TERRA INCOGNITA: Abbas, Fakhri Nashashibi and the legacy of the mufti

Abbas’s words are part of a long tradition that has sought to combat Zionism through religious and nationalist responses to Jewish claims.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks following a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul (photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks following a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In his speech to the emergency summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation on Wednesday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sought to downplay Jewish connections to Jerusalem.
“They are really excellent in faking and counterfeiting history,” he claimed, asserting that Jewish claims to the city were based on “fake” history, as a way to underpin his anger over the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Unfortunately Abbas’s words are part of a long tradition dating back to the 1920s that has sought to combat Zionism through religious and nationalist responses to Jewish claims. This has not worked but it inflames the conflict and makes it more difficult to resolve.
On Saturday I went to Salah a-Din Street in Jerusalem to see the clashes between border police and Palestinians protesting the decision by US President Donald Trump to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The teenagers who were protesting had come in response to calls for “three days of rage” against Israel and the decision. They carried a Palestinian flag and chanted “Allahu akbar,” or “God is greatest.”
Police responded by chasing after them and detaining some for throwing stones. At one point some of the press and tourists who were caught in the clashes got shoehorned into the stairwell of a building.
As I watched the melee outside a man whispered, “Do you want a better view?” Of course.
Along with a Scandinavian tourist we were led up to the roof. The man had access because he was the contractor for some work being done. “This conflict has gone on for a long time,” he said, pointing down to the police who were dragging away a teenager.
“Let’s step back, we don’t want them to think we’re throwing stones from up here,” he urged. Then he asked us to walk to the other side of the roof which overlooked a pretty cemetery.
The cemetery was jarring, sitting as it did amid the urban decay and depressing scenes on the other side.
It was peaceful and quiet. This cemetery abuts and overlooks the East Jerusalem Central Bus station and a site once known as “Jeremiah’s Grotto” that is now the site of a minaret.
There in the distance amid the tombstones was a kind of colonnade. “That is the grave of Fakhri Nashashibi,” said the contractor who was showing off the roof. Fakhri was one of the leading members of the Nashashibi family in the 1930s and an opponent of the mufti of Mandate Palestine, Hajj Amin al-Husseini. In contrast to the mufti the Nashashibis thought there could be a compromise with Zionism.
The East Jerusalem cemetery where Fakhri Nashashibi is buried (Seth J. Frantzman)The East Jerusalem cemetery where Fakhri Nashashibi is buried (Seth J. Frantzman)
The mufti was an implacable foe of Jews and Zionism.
Born in 1897, Husseini was appointed grand mufti of Jerusalem in 1921. He was already known for inciting rioters to murder Jews in 1920 during the Nebi Musa riots. He had been sentenced to 10 years in prison by a British military court for his role.
Oddly he received amnesty from the British high commissioner, Sir Herbert Samuel, and became head of the Supreme Muslim Council.
Husseini was one of the first to latch onto the propaganda of “al-Aksa is in danger” to mobilize crowds and encourage opposition to Jewish settlement in Jerusalem and the land that became the State of Israel. He targeted Jewish prayer at the Western Wall in 1929 to encourage riots that led to the murder of more than 300 Jews. In subsequent testimony to the Shaw Commission in 1930 he claimed that Jews were influencing London and “world powers as well as the League of Nations in order to take possession of the Western Wall of the mosque at Aksa, called al-Burak, or to raise claims over the place.”
Husseini was not referencing the mosque itself, but claiming that the Kotel was actually part of the “wall” of the mosque and a holy site called “al-Burak,” where he claimed the Prophet Muhammad had tethered his winged animal on his night flight to Jerusalem. “Having realized by bitter experience the unlimited greedy aspirations of the Jews in this respect, Muslims believe that the Jews’ aim is to take possession of the Mosque of al-Aksa gradually on the pretense that it is the Temple, by starting with the Western Wall of this place, which is an inseparable part of the mosque,” the mufti told the commission.
The mufti strategically exploited antisemitism and combined it with religious extremism to encourage opposition to Zionism and Jewish presence. The crowds he incited didn’t focus their wrath only on “Zionists,” but also on religious Jews who played no role in Zionism, in places such as Hebron, where his incitement led to the expulsion and extermination of the Jewish community in 1929.
Eventually Husseini’s extremism proved too much for even the British, who sought to arrest him when he encouraged a revolt against their rule. He fled to the Temple Mount before fleeing to Lebanon in 1937. In British Palestine the mufti’s fighters targeted not only Jews and the British but also moderate Palestinian Arabs such as the Nashashibis. Then he went to Iraq in 1939 where he began flirtations with the Nazis partnered with local leader Rashid Ali.
The mufti’s incitement helped lead to the Farhud pogrom against Jews in Baghdad in 1941. He then fled to Italy and Germany, meeting Hitler in November 1941.
Around the same time that the mufti ended up in Berlin, his agents sought out and assassinated Fakhri Nashashibi. Nashashibi’s body was brought back to Jerusalem where his funeral was attended by Chief Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Moshe Shertok, and Jerusalem mayor Daniel Auster.
Ben-Zvi would go on to be the second president of Israel, and Shertok, as Moshe Sharett, the second prime minister.
More than 75 years after Nashashibi’s death his life is in stark comparison to the words Abbas uttered in Istanbul. The Palestinian Authority president claimed that Jews are fabricating their historical connections to Jerusalem. “They are really masters in this and it is mentioned in the holy Koran they fabricate truth and they try to do that [fabricate] and they believe in that, but we have been there in this location for thousands of years.”
Abbas’s incitement was in front of the representatives of 50 Muslim countries and almost two-dozen Muslim heads of state. Yet at the same time there is supposed to be a peace agreement and east Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestine.
The contradictions between Abbas’s rhetoric and the desire for a peace agreement are one of the central problems in the conflict. There are many other challenges as well, such as the inability to disentangle Jewish and Palestinian areas in the West Bank.
But at the heart of the conflict since the 1920s has been a persistent denial of the existence of Jewish history. It has not been a denial shared by all. There were many other chances to embrace a different and more compromising view of history. That history is buried near Salah a-Din Street in east Jerusalem.
It is perhaps not an irony that Fakhri Nashashibi was buried near the street named for the Kurdish sultan Salah a-Din who had amicable relations with Jews. The Jewish sage Maimonides was a court physician to Salah a-Din. If these historical figures could see the abysmal state of affairs in Jerusalem today and the incitement, they would be shocked. They would have been shocked by the speech in Istanbul.