Did Palestine’s Great Revolt (1936-1939) set the stage for Oct. 7? (Part 1)


Got questions about the current situation in Israel/Palestine? Almost all the answers lie in the Great Arab Revolt of 1936. How is that possible, when the modern state of Israel wasn’t even established until 1948? This three-part series explores the roots of a seemingly intractable conflict, highlighting unknown figures and outlining what might have been.

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Like most people on the planet, I like to laugh. I’d go a little crazy if I didn’t. Life is pretty absurd. Laughing at it is probably the healthiest coping mechanism there is.

Which means I can laugh at most things. Including myself. So when everyone in my life pokes fun at me for something, I not only accept it, I embrace it. Or at least I try to.

Imagine the following: a Shabbat meal with friends. So it’s Saturday afternoon, a lot of friends come over. I’m half-listening to the conversation, half dreaming of a nap, when someone rudely interrupts with like, reality.

It always starts along the lines of Hey Noam, you do Israel education. What do you think about…ellipses. Dot dot dot.

Male and female Arab fighters during the revolt against the British, 1936 (Photo: Wikipedia Commons/ Institute for Palestine Studies)

Insert relevant headlines here. What’s happening in Gaza, will there be war with Lebanon, what would a showdown with Iran look like, why is this happening… etc. etc. etc.

And I always give more or less the same answer. Which is to say… I don’t.

Usually, I respond with a question, turning it around on whoever asked (quintessential teacher move, by the way). Or I’ll conjure up some counterfactual, playing out alternate scenarios without ever giving an answer. But most of the time, I deflect. It’s complicated; there’s nuance; I’m not sure; could go either way; hey, any cake left? Actually, I am not such a dessert guy, but (and this is a big but), if there is anything cinnamon-y and gooey – like kokosh, thank you Hungarians, or babka, or cinnamon buns… I am a nightmare when it comes to this stuff, a nightmare.

Anyway, my complete inability to answer a question is basically a meme among my wife and friends at this point. And I laugh along, because it’s true: I can’t give, or I don’t like to give, a straight answer. It’s not because I’m somehow neutral – come on, six seasons into this show, you know I’m basically made of feelings. And it’s not out of some performative humility. It’s because of this podcast. Or rather, this podcast has amplified my natural tendency to equivocate.

Now, I want to be clear. Sometimes people equivocate because they don’t want to offend. They want to maintain the uneasy balance between opposing sides. And sometimes people equivocate because it’s more comfortable. No one wants to get canceled for their opinions.

But that’s not why I, personally, rarely answer a question straight on.

For me, it’s because you can take the educator out of the classroom, but you can’t take the classroom out of the educator. I’ve always loved Aristotle’s statement that the mark of an educated mind is to be able to entertain ideas without necessarily accepting them… and I love entertaining ideas. I get my kicks trying ideas on for size, and I like encouraging other people to consider them as well.

So I’m not here to tell you what to think and feel. I’m here to hopefully inspire you to think and feel. To help give the tools for how to think. To be metacognitive. But the content of those thoughts and feelings? That’s none of my business. They’re entirely up to you.

True story: during a job interview once, I was asked if I supported the two state solution and what I thought about the Oslo Accords. First of all, whatever happened to easy interview questions like what’s your biggest weakness (easy – overly critical), which you’re supposed to answer in a way that makes you look good: I work too hard, I care too much. But, the Oslo Accords? Yikes. Where do I even begin?

So I pulled out the Noam Special. I didn’t give a real answer. But I told the truth.

The truth is, that I said that I am not a politician or a diplomat. I am an educator. It doesn’t matter what I think about a two state solution or the Oslo Accords. What matters is that I can help students come to their own conclusions. I can facilitate discussions. I can encourage students to examine the issue from multiple angles. But the last thing I want to be is the “sage on the stage,” thundering out my message from on high. 

And that’s why I love hosting this podcast – and in particular, these special miniseries. (Miniserieses? I have no idea what the plural of miniseries is.) Don’t tell the other episodes, but these are my favorites. Their longer arcs give me the time and space to tell a story slowly, to let the structure unfold and the details breathe. And that gives you, the listeners, space to think. To wonder. To examine.

In past miniseries, we’ve covered the Yom Kippur War. The chaotic months between November 1947 and May 1948, as Jews and Arabs set up the pieces for the zero-sum game they’ve been playing for almost 77 years. And in a few weeks, you’ll hear about the Six Day War, in depth and up close.

