Sean Durns in Mosaic Magazine looks back 100 years after the appointment of one Haj Amin al-Husseini [y”sh] as the senior Islamic cleric in the British mandate.
The very long article is behind a paywall, so let me share a few excerpts. I never quite understood why the British, even if they wanted to appease the Arabs, would have appointed somebody so obviously unqualified. Mr. Durns answers that question:
To underscore its commitment to the Balfour Declaration, the cabinet selected Herbert Samuel, a prominent British Jewish politician and a Zionist, to serve as the first high commissioner for Palestine. But opposition to Zionism, among both the Arabs and British in the Mandate alike, remained; it would resurface when anti-Jewish violence erupted in both February and May of 1921. Complicating an already tense situation, on March 21 of the same year Kamil al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, died.
Kamil had held the position of mufti, or chief cleric, of Jerusalem under Ottoman rule, but the British authorities created the new position of grand mufti out of a desire to have someone to turn to as the religious representative of Muslims in Palestine, who could also preside over the various Muslim holy sites in the city. Around the same time and for similar reasons, they created the position of chief rabbi of [the British Mandate], likewise elevating the Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis of Jerusalem to greater prominence. As a result, Israel today has two chief rabbis, and Jerusalem still has a grand mufti.
During his short tenure in office, Kamil al-Husseini had sought to work with the British and accommodate them in every way possible. Perhaps he was grateful to the new rulers for expanding his authority, or perhaps he simply saw good relations with them as the most prudent path. His death not only cost the Mandate a supportive local leader, but also put it in the midst of tensions between two clans.
The Husseinis and their rivals, the Nashashibis, were Jerusalem’s two principal Arab families. Claiming descent from Mohammad, the Husseinis had held various positions of authority as far back as the early 17th century. While both clans were hostile to Zionism, the Nashashibis tended to favor compromise, while the Husseinis, with the exception of Kamil, did not. In April of 1920, the British appointed Ragheb Bey Nashashibi as mayor of Jerusalem, replacing Musa Kasem al-Husseini.
With Kamil’s death a year later, the Husseinis suddenly feared that they would lose a second key position in Jerusalem. The British decided to follow the Ottoman system of selecting a replacement: elections would be held, and the government would then choose its preferred candidate among the three who obtained the most votes. The Husseinis hoped that Kamil’s twenty-six-year-old half-brother Amin would succeed him, but he came in fourth. The results seemed to shock the British as much as the Husseinis, who subsequently contested the election.
And here is where the British—specifically Herbert Samuel—made one of the most fateful decisions in Middle Eastern history: they pressured Sheikh Husam al-Din Jarallah, the Nashashibi-backed frontrunner, to remove himself from consideration. As a result, Amin al-Husseini, who had previously come in fourth, became an eligible candidate. The Nashashibi clan was outraged. To reduce tensions, the high commissioner did not send Husseini an official letter offering him the position, nor make any formal announcement.
Samuel’s support for Husseini has long perplexed historians. Husseini was young and, while he had briefly studied at Cairo’s prestigious al-Azhar University, he lacked the scholarly bona fides expected for such an office. As the British colonial official Edward Keith-Roach admitted, his “sole qualifications for the post were the pretensions of his family plus shrewd opportunism.” Indeed, there were aspects of his background that were far more worrisome.
Husseini had demonstrated his skill as a political operator even before the arrival of the British. In a four-year period alone, Husseini served three different, and rival, empires—shifting allegiances to whichever power he felt could best serve his twin aims: permanently ousting Europeans from the Middle East and opposing Zionism. [NA: the article goes on to explain how al-Husseini was an officer in the Ottoman Turkish army, then became a double agent for the British, and ultimately a triple agent, throwing in the French for good measure.]
[Richard] Meinertzhagen, upon hearing of the appointment, wrote in his diary that Husseini was now “in a position where he can do untold harm to Zionism and to the British; he hates both Jews and British. His appointment is sheer madness; . . . sooner or later” it “will be bitterly regretted by us.”
Husseini’s appointment came to (poisonous) fruition quite quickly:
In 1929, Husseini spread false rumors that Jews intended to desecrate the al-Aqsa Mosque—leading to pogroms that lasted for days and left more than 60 Jews dead. He also established clandestine contacts with Britain’s enemies, Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany, eventually taking funds and support from both.
Armed and equipped by fascist powers, Husseini launched the 1936 Arab Revolt, which could properly be characterized as the first intifada. Armed bands under the mufti’s sway murdered Jewish civilians and British officials alike, and assassinated rivals like the Nashashibis, who had established rival parties and institutions. These had advocated cooperation with Mandate authorities and were rumored to have made secret contact with Zionists.
Rather than reach out to the accommodationists or try to bolster them in the 1920s, when they were most popular and had the greatest chance for success, the Mandatory authorities continued to court Husseini. Even after he fled to Syria amid the Arab Revolt in 1937, they sought to appease him by curtailing Jewish immigration and proposing solutions that would eventually have ended the possibility of a Jewish state.
These efforts were in vain. From Syria, Husseini went to Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany where he rewarded nearly two decades of British support by serving as a propagandist for the Axis and helping to recruit soldiers for an all-Muslim SS division. [That would have been the 13th Waffen SS “Handschar” —NA.] After the war ended, unchastened and still at large, Husseini orchestrated both the 1951 assassination of King Abdullah of Jordan, Britain’s closest ally in the region, as well as the murder of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Riad as-Sulh. Their crime? Openness to negotiations with Zionists.
In short, the British thought they could use Husseini to their own ends, but instead he used them. By giving him the position of grand mufti, they invested him with both power and authority, allowing him to position himself as de-facto leader of the Palestinian people. He used the position to undermine their interests and fight Zionism. And he betrayed Britain twice: once to France and once to Germany. No one can know what might have happened if Samuel had cultivated a pro-British Palestinian leader who might have sought accommodation with the Jews. But there is no doubt that Husseini proved to be a poor investment.
And that, dear reader, is what one calls a British understatement.
al-Husseini survived the war, and later would become a mentor of sorts to a distant cousin named Mohammed al-Rauf al-Husseini, better known to the world by his nom de guerre Yasser Arafat [y”sh]…