What does the Hamas charter say?

What does the Hamas charter say?

YIVO scholars talk about the ideology underlying the terrorist group, starting with its Nazi ties

Top row from left, Jonathan Brent, Jeffrey Herf, Matthias Kuntzel, and Benny Morris. Bottom row from left, David Hirsh, Meir Litvak, Norman Goda, and Karin Stogner.
Top row from left, Jonathan Brent, Jeffrey Herf, Matthias Kuntzel, and Benny Morris. Bottom row from left, David Hirsh, Meir Litvak, Norman Goda, and Karin Stogner.

To most of us, the barbarity of Hamas’s attacks in southern Israel is unimaginable.

We understand the difference between horror as a genre and horror in real life. Although there are some people excited by bloody violence, deconstructed bodies, demolished lives, by far most of us are not. We look away. Many of us do not want to see the 45-minute video of the brutality the Israeli government is guarding, even if we’re invited to do so, even if after it’s over we can talk more from knowledge than wild imaginings.

Most of us cannot imagine that human beings could slaughter other human beings with the medieval-seeming fury that allowed Hamas terrorists to look at babies and then torture and kill them.

Who could do that? Where can that level of soullessness come from? How can hatred run so deep and so hot that it turns off all human empathy and decency?

Who are these butchers?

Okay. That’s remembered shock speaking. It may not be possible to be entirely dispassionate about this, but some academic rigor of thought will help.

Most of us knew that Hamas threatens violence against Israelis frequently, and occasionally delivers. We didn’t know that this level of violence was coming. And we could have, and we should have.

Because the world — Jewish and more general — doesn’t know nearly as much as it should about Hamas’s history, philosophy, and guiding worldview, YIVO: The Institute for Jewish Research, is creating a three-part webinar, “The Origins and Ideology of Hamas.” The series, which will begin on Monday, February 26 — the other two sessions will be on March 25 and April 16 — all are at 1, all on Zoom, all available online after, although of course the Q&A session that will follow will have been closed.

“The program came to my mind because of the shock of October 7,” Jonathan Brent, a historian and YIVO’s CEO, said. “The incomprehensible cruelty and barbarity of it. I kept asking myself if YIVO has to respond, and I felt that as a Jewish institution with a global mission, if we do not respond, evil has become irrelevant.

“I was born after the formation of the State of Israel, and this is the most important event in Jewish history in my lifetime, and it is tearing the Jewish world apart in a lot of ways.

“That came together for me when I saw a picture of an Arabic-language translation of Mein Kampf that the IDF discovered in a kindergarten in Gaza.”

As soon as he thought about what YIVO could offer, “I thought of Jeffrey Herf.

“Jeffrey published a book with me in 2009,  when I was at Yale University Press” — Dr. Brent also was a publisher in an earlier life — “called ‘Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World.’

Adolf Hitler glowers on a cover of Mein Kampf in Arabic.

“I know that the story is better known now than it had been, but that’s the first time that I read about the fact that Nazi propaganda literally poured into the Arab lands in the 1930s, largely through the mufti of Jerusalem.”

“A lot of educated people don’t know this. They’re surprised. We have the largest collection of Holocaust materials in North America, and I realized there’s a nexus between the history of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe and the living history unfolding before our eyes in the Middle East. And it’s important to talk about it.

“There is a continuum of Jew hatred that has been kept alive through the Islamic Brotherhood, through Hamas. It has been fed and migrated around the world, it has been imported into American universities and has been imported by American leftist intellectuals in all kinds of ways.”

The civil rights struggle in the United States has been mapped onto the Palestinians in Israel, Dr. Brent added, although the situations are not similar enough for that to be done accurately. “So I thought that there could be a genuinely important set of programs — not just one, there’s too much material for that. And I called Jeffrey, and asked him what he thought — and here we are.

Jeffrey Herf is a distinguished university professor emeritus of history at the University of Maryland. “The reason I responded so positively is not only because Jonathan was my wonderful editor at Yale, but also because I saw this as an important opportunity to bring a range of scholarship to the broader public.”

Historians research, they uncover information, apply their knowledge to their findings, and then most of the time they publish those findings in authoritative, prestigious academic journals that are entirely unknown to the lay public. “That is a source of enduring frustration,” Dr. Herf said. “What historians know and what the public knows are two different things.”

The connections between Nazism and Hamas are important; the depth of Jew hatred that Hamas has inherited and cultivated  matter. “This is an opportunity to bring scholarship about the Nazis’ Islamist clients in the 1940s, and the aftereffects of Nazism in the postwar period, to the public.”

