Given all the ink spilled about the current Gaza war, and the innumerable tragic photos, it’s strange that the Western press hasn’t inquired into why one of the parties is fighting. That would be Hamas, of course; the turgid psychologizing about Israel’s motives is quite familiar. But what about its Islamist enemy, penned up in a barren territory from which it launches rockets and digs tunnels under Israeli kibbutzim and kindergartens? For what was all that concrete poured, into the ground as part of the offensive, instead of above ground as the foundation of schools, factories, and homes?
It’s not exactly hard to find out. Hamas published a “Covenant” of 36 articles on August 18, 1988, that details its aims and ideology precisely. Its philosophy is rooted in the totalitarianism and radical anti-Semitism that has undergirded Islamism since its rise in the 1930s and 1940s. Far from moderating its core ideology, Hamas’ seizure of power in 2007 gave it the opportunity to make policy based on its guiding goal—namely, the destruction the state of Israel.1 But even though the Covenant is the declaration of intent of a group now governing millions of people, it goes unnoticed by reporters, editors, and pundits who race to comment on Hamas’ war with Israel.
There is no reason for this ignorance. The briefest Google search brings one to an English translation of the Covenant, provided by the Avalon Project of the Yale Law School over a decade ago. Hamas has not revised or modified its Covenant in all that time. The public statements of its leaders and its continued terror offensive against Israel are clear evidence that Hamas in 2014 remains inspired by the ideas expressed in founding text. This should be every policy maker’s, and every journalist’s, first stop in their efforts to understand Hamas. And it is of utmost importance that they read the text itself, as any student of literature will tell you. There is no substitute; to understand a person one must read him in his own words, noting everything from the cadence and syntax to the allusions to key figures of his ideological tradition. The Gaza war will be incomprehensible to anyone who refuses to take Hamas at its word—these words.
The Covenant’s first words place it into the longer tradition that historians call “Islamism,” that is, a distinct twentieth-century interpretation of the religion of Islam that emerged in the 1930s and 1940s in Egypt and Palestine. Islamism’s key figures included the Nazi sympathizer Haj Amin-El Husseini, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, and the Brotherhood’s leading ideologue of the 1950s and 1960s, Sayyid Qutb. According to them, Islam was an inherently anti-Jewish religion. Through selective quotation from the Koran and various commentaries, they claimed Islam’s holiest book supported their racist and anti-Jewish views. The Islamists also opposed liberal democracy, celebrated terrorism, supported the Nazis during World War II, and have been the most implacable enemies of Zionism since long before Israel’s founding in 1948.2 The authors of the Hamas Covenant traced their origins to “the struggle against the Zionist invaders” in 1939, to the Moslem Brotherhood and its role in the 1948 war, and to the “Jihad operations of the Moslem Brotherhood in 1968 and after.” Hamas is one variation of an Islamist tradition that also drives al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, the government of Iran, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and most recently, ISIS. These terrorist organizations have fought one another at times, but they share the views that the religion of Islam is at its core hostile to the Jews and that the state of Israel should be destroyed by force.
The authors of this charter make their allegiance to Islamism clear from the outset, distinguishing themselves from other, secular anti-Zionist groups. They cite Hassan al-Banna, the iconic founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, who said, “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.” Furthermore, the Covenant claims that the destruction of Israel is a religious obligation, that is, for Muslims; it is a “response to Allah’s command.” In contrast to the secular radicalism of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which by 1988 was beginning to lose favor with its Soviet patrons, the Covenant offered an unambiguously religious justification for hating Jews. While the PLO Charter of 1968 also called for the destruction of Israel by force, the eventual collapse of the Soviet bloc deprived it of its major arms supplier and military adviser, not to mention its champion at the United Nations. As secular anti-Zionism was losing its key support, the religious wave was cresting in the wake of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the failure of the secular anti-Zionists to destroy Israel.
