May 11, 2017 - A hundred years of Arab opposition to the Balfour Declaration

by Julian Zuckerbrot


Great Britain announced in April that there would be no apology for the country’s issuing, almost 100 years ago, of the Balfour Declaration – a document that expressed support for the re-establishment of a Jewish homeland. The Declaration was endorsed by the other victorious allies after the First World War, and was later incorporated in other international agreements.

The demand for an apology had come from the Palestinian Authority, which has threatened to launch a lawsuit unless Britain recognizes Palestine as a state.

A spokesman for the British Foreign Office confirmed that there would be no apologies and defended the declaration, but “balanced” his statement with words of support for a future Palestinian state. The statement was thus consistent – in its ambivalence -- with British attitudes towards the Declaration ever since they issued it.

No sooner than Britain had taken control of the “Mandate for Palestine,” the territory that was set aside for Jewish settlement following the First World War, than they set aside three-quarters of the land to create an Arab state:  today’s Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. In the next 27 years, when they governed what was left of Palestine, they ignored their commitment to fostering a Jewish homeland there: indeed, actively prevented one from being established.  

In denouncing the Balfour Declaration and the celebrations surrounding it, the Palestinians were also being consistent with the attitude of their leaders for the past century, from the days long before there was a people called the Palestinians.

The ink on the Balfour Declaration was barely dry when Haj Mohammad Amin al-Husseini, began organizing attacks on Jewish communities in Palestine (although, as it was still part of the Ottoman Empire, that was not the territory’s official name). The al-Husseinis were a prominent Muslim family in Jerusalem, a city where the majority of people were Jews.

Amin al-Husseini had served in the Ottoman army during the First World War, then still underway, while most of the Jewish population of Palestine supported the British, some of them fighting as part of a Jewish unit in the British army. Al-Husseini was violently opposed both to the British – who, at the time of the Balfour Declaration, were, with their allies, on the verge of defeating the Ottoman Turks in Palestine – and to the Jews.

In 1920 the British arrested al-Husseini for his role in instigating an anti-Jewish riot in Jerusalem during Passover, but, only a year later, appointed him Mufti of Jerusalem, in the foolish belief that the position of cleric would make him more conciliatory. (It was the same kind of thinking that, decades later, led the governments of Israel and the US to allow Yasser Arafat to head the Palestinian Authority and to permit Hamas to participate in the Gaza elections.)

Instead, al-Husseini used his status to become leader of the region’s Muslims. Calling himself the Grand Mufti, he continued to organize murderous pogroms against the Jews throughout the 1920s and ‘30s. Today he can be seen as the godfather of the Palestinian’s perpetual war against Zionism and Israel, and as one of the first leaders of what would become the world-wide political-Jihadist conflict with the West.

The Arab anti-Jewish violence eventually led the British to severely limit Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine, thus closing off a possible means of escape from Europe in the years before and during the Second World War. Eventually the toll of the Arab riots became so extreme that even al-Husseini’s status of Grand Mufti was not enough to shield him from the British, and he was forced to flee to Lebanon and then Iraq.  By that time -- October, 1939 -- the Second World War was underway and al-Husseini became a very handsomely paid agent of the Nazi government in Berlin.

While in Iraq al-Husseini made anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi radio broadcasts and issued other propaganda material. He even had a role in a military coup that unseated the government for a short time. Before the British arrived on the scene to re-establish control, al-Husseini had managed to ignite anti-Jewish riots – the infamous Farhud – in which 200 Jews died, many more were injured, and homes and businesses were destroyed.  A government commission of inquiry later determined that al-Husseini’s anti-Jewish agitation was the prime cause of the Farhud


Al-Husseini fled Iraq for Berlin, where he was treated by Hitler’s inner circle as a colleague and sympathizer. So important to the Germans was the Mufti that, in 1941, he was invited to a personal meeting with Hitler. Some have alleged that al-Husseini inspired Hitler in the Nazi leader’s determination to kill Europe’s Jews, but Hitler did not need anyone’s support in that effort:  the Holocaust was already underway and the first crematorium would, within days of their meeting, begin its horrendous operation in Chelmno.

At the time, Germany was fighting the British Empire in the west and the Soviet Union in the east. So when al-Husseini offered to lead an Arab Legion to fight alongside the German army in the Middle East, Hitler agreed, but cautioned that the plan had to be kept secret until the Germans had reached the Caucasus.  Hitler reassured al-Husseini that Germany was waging an uncompromising war against the Jews. This included the conflicts with the British and the Soviets, since, in his view, the Jews were behind both. It also included opposition to a Jewish state in Palestine.

While the virulence of al-Husseini’s anti-Semitism was indistinguishable from that of Hitler, the Mufti was the one who was inspired by the master of mass murder:  he planned to build crematoria of his own in Palestine, for the slaughter of the Jews of the Middle East. This he would do as head of government installed by the Nazis, once they had conquered the region.

