Grand Mufti’s Jerusalem mansion to become synagogue

The synagogue will be part of a future 56-apartment Jewish neighborhood in east Jerusalem.

Al-Husseini greeting Bosnian Waffen-SS volunteers with a Nazi salute, November 1943 (photo credit: BUNDESARCHIV BILD 146-1980-036-05 / UNKNOWN AUTHOR / CC-BY-SA 3)
Al-Husseini greeting Bosnian Waffen-SS volunteers with a Nazi salute, November 1943
(photo credit: BUNDESARCHIV BILD 146-1980-036-05 / UNKNOWN AUTHOR / CC-BY-SA 3)
Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the notorious mufti of Jerusalem in the 1920s and 1930s who spent much of World War II in Berlin as a Nazi collaborator and war criminal, must be spinning in his grave. In Jerusalem has learned that the landmark hilltop mansion he built 88 years ago in affluent Sheikh Jarrah between the Old City and Mount Scopus is slated to become a synagogue in a future 56-apartment Jewish neighborhood in east Jerusalem.
The 500-sq.m. manor house, called Qasr al-Mufti (the Mufti’s Palace) in Arabic, today stands deserted at the center of a largely completed 28-apartment complex, which itself lacks a tofes arba occupancy permit. The reason the new neighborhood is not being finished – and indeed has not been marketed in the 10 years since demolition and construction began – is that the developers have applied to rezone the 5.2-dunam site to double the number of units to 56, according to Daniel Luria, a spokesman for Ateret Cohanim, which backs the housing project.
Luria was unclear when the rezoning application, originally meant to build 70 apartments, would be approved. The historic house at the core of the site will be preserved and repurposed for communal needs including a synagogue and perhaps a day care center, he said.
“There is a beautiful poetic justice when you see the house of Hajj Amin al-Husseini crumbling down,” Luria noted.
Though al-Husseini built the mansion, he never lived in it. Following the outbreak in 1936 of the Arab Revolt against the British Mandate government, the mufti became a fugitive hiding in the Old City’s Haram ash-Sharif. When the British attempted to arrest him in 1937, he fled Palestine and the British made do with confiscating his property. The al-Husseini clan owned numerous properties in Jerusalem, among them the Palace Hotel (today the Waldorf Astoria), the Orient House, and the mansion subsequently turned into the Shepherd Hotel in Sheikh Jarrah on a plot of land known as Karam al-Mufti, named for al-Husseini.
Among the occupants at the mansion was his secretary George Antonius (1891-1942), who wrote his seminal The Arab Awakening while living there in 1938. Antonius’s widow Katy continued living in the building, which functioned as a salon where wealthy Palestinian Arabs and British officials socialized. (The city’s British sports club had a “No Natives” policy.)
At one of Katy’s elegant soirees in 1946 she met Sir Evelyn Barker. The much-decorated general was General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the British forces in Palestine and Trans-Jordan from 1946 to 1947. The two carried on a torrid affair and exchanged Judeophobic billets doux. In April 1947, he wrote her about the Jews: “Yes I loathe the lot – whether they be Zionists or not. Why should we be afraid of saying we hate them? It’s time this damned race knew what we think of them – loathsome people”.
On April 13, 1948, British troops posted at the mansion and the nearby Police Academy refused to intervene for eight hours as a convoy of doctors and nurses headed to Hadassah Hospital came under withering fire from Arab fighters; 68 were slaughtered in the massacre.
Shepherd Hotel site |(Courtesy Daniel Luria)Shepherd Hotel site |(Courtesy Daniel Luria)
FOLLOWING THE War of Independence, the al-Husseini mansion became the Shepherd Hotel in the now-divided and impoverished city, though it was eclipsed by the Hotel Jerusalem Intercontinental, today called the Seven Arches, which opened on the Mount of Olives in 1964. After the 1967 Six Day War when Israel conquered and annexed east Jerusalem, the hotel was taken over by the Custodian of Absentee Property.
In 1985, it was sold to C and M Properties Ltd., owned by Florida bingo hall billionaire Irving Moskowitz (1928-2016), the benefactor of right-wing Israeli settler groups intent on housing Jews in the eastern side of the now united city.
Following the zoning of Plan 2591, a request was made on November 6, 2008 to permit the company to build two new residential blocks, including 28 apartments built on top of an underground parking lot. In January 2011, the derelict four-story Shepherd Hotel annex added on to the mufti’s original mansion was demolished to make way for the future housing.
Rather than begin the lengthy process of rezoning the site – which adjoins the British Consulate – for a higher density, it was decided to build what was legally permitted and later apply to amend the zoning, Luria explained.
“Ateret Cohanim is not involved in the building project, but we have an interest in strengthening Jewish roots in and around the Old City,” he said.