Arabic language called ‘Islam and the Jews’” that had been sent to the German consulate in Tangiers. According to the German Foreign Ministry, these brochures were to have been distributed “unobtrusively” in Spanish Morocco. “Unobtrusive” is the key word here. The Muslims would have laughed at an SS officer openly distributing an Arabic text pretending to speak in the name of Islam. But this was indeed what was happening. The Nazis disguised themselves as Muslims and falsified Islamic scripture so as to lend credibility to their murderous hatred of Jews.

The Spanish authorities responsible for Tangiers, however, frustrated this plan. They were of the opinion that “the distribution of such propaganda directed against the Jewish elements in Spanish Morocco could not be permitted” and had all copies confiscated and destroyed. 18 In 1943, another 10,000 copies of the same pamphlet were printed in Zagreb, capital of Germany’s Croatian satellite, this time in Serbo-Croatian (Islam I Zidovstvo), and distributed in Bosnia and Croatia. 19

Though the precise details of the pamphlet’s dissemination are unknown, Islam and Jewry might well be regarded as the forerunner to Sayyid Qutb’s notorious text Our Struggle with the Jews of the 1950s. David Motadel regards Islam and Jewry as “one of the most significant examples of this kind of religiously charged anti-Jewish propaganda dispersed among Muslims,” 20 while historian Jeffrey Herf deems it “one of the founding texts of the Islamist tradition, one that defined the religion of Islam as a source of hatred of the Jews.” 21

The timing of the publication of Islam and Jewry, in August 1937, is also revealing. It proves that Islamic antisemitism took hold when the flight and expulsion of the Palestinian Arabs (1948) and Israeli rule over Gaza and the West Bank (1967) were still in the distant future. This fact alone contradicts the widespread assumption that Islamic antisemitism developed as a response to alleged Israeli misdeeds. It was not the behavior of the Zionists that prompted the publication of this hostile text, but rather the fact that a first attempt had been made in the summer of 1937 to agree on a two-state plan. Islam and Jewry accordingly culminates in the following call: “Do not tolerate the Partition Plan, for Palestine has been an Arab country for centuries and shall remain Arabic forever.” This pamphlet was intended to theologize the territorial conflict between Jews and Arabs in order to destroy the first important attempt at a compromise—which had initially been met with a degree of approval from some moderate Arabs.

The antisemitic Mufti of Jerusalem is, of course, an icon for Palestinians today. His influence remains.