But today, we’re kicking off the story of the Great Arab Revolt of 1936, which covers the three year period that planted the seeds for the creation of the State of Israel, as well as the Palestinian Nakba, or catastrophe, as they call it.

And what I found over the course of my research shocked me. I went in thinking I knew it all. Sure, I expected the story to be important, because history is important. It would be dramatic, because this is a dramatic region. It might even have parallels to today’s situation, because history usually does. 

But the more I researched and thought about this story, one thing jumped out at me. It’s a famous quote from William Faulkner, a Nobel Prize winner, author from the early 20th century. We’ll get to where I got this quote in a few minutes, and it’ll come together, but this is what he says, The past is never dead. It’s not even past. And wow. Understatement of the century. Because what I found during my deep-dive into this three-year period was, ready for this?, forget parallels. There is simply no way to understand 2024 without understanding 36-39. I will say that again. There is simply no way to understand 2024 without understanding the years of 36-39.

You want to understand why there’s no Palestinian state – today?

Why the Jews won in 1948?

Why there are so few outspoken moderates within Palestinian society? (And yes, there are some, and they’re so important.)

You want to understand the roots of Hamas?

You want to understand why the most hardline elements of the Zionist movement, for most of Israeli history, never gained real prominence or widespread acceptance?

You want to understand the influence of religion on political decision making?

You’re in luck.

Because all of this, all of it, can be traced back to 1936 through 1939, to the Great Arab Revolt and in the characters that shaped it. Some, you already know. David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister. Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the controversial Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. But some might be new to you, like Musa Alami, who was most likely the first Palestinian Arab to be educated at Cambridge. Or Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel, a moral absolutist who argued that it was prohibited to kill a single innocent civilian – even if doing so meant saving a thousand lives. Or Orde Wingate, Lawrence of Judea, as he’s called, the British Christian Zionist nudist military genius who trained some of Israel’s most legendary soldiers. (And yes, I did just say “nudist.” Wingate was a real character.) 

I meet a lot of people who visit Israel and the West Bank and come back asking, “How the heck did we get here?” Followed up by: “I just don’t know who to trust.” When I hear one source or worldview, I am told the others are lying, and vice versa. This happens on all sides. All the time.

And I’ll say it one more time. You want to know how we got here today? This mini-series is how we got here. Its colorful characters are how we got here. Over the next three weeks, you’ll meet Palestinian elites and Jewish terrorists. You’ll meet the rabbis who argued that the best defense was a good offense, and the rabbis who argued that the sixth commandment – Thou shalt not kill – should be the Jews’ guiding moral principle. You’ll meet the namesake of Hamas’ military wing. And as always, you’ll be asked to consider tough questions.

Like, when is violence necessary? When is it immoral? What’s the difference between deterrence and revenge?

And, of course, my favorite question of all: What if?

What if this revolt (which, by the way, some think was kind of the actual first intifada, but stay tuned for that), had gone differently?

What if the hardline Jewish factions had won out over the moderates?

What if the Palestinians had had different leadership, one who accepted compromise, one who pursued the path of non-violence?

I don’t have the answers. But I do have a fascinating, textured, detailed story. You’ve probably heard all about the two state solution, but check out this insane story of the first time this solution was offered. On one foot, it goes something like this:

In 1936, the Brits were still in charge of Palestine. And both Palestinian Arabs and Jews were savvy enough to realize that they were locked in a sort of lopsided waltz, each trying to steer Britain towards their goal: a self-determining state in Palestine. For many, many people on both sides, this was a zero-sum goal. The state would be Jewish, or it would be Arab. There could be no compromise. Hm, sounds familiar.

The British tried, at various points, to both appease and suppress both populations, satisfying neither. In 1936, Palestine’s Arabs briefly united in protest, launching a massive labor strike in an attempt to pressure the Brits into stopping all Jewish immigration into Palestine, banning all land sales to Jews, and establishing a representative government in Palestine. But the strike failed. And so the Brits proposed a two-state solution, unlinking the two volatile populations from one another. 

Zionist leadership accepted, conditionally, maybe not so happily, but it was moot, because Arab leadership outright refused. And the charged atmosphere exploded into  horrific violence that left 500 Jews and between 5 and 8 thousand Palestinian Arab dead. By the revolt’s end, it was too late for the Brits to salvage the Palestinian cause. And for the next 80+ years, Palestinian Arabs and Jews would be locked in the deadly stalemate we are still living through today.

