Azzam Pasha quotation

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The Azzam Pasha quotation refers to a statement made by Abdul Rahman Hassan Azzam, the Secretary-General of the Arab League from 1945 to 1952, in which he declared in 1947 that, were a war to take place with the proposed establishment of a Jewish state, it would lead to "a war of extermination and momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacre and the Crusades."[1] The quote was universally cited for decades as having been uttered on the eve of the outbreak of hostilities between Israel and the Arab states several months later. The source of the quote was traced by the computer scientist Brendan McKay to an October 11, 1947 article in the Egyptian newspaper Akhbar al-Yom, titled "A War of Extermination", which included the quote, with the added words "Personally, I hope the Jews do not force us into this war, because it would be a war of extermination and momentous massacre ...".[1][2] The historian Efraim Karsh considers this quote a "Genocidal threat".[1]

The Israeli historian Tom Segev has disputed Karsh's interpretation, saying that "Azzam used to talk a lot" and pointing to another statement from May 21, 1948, in which Azzam Pasha declared his desire for "equal citizenship for Jews in Arab Palestine".[2]

The quotation in historical context[edit]

The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine was set up in May 1947 to develop proposals for the partition of Palestine. Recommendations to this effect were made in September of that year. The majority plan proposed a distinct two-state solution, the minority plan foresaw a federal state. The Arab countries were unanimous in their negative reactions to both plans, and openly spoke of taking up arms were either of these proposals enacted.[3][4] For Ernest Bevin, the British Foreign Secretary, the majority plan would only lead to an outbreak of generalised violence, as clearly unjust to the Arabs, whilst the minority plan was inapplicable since it assumed a prior accord between Jews and Arabs.[5]

On September 15,[6] Azzam Pasha, who was held in high esteem by David Ben-Gurion,[2] met a Zionist delegation in London, consisting of Abba Eban, David Horowitz, both liaison officers with the Jewish Agency who were accompanied by the journalist Jon Kimche.[2] The emissaries stated that there was no doubt that a Jewish state would be established and requested that the Arab states accept the consequences and cooperate. They were willing to give cast-iron guarantees against any form of Jewish expansionism.[7] Azzam Pasha, in his capacity as Secretary General of the Arab League, suggested that the Zionist project be abandoned, and that the Jews could integrate themselves into Arab society on the basis of autonomous entities. He argued that it was pointless to appeal to political realism when the whole Zionist project demonstrated the efficacy of will-power. There was no option but war. The Zionists, he argued, would be thrown out in the future, just as the Crusaders had been. His Zionist interlocutors read this statement as a fascist declaration, unable, according to Henry Laurens, to see that, as with the Jews of Europe, emancipation from enslavement for the Arabs was seen as requiring recourse to force.[2][8]

In Horowitz's account, Azzam declared,

"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."[2]

On being informed of the content of Azzam's declaration, Ben-Gurion, who considered Azzam the "most honest and humane among Arab leaders", and who had earlier, on June 18, 1947, ordered the Haganah to prepare for a war he himself thought inevitable, synthesized Azzam's position in the following words:

"As we fought against the Crusaders, we will fight against you, and we will erase you from the earth."[2][9]

At the pan-Arab summit of the 19th September 1947, which convened at Saoufar in Lebanon, the League decided to employ all available means to ensure the independence of Palestine as an Arab state.

On October 11, the editor of Akhbar al-Yom, Mustafa Amin, ran an interview he had obtained from Azzam Pasha to report on the outcome of the summit. The article was entitled, "A War of Extermination," (Arabic transliteration required), and in one passage contained the following words.[1]

I personally wish that the Jews do not drive us to this war, as this will be a war of extermination and momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Tartar massacre or the Crusader wars. I believe that the number of volunteers from outside Palestine will be larger than Palestine's Arab population, for I know that volunteers will be arriving to us from [as far as] India, Afghanistan, and China to win the honor of martyrdom for the sake of Palestine ... You might be surprised to learn that hundreds of Englishmen expressed their wish to volunteer in the Arab armies to fight the Jews.

