Nazis, Islamic Antisemitism and the Middle East tells the story of an important but largely unknown chapter of Middle Eastern history. It focuses on the concerted drive by Nazi Germany to promote anti-Semitism in the region between 1937 and 1945. This was in line with the Nazi’s goal of annihilating the Jewish people not just in Europe but worldwide.
From there Matthias Küntzel, a German political scientist and historian, draws a broader conclusion about anti-Semitism in the Middle East. In his view its origins do not lie in the Arab world’s reaction to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. It is instead better seen as an aftershock of the Holocaust. Several Arab regimes tried to destroy the newly formed Jewish state mainly because they were motivated by the Nazi propaganda campaign a few years earlier.
Of course, Küntzel is not denying there were instances of anti-Jewish hatred in the Islamic world before 1937. He is well aware, for example, that in many Muslim countries Jews were given the status of dhimmis. That is, they were protected as long as they accepted a clearly inferior rank and legal status. There are also several anti-Jewish passages in classical Islamic texts including the Koran. His argument is that Islamic anti-Semitism fuses together the racial anti-Semitism which emerged in Europe with the classic anti-Judaism evident in early Islam. It was the Nazis, Küntzel argues, who played the key role in bringing genocidal anti-Semitism to the region.
Küntzel identifies several channels through which the Nazis exerted their influence. From 1937 onwards they gave financial backing and other forms of support to Amin El-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem. El-Husseini was an important religious and political figure as well as an ardent anti-Semite. In 1941 he met Hitler in Berlin.
The Nazis distributed large numbers of El-Husseini’s pamphlet, Judaism and Islam, first published in Cairo in 1937. For Küntzel, , it was a seminal document, the first to link the Jew hatred of classical Islamic texts with the conspiratorial anti-Semitism that emerged in Europe in the late nineteenth century. In his view it was the foundational text of Islamic anti-Semitism. The document is helpfully reproduced as an appendix to the book. Küntzel also points out that later generations of Palestinian leaders, including Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, lauded El-Husseini as a hero.
German Nazi agents also had friendly ties with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The Brotherhood, founded in 1928, was the prototype Islamist organisation. In 1938-39 the focus of the collaboration between the two sides was Palestine. El-Husseini, while not a member of the Brotherhood, also had close links to it. In 1945 the Brotherhood, which by then had become a mass movement, pushed the Arab rulers towards war with Israel.
In addition, the Nazis put a lot of effort into anti-Semitic radio broadcasts to the Arab world. These broadcasts addressed the audience as Muslims, rather than as Arabs, with each news report starting with a recitation of verses from the Koran. Küntzel builds on the work of Jeffrey Herf, an American historian of modern Europe, by examining the transcripts of the broadcasts. Most of the study focuses on Arabic language broadcasts but there are also references to those in other regional languages such as Farsi and Turkish.
From a contemporary perspective the focus on radio might at first seem strange. But back then it was arguably even more important than social media is today. The Arab population was largely illiterate at the time, so radio was the main means of mass communication.
Finally, even when it was clear that the Nazis were losing the Second World War they still provided support for a forthcoming Arab war against Israel. This included an attempt to provide a large store of light arms for Muslims to use to fight the nascent Jewish state.
Küntzel, building on the work of Herf, has made an important contribution in drawing to public attention a neglected aspect of anti-Semitism. In fact, he deserves particular praise as Islamic anti-Semitism is considered a taboo area of discussion in many corners of academia.
If there is a weakness it is that, to establish his case about the Nazi influence, he sometimes leans too heavily against other parts of the story. He arguably plays down the importance of trends that emerged both before and after 1937-45.
Earlier developments had already prepared the ground for the Nazi’s ideological intervention in the region. Christian missionaries had already begun to export traditional European conceptions of Jews into the region in the nineteenth century. For example, the idea of the blood libel – that Jews drank the blood of non-Jewish children – was an import from Europe.
Then the collapse of the Ottoman empire at the end of the First World War brought an important change. The division of the region between Britain and France opened the way for Germany to intervene later on in the name of anti-colonialism. It was also shortly after the First World War that, as Küntzel himself points out, the first Arabic edition of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a classic Tsarist forgery, was published in Palestine in 1918. And the Muslim Brotherhood was established in Egypt in 1928.
The impact of the Zionist movement and later the state of Israel also had an important impact. As early as 1917 the British government declared its support for a Jewish homeland in the Balfour Declaration. Shortly afterwards it took over control of the area with a mandate from the League of Nations. From 1936 there was a concerted indigenous reaction to Jewish settlement – with Jewish migrants fleeing from Europe – in the Palestine revolt. After the establishment of the state of Israel the Six-Day War of 1967 played an often underestimated role. Israel’s rapid victory over the surrounding Arab armies gave an important impetus to anti-Semitism in the region. It discredited pan-Arabism, a relatively secular movement, and paved the way for a sharp increase in influence for Islamism.
Küntzel is of course aware of these historical developments. His argument is that the Nazi influence played a key role in melding traditional Islamic Jew hatred with racialised anti-Semitism imported from Europe. From this merged perspective there is no difference between opposing Zionism as a political movement and calling for the extermination of world Jewry. That is despite the fact that there is nothing in the Koran about wiping out the entire Jewish people.
It is also important to recognise the distinction between Islamism and what could be called Islamic nationalism. Küntzel is careful about his use of terminology but it would be easy for the non-specialist to miss this point. Islamism in this usage refers to totalitarian social movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. His focus is more broadly to include the often Islamic-imbued nationalism in the Arab world and beyond.
Nazis, Islamic Antisemitism and the Middle East is an important work for anyone who wants to grapple with the emergence of anti-Semitism in the Middle East. Matthias Küntzel should be particularly commended for investigating what some have deemed an illicit subject.