And all of it, all of it, started with the Great Revolt. Okay, yes, it went back earlier, but listen to this. It was over this three-year period that the Jews, in the words of the scholar and journalist Oren Kessler, “consolidated the demographic, geographic, and political basis” of their future state.

By the way, Oren Kessler literally wrote the book on this revolt. Big, big plug for his book Palestine 1936, which was invaluable to our team as we created this series. If you want a really in-depth understanding of this three year period, you gotta check it out. Nobody on our team could put it down. (Side note: Kessler is the one who brought up that amazing quote about the past not even being past, and its relationship with the Great Revolt. Seriously, brilliant.)

You’ll be hearing from Kessler throughout the series. You’ll also hear from Rabbi Shlomo Brody, whose book, Ethics of our Fighters, was another incredible resource for our team. We’ve actually referenced it in previous episodes, because it explores the murky moral questions around the use of violence – an issue that is constantly and depressingly relevant in Israel. And by the way, not to brag, but Brody was my teacher almost 20 years ago. (Wow, I’m old.) Rabbi Brody… I am still learning from you.

If you’ve listened to any of our previous miniseries, you already know that they don’t follow our usual structure of A. story → B. five fast facts → C. enduring lesson. Instead, each of the three chapters bleeds into the next. We’ll wait til the final episode to sum up the facts and talk through the enduring lessons as I see them.

I may not be able to give anyone a straight answer to a simple question. But I can complicate their preconceived narratives. And the story of the Great Arab Revolt of 1936 might just be the most complicated – and tragic – story in Israeli and Palestinian history.

Chapter 1: Signs and Portents

Chaim Weizmann had always been a Zionist.

True, the term Zionist didn’t really exist in 1874, when he was born (though the concept predates the state by literally thousands of years). The future first president of the State of Israel had been educated in an Orthodox Jewish home that emphasized an early form of Jewish nationalism. By the time he was 11, he was already convinced that there could be no real home for the Jewish people but Zion (like, Israel). He spent the rest of his life working towards building that home.

Every aspect of Weizmann’s character seemed engineered to get him there. He was a gifted and persuasive orator, with the charismatic yet sincere persona of the best politicians. He was a brilliant and almost spookily prescient thinker, able to predict the Holocaust with chilling accuracy. And thanks to his PhD in chemistry, he had figured out a process to create synthetic acetone.

Hold up. What does synthetic nail polish remover have to do with building a national home for the Jewish people? It sounds like the set-up to a joke, doesn’t it? Well, the punchline isn’t particularly funny… but it did change the world.

Weizmann moved to England in 1904, to take a position at the University of Manchester. When World War I broke out, the British desperately needed acetone for military purposes. Inconveniently, their main supplier of acetone’s crucial ingredient was… Germany, i.e. their new enemy. Enter Weizmann, whose process for making synthetic acetone proved to be a lifesaver. The Brits were, as they might say, chuffed to bits with the Russian-born chemist. So was the Zionist movement, which now had a powerful advocate in Whitehall, the seat of Britain’s government.

And when I say Weizmann had influence, boy, I mean it. 

I don’t know what UK Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour was expecting when he asked Weizmann what he wanted in exchange for his crucial aid during the war. I mean, what would you say if the Foreign Secretary asked you what you wanted? Money? For people to call you Lord Admiral? To wear the Crown Jewels for a day?

But Weizmann wasn’t interested in any of that. His childhood ambition had never wavered. So he told Balfour: “There is only one thing I want: a national home for my people.” I wouldn’t say that was the only factor behind the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which promised “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” But it certainly was a factor. (And, you guessed it, link to our Balfour Declaration episode in the show notes.)

The Declaration was vague and fuzzy. It didn’t technically promise a state, or demarcate borders, or even guarantee autonomy. “A national home” could mean many things. But for the Zionist movement, a partial triumph was still a triumph, and the Balfour Declaration was an important milestone in their journey towards a state.

For the Arabs of Palestine, however, the declaration was a disaster. The 117-word document made no mention of the 600,000 Arabs living in Palestine. Balfour had promised that, quote, “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” but that wasn’t exactly reassuring. In 1918, Jews made up only eight percent of Palestine’s population. If the Jews had a quote unquote “national home,” what would that mean for the much-larger Arab population? As Jerusalem’s mayor wrote to the Brits in 1918, quote: “We Arabs, Muslim and Christian, always sympathized profoundly with the persecuted Jews and their misfortunes in other countries, but there is a wide difference between this sympathy and the acceptance of such a nation…. ruling over us.”

