Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

The Mufti Demarche

Why Avigdor Lieberman wants to circulate a photo of Hitler and the mufti

Seth Lipsky
July 29, 2009
The Mufti of Jerusalem meeting with Hitler in 1941(Wikimedia Commons.)
The Mufti of Jerusalem meeting with Hitler in 1941(Wikimedia Commons.)

A bit of an uproar is greeting the decision of Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, to circulate a photograph of the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el-Husseini, meeting with Hitler. Lieberman, the newspapers report, instructed Israel’s diplomats to circulate the photo, which was taken in 1941 when the mufti, then the leader of the Palestinian Arabs, was holed up in Berlin.

According to one report, in the Australian, Lieberman intended to counter the American argument that Israel should not allow a 20-apartment development on the site of a former hotel previously owned by the family of the mufti who had sat with Hitler. The site, in the eastern part of Israel’s capital city, was purchased by a Jewish group that is seeking to extend Jewish ownership in the quarter through private acquisition.

“Crude and diversionary” is how Lieberman’s line of thinking is described by the Guardian newspaper’s Middle East editor, Ian Black, who reports that the demarche is “directly related” to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s “insistence that he will not give in to international demands to freeze Israeli settlement activity.” The Middle East correspondent of the Australian, John Lyons, quotes one source as telling the newspaper that inside Israel’s own foreign ministry the instruction was met with “laughter, skepticism and a sense of misplaced communication that this doesn’t help one bit the real argument.”

Maybe he should have asked the diplomats’ mothers. Certainly the fact that the Palestinian Arabs hewed to Hitler was understood by an earlier generation as fundamental. It was marked over and over again by such great liberal institutions as the Forward newspaper. The error of the Arabs was compounded as they refused—in sharp contradistinction to, say, the Germans—to make an effort to educate their people to the facts of what happened under Hitler and what it all meant. It seems they wanted the world not to regret but to forget.

The mufti whose picture Lieberman wants circulated was born in 1893, as political Zionism was being organized. I last wrote about him for the Wall Street Journal’s website, when, in August 2001, the German foreign minister was trying to organize a Mideast peace powwow in Berlin. I suggested that such a conference would be haunted by el-Husseini. The mufti didn’t just pass through Berlin during the war. He was in Berlin for three years between 1941 and 1945. Hitler, in the meeting that Lieberman wants people to remember, reassured the mufti that after dealing with the Jews the Germans would turn their attention to liberating the Arabs.

As one of the mufti’s biographers, Joseph Schechtman, tells the story, the mufti went on to build up “a truly world-wide network of anti-Allied activities,” including broadcasting propaganda against the Jews, England, and America. He maneuvered furiously to block the ability of Jews to escape Hitler by going to Palestine. After the war, the mufti ended up in France and was eventually allowed to escape to Cairo.

Sympathetic biographers have tried to suggest that the mufti’s maneuvering in Berlin fell somewhat short of outright collaboration. One, Phillip Mattar, has suggested the Zionists were so eager to prove the mufti guilty of collaboration and war crimes that they exaggerated his connections to the Nazis. But he acknowledges that “the Mufti and other Arabs were so busy justifying his statements and actions in the Axis countries that they ignored the obvious and overwhelming fact that the Mufti had cooperated with the most barbaric regime in modern times.”

Jeffrey Goldberg, in a dispatch issued by The New York Times in January 2008, considered the question of how the anti-Jewish ideas being used by Iranian agencies such as Hezbollah were able to “work their way into modern-day Islamist discourse.” He reasons that they were imported from Europe, and quoted a German scholar, Matthias Küntzel, as warning of their seriousness. Küntzel, Goldberg noted, “makes a bold and consequential argument: the dissemination of European models of anti-Semitism among Muslims was not haphazard, but an actual project of the Nazi Party, meant to turn Muslims against Jews and Zionism.”

Küntzel was quoted by Goldberg as saying that the mufti and the “Egyptian proto-Islamist” Hassan al-Banna “willingly and knowingly carried Nazi ideology directly to the Muslim masses.” Goldberg reckons that Hassan al-Banna “did not embrace Nazism in the same uncomplicated manner” as the mufti, but he quotes Küntzel as saying his movement was subsidized with German funds that enabled it to, among other things, distribute Arabic translations of, among other tomes, Mein Kampf. He quoted Küntzel as writing that across the Arab world, “Nazi methods and ideology whipped up anti-Zionist fervor, and the effects of this concerted campaign are still being felt today.”

Goldberg offered a caveat, saying that “one doesn’t have to be soft on Germany to believe it was organic Muslim ideas as well as Nazi ideas that led to the spread of anti-Semitism in the Middle East.” But he concluded that Küntzel was “right to state that we are witnessing a terrible explosion of anti-Jewish hatred in the Middle East.” Goldberg quoted his own interview with a former leader of Hamas, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, who said: “The question is not what the Germans did to the Jews, but what the Jews did to the Germans.” Goldberg ended by quoting Küntzel as arguing that we should see men like Rantisi for what they are: heirs to the mufti, and heirs to the Nazis.

In other words, the more one gets into it, the more it is plain that Avigdor Lieberman knows just what he is doing—and is doing it for good reason.

Seth Lipsky is a columnist for Tablet. He can be reached at [email protected].

Seth Lipsky, formerly editor of the English-language edition of the Forward, is founding editor of The New York Sun.

Seth Lipsky, formerly editor of the English-language edition of the Forward, is founding editor of The New York Sun.