Ilan Pappé’s book on the Palestinian Al-Husayni dynasty
A version of this article appeared in Arabic translation in Al-Hayat on 16 March 2011
When Israeli bulldozers began in January to demolish the Shepherd Hotel in the Sheikh Jarrah area of East Jerusalem in preparation for the building of apartments for Jewish settlers, this was in defiance of strong criticism from world leaders. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the demolition was “a disturbing development that undermines peace efforts to achieve the two-state solution.”
There were also objections from members of the al-Husayni family, which was for a long period of history the most powerful family in Palestinian politics. The historic Shepherd Hotel (which has no connection with the famous Shepheard Hotel in Cairo) was originally built as a villa in the 1930s for Al-Hajj Amin Al-Husayni (1895-1974), Grand Mufti of Jerusalem from 1921 to 1948.
The building was confiscated by Israel after the 1967 war and in 1985 it came into the ownership of Irving Moskowitz, the US Jewish billionaire who funds much Israeli Jewish settlement activity.
Abdel-Qadir al-Husayni, head of the Faisal al-Husayni Foundation told a press conference, at the time Israeli destruction of the hotel started, that there never was, and never would be, a deal between the al-Husayni family and the occupation government on the sale of the Shepherd Hotel compound.
Abdel-Qadir al-Husayni told Al-Hayat from Jerusalem in mid-February that the family is continuing to pursue the Shepherd Hotel issue through the courts and through diplomacy. He said so far it is the annexes to the original building that have been destroyed, and that the original villa is still standing. But he is worried that in the future most of the villa will also be demolished, leaving only its façade standing.
Abdel-Qadir al-Husayni is the son of the late politician Faisal al-Husayni, and the grandson of the great Palestinian fighter Abdel-Qadir al-Husayni who was killed in the Battle of Kastel west of Jerusalem on 8 April 1948. The warrior Abdel-Qadir was the son of Musa Kazim al-Husayni (1850-1934), who held several senior posts in Ottoman times, and was appointed mayor of Jerusalem in 1918, but was dismissed by the British for taking part in the 1920 Palestine riots. According to the dissident Israeli historian Professor Ilan Pappé [pictured], Musa Kazim was, “the most highly respected of the al-Husaynis in the 20th century.”
Pappé is the author of a book on the history of the Al-Husayni family over a period of two and a half centuries, entitled “The Rise and Fall of a Palestinian Dynasty: The Husaynis 1700-1948”. Saqi Books of London recently published the book in a translation by Yael Lotan from Hebrew to English. The US edition is published by the University of California Press.
Pappé provides a richly detailed, complex and engaging narrative, packed with historical facts, incidents, anecdotes and character sketches. The book is a major contribution to the literature on Palestinian history, and the history of the wider Middle East. Inevitably, a considerable part of the book examines the life and role of Al-Hajj Amin al-Husayni who remains a highly controversial figure due to his pro-German, pro-Italian and anti-Jewish position in the Second World War. These days, supporters of Israel often refer to him as proof of Palestinian and Arab anti-Semitism, and some claim to see him as a kind of godfather of the Islamist terror of the present day.
Pappé provides an overview of al-Hajj Amin’s life, from his youth when he studied at Al Azhar in Cairo. The first British High Commissioner in Palestine Herbert Samuel, a Jew who was very sympathetic to Zionism, chose al-Hajj Amin as Mufti in 1921 because he thought he would use his and his family’s influence to calm the country after the violent events of April 1920. Al-Hajj Amin had to navigate a path between the Zionists, determined to implement the Balfour declaration and establish a national home in Palestine, and the British mandatory authorities, during the tumultuous times. Al-Hajj Amin fled Palestine in 1937 going first to Lebanon. The headquarters of the Palestinian uprising was established in Damascus and members of the al-Husayni family in exile, particularly al-hajj Amin and Jamal, were the uprising’s “foreign ministers”.
In 1939 he moved to Iraq where he became a significant political player. He supported Rashid Ali al-Gaylani and the other three officers in the “Golden Square” who carried out a coup in April 1941 that restored al-Gaylani to power. When the coup was crushed by the British, al-Hajj Amin blamed the Jews and this helped trigger the Farhud against the Iraqi Jews in June 1941 in which 179 Jews were killed and many shops and houses pillaged.
From Iraq al-Hajj Amin went to Iran, and then escaped to Italy where he met Mussolini. He then went to Germany to meet Hitler. He initiated the idea of an Arab division to fight alongside the Axis powers, and he often took part in propaganda broadcasts from Rome and Berlin which included hateful statements against Jews.
