The Makings of History The Blind Misleading the Blind

The oft-used (mis)quote from prior to Israel's Declaration of Independence that has been used as proof that the Arabs were scheming to annihilate Israel.

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
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Tom Segev
Tom Segev

Abdul Rahman Hassan Azzam was an Egyptian diplomat and statesman. He died in 1976, at the age of 83. According to Wikipedia, one of his descendants is Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri, the physician who currently heads Al-Qaida. Azzam was a proponent of Arab unity, and in 1945 was elected the first secretary general of the Arab League.

The Arab-Jewish conflict was already raging then, on the media front, as well. All parties were trying to prove that the other side was agitating towards war. Prior to Israel's declaration of independence, Azzam supplied the Zionists with a sound bite that serves Israeli propaganda to this very day: "The establishment of a Jewish state would lead to a war of extermination and momentous massacre, which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacre and the Crusaders."

There it is: unequivocal proof that the Arabs were scheming to annihilate Israel.

Google lists 395 books that include this excerpt and another approximately 13,000 websites that refer to it. But no one knows for certain where the quote was taken from; some writers invented the source, and then others copied from them.

Brendan McKay is a professor of computer science at the Australian National University in Canberra. He is interested in the Middle East, and compiles Wikipedia entries. McKay recently decided to delve into what Azzam really said, to whom, and when. He found a telltale trace in a review of a book by John Strawson, an English expert on international law. The book reviewer found Azzam's statement in a 1947 memorandum of the Jewish Agency, which quoted it as having appeared in the Egyptian newspaper Akhbar el-Yom. McKay hunted down said memorandum, and it checked out.

A friend of McKay's who was in Cairo went to the offices of the newspaper, where he was shown the original newspaper, somewhat yellowed and creased, from October 11, 1947. An interview with Azzam appears on the ninth page, as does the quote, although with the addition of several words that have subsequently been omitted from the citation.

"Personally, I hope the Jews do not force us into this war, because it would be a war of extermination and momentous massacre ..."

Various publications tended over the years to date Azzam's statement in Akhbar el-Yom to May 15, 1948. The deceptive date underscored the supposed link between the statement and the invasion of armies of the Arab states.

McKay uploaded his findings to Wikipedia, and they found their way into an article published by David Barnett and Efraim Karsh in the current issue of the Middle East Quarterly. The two researchers described Azzam's statement as a genocidal threat. Within days, their article was being quoted on a website that features a section entitled "Ask Danny." "Danny" is currently Israel's deputy foreign minister Daniel Ayalon.

Shortly after Azzam assumed his position as secretary general of the Arab League, anti-Jewish riots broke out in Egypt; these riots were condemned by Azzam. It may have been this act that led David Ben-Gurion to say about him on September 18, 1947, that Azzam Pasha is "the most honest and humane among Arab leaders ... one of the few Arabs in the world who has a humane outlook and ideals."

The Zionist movement knew him well. A few weeks before the interview with Akhbar el-Yom, Azzam met with two representatives of the Zionist lobby in London, Abba Eban, who would become foreign minister, and David Horowitz, who would become the governor of the Bank of Israel.

The meeting took place at the Savoy Hotel. Horowitz recalled Azzam as a slight man with dark and penetrating eyes. He received the two, along with the journalist John Kimche, with great courtesy, but explained to them that there was no option but war.

Horowitz quoted Azzam's gloomy assessment of the situation: "We shall try to defeat you. I am not sure we'll succeed, but we'll try. We were able to drive out the Crusaders, but on the other hand we lost Spain and Persia. It may be that we shall lose Palestine. But it's too late to talk of peaceful solutions."

Ben-Gurion, who was informed of the meeting, summed up Azzam's words thus, in a meeting with members of his party: "As we fought against the Crusaders, we will fight against you, and we will erase you from the earth."

Since he considered Azzam to be an honest person, Ben-Gurion believed him. He, too, assessed that war was inevitable.

There is something pathetic about this hunt for historical quotes drawn from newspapers. Azzam used to talk a lot. On May 21, 1948, the Palestine Post offered this statement by him: "Whatever the outcome, the Arabs will stick to their offer of equal citizenship for Jews in Arab Palestine and let them be as Jewish as they like."

So what if he said it? You can ask Danny.



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