This Torah portion is always associated with the birth of Isaac and then the Binding, the Akedah, of Isaac. This is what we read for the Rosh Hashanah liturgy.
What we usually pay less attention to is that this portion also deals with Ishmael, the first born of Abraham, who is sent out to the wilderness. Two portions from now, we will read the account of the first born, to Isaac, Esau, who is also disinherited.
In Biblical accounts, Ishmael is used to indicate the tribes, such as the Midianites, of the Sinai and northern Arabia. Esau, or Edom, is used to refer to the people of what is now southern Jordan, a people later on absorbed in to the Jewish people by the Hasmonean kings.
Later, in Jewish tradition, these three cousins become the metaphor for the relationship of Jews to Edom, meaning Christianity, and Ishmael, meaning Islam. As we know, cousins can sometimes be very close, and sometimes, too close, at each other’s throats. Inevitably, we, as the smallest of the cousins, have felt the hand on our throat by one or the other. For the most of our history, we have felt the hand of Esau on us, but the hand of Ishmael has only been lighter in comparison.
In the last decades, since the Shoah especially, Christians have become much more welcoming cousins. At the rise of Nazism, it was Pope Pius XIth who said, in denunciation of Nazism,” We are all spiritual Semites.” The same can be said of the Evangelical Protestants, who very much look to common Jewish roots.
Our problem today has shifted to our cousin, Ishmael. There are many great Moslem thinkers and preachers who do emphasize respect and tolerance of their Jewish cousins, but they have been increasingly drowned out for over a century. Thus is the Ahmadiya sect in Pakistan, that recognize the Jewish right to the Land of Israel based on the Quran itself and it is echoed by Sheikh Pallazi, a leading figure in among Italian Moslems. But they are drowned out in the loud chorus of Moslem rejection of all things west, including Jews.
Indeed, in the early years of the past century, it seemed that the Islamic world was making a transition towards a modern secular orientation, as had happened in Europe. Ataturk in Turkey, the Pahlavi Shahs of Iran, Jinnah, the father of Pakistan, all sought a secular route for their new societies. The secular republic of Turkey is now an increasingly Islamic state, Pakistan is torn in bitter internal fighting with Taliban and similar elements, Iran is now fully an Islamic Republic of the Ayatollahs.
Much of the blame has been placed on the Saudis, who have pushed their very conservative form of Islam ( Salafi, or Wahabism) with very heavy funding in the last decades. Much of this funding was intended to appease their more conservative elements in the Kingdom so that the princes could be free to play as they wished. Ironically, the House of Saud is accused in some quarters of being of Jewish descent! ( Historically, both in the West and the East, the best accusation to destroy an enemy was to throw the accusation of “ Jewish descent” or Judaizing tendencies).
But we can look elsewhere for the depth of the current poison as well; it greatly predates Israel’s policies vis a vis the Palestinians today/
The great ideologist of Islamic fundamentalism was Hassan al Banna who founded the Moslem Brotherhood almost a century ago. He looked at the developments of modern society and disapproved of the impact of British liberal culture on Egypt. He was himself an admirer of Hitler and Hitler’s ideology. For him, Jew and Christian could never move beyond a second-class status in a world dominated by Islam. There is a direct line from Hassan Al-Banna to the 9/11 Twin Towers and it goes through Dr. Al Zawahiri, formerly number two to Osama Bin Ladin and now the Number one honcho of Al Qaeda. ( Today they look “moderate” in comparison to the horrible Da’esh, ISIS)
Recently, Prime Minister Netanyahu shed light on another figure, who perhaps did more to sour the Middle East on any kind of Jewish –Moslem cooperation, than any one other individual: the Haj Amin Al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem.
Netanyahu pulled Donald Trump, by throwing out an exaggerate charge, of giving the Mufti credit for the ideas of genocide of Jews; he achieved his end. All of a sudden, people are speaking about al-Husseini. Very simply, all public figures are jumping to clarify that Husseini did not inspire Hitler to murder all Jews. After all, Hitler was quite capable of that. No, Husseini, the great- father figure, admired by the entire Palestinian national movement, was Hitler’s very dear friend and advisor, who conspired with Hitler to bring the entire Middle East under Hitler’s control.
Al –Husseini was a member of the prominent Husseini family in the new protectorate of Palestine. There was another leading family, the Nashashibi clan, that advocated compromise and a working arrangement with the Jews. Had that clan prevailed, the whole story of Israel and the Palestinians would have been much different . The Husseinis prevailed however, by physically eliminating their rival clan, and established for the Arabs of Palestine the long-lasting principal of no cooperation, no negotiation and no Jewish presence- not in Tel Aviv, not in Haifa, nor anywhere else. ( He granted a minor concession to Jews who came before 1917, the same official position retained by the PLO until the Oslo accords).
Yasser Arafat was his protégé and always claimed to have been a part of the clan, as his family name originally was “Husseini”.
The Mufti began his career by inciting the first major pogrom against Jews in 1920; he first invented the accusation that Jews were scheming to take over the Al Aksa Mosque and build a Temple in its place.This is the very same accusation levelled by the current Mufti and implied by Abbas in recent weeks. The Al-Aksa mosque itself was a crumbing ruins at this time, to which no Moslems paid great attention. It was the Mufti who had it repaired and made it a center of Moslem attention.
By the 1930’s he had consolidated his control over the Arab Higher Committee that represented the Arab parties in Palestine. He printed his own manifesto, an anti-Semitic declaration published widely in the Moslem world, with financial support from Nazi Germany. Both his writing and Nazi writings of the time emphasized that Nazi Germany and the Moslem world together were under threat from the likes of America and the British and the Bolsheviks, all controlled by the Jews.
