In a previous post, I’ve written something on my parents’ narrow escape from the Holocaust. My grandparents, two aunts, an uncle and a number of cousins did not make it, while others survived by getting to Palestine in the 1920s or ’30s. Currently, about half of my relatives are Israeli. It’s with them in mind that I’ve been a staunch supporter of the Zionist peace camp for many years. It broke my heart when the peace process of the 1990s foundered so dismally in the violence that began with the Second Intifada in the fall of 2000, and again following Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005.
On this Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, I’m loosely adapting material from a letter to the editor I submitted the other day, about an article that has appeared in the spring issue of Tikkun, “Setting The Record Straight: The Arabs, Zionism, and the Holocaust” by Ussama Makdisi. He reviews a book by Gilbert Achcar, “The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives.” Both writers are professional historians of Arab background.
The reviewer acknowledges that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, had a “sordid” relationship with the Nazis, but does not elaborate. The Mufti helped recruit Bosnian Muslims into the SS, made incendiary shortwave radio broadcasts in Arabic, from Berlin, advocating hatred and genocide against all Jews, and played a prominent on-the-scene role with the pro-Nazi 1941 coup attempt in Iraq.
I would agree with the reviewer that it’s too simple to lay all the blame on the Mufti for the periodic post-1917 Arab attacks on Palestinian Jews (1920, 1921, 1929, 1936-’39, 1947-’48), but it would be refreshing and useful for historians to honestly analyze his impact without getting bogged down in ideological finger-pointing. Indeed, some Israeli and pro-Zionist writers do engage in finger-pointing from their side—perhaps most shockingly in the writings and public statements of Benny Morris in the last ten years.
(My read of Morris–the most prominent of the Israeli “New Historians,” whose research has yielded a more complete accounting of the events surrounding Israel’s tumultuous birth in 1948–is that he was embittered and unhinged by the savage violence of the Second Intifada of the early 2000′s into a profoundly pessimistic view on the prospects for peace. I will touch upon Morris again in a post next week on the occasion of Israel’s Independence Day.)
Still, the Mufti was the most influential leader of Palestinian–and perhaps pan-Arab–nationalism in the 1930s and ’40s. Clearly, the alliance of Arab nationalists with the Nazi cause is mainly explained by the adage, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But the Yishuv–the organized Jewish community in Palestine–had every reason to see Palestinian enmity in the 1930s and ’40s as unrelenting and even genocidal in intent.
Since the writers contextualize the motivations of the Mufti and his ilk, should they ignore the context of Palestine becoming a refuge for Jews against the ravages of 20th century antisemitism? The clash of vital interests between Jews and Arabs was best illustrated by the Arab Revolt of 1936-’39: although defeated militarily, it resulted in an Arab political victory with Britain’s 1939 White Paper sharply restricting the legal immigration of Jews to Palestine—a virtual death sentence for countless Jews who might otherwise have survived.
I would hope that most readers of this blog, and of Tikkun in general, can understand that Zionism was not simply a settler-colonialist project (as Prof. Makdisi sees it), but the effort of a hounded people to find a secure home. (An apt metaphor–attributed to Isaac Deutscher and more recently invoked by Michael Lerner–is of the Jews jumping out of a burning building and falling on top of Palestinian bystanders on the sidewalk below.) This doesn’t justify all that was done by Zionists historically, and certainly not all that is done in the name of Zionism today (so much of which I deplore), but such an understanding may help forge a fair and workable peace.