Pappé sees Al-Hajj Amin’s courting of Hitler and Mussolini as showing his “transformation from a bright, sensible leader of a movement into a hallucinatory figure losing touch with reality and assuming roles and capabilities far beyond those he actually possessed”.
Pappé thinks it is worth remembering how badly the British treated al-Hajj when he made a secret visit to London in 1931. “At every point during his visit, his British hosts made him feel that he was not the equal of the Zionist leaders and that in their eyes he was a primitive colonial native who should be impressed by crystal chandeliers and thrilled by a lively dance floor.”
Al-Hajj Amin had hoped for British understanding and support, but instead he was shown “superciliousness and disdain”. In contrast, when he visited Mussolini and Hitler he was treated respectfully and ceremoniously as a national leader. “This may help to explain why he chose to associate himself with those who would become the enemies of humanity.”
Ilan Pappé was born in Haifa in 1954 to parents who were refugees from Nazi Germany. The radical Australian journalist and documentary filmmaker John Pilger describes him as “Israel’s bravest, most principled, most incisive historian.”
Pappé’s books include “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine” (2006) in which he aimed to show that the 1948 war involved a planned ethnic cleansing of Palestine as a Zionist objective. Pappé’s stand against Zionism put him on a collision course with the mainstream of Israeli academic life, and made him a figure of hate to many.
Pappé wrote about this experience in his memoir “Out of the Frame: The Struggle for Academic Freedom in Israel” published recently by Pluto Press of London. The campaign against him included death threats, denunciations by the Knesset and calls for him to be sacked from his post at Haifa University. He now teaches at Exeter University in the south west of England where he is the director of the European Centre for Palestinian Studies, within the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. He is also the co-director of the Exeter Centre for Ethno-Political Studies.
The back cover of Pappé’s book on the al-Husaynis carries high praise for the book from four prominent scholars: the British-Israeli academic Avi Shlaim, Professor of International Relations at St Antony’s College, Oxford University; the Palestinian sociologist Salim Tamari (author of Mountain Against the Sea: Essays on Palestinian Society and Culture); Philip S Khoury, Ford International Professor of History at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Mahmoud Yazbak of the University of Haifa.
One reason for the praise is Pappé’s use of the widest possible range of sources. Avi Shlaim writes that as well as being a highly original and important contribution to the existing literature, the book is “a work of synthesis and reinterpretation which makes available to the English reader little known scholarship in Arabic, Hebrew, French, and German.”
Pappé intends his book to address a Western audience. He wrote it originally in Hebrew so as to challenge “hegemonic Israeli-Jewish perceptions of the country’s history. In contemporary Israel, pre-1882 Palestine is still commonly viewed as having been an uninhabited land that was developed only when Zionism, and with it Western modernity, reached its shores.” Moreover, Palestinian life after 1918 “has been portrayed in both scholarly and popular literature as that of primitive tribesmen, fanatic Muslims and hateful sheikhs.”
Similar views reign in the West, and particularly in the US, “and thus similar efforts are required to redress a biased and hostile image of Palestine and the Palestinians. This seemed to me an especially urgent task after 11 September 2001 and the second intifada.”
[picture shows Al-Hajj Amin in mid-1920s]
By focusing on the al-Husaynis throughout their transformation from a provincial Ottoman elite into the leadership of a national movement, he hopes his biography of the family is “a constructive way to demonstrate how Palestinian society existed and developed before the Zionist settlement or the British occupation began.”
He also hopes to give a much greater insight into the Palestinian struggle, given the leading role of the Husaynis in the Palestinian national movement from its inception in around 1908 until the end of the British mandate in 1948. A main theme of the book is the politics of nationalism.
He also wants to show that “contrary to a view commonly held in Israel, the history of the conflict is not made up simply of peaceful Jewish proposals met by Palestinian rejection: quite often it was the other way round.”
The al-Husaynis were generally out of touch with the grassroots Palestinian movements that emerged from 1932. Ultimately, they and other families of notables failed, and this failure contributed to the Nakba of 1948.
Palestinian historians have long discussed the failures of the upper class, with the Al-Husaynis at its centre. In his 1969 book “Palestine and Israel: The Lethal Dilemma” Hisham Sharabi wrote that “the urban upper class remained alien to the armed struggle throughout the period of the mandate” and that “this class especially benefited through that period.” The problem of the Al-Husaynis, Sharabi stated, was that they perceived Zionism not as the ultimate danger but as a nuisance, while to the peasants and the workers Zionism was a tangible threat.