Pursued by the British, he ended up in Berlin, where he became a close advisor to Hitler , whose goal was create a general Moslem uprising against the Jews and the Bolsheviks. This would create a path, through the Moslem world, into the soft underbelly of the Soviet Union from the south. This Moslem alliance would see to it that no Jews would be left alive in the middle east and the Mufti had plans for a crematoria in Palestine to dispose of all the dead Jews efficiently.
This was his declaration, in 1943:
“It is the duty of Muhammadans [Muslims] in general and Arabs in particular to ... drive all Jews from Arab and Muhammadan countries... . Germany is also struggling against the common foe who oppressed Arabs and Muhammadans in their different countries. It has very clearly recognized the Jews for what they are and resolved to find a definitive solution [endgültige Lösung] for the Jewish danger that will eliminate the scourge that Jews represent in the world.( according to Lebanese historian, Gilbert Achchar).
Here is where the story takes an interesting personal twist that I must share with you.
Back in 1983, I was Rabbi in Newport News, Virginia. That same year, the local paper had printed an article about the 40th year commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The PLO , Fatah, had sent a representative to lay a wreath to show their sympathy for the Jewish victims of Nazism. There was no Holocaust , as we know according to PM Abbas, but his same PLO took pains to lay a wreath to commemorate it.
I wrote a strong letter to the editor, protesting the arrogance of this gesture, because of the close association of the leader of the Palestinian Arab movement, Al-Husseini, with Hitler and Nazism.
This led to an interesting chain of responses.
First, there was a letter to the editor by someone with a decidedly German name, who signed with his affiliation at NASA Langley Research Center, which was located only a few miles from my synagogue. There was no Holocaust, he wrote, it was all an exaggeration, and so forth. I expressed my surprise to one of the local residents in the know, who assured me that NASA had not a few former Nazi missile experts, co-workers of the famous Werner Von Braun.
I then received a phone call, a woman on the other line, who informed me that her husband was the representative of the Palestinian organization to the United Nations, that the Haj was a well-known and respected member of the family, and a gentleman who would have never carried out acts of hatred or support for Hitler. As I mentioned, the major leaders of the Palestinians, especially those involved in the Palestine Liberation Organization, have been members of this family.
The next phone call was truly intriguing. It was from a man who introduced himself to me as a historian originally from the Island of Malta. He filled me in on what happened to Husseini after World War II. Husseini had been caught and was to be tried at Nuremberg with the rest of the Nazis, especially because he had organized a Bosnian Moslem SS that had murdered large numbers of Yugoslavians. Yugoslavia wanted his head as did the British. He vanished from Nuremberg and surfaced in Cairo, then to return to lead the Palestinian Arab’s war against the Zionist Jews.
It has generally been reported that the French spirited him out to Paris, hoping to leverage his influence in the Middle East, and from there, he escaped to Cairo by flying out under disguise.
This writer gave a new twist to the story.
It was the British. Officially , the British too wanted the Haj’s head,because he was fomenting trouble for them in the Middle east. There were, however, figures in the British government who were beginning to size up the mood of the Arabs and their anger at Britain, especially in Palestine. They needed to cultivate the anti-Jewish and anti-Israel elements for their own colonial interests. Husseini, they thought, could cool things down for them. (It was the British, after all, who blocked the Holocaust survivors from getting to the Yishuv, and it was the British who handed over key forts in Palestine to the Arabs, not the Jews.) According to my source, It was the British who had him flown out on a plane piloted by the man who had been Hitler’s personal pilot.
He continued to tell me that shortly thereafter, the pilot made his way, with so many other ex-Nazis, to South America. There he began to write his memoir, and word got out that he would write about his part in getting Husseini back to Palestine. Shortly thereafter, before the memoir could be written, he died while flying solo—unusual for it took place during perfect weather and he was an expert pilot. It led to speculation that someone in the British higher-up wanted him kept quiet.
A very strange twist. Is this true? I don’t know. Hitler did have a pilot, Hans Bauer, who did write a memoir, but he died many years later, in the 1990’s. Is it possible that the British had a hand in spiriting Husseini out and getting him back into Palestine. Did they think that it would make colonial rule easier? Or speed up the end to a Jewish Yishuv that had threatened their control of the Middle East? I leave that to historians.
But there is no mistaking that a figure like Husseini was not only the central figure of the Arab Revolt and the Palestinian and general Arab rejection of any form or semblance of a Jewish state, but it is also well documented that preachers like him, and like Hassan al Banna, served to poison the well from which the modern Moslem world has been drinking.
Can we one day find a Moslem world that is cleared of this poison of anti-Semtism? I don’t know. Historically, like Ishmael and Isaac, our shared roots go far back. Northern Arabia had a very significant number of Jewish Bedouin tribes at the time of Mohammed. His first allies were the Jews of Yathrib. He gathered much of his first practices form Jews, such as praying towards Jerusalem.
My father-in-law was from Yemen, and these are Jews who trace their origins long before the time of Mohammed. Many may be descendants of those Jews from northern Arabia who fled to the south. They have a tradition, which I have heard from a Pakistani Christian minister as well, that Mohammed had a Jewish teacher, and they even claim to know the name, who taught him all that he knew.
From the moment that his former Jewish allies refused to accept him as the Ras al Nabi, chief of all Prophets, he rejected Jerusalem and directed his prayers to the historic shrine at Mecca. He turned on his erstwhile Jewish allies, and from the moment of his rise, that part of the Arabia, with its large Jewish population, was ethnically cleansed of all Jews, and is so till today, Judenrein.
Can we get Ishmael and Isaac reconciled? The Torah tells us that they returned together to bury their father Abraham and that Ishmael, in the end, became a righteous person. We must pray that we can see that reconciliation soon, that Jews, Moslem, and Christians can pray openly and freely at the sacred sites we share, without fear of the knife in the back. Amen