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  • The Rise and Fall of a Palestinian Dynasty: The Husaynis, 1700-1948
  • Matthew Hughes (bio)
The Rise and Fall of a Palestinian Dynasty: The Husaynis, 1700-1948, by Ilan Pappe . London: Saqi, 2010. £20.

History has not been kind to the Husaynis, the Palestinian family that dominated life in Jerusalem and Palestine up to 1948. For Israelis, the family's leading figure in the 20th century, al-Hajj Amin al-Husayni (the "Mufti"), is a bête noire, a man who consorted with the Nazis during World War II. For Palestinians, the Husaynis, at best, represented them at a difficult time during the British Mandate in Palestine; at worst, the family was elitist, ineffective, and self-serving. Faysal al-Husayni, who served as a chief spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization and who became a leading figure in the modern Palestinian movement from the 1960s, was careful later in life to dissociate himself from his privileged background, knowing that what the Palestinians needed to move forward was a modern, secular, popular-based national movement, rather than the elite-based politics of his father's generation.

Ilan Pappe's study of the family does not pass judgment. Rather, the book under review is a nicely written, readable history of the family, based on as wide a range of sources as is available, in a variety of languages. While Pappe has made the most of the extant source material, the paucity of records for the earlier periods of the Husaynis' history is telling. The family had arrogated the Husayni title in the 18th century; their true origin was as the Ghuddaya family. The quest for power — by whatever means — underpins the history of the notables of the Husayni family over the centuries, forming a central theme to Ilan Pappe's sympathetic study. Pappe's approach is broad, painting a textured picture of this leading Arab family and in doing so he advances our understanding not just of Palestinian history but also of the impact of Western cultural forces on the Arabs.

The Husaynis were part of a political culture of notables able to withstand the powerful social and cultural change emanating from Europe during the eras of the Ottomans and Young Turks. Their ambiguous relationship to Ottoman/Turkish central government, at once Muslim and friendly but also keen to increase tax revenue and central control in the regions of the empire, generally protected the Husaynis, who displayed a keen sense of diplomacy when dealing with the authorities in Istanbul. This all changed in 1917, the year when British forces occupied Jerusalem and the year of the Balfour Declaration with its statement of British support for Zionism. The Husaynis and the Palestinians were acutely vulnerable to the considerable strength of aggressive Jewish settlement, supported by Great Britain, funded from abroad, and equipped with modern ideas for a Jewish nation-state in Palestine. The Palestinians lost out to the Zionists and the part played in this defeat by the Palestinian leadership is crucial. This is where the critics weigh in against the Husaynis and the other elite Palestinian families, such as the Nashashibis, showing how a more modern politics of nationalism never managed to supersede the older politics of notables. The leading families of Palestine could not overcome their differences and create a coalition that accepted some form of hegemony and hierarchy. The Husaynis were never going to be just primus inter pares and so fought to control political and financial power during the Mandate. The result in 1948 was disaster.

That said, the Husayni family reacted in different ways at different times to Zionism, providing a case study micro-history for how the elites of Palestine struggled to find an effective response to the influx of mobilized [End Page 511] Jewish settlers. Certainly, some Husaynis were self-aggrandizing and saw "ordinary" Palestinian peasants du haut en bas. Some even sold land to Jewish settlers, an open secret within the family. The Palestinian Left would later denounce the Husaynis for their "alleged haughty and heartless treatment of the lower strata of Palestinian society" (p. 259). Pappe establishes the tensions and the transitional nature of Palestinian leadership and elites in the 1920s...


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