That would have followed their anticipated defeat of the Allies in North Africa. Instead, after the Allied victory in North Africa and the failure of the Germans to defeat the USSR and reach the Caucasus, al-Husseini came up with a new plan: to spark a jihad throughout the Middle East by slaughtering the Jews of Tel Aviv. According to Israeli researcher Haviv Canaan, the Germans took this plan seriously and supported it, financially and otherwise.

Although, happily, none of these – and other -- plans worked out, the Mufti spent the rest of the war in Germany, living in the home of a Jew who had been sent to a concentration camp, and heading up the Nazi’s Arabic propaganda efforts. He was given a large budget, a paid staff, offices, and a salary matched only by those at the very top of the Nazi hierarchy.  In addition to agitating against Jews and the Allies in Muslim countries, he helped to recruit Muslims from the Balkans for three SS divisions that participated in the extermination of Jews in Croatia and Hungary.

In 1943 Al-Husseini was the speaker at a rally in Berlin that was scheduled for the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration.  The audience comprised Arabs and other Muslims, as well as their German and foreign sympathizers.  The Mufti’s speech that day declared the unity of the German and Muslim effort to rid the Middle East of Jews – and indeed “to find a final solution to the Jewish menace”.   To do so necessitated a defeat of the Allies.  His message was backed up by telegrams from two of the highest-ranking Nazis, Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and Reichsfuehrer-SS Heinrich Himmler.

Recently (in March, 2017), the National Library of Israel announced that Himmler’s telegram had been found in its collection, having been donated in 1952. The telegram confirms Nazi Germany’s belief in the Mufti’s message, referring specifically to the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration and to the Nazi “struggle against World Jewry”.  It declares “The recognition of this enemy and our common struggle against him form the firm foundation of the natural alliance between National-Socialist Greater Germany and the freedom-loving Muslims of the whole world.”

In October of 1944, al-Husseini proposed to Himmler that Germany should form a Muslim counterpart of the British Army’s Jewish Brigade. The Nazis agreed and chose November 2nd of that year – the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration – to announce that an Arab-Muslim force would fight alongside the German army in their “common struggle”.  But that announcement came in the final months of the Reich; Germany surrendered unconditionally in May of 1945.  

On the day of the surrender the Mufti fled by plane to Switzerland but was turned over to French authorities, who detained him in a villa near Paris. The British and French, however, were anxious to court the Arab world, and soon al-Husseini was back in Cairo, continuing his anti-Zionist agitation.

In November of 1945 -- on the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration -- anti-Jewish rioting took place in Egypt and Libya; Jews were murdered in the streets, their synagogues were burnt down, their homes and businesses looted.   

Al-Husseini remained an influential figure until his death in 1974, and -- if his legacy is the refusal to accept a Jewish state under any circumstances and an Islamist struggle to rid the Muslim world of the influence of the West -- it is perhaps larger today than ever.

One of his aides, the Lebanese-born Ahmed Shukairy became the first head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). He was the author of several books, including Liberation, Not Negotiation, and has been “credited” with originating the apartheid slander against Israel – years before Israel gained control of land beyond the 1949 armistice lines. He also drafted the Palestine Covenant of 1964, which contains some themes that continue to be expounded, not only by Palestinian leaders but by academics in the West, and even by United Nations bodies.

Article 20 of the document states: “The Balfour Declaration, the Mandate for Palestine and everything that has been based on them, are deemed null and void. Claims of historical or religious ties of Jews with Palestine are incompatible with the facts of history and the true conception of what constitute statehood. Judaism being a divine religion is not an independent nationality.”  Under the Oslo negotiations of 1993, the PLO was to change the wording of this and other sections of their charter but it is not clear that this promise has been kept.  

It was the Mufti who, in the 1920s and ‘30s, warned of a Jewish threat to Jerusalem’s Al-Aksa mosque,  thus sparking anti-Jewish pogroms throughout the period. More recently, Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, announced that Palestinians would not allow Israelis to defile Jerusalem’s holy sites. “Al-Aksa is ours and so is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,” he stated in 2015, “They have no right to desecrate them with their filthy feet. We won’t allow them to do so and will do whatever we can to defend Jerusalem.”  His viewpoint has since received the imprimatur of the United Nations, through resolutions of UNESCO.

Another legacy from al-Husseini is the silencing of more moderate viewpoints. The Mufti used his position to impose a severe form of Islam in Mandatory Palestine. Those who opposed him were denounced at prayers, excluded from religious rites, and exposed to threats. It has been estimated that hundreds of moderate Arabs – people from other clans, those who stood for co-operation and compromise with the Jews, and even some who refused to wear traditional Arab garments -- were killed. Decades later, it still takes a great deal of courage for Palestinians in favour of making real compromises for peace with Israel to openly express their views. 

Today the Palestinians remain in political limbo, used as impoverished pawns by the Mufti’s successors, their lives perpetually to be sacrificed for the cause of destroying everything that grew out of Zionism and the Balfour Declaration.  In that sense, the Mufti has won but the Palestinians have lost.

© 2016 by SAG - Canadian Antisemitism Education Foundation