And look, I get it. The Arab riots that followed, well, I have no excuse for those. But I’d be salty too if I thought that a tiny minority was going to show up, take over my home, and set up a government that didn’t represent me. I can’t help but feel empathy for the Palestinian Arabs – and their hope. As the world struggled to adjust in the aftermath of World War I, as Ottoman rule in Palestine gave way to the British, as world powers gathered to decide the fate of nations, it was still possible for Arabs and Jews alike to prod the future into their desired shape.

In early 1919, both parties formally articulated those shapes.

Representing the Zionist movement was Chaim Weizmann, who continued to make the case for a Jewish state in Palestine to the world powers at the Paris Peace Conference. And representing Palestinian Arab interests were 27 of Jerusalem’s elites, who gathered in the ancient city for the First Palestine Arab Congress.

Among the delegates were journalists, educators, and politicians. Some were Christian, others Muslim. Some were sympathetic to the Brits. Others were diehard pan-Arabists who dreamed of an autonomous, united Arab Union. But no matter their politics or religion or occupation, all of them could read the writing on the wall. 

The Zionists had to be stopped.

What had started as a few isolated Jewish communities struggling to scratch a living from an inhospitable land had morphed into a serious project of nation-building. Jewish immigrants were streaming into Palestine in record numbers. And if Palestine’s Arab elite didn’t find a way to nip this Jewish expansion in the bud, they’d find themselves a minority in their own land.

Over two weeks, the First Palestine Arab Congress crafted their rebuttal to Weizmann’s case:

  • No to Zionism.
  • No to any attempt to sever the Arabs of Palestine from their land.
  • No to the intervention and meddling of foreign powers.

That last point was a little awkward, given that the Brits were currently running the show. But Palestine’s Arabs were clear: they’d maintain friendly relations with the guys in power, provided they got what they wanted. And what they wanted was self-rule in an independent state that encompassed modern-day Israel, Lebanon, and Syria.

But the world powers issued a very disappointing answer. In 1920, they reaffirmed their commitment to a “Jewish national homeland in Palestine.” The Brits formalized their authority over Palestine. Modern-day Syria and Lebanon were handed off to the French. And Jewish immigrants just kept streaming into Palestine, unchecked. 

Palestine’s Arabs were deeply – and again, in my opinion, understandably – frustrated. In the spring of 1920, that frustration boiled over into a full-blown riot. Over the course of three days, they rampaged through Jerusalem, beating Jews and vandalizing property, including synagogues. And they had encouragement from a figure who might be familiar to you, if you listened to our episode on the Hebron riots of 1929 (link in the show notes).

In 1920, Hajj Amin al-Husseini was 25 years old, the young scion of one of Palestine’s more elite families. His uncle was Jerusalem’s mayor. His dad had been the city’s Mufti – a religious position roughly analogous to “chief rabbi.” Compared to these big names, Amin wasn’t a particularly big deal. He’d served in the Ottoman army, but deserted his position to help the British instead, hoping his efforts would yield an independent Arab state. He’d spent some time at Cairo’s most elite Islamic university, but he wasn’t a serious scholar. (Nerd corner alert: I’m not just being a jerk about Husseini here. The clue to his credentials, or lack thereof, lies in his title. al-Husseini went by the honorific Hajj to show that he’d made the pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest sites, Mecca and Medina. Which is great! This pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam. But if al-Husseini had been a real super legit scholar, his honorific would have included “Sheikh,” a term that literally means elder and connotes great learning. But it didn’t, because his scholarship was nothing to write home about. In Jewish terms, think of him as a guy who dropped out of rabbinical school, forfeiting his right to go by rabbi. And, by the way, there will be a sheikh in this story, whose scholarship and leadership had disastrous ends. But we’ll get there.)

Anyway, young Hajj Amin was outraged about the continued Jewish immigration into Palestine. So as Palestinians rioted, he and his uncle, the mayor, whipped the crowd into a frenzy. The mayor even encouraged the rioters to, quote, “spill their blood” for Palestine. Lovely. By the time the Brits restored order, five Jews and four Arabs were dead, hundreds were wounded, and the Mandate Authorities were — and this is a technical term – furious. They fired the mayor, replacing him with a longtime rival who was, conveniently, much more sympathetic to British interests. And they sentenced Hajj Amin to ten years in prison – a sentence he escaped by fleeing to Transjordan. 