— "A War of Extermination", Mustafa Amin, Akhbar al-Yom, October 11, 1947

In early December 1947 Azzam told a rally of students in Cairo that "The Arabs conquered the Tartars and the Crusaders and they are now ready to defeat the new enemy," echoing sentiments he had expressed to a journalist the previous day.[10]

Jewish Agency Memorandum[edit]

A Jewish Agency memorandum, submitted on February 2, 1948, to the U.N. Palestine Commission, tasked with the implementation of the partition resolution, and yet again to the U.N. secretary-general on March 29, 1948, referred to the Azzam Pasha quotation, citing the October 11, 1947 article in Akhbar al-Yom.

... The "practical and effective means" contrived and advocated by the Arab States were never envisaged as being limited by the provisions of the Charter; indeed, the Secretary-General of the Arab League was thinking in terms which are quite remote from the lofty sentiments of San Francisco. "This war," he said, "will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongol massacres and the Crusades."[1]

— Jewish Agency memorandum, February 2, 1948

The uses to which the quotation was put[edit]

At the time of the utterance, according to Segev, the Arab–Israeli conflict was raging also in the media of the day, as either side sought to show the other side was agitating for war. Azzam had, he concludes, 'supplied the Zionists with a sound bite that serves Israeli propaganda to this very day,' and some 395 books, and roughly 13,000 websites cite this excerpt to this day.[2]

Azzam's quoted first sentence, without its initial caveat, appeared in English in a Jewish Agency memorandum to the United Nations Palestine Commission in February 1948.[11] During the next few years, the same partial sentence appeared in its correct 1947 setting in several books.[12] However, by 1952, many publications, including one published by the Israeli government, had moved its date to 1948,[13] specifically to May 15, 1948, shortly after the outbreak of the 1948 Arab–Israeli War.[1] As the war got underway, the Jerusalem Post quoted a further declaration from 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."[2]

Quotation source and authenticity debate[edit]

Until 2010, the source of the quotation has been commonly claimed to be a press conference in Cairo in May 15, 1948, one day after the Israeli declaration of independence, which some versions say was broadcast by the BBC.[14]

An Egyptian writer in 1961 maintained that the quotation was "completely out of context". He wrote that "Azzam actually said that he feared that if the people of Palestine were to be forcibly and against all right dispossessed, a tragedy comparable to the Mongol invasions and the Crusades might not be avoidable. ... The reference to the Crusaders and the Mongols aptly describes the view of the foreign Zionist invaders shared by most Arabs."[15]

In 2010, doubt over the provenance of the quotation was voiced by Joffe and Romirowsky[16] and by Morris.[17]

In 2010, the source of the quote was traced by the computer scientist Brendan McKay to an October 11, 1947 article in the Egyptian newspaper Akhbar al-Yom, titled "A War of Extermination", which included the quote with the added words, "Personally, I hope the Jews do not force us into this war, because it would be a war of extermination and momentous massacre ...".[1][2] McKay shared his discovery with Jewish-American pro-Israel researcher David Barnett, who then published a paper on his discovery together with Karsh. Karsh nonetheless accused McKay of failing to share it 'with the general public' on Wikipedia, 'so as to keep Arab genocidal designs on the nascent Jewish state under wraps', which McKay called 'quite a distortion'.[18]

Interpretation debate[edit]

Karsh, together with his co-author, the researcher David Barnett, consider the Azzam Pasha quotation a "Genocidal threat".[1]

Tom Segev, also an historian, disputes this interpretation, saying that "Azzam used to talk a lot" and pointing to another statement from May 21, 1948, in which Azzam Pasha declared his desire for "equal citizenship for Jews in Arab Palestine".[2] In response to Segev, Karsh wrote that while it is true that Azzam was prepared to allow survivors of the destroyed Jewish state to live as Dhimmis, in his view "this can hardly be considered an indication of moderation".[18]

Akhbar el-Yom interview[edit]