Hamas, like all varieties of Islamist politics, dispensed with the PLO’s dubious assertion that anti-Zionism was not identical to hatred of the Jews as Jews. On the contrary, the writers declare, “our struggle against the Jews is very great and very serious”—the ultimate goal, not merely a tactic. To Hamas, this cause is both great and serious because it is explicitly religious. The Covenant is a Manichean document; it divides politics into true or false, just or unjust, alternatives. It promises to remake the world in the name of Islam, which, it regrets, has been wrongly driven from public life. This is its slogan: “Allah is its target, the Prophet is its model, and the Koran is its constitution: Jihad is the path and death for the sake of Allah is the loftiest of its wishes.” This celebration of martyrdom and death had been a key theme in Hassan al-Banna’s writings and subsequently became a commonplace for Islamists.
Not only is it fighting the Jews themselves. Hamas is devoted to destroying their nation, Israel. It strives to “raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine, for under the wing of Islam followers of all religions can coexist in security and safety with their lives, possession and rights are concerned.” It goes without saying that no one, least of all the Jews, would take seriously Hamas’ promise that all religions would “coexist” under Islam. The Arab nations expelled their Jewish populations after Israel’s founding in 1948. But leaving aside its risible attempt at reassurance, this excerpt illustrates that from the outset Hamas sought to recover “every inch of Palestine,” in other words, the entire state of Israel. The Covenant states, “the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf (or inalienable religious endowment of property) consecrated for future Moslem generations until Judgment Day. It, or any part of it, should not be squandered: it, or any part of it, should not be given up.” For Hamas, a two-state solution that left any part of Israel intact would constitute religious apostasy.3
If you had any doubts about what the conquest would entail, the Covenant’s Article 13 makes the political implications of these religious demands clear. Diplomatic efforts such as “peaceful solutions, initiatives and international conferences” are “in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement.” In fact, there is “no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are a waste of time and vain endeavors.”4 Nor can any individual Muslim abstain from warfare, according to document. Article 15 declares, “Jihad for the liberation of Palestine is an individual duty. In the face of the Jews’ usurpation of Palestine, it is compulsory that the banner of Jihad be raised.” Many anti-Zionist assaults have been bloody, but Hamas’s distinctive contribution was the theological sanction of violence.
Though Islamism owes a considerable debt to Nazism, the Hamas Covenant claims that it is Israel that is the equal of Nazi Germany. In Article 20, the authors write that they confront “a vicious enemy which acts in a way similar to Nazism, making no differentiation between man and women, between children and old people….”5 The “Israelis as Nazis” canard has been a staple of both secular and religious anti-Zionist propaganda since the 1960s. When the secular anti-Zionists such as Nasser, Arafat, and Assad, Sr., spoke about global conspiracies against the Arabs, they attributed a mythical conspiracy against the Arabs to “U.S. imperialism” and its Israeli “spearhead”—echoing the propaganda of their patrons, the Soviets.6 Indeed, the Hamas Covenant of 1988 notably replaced the Marxist-Leninist conspiracy theory of world politics with the classic anti-Semitic tropes of Nazism and European fascism, which the Islamists had absorbed when they collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. That influence is apparent in Article 22, which asserts that “supportive forces behind the enemy” have amassed great wealth:
With their money, they took control of the world media, news agencies, the press, publishing houses, broadcasting stations, and others. With their money they stirred revolutions in various parts of the world with the purpose of achieving their interests and reaping the fruit therein. They were behind the French Revolution, the Communist revolution and most of the revolutions we heard and hear about, here and there. With their money, they formed secret societies, such as Freemason, Rotary Clubs, the Lions and others in different parts of the world for the purpose of sabotaging societies and achieving Zionist interests. With their money they were able to control imperialistic countries and instigate them to colonize many countries in order to enable them to exploit their resources and spread corruption there.