Also, Dr. Herf added, that although he had been “outraged and furious about the October 7 attack, I was not surprised, because I had been paying attention to the Muslim Brotherhood and to Hamas. If people have read the 1988 Hamas charter, they would know that Hamas is an organization of virulent hatred that makes no distinction between antisemitism — Jew hatred — and the destruction of the state of Israel. The attack of October 7, like the construction of the tunnels under Gaza, over decades, was the implementation in politics of an ideology that was there for all to see.”

The link between Nazis and Hamas goes back to 1937, when Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, “wrote a famous work called ‘Islam and the Jews,’ which interpreted the religion of Islam as an inherently anti-Jewish religion and interpreted Zionism as only the latest example of Jewish antagonism to Islam,” Dr. Herf said. Most people don’t know that the Nazi regime published a German translation of ‘Islam and the Jews’ in 1938.”

Hitler’s manifesto, “Mein Kampf,” was translated into Arabic, but “those editions often were abridged and edited to delete the embarrassing sections that showed how they didn’t like Arabs. They were contemptuous of them. But the Nazis convinced Arab nationalists and Islamists that they were not racist toward Arabs, and that the Nazis regime was not antisemitic, just anti Jew.” That allowed the Islamists and the Nazis to bond over their shared loathing for Jews, and their joint desire to rid the world of them.

“Most people are not aware of the enthusiasm for Hitler and Nazis among specific political activist organizations in Egypt and Palestine,” Dr. Herf continued. “Not most of them, but in particular the Muslim Brotherhood. So we want to draw attention to Islamism — not Islam but an interpretation of Islam — that places hatred of the Jews, and therefore Zionism, at its center.

“For decades I have tried, and historians and intellectuals like the writer Paul Berman in New York have tried, to bring Islamism and Jew hatred to the attention of a broader audience, but we are brought up against the accusation of Islamophobia, which as a concept has served to deflect criticism of the religion of Islam. In my view — and I think in the view of others who will be speaking — the way that we treat Islam should be exactly the same as the way we treat Judaism and Christianity, with the same amount of empathy and fatigue, of belief and irony, that any genuinely sophisticated modern person, any sophisticated New Yorker, would display. And we will not be deterred from examining the contribution not only of Nazis but also of a particular interpretation of Islam — that is, Islamism. And in doing that, we think that we are the allies of Muslim liberals in North Africa, the Middle East, perhaps in this country, perhaps in Europe, who yearn for a reformation and enlightenment of the religion, which has not had as much reformation and enlightenment as one would like to have had.”

In the first webinar, Dr. Herf and political scientist Matthias Kuntzel, who is based in Hamburg, Germany, “will talk about Nazi propaganda in the Arab world and the Nazi Islamist alliance.” Dr. Kuntzel is “a German historian and political theorist who has written about the aftershocks of World War II, and he interprets Arab opposition to the establishment of the State of Israel as a war of religion, like the 17th-century wars of religion.

“The second webinar will be me and Benny Morris, a world-famous historian” who focuses on Israel, Dr. Herf said. “We’ll focus on the war of 1948. The anti-Zionist propaganda of the last 60 years has offered interpretations of that war that we think are mistaken. We think that the interpretation that I offer about the war’s international dimension and Morris offers about the actual battles are not well enough known in the university.”

The third webinar will feature a panel — Meir Litvak, Norman Goda, Karin Stogner, and David Hirsh, all impressively credentialed academics teaching, respectively, in Tel Aviv, Florida, Germany, and London — talking about responses to October 7.

“We’re going to pack in a lot,” Dr. Herf said. “There are three of them; there could easily be so many more.” The topic is huge. But people’s time and attention is short. This is a healthy compromise.

There also are books that Dr. Herf and his guests suggest that webcast viewers read, although certainly they don’t have to in order to learn from the programs.

There is likely to be a great deal of information that people don’t know in the webcasts. “I wish I could give you an idea of the extent to which these ideas are not welcome in American liberal discourse,” Dr. Brent, who otherwise would be seen as a liberal, said. “Jeffrey’s book, which was published by Yale in 2009, is out of print — although yes, it is available as an ebook. There is another book that I published at Yale, right after 9/11, called ‘Knowing the Enemy,’ by Mary Habeck, that I believe also may be out of print. It’s a study of Islamism, but not about the mufti of Jerusalem or World War II but contemporary Islam.”