In the meantime, Palestine’s Jews began to arm themselves. They had no interest in a repeat of this violence. If it happened again, they’d be prepared. They called their militia the Haganah. The Defense. And though independent armed paramilitaries were technically illegal in Mandate Palestine, the Brits looked away. After all, the Haganah’s mission – Jewish self-defense – served British interests. Riots and casualties were a royal headache. The fewer dead people they had to deal with, the better. If the Jews wanted to defend themselves, well, that was one less task for the British.

Slowly, without anyone knowing it, the stage was being set for the showdown that would begin in 1936.

We have Hajj Amin al-Husseini, a hothead known for incitement. We have the Haganah, an armed paramilitary squad. And of course, we have the Brits, bumbling around trying and failing to defuse tensions. It was a losing battle. Because despite the rioting, despite the Palestine Arab Congress’ demands, despite the fact that Palestine was often a harsh place to live, Jews continued to flock to their ancestral home.

(Nerd corner alert! Wow, a bunch in this episode. Maybe you vaguely remember that Jewish immigration to Palestine was split up into multiple stages, known as aliyot, which began in 1882. In 1920, we’re right at the start of the Third Aliyah, and by the time we get to 1936-1939, where the bulk of this story is set, we’ll be at the end of the Fifth Aliyah, which was brought to a close by WWII and the infamous White Paper that restricted all Jewish immigration to Palestine. There was one more aliyah after 1939, which brought roughly 110,000 Jews to Palestine, most of them illegally. That’s the end of the aliyot. By 1948, Israel was an autonomous country, open to all Jews no matter what.)

But it didn’t matter if they came during the First Aliyah or the Fifth. When Jewish immigrants got to Palestine, they bought up as much land as they could. From who, you wonder? Whom? Whomst? From whomst did these Jewish immigrants buy land? From many of the very same Palestinian elites who had been agitating furiously against Jewish immigration. Oh, the irony.

Now, it sounds like a pretty innocuous exchange, right? Person A has land. Person B pays them for it. A now has money! B now has land! Win-win! (And, if you were contemplating getting an MBA, no need. I just taught you everything you’ll need to know.) But that’s not exactly how it worked. Land sales were less than transparent. Sellers didn’t always know who they were selling to. Buyers didn’t necessarily know who they were buying from. So while Palestinian Arab elites understood they were selling land to Jews, the transaction was a little more complicated and obscure than what I described above.

And here was a second fly in the ointment. A wrench in the works. A sticky wicket, as the Brits say. That wicket, whatever a wicket is, were the fellahin: Palestine’s peasant farmers.

For centuries, Palestinian society had been organized into hamulot, or clans. At the top were the wealthy, land-owning elites, clustered in the cities. At the bottom were the fellahin, who didn’t own the land they worked and who had very little power or voice in society, relying instead on their relationship to the region’s elite families. Like tenant farmers in the 19th century American South, or medieval European serfs, the fellahin were more or less at the mercy of these elite families. So as the elites began selling their lands to Jews, the fellahin found themselves landless and therefore jobless. They crowded the cities, struggling to make ends meet and watching new owners cultivate the land they’d worked for centuries. And when you have a disenfranchised, landless, largely uneducated peasant class rubbing up against the newcomers who had bought up their lands, well… you have a recipe for disaster.

But let me add one more ingredient to this disaster stew we’re cooking up. Because the Palestinian elites were also part of the problem. These notables, as the British called them, had perfected the tightrope act of cultivating their own power. Each clan looked out for itself, which meant that Palestine’s Arabs had very little centralized leadership. Some clans favored working with the British to secure their own state, while others were growing increasingly disillusioned. Some were open to working with Jews, while others were like, hell no. Some would never dream of picking up a gun, while others chose violence. It was a piece of cake for the Brits to “divide and conquer,” pitting one clan against the other to secure their own interests. Among those interests was maintaining law and order. And riots, disturbances, and death tolls were not law and order. So when a new British High Commissioner arrived in Palestine in 1922, he had one initial goal: make Jews and Arabs happy again so that they stop fighting each other.