The above paragraph of Article 22 could have been taken, almost word for word, from Nazi Germany’s anti-Jewish propaganda texts and broadcasts.7 Echoing the European, but also American, anti-Semites of the twentieth century, Hamas repeated the assertion that the Jews used their money to control both “the world media” and the established social order. At the same time, these Jewish scions of the status quo were “behind” the French and Communist revolutions—one of European fascists’ favorite theories during their heyday. In the same manner as their anti-Semitic predecessors, the authors of the Hamas Covenant claimed that the Jews “control imperialistic countries” and advocate colonization and exploitation of other nations. Notably, it is Israel that controls the U.S. in this account, a reversal of the Soviet-era anti-Zionist propaganda. This paranoid vision of powerful, wealthy, and evil Jews echoes such works as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and the daily diet of Nazi newspapers and Arabic-language radio broadcast from Nazi Berlin by Arab collaborators. The Covenant is so devoted to the fantasy that Jews engineer every world event that it blames the Jews for starting World War I:
You may speak as much as you want about regional and world wars. They were behind World War I, when they were able to destroy the Islamic Caliphate, making financial gains and controlling resources. They obtained the Balfour Declaration, formed the League of Nations through which they could rule the world. They were behind World War II, through which they made huge financial gains by trading in armaments, and paved the way for the establishment of their state. It was they who instigated the replacement of the League of Nations with the United Nations and the Security Council to enable them to rule the world through them. There is no war going on anywhere, without their having their finger in it.
For anyone with the slightest knowledge of modern European history and the causes of World War I, the assertion that the Jews, a stateless minority scattered among many nations of Europe, had anything at all to do with its outbreak is preposterous. More, it is a depressing confirmation of the intellectual backwardness and historical ignorance of the authors of this document, and of Muslim Brotherhood’s success in diffusing anti-Semitic propaganda in the decades after World War II. The charge that Jews masterminded the League of Nation is no less befuddling; it hardly needs saying that the Jewish people were in no position to found a conference of international heads of state. These delusions have next to nothing to do with actual events; whatever path history takes, in the anti-Semitic imagination, it is the Jews who are dictating it. In this fantasy, the powerful Jew is timeless; indeed, his power is as total today as it was in past centuries.8
It should come as no surprise, then, that the fevered minds who wrote this document claim the Jews were behind World War II, from which they supposedly made huge amounts of money. This, too, was an idea they adopted from their forebears, the Nazis. It was the central assertion of German propaganda from 1939 to 1945, one that Hitler, his Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, and other Nazi leaders repeated endlessly on radio and in the press. The charge that an actual political actor called “the Jew” or “International Jewry” had launched the war against Nazi Germany played a large role in Hitler’s justification for murdering Europe’s Jews.9 As had been the case for the Nazis, the description of the Jews as evil and powerful led Hamas to promote genocide against them.10If Jews were responsible for all wars, as it claimed, the path to peace demanded their extermination.11
If the previous sections articulated Hamas’ theory that the Jews control the world and foment all wars, the later articles make that supposed threat personal: the Jews’ first order of business, states Article 22, is to wipe out the Arab countries one by one, starting with Palestine. That appears to be Hamas’ characterization of the Camp David Accords. Naturally, Hamas is the first to stand against the Zionists: It seeks “to prevent the success of this horrendous plan….Today it is Palestine, tomorrow it will be one country after another. The Zionist plan is limitless. After Palestine, the Zionists aspire to expand form the Nile to the Euphrates.” In this as well, Hamas is indebted to Nazis, who also promoted the idea that Zionists coveted a land empire stretching from the “the Nile to the Euphrates.” Via short wave radio from Berlin, Arab-language Nazi propaganda not only claimed that the Jews were responsible for the war in Europe, but that in addition “the Jews kindled this war in the interest of Zionism.”12 Again, the influence of the famous forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is apparent. For the Muslim Brotherhood in 1948 and Hamas forty years later, the sheer existence of the state of Israel was sufficient evidence to confirm the truth of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
We don’t know whether Hamas would have been weakened and war avoided if the political leaders of the West had spoken out against this poisonous declaration in 1988, or in any way considered its likely effect on Hamas’ governance later in 2007. Like any other movement, Hamas has core beliefs, chillingly on display in its Covenant, yet they are far too frequently ignored. A misplaced reticence and a condescending desire not to offend have only made it easier for Hamas to grow stronger and more dangerous. Now is a good time for anyone with an interest in understanding Hamas to read its founding document and see its debt to Nazism and European fascism presented in its own words. Only then will an observer know why Hamas started this and previous wars and why peace demands that its odious ideology be examined and delegitimated.