Pappé gives a more nuanced account of the family, pointing out the different ways in which various members of the al-Husaynis perceived and reacted to Zionism. At first the Palestinians failed to understand Zionism’s dangerous potential. Time would show that the peasants resisted Zionism fairly stolidly whereas the landowners including some of the Husaynis could not resist the financial inducement to sell land to Zionists.
The first al-Husayni to confront the new phenomenon of Zionism was Al-Hajj Amin’s father, Mufti Tahir the second who was born in 1842. Tahir the second was “like a one-man research institute studying Zionism’s nature, meaning and aims”. It was at his urging that the Istanbul authorities decided in 1889 to limit Jewish immigration and to permit foreign Jews to spend no more than three months in Palestine, and for religious reasons only.
Salim al-Husayni, mayor of Jerusalem on and off between 1879 and 1897 was more ambivalent on Zionism. Like some of his relatives he had enjoyed good economic relations with Jews. In addition Jewish votes were important in municipal elections. However, Salim grew alarmed at the growing Jewish presence in Jerusalem and he and other notables organised a petition to the authorities to forbid the purchase of land by Jews. The Ottoman Sultan issued an order to this effect, but British government pressure made it ineffectual.
Said Al-Husayni, who together with Ruhi al-Khalidi represented Jerusalem in the Ottoman parliament which operated from 1908 to 1912, knew Hebrew and had close Jewish friends from his school days. But he opposed Zionism, and spoke against it in the parliament.
Jamal al-Husayni, who came to prominence in the 1930s and was a member of the Arab Higher Committee, played an active role in the struggle for Palestine. Pappé says that “Jamal was above all a gifted diplomat... the most eloquent spokesman of the Palestinian cause and one of the few who tried to counteract endless streams of reports and articles published by Zionists in the popular and even the academic press from 1929 onwards.” Jamal was also one of the first Palestinians to recapitulate the history of Palestinian nationalism. “He wrote that 1908 was the year when Palestine emerged as a distinct territorial entity in the Ottoman framework and had it not been for the First World War it would have become a democracy and later, like Greece, an independent state”.
Pappé writes that in general the Palestinian leadership failed to realise that the peasants were the driving force of the great revolt in Palestine from 1936 to 1939 and failed to harness this force. An exception was the literary scholar Ishaq Musa al-Husayni , who in Pappé’s view was the only al-Husayni who seemed to be aware of the peasants’ plight and to understand the close connection between it and the national crisis. Ishaq’s book The Memories of a Hen [Mudhakkirat Dajaj], published in the local press in extracts in the 1930s, and as a book in 1943, became a classic of Palestinian literature. It is the history of Palestine from the point of view of a hen. “No other Husayni produced a political document that expressed the sensitivity or insight that informed Ishaq Musa’s book. “”
During the two and a half centuries that Pappé’s book covers, the Al-Husaynis and other notable families in Palestine faced numerous challenges as the region passed through tumultuous times. Much of the family’s high position derived from its holding at various times the three main positions in Jerusalem - mufti, naqib al-ashraf and sheikh al-haram. There was competition between the al-Husaynis and notable families for these positions.
[picture shows Al-Hajj Amin and Musa Kazim at head of 1929 Palestinian delegation to London]
Pappé examines the roots of the al-Husaynis and how in the 18th century the al-Ghudayya clan became the al-Husaynis. A key personality of that time was Abd al-Latif the second, who wrested the niqaba back from the Alami family, and was also sheikh al-haram. One of Abd al-Latif’s four sons, Hassan, became mufti. Hassan was a charismatic man and a great religious scholar whose father had sent him to Al Azhar to study.
After Hassan died in 1775 his nephew Tahir became mufti. Hassan’s other position, sheikh al haram, went to his brother Abdullah’s grandson Umar who was already naqib al-ashraf. There were by now two branches of the family. The Tahiri branch kept the mufti’s post, down to al-Hajj Amin al-Husayni. The ‘Umari branch inherited the post of naqib al-ashraf until the position lost its meaning with the end of Ottoman rule.
Pappé stresses that the al-Husaynis achievements and failures, and those of other notable families, in facing up to Zionism were the achievements and failures of Palestinian society as a whole. Yes, they had their failings. But he stresses they were up against the “ethnic cleansing ideology” of Zionism and “it is very difficult to assess whether an alternative leadership would have fared better in the face of such a calamity.”