A Family Tree Whose Roots Are Still Hidden

A kind of collective political biography with a nod to psychology, tracing the nucleus of political power of an emerging nation

Emmanuel Sivan
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Emmanuel Sivan

"Atzulat Ha'aretz: Mishpakhat al-Husseini, Biografia Politit" ("Aristocracy of the Land: The Husseini Family, a Political Biography") by Ilan Pappe, Bialik Institute, Zagagi series, 444 pages

Visitors (all of them male, of course) would spend hours in the parlor outside Faisal al-Husseini's study, waiting to seek his advice as an arbitrator. Meanwhile, they would sit there very respectfully, conversing in hushed tones, mainly about the Husseini family and its illustrious scions: Mussa Kazim the wise, Abd al-Kader the hero, Haj Amin the mufti (about whom there were tacit differences of opinion), Jamal the diplomat. Never, to the best of my knowledge, did they go back further than the late 19th century, except for hazy statements about Taher al-Husseini, the founder of the dynasty at the beginning of the century.

Ilan Pappe has set out to reconstruct the hidden roots of this family, which played a key role in the history of the Palestinians. His book is a kind of collective political biography with a nod to psychology, tracing the nucleus of political power of an emerging nation and how the system worked.

The original part of the book explores the beginnings of the dynasty in the 18th and 19th century. Pappe describes in minute detail (excessive at times) how the family - whose status was based on its claim of descent from the Prophet Mohammed (probably fictitious) and on the Islamic scholarship of family members resulting in access to religious positions - slowly built up a power base, usually with the assistance of the authorities rather than in conflict with them.

This power base was consolidated by gaining access to the upper reaches of the bureaucracy; monopolizing key religious posts (including mufti of Jerusalem), first in the provinces and then in Constantinople; establishing a network of marriage ties with wealthy and distinguished families in Samaria; and investing in property in the villages and cities. All this was done with the help of alliances in the regional and central governments.

By the mid-19th century, these families represented the effendiyya - the new middle and upper-middle class in the cities. They skillfully adapted to changes in the empire, established a niche in the business world and secured a good place for themselves at the helm of the new journalistic establishment, thanks in part to the modern (mainly Christian European) education received by some of the members of the family in Constantinople. At the same time, the family kept up its role as a mediator between the center and the provinces.

The legitimacy for this elevated status was primarily Islamic and Ottoman. Slowly, almost furtively, the first signs of a distinctive Palestinian character began to appear. The nationalization (or Palestinization) of politics, which achieved momentum only after the fall of the empire as the conflict with Zionism deepened, is described in cautious, nuanced writing that is closer in style to the Palestinian-American historian Rashid Khalidy than to the hyperbole of non-Arab supporters of the Palestinian cause like Joel Migdal and Baruch Kimmerling, who see every instance of local insurgence in the 19th century as a stage in the development of Palestinian nationalism.

The ring of apologetics

About two-thirds through the book, when the reader gets to the history of the family during the British Mandate, which basically parallels that of Haj Amin al-Husseini, he is in for disappointment. Here Pappe offers a rehash of material that has been threshed by many before him, first and foremost Yehoshua Porat. He barely has anything new to say, and what he does say has the ring of pure apologetics.

Take the well-known story about Haj Amin's visit to the German consulate in Jerusalem shortly after the Nazis came to power. According to the consul's report, the mufti boasted that he could "get the Muslims, not just in Palestine but all over the Arab world, to support Nazi Germany." He appealed to Hitler "to impose a ban on the Jews of Germany, but not the kind that would make them move to Palestine." Without bringing the slightest proof, Pappe opines that "most of the report sounds like a fabrication."

Once Pappe abandons the path carved out for him by Porat, he is able to provide an honest, unflinching account of the mufti's exile in Germany, followed, in a kind of grand finale, by a brief description of his actions during the 1948 war and afterward.

But then Pappe's strength as a historian seems to give out. Faisal Husseini, who returned the family to the Palestinian political game, was a pioneer of methodical, dispassionate research on the subject of the State of Israel, and worked to promote dialogue with different sectors of Israeli society - this Husseini merits a total of one and a half pages, considerably less than the space devoted to all sorts of forgotten Arab notables from the 18th century.

Pappe has written a book that begins with a roar but ends in a whimper.

While the Bialik Institute deserves credit for putting out a book that may not be very popular among Israelis these days, it also deserves our strongest condemnation for a job poorly done: My copy of the book is full of blank pages. What has this institute come to since the days of Moshe Gordon, a man who cared about accuracy and quality?

Prof. Emmanuel Sivan is the co-author, with Gabriel Almond and Scott Appleby, of "Strong Religion: Rise of Fundamentalisms Around the World," published in January 2003 by Chicago University Press.