1On this issue see the excellent essay by Tzipi Livni, Israel’s Minister of Justice, “Three Boys, One Terrorist Group and a Message for Democracies,” Wall Street Journal, June 25, 2014. On the use of democracy to destroy democracy, see the now classic work by Karl Bracher, The German Dictatorship (New York, 1970) and more recently, Ian Kershaw, Hitler: A Biography (W.W. Norton, 2010).
2On Islamism, see Paul Berman, Terror and Liberalism (W.W. Norton, 2003); Bassam Tibi, Islamism and Islam (Yale University Press, 20012); Matthias Kuentzel, Jihad and Jew-Hatred: Nazism, Islamism and the Roots of 9/11 (Telos Press, 2007); Jeffrey Herf, Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (Yale University Press, 2009). On the Western reluctance to speak frankly about Islamism see Paul Berman, The Flight of the Intellectuals (Melville House, 2010).
3Hamas leaders have repeated such views in recent years. For example on August 10, 2012, Ahmad Bahr, Deputy Speaker of the Hamas Parliament, stated in a sermon that aired on Al-Aqsa TV: “If the enemy sets foot on a single square inch of Islamic land, Jihad becomes an individual duty, incumbent on every Muslim, male or female. A woman may set out [on Jihad] without her husband’s permission, and a servant without his master’s permission. Why? In order to annihilate those Jews…. O Allah, destroy the Jews and their supporters. O Allah, destroy the Americans and their supporters. O Allah, count them one by one, and kill them all, without leaving a single one.” “Hamas Official Ahmad Bahr Preaches for the Annihilation of Jews and Americans,” Middle East Media Research Institute MEMRI, Clip No. 3538, August 10, 2012; and Greg Tepper, “Hamas leader prays for annihilation of Jews, Americans,” The Times of Israel, (August 20, 2012); and Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu, “Video: Hamas MP: ‘Annihilate Jews and Americans,” Israel National News, August 26, 2012.
4The Covenant found support for this intransigence in the following “honorable Hadith: The people of Syria are Allah’s lash in His hand. He wreaks his vengeance through them against whomsoever He wishes among His slaves. It is unthinkable that those who are double-faced among them should prosper over the faithful. They will certainly die out of grief and desperation.”
5On the history of the comparison of Israelis to Nazis in postwar Arab political and intellectual life, see Meir Litvak and Esther Webman, From Empathy to Denial: Arab Responses to the Holocaust (London: Hurst, 2009).
6On the place of Israel in the conspiracy theory of the secular left in the Cold War, see Jeffrey Herf, “At War with Israel: East Germany’s Enthusiastic Participation in Soviet Policy in the Middle East,” forthcoming, Journal of Cold War Studies (Summer 2014).
7Jeffrey Herf, The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust (Harvard University Press, 2006).
8The scholarship is large. Recently see Herf, The Jewish Enemy and Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, op. cit; Robert Wistrich, A Lethal Obsession: Antisemitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad (Random House, 2010); and Alvin H. Rosenfeld, ed., Resurgent Antisemitism: Global Perspectives (University of Indiana Press, 2013).
9Herf, The Jewish Enemy.
10On Islamist Holocaust justification see Litvak and Webman, From Empathy to Denial; and Wistrich, A Lethal Obsession.
11Leaders of Hamas repeated such views in recent years. In an interview with Al-Aqsa TV in September 12, 2012, Marwan Abu Ras, a Hamas MP, who is also a member of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, stated (as translated by MEMRI): “The Jews are behind each and every catastrophe on the face of the Earth. This is not open to debate. This is not a temporal thing, but goes back to days of yore. They concocted so many conspiracies and betrayed rulers and nations so many times that the people harbor hatred towards them…. Throughout history—from Nebuchadnezzar until modern times…. They slayed the prophets, and so on…. Any catastrophe on the face of this Earth – the Jews must be behind it.” “Hamas MP Marwan Abu Ras: The Jews Are Behind Every Catastrophe on Earth,” MEMRITV, September 12, 2012.
12See, for example, “Palestine between Bolsheviks and the Jews,” November 3, 1943, cited in Herf, Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, p. 184.