A Palestinian Mufti and the U.S. Election

by Rafael Medoff

A Palestinian Mufti has called for violence against Jews, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is demanding Palestinian leaders disavow him, and America’s presidential race could be affected.

That could be the lead sentence of a news report from last week.

Or from 1946.

Because 65 years ago, another Palestinian Mufti, another Netanyahu, and another American presidential race likewise intersected in an unexpected round of high-stakes Middle East politics and diplomacy.

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At the center of the current controversy is Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, the Mufti of Jerusalem, who is the Palestinian Authority’s senior religious official. In a recent speech, Hussein, citing a traditional Islamic text, urged Arabs to “fight and kill the Jews.” Later he explained he was “only quoting the words of the Prophet Muhammad.”

In an American presidential election season, words like those can be explosive. The candidates for the Republican nomination have already strongly condemned Palestinian incitement against Israel and criticized the Obama administration for not being more outspoken on the issue. The votes of Jews and pro-Israel evangelical Christians could be decisive in some battleground states in November.

“Whoever wants peace should not permit such incitement and should not allow calls to murder Jews,” Prime Minister Netanyahu said, urging the Palestinian Authority to disavow the mufti’s remarks. He said that Mufti Hussein’s “morally heinous” statements were reminiscent of one of his predecessors, the Mufti Amin el-Husseini, who fled to Germany in 1941 and collaborated with the Nazis during the Holocaust. Husseini’s pro-Nazi radio broadcasts were beamed from Berlin to the Arab world–including a March 1, 1944 tirade in which he exhorted his listeners, in language similar to that of last week’s controversy, to “Kill the Jews wherever you find them.”

What is not well known is the impact of the Mufti on the 1948 U.S. presidential race.

In the aftermath of World War II and the revelations of the full extent of the Holocaust, American Jews and Christian Zionists pressed President Harry Truman to endorse creation of a Jewish state. Truman, fearful the U.S. would be dragged into sending “half a million troops” to Palestine, preferred to stay at arm’s length from the conflict.

But his political advisers saw trouble looming in the 1946 midterm Congressional elections. New York State Democratic chairman Paul Fitzpatrick warned that if Truman failed to support Jewish statehood, “it would be useless for the Democrats to nominate a state ticket this fall,” while another longtime New York Democratic Party leader, Ed Flynn, predicted that if Truman backed down on Palestine, “the effects will be severely felt in November.”

Enter the Mufti. In the waning days of World War II, Husseini made his way to France, where he was placed under house arrest. Yugoslavia indicted him for war crimes committed by members of an all-Muslim SS unit he organized in Bosnia, but did not seek his extradition. The French and the British, nervous about angering the Arab world, likewise took no action.

While Husseini was relaxing in his French villa, a series of exposes in the New York Post, PM, and The Nation in early 1946 revealed new details of his wartime activities, including his sabotage of a prisoner exchange with the Germans that would have saved the lives of 4,000 Jewish children.

Furious American Jewish groups wanted Truman to intervene. The American Zionist Emergency Council sent the State Department a 13-page memo urging the U.S. to indict the Mufti. Another notable voice of protest was that of Benzion Netanyahu, the father of Israel’s current prime minister, who in the 1940s was director of the U.S. wing of the militant Revisionist Zionist movement. He sponsored large newspaper advertisements headlined “The Mufti Must Be Brought to Trial!” and featuring a photograph of Husseini meeting with Hitler. The administration ignored the protests.

To make matters worse, in May 1946, the Mufti escaped to Cairo–with what seemed to be the connivance of the French and British–and promptly renewed his efforts to incite the Arabs in Palestine against the Jews. For American Jewish leaders, it was another sign that London, with Washington’s tacit support, was taking the Arabs’ side. Even Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, usually the most pro-Truman voice in the Jewish leadership, publicly urged the president to “speak sharply and act decisively in relation to the [Palestine policy of] the British Government.”

Meanwhile, the Republicans were taking up the Zionist cause. In 1944, the GOP had adopted the first-ever platform plank endorsing Jewish statehood (which the Democrats then had to match). During 1945-1948, the likely contenders for the Republican nomination, Senator Robert Taft and Governor Thomas Dewey, repeatedly urged creation of a Jewish state and criticized the Truman administration for waffling on the issue.

The Mufti’s escape and the revelations about his World War II activity were part of the tumultuous series of events in 1946-1948 that helped inflame American Jewish voters against the Truman administration and, by association, the Democratic Party. It contributed to the Republican landslide in the 1946 midterm Congressional elections (including the election of the first Republican senator from New York in thirty years) and the shocking defeat of President Truman’s candidate in a congressional by-election in New York City in early 1948.

These developments had a profound impact on Truman. Fear of losing Jewish votes to the Republicans moved Truman to endorse the idea of a Jewish state in 1946, when he heard Dewey was about to do so; to support the 1947 U.N. partition plan, when his advisers told him failure to do so would cost him “two or three pivotal states” in the 1948 presidential election; and –to an extent greater than has been recognized– influenced his decision in May 1948 to recognize the newborn State of Israel. With less than six months to go before he faced re-election, how could Truman ignore his top aide’s warning that “the Jewish vote is important in New York…[and] no candidate since 1876 has lost New York and won the Presidency”…?

Whether or not the controversy over the current Palestinian Mufti escalates to the point of affecting the 2012 presidential election, all sides would do well to keep in mind what 1948 tells us about the potential electoral impact of Middle East politics.

(As published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency – February 1, 2012)

February 2012