Power politicians

Setting out ‘to humanize, not idealize’ the Husayni family, Ilan Pappe ends up portraying them as a corrupt feudal dynasty.

Haj Amin and Nazis 521 (photo credit: Courtesy ofJewish Agency)
Haj Amin and Nazis 521
(photo credit: Courtesy ofJewish Agency)
One thing that never ceases to astound is the admiration Israel’s intellectual Left has for the “great” Arab families, Palestine’s Kennedys as it were. Ilan Pappe, the radical leftist academic from the University of Haifa who now lives in the UK, has brought to life “the Husaynis, as the most significant informal political association prior to the appearance of [Palestinian and Jewish] national movements.”
Most are familiar with this family only because of Haj Amin’s collaboration with Hitler. But as the author shows, there was much more nuance and color to this family.
Pappe informs the reader that historians “have never focused on one particular family.” He must mean historians of the Palestinians, because this certainly isn’t true generally (Fords, Rockefellers, Medicis, Borgias etc.). The author wants “to tell the story of Palestine through the history of its leading family,” so that one “recognizes that Palestine was never an empty territory waiting for a landless people to inhabit it.”
This statement is misleading; the fact that the Husaynis dominated politics in the backwater of 19th-century Jerusalem doesn’t indicate that the rural landscape was burgeoning with people. In fact the Husaynis spent a great deal of time aggrandizing estates and fallow lands throughout Palestine (and selling some of it to Jews), indicating the barren nature of some of the rural hinterland.
Despite the political ax the author grinds and the thesis on which he embarks, the book is relatively free of outright propagandizing and does an excellent job sculpting the narrative of this important family. What surprises immediately is that the Husaynis are not actually the Husaynis they claim to be. In the 18th century, Abd al-Latif, leader of a less notable family named Ghudayya, “launched a successful dynasty that would drop the name ‘Ghudayya’ and adopt that of the... Husayni.”
The Husaynis, whose name he took, claimed to have arrived in Jerusalem in the early 14th century and traced their tree back to Muhammad.
The main source of the family’s power was its ability to control leading positions in the city, such as mufti and sheikh of the al-Haram shrine. Because minority Christians and Jews had to pay special taxes to the Muslim authorities, they also became creditors and “accrued economic power from the debts owed to them by the Jewish and Christian communities.” As creditors they “had the right to veto the [Jewish] community’s chosen leaders.” They also accepted bribes from the Christian community when it wanted to refurbish the Church of the Holy Sepulchre after a fire in 1808. In the 1830s when the special tax was abolished, it “was a severe blow to the Husaynis since this tax paid [their] salary as keeper of the holy shrines.”
The leading families of Jerusalem were like those of feudal England, and they acted with all the court intrigue and making of family alliances one might expect.
When possible they engaged in minor rebellions against the Ottoman Empire and struggled against the other notables, but they always managed to come out on top. The Husaynis made a career out of using their office to ruin and squeeze other groups in Palestine, from the Arab peasantry whose land they bought, to the African servants they had and the Jews and Christians they swindled.
In one case the Ottoman governor held a member of the family hostage alongside a leading Christian to get taxes from the city. “Tahir al-Husayni and the other notables found a way to halt the devastation...
they pawned the valuables of the Orthodox church in Jerusalem.” So the Christian churches were plundered to pay the debts of the leading Muslim families.
The Husaynis were also, to a limited extent, developers of the landscape. They used their religious authority to generate income from endowed (wakf) properties.
They personally purchased barren land throughout the country. Some they later sold to Jewish immigrants, even as some of them were leading opponents of that immigration. Pappe claims that in one case Muhammad Ali al-Husayni “built a new village named Fuja” not far from Jaffa.
They built hotels, famously the Palace Hotel, which was constructed atop old Muslim graves on the Mamilla cemetery.
With Haj Amin as mufti, the family was able to conceal the old graves and give the hotel a religious seal of approval. Never was a conflict of interest more clear. The family also built the most beautiful villas in east Jerusalem; “some of the land fell within the Husaynis’ religious properties and was used to build summer houses.”
The Husayni family was a corrupt feudal family that turned opposition to Zionism into an opportunity to become “nationalists,” and have thus come down through history as patriots. Not only were they not patriots, but their vile xenophobic hatred of immigrant Jews only adds to the list of the family’s calumnies.
Ilan Pappe set out to provide a history of this family, “to humanize, not idealize” a group whose actions he partly excuses, but what is laid bare is that Haj Amin wasn’t the only villain; he merely built upon a long history of such behavior. sybil