A High Commissioner, by the way, is kind of like if an ambassador and a policeman had a baby with a British accent and a stiff upper lip. That’s basically what it is. His job was representing British interests in Palestine, which included installing pro-British leaders and ensuring the locals didn’t kill each other. And this particular High Commissioner, Herbert Samuel was in a difficult position. He was both a Jew and a Zionist, which did not defuse Palestine’s simmering tensions. Honestly, I have no idea what the Brits were thinking by sending him there.

Look, I’m not trying to be a jerk. For all I know, the guy may have been a self-starter with superb organizational skills and a gift for multitasking. But any good professional traits he may have had were overshadowed by one huge mistake. One that led directly to the riots of 1929 and the revolt of 1936 and the massive leadership crisis that doomed the Palestinian cause. He pardoned the young hothead, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, who only two years before had incited the rampaging crowd. And then he made him the Grand Mufti.

Now, as we said before, a Mufti is an important religious official. It’s a role that has existed throughout Islamic history. But High Commissioner Herbert Samuel put his own spin on the position. He made al-Husseini a Grand Mufti, in charge of a totally new, made-up institution called the Supreme Muslim Council. As you can probably tell by all of these superlatives – Grand, Supreme, etc – this was a pretty, pretty, pretty big deal.

The 27-year-old al-Husseini was now the most powerful non-British person in all of Palestine, with the power to issue legal rulings and the clout to make people listen. And he wasn’t shy about using it. Maybe you remember from our episode on the 1929 Hebron riots that the Mufti spent weeks inciting violence against the Jews. Maybe you also remember that he later cozied up to Hitler. And maybe you know that he would one day cite The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as proof of the Zionist movement’s dastardly plan to take over the world. In short, the guy was bad news for the Jews… and for the Palestinians. Oren Kessler, the author of Palestine 1936, tells us why:

[OREN KESSLER CLIP] “People who knew him well and who were part of his Arab nationalist movement, struggle against Zionism admitted to his fundamental extremism, which in the end ended up harming the Palestinians tremendously… Let’s not forget that the British exiled him very early, even before the mandate went into force officially. In 1920, during the Nabi Musa riots in Jerusalem, he was inciting the crowd to such an extent that the British felt it necessary to exile him from the country… And so he showed his extremism really from the start, but certain people in positions of influence were not really paying attention apparently.”

Kessler just played my favorite game: What if. And if you care about Israeli history, which, duh, you’re here, so you do, this is one of the ultimate what ifs in modern history. What if High Commissioner Herbert Samuel had made a better choice? What if he’d appointed a moderate to the position of Grand Mufti? Someone who never incited a crowd, who wasn’t an extremist, who didn’t view cooperation with Brits or Jews as treason?

What if, instead of Hajj Amin, he’d appointed Musa Alami?

Uh, who? Yeah, I’d never heard of him before either before reading Kessler’s book, which is a shame.

Like al-Husseini, Musa Alami was the son of a prosperous, elite Jerusalem family. In fact, the two were distantly related: Alami’s sister was married to the mufti’s cousin. And like Husseini, he was a devoted Arab nationalist, starry-eyed over the prospect of an independent Arab state. But the resemblances basically stop there. Where al-Husseini was an average student, Alami was a brilliant Cambridge grad. Where al-Husseini was a hothead, Alami was level-headed and mature beyond his years. Where al-Husseini had little interaction with Jews – much less positive ones – Alami had close personal friendships with them, both before and after the establishment of the State of Israel. And where al-Husseini looked to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to learn about Zionism, Alami studied Zionist history and philosophy as written by actual Zionists. To me, it seems like a great injustice of history that al-Husseini should have the most important job in Palestine, while Alami was a civil servant who started his career as a junior legal advisor in the Mandate court system.

Here’s Kessler again:

(Play Kessler clip): “He was a brilliant man by all accounts and he was an Arab nationalist full stop. But he had friendships across communal and religious lines among the British and among the Jews and he, one of his longtime friends and associates was none other than David Ben-Gurion… despite their diametrically opposed political and national aspirations, they were able to meet in an atmosphere of respect and warmth even for really for decades. They actually, they remain in contact in one way or another until Ben-Gurion dies in 1973. And so, and they really try to reach a modus vivendi. They really try to reach some sort of agreement, some sort of way to live together or to live next to each other, again, despite their very different aspirations and objectives… yes, there is a lot of conflict and death and destruction and tragedy in this period, but it’s not all doom and gloom. There were real attempts at a solution and there were friendships across ethnic and religious lines.”