In the interview to Akhbar el-Yom, Azzam predicted Palestine would be entered by large numbers of Muslim volunteers from many countries. He said that the fight would have three dimensions: faith, looting, and unstoppability, and argued that the Arabs knew how to carry on after a defeat, whereas, according to the interview, the Jews did not.[1]

He concluded,

"I foresee the consequences of this bloody war. I see before me its horrible battles. I can picture its dead, injured, and victims ... But my conscience is clear ... For we are not attacking but defending ourselves, and we are not aggressors but defenders against an aggression!"[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j David Barnett and Efraim Karsh (2011). "Azzam's genocidal threat". Middle East Quarterly. 18 (4): 85–88.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Tom Segev (Oct 21, 2011). "The makings of history / The blind misleading the blind". Haaretz.
  3. ^ Ronald J. Berger,The Holocaust, Religion, and the Politics of Collective Memory: Beyond Sociology, Transaction Publishers, 2012 p. 176.
  4. ^ Henry Laurens, La Question de Palestine, Fayard, Paris 2002, vol.2 p.593.
  5. ^ Henry Laurens, La Question de Palestine, p.594
  6. ^ Howard Morley Sachar,Europe leaves the Middle East, 1936–1954, Knopf, 1972 p.494, gives October the 14th. This date however is not that given by Abba Eban himself. See A. S. Eban, 'Note of Conversation with Abdel Rahman Azzam Pasha,' London, Sept. 15, 1947,' in Neil Caplan, Futile Diplomacy, Frank Cass, 1986, Vol. 2, pp. 274–76; Laurens, Question de Palestine, vol. 2 p. 680 n. 103 for additional bibliography.
  7. ^ Howard Morley Sachar, A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time, Knopf, May 15, 2007 pp. 285, 333.
  8. ^ Laurens, La Question, p. 593.
  9. ^ Joseph Heller, The Birth of Israel, 1945–1949: Ben-Gurion and His Critics, University Press of Florida, 2000 p.79
  10. ^ "British Institute Gutted; Demonstration near Cairo". The Times of India. December 3, 1947. p. 5.   Margaret Pope (December 1, 1947). ""Will Fight to Finish," Says League Official". The Scotsman. p. 2.
  11. ^ Jewish Agency for Palestine, Memorandum on acts of Arab aggression to alter by force the settlement on the future government of Palestine approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations, Submitted to the United Nations Palestine Commission. Lake Success, New York. February 2, 1948. A copy appears in UN document S/710.
  12. ^ Stone, Isidor Feinstein (1948). This is Israel. Boni and Gaer. p. 21.; Zilliacus, Konni (1949). I choose peace. Penguin Books. p. 259.
  13. ^ Levin, Harry (1950). I saw the Battle of Jerusalem. Schocken Books. pp. 164–165.   Carlson, John Roy (1951). Cairo to Damascus. Alfred A. Knopf. p. 266.   Learsi, Rufus (1951). Fulfillment: the epic story of Zionism. World Publishing Company. p. 384.   Schechtman, Joseph (1952). The Arab Refugee Problem. Philosophical Society. p. 6.   Israel Office of Information (January 1952). The Arabs in Israel.
  14. ^ Collins, Larry; Lapierre, Dominique (1982) [1972]. O Jerusalem!. Granada Books. pp. 400, 597.; Karsh, Efraim. Palestine Betrayed. p. 209.; Morris, Benny (1999). Righteous Victims. Alfred A.Knopf. p. 219..
  15. ^ "The Toynbee-Herzog debate". The Egyptian Economic & Political Review. 7 (3): 6–9, 20–30. March 1961.
  16. ^ AH Joffe and A Romirowsky (2010). "A Tale of Two Galloways: Notes on the Early History of UNRWA and Zionist Historiography". Middle Eastern Studies. 46 (5): 655–675. doi:10.1080/00263206.2010.504554.
  17. ^ Benny Morris (July–August 2010). "Revisionism on the West Bank". The National Interest: 73–81.
  18. ^ a b Efraim Karsh, 'Haaretz: The Paper for Thinking People?,' Archived 2013-02-09 at the Wayback Machine at New English Review, December 16, 2011.