The webinar series is proving to be controversial, even in the Yiddish world. “My view is that there’s nothing controversial about the scholarship we’re doing, in the sense that it’s well-grounded,” Dr. Herf said. “It’s excellent historians’ craft. But it does not receive the hearing that it should be receiving.”

“That the views are not welcome represents a very tragic development on the American and European left, which essentially is embracing a reactionary, right-wing, fascist movement,” Dr. Brent said. “It represents a collapse of liberalism, liberal thinking, liberal sentiment in the world, the alliance of Hamas and the American left in the service of antisemitism.”


It’s the logical growth of the idea that first developed during the Carter administration that the Palestinian/Israeli conflict was essentially the same as the civil rights conflicts in the United States, Dr. Brent said. “It’s seen as neo-colonialism.  Zionism equals racism, Zionism equals imperialism, all those slogans that were imported into the American left by the Soviet Union in the 1950s and ’60s, during the Soviets’ anti-Jewish campaigns in the Stalin period, and those ideas have been assimilated by young people today.

“I don’t mean to say all young people, but many on the left believe that being on the left means that they are for the oppressed, and the Palestinians are the oppressed.” It is intersectionality, the philosophy that says, at its most simplistic, that all Jews are white and rich — a demonstrably untrue statement — and therefore can be nothing but victimizers, colonizers, and deserve whatever they get.

“The information that Jeffrey and other scholars are exploring undermines that narrative by showing that these ideas were fixed in the philosophy and the intentions and the planning of the Islamic Brotherhood, and Hamas followed it from the outset.

“So it is not pure victimization, and that really must cause those who believe in the myth of pure victimization to maybe have another look.”

It’s the three faces of antisemitism, Dr. Herf says; antisemitism coming from the right, the left, and Islamists. What people in each camp are permitted to talk about can become confusing — the right talks about Islamism, the left talks about Pittsburgh and Trump, and those things should be talked about. “But the New York Times has a habit of using the term right wing or conservative when they want to find somebody to talk about antisemitism. They are reluctant to cite people who, like me, are liberal.

“It’s absurd that liberals have difficulty criticizing a fundamentalist religious organization that suppresses women and gays, promises to kill Jews, has killed Jews, and promises to do it again,” Dr. Herf said. But it’s all in the Hamas charter, written in 1988. (The charter also blames the Jews for the French Revolution, and of course World War I. Because we are really powerful, right?)

“Paul Berman tried to make all these points in his book ‘Terror and Liberalism,’ which is one of the great works by any American intellectual in the last 25 years, and I have tried to do it in various essays,” Dr. Herf said. “But the current against it is has been significant. And so this is yet another attempt to take advantage of the shock of October 7. I think there are lots of liberals in Tel Aviv and Haifa, in Jerusalem, in Beersheva, in Berlin, in Paris, in London, who agree with that. There are people like Matthias Kuntzel who say yes, because I’m a liberal and I’m embedded in the enlightenment, I’m an anti-fascist.

“I think that Islamism is such a reactionary and dangerous phenomenon that we need to discuss it. And we will not be intimidated by people saying that it is Islamophobic.

“If it is, why are they so reluctant to ask Kuntzel and others to discuss this reactionary phenomenon? What is that about? Why do they repeat their propaganda about the Hamas Health Ministry as a reliable source about civilian casualties? Is that their view? They think that it’s more reliable than the government of Israel? They think journalists should trust what Hamas says about who has been killed? Why? Why do they trust them?

And it’s not just Jeffrey Herf or Jonathan Brent they don’t trust. What if a lot of liberals in Tel Aviv and Berlin and parents whose kids were killed in a music festival ask the same question? I don’t want to be told that they’re just a bunch of reactionaries.”

In the end, Dr. Herf said, “We take Hamas extremely seriously. We treat Hamas with respect, in the sense that when they say they want to kill the Jews, we say I hear you.

“I hear you. I am not condescending to you. I know that’s what you really believe and we know that you can do it. So we are treating you like an adult. Like an equal. We are hearing your voice.”

The webinar series will look at primary texts, including the Hamas charter, which has been available in English for at least 20 years, through the Avalon Project at Yale Law School. The charter, along with many other documents, is easily findable online.

There is a great deal to learn from this series, not least because Dr. Herf, Dr. Brent, and the other scholars are formidably well-versed in their subjects and passionate about the real-life effects they will continue to have in our world.

The webinars will be live on Zoom on Monday, February 26, Monday, March 25, and Tuesday, April 16. All are at 1 p.m., and they’re all free.

To register, go to yivo.org/IdeologySeries; if it’s easier, just go toyivo.org and click on events.

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