Who knows what would have happened if Alami, or someone like him, had been named Grand Mufti instead of al-Husseini? Because as the 1920s gave way to the 1930s, Husseini only became more extreme, especially as record numbers of Jews streamed into Palestine. 

You know that old theory that a butterfly flapping its wings in one country can cause a tsunami in another? It’s called the butterfly effect. (Shout out to Ashton Kutcher.) Well, by 1933, a butterfly was flapping its wings in Germany, sending a flood of Jews into Palestine. It was a particularly ugly butterfly, with a gross little mustache and a friend in Jerusalem named Hajj Amin al-Husseini. Only two months after Hitler took office, al-Husseini informed the Nazis that, quote, “Muslims inside and outside of Palestine greet the new regime in Germany, and hope for the spread of Fascist and anti-democratic state authority to other lands.” A few months later, he met the German consul in Palestine, asking for the Nazis’ help in limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine.

Ironically, it was Hitler’s policies that brought thousands of Jews to Palestine’s shores. There had always been Jews in their historic homeland. But as their lives became less and less tolerable in Europe, they flocked to Palestine in droves. In 1931, only 4,000 Jews emigrated to Palestine. In 1933, only two years later, that number was 52,000 – nearly half of which had come illegally. Let me say that again. 1931 – 4,000 Jews. 1933 – 52,000.

Europe’s Jews were growing desperate. But Palestine’s Arabs, unfortunately led by Husseini, had no intention of becoming a minority in their own country because of disturbances thousands of miles away. After all, they hadn’t passed antisemitic race laws. They hadn’t spent years feeding schoolchildren dehumanizing anti-Jewish propaganda. So why should they have to deal with this influx of refugees? I can see why locals might feel resentful – even if they were the ones selling land to these new immigrants! 

And in fact, this is the crux of our story. In 1936, as in 2024, Palestinian Arab and Jewish interests were crashing against each other. Zionist leadership would do anything to establish and defend a Jewish homeland. And many Palestinian Arabs would do anything to stop them. Back in 1936, there was an additional complication: the Brits, who had no idea what they were in for. So the Jews kept streaming in illegally. And Palestinian Arabs protested in a variety of ways.

Some chose non-violence. In October of 1933, for example, Palestine’s peasant farmers, the fellahin, called for a labor strike. The region would grind to a halt without their labor, and then the British would have to take notice and reform their immigration policy… right? But started as a strike soon escalated violently. Within the week, 26 Palestinian Arabs were dead and 200 wounded, all at the hand of the British.

And not everyone was willing to play by British rules, or to embrace non-violence. Since 1929, a number of radical Arab militias with names like the Organization for Holy Struggle had been running around Palestine. These days, barely anyone remembers these militias. But they do remember the leader of The Black Hand organization. You might even recognize his name, because it’s been in the news a lot lately. Ever heard of a Qassam rocket? Or the Izz al-Din al-Qassam brigades? Or Hamas?

Crazy, right? Those guys are kind of inescapable. And when they founded their movement in 1987, they knew exactly who to name their military wing after. In fact, even before Hamas existed, other armed groups debated using Qassam as their mascot. In the words of Leila Khaled – whose claim to fame is hijacking a TWA flight in 1969 with another member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – quote “The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine begins where Qassam left off: his generation started the revolution: my generation intends to finish it.”

Well, Khaled’s generation didn’t finish the revolution – she is, today, almost 80 years old – but Hamas is doing its best to pick up where she and her peers left off. And that’s why they named both their short-range rocket and their military wing after Qassam. But before he was a legend, he was just a man, and a friend of the Grand Mufti’s. The two agreed on a lot of things, including the best way to get the Jews out of Palestine.

You know those cool videos, with rows and rows of dominoes arranged in funky complicated shapes? I love the moment where someone knocks over the first domino, kicking off a chain reaction. Well, we’ve been setting up dominoes since the Balfour Declaration of 1917. It was Sheikh Izz al-Din al-Qassam who would knock down the first one, kicking off the Great Arab Revolt of 1936.

But that particular chain of events is a story for next week, when we talk about the actual events of the revolt. It’s a dark tale punctuated by moments of complete absurdity and unlikely glimmers of hope, with scarily strong parallels to 2023-2024. 

I can’t wait to tell you about it next week.

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