Azzam Pasha and the Momentous Massacre

Brendan McKay, with help from Talaat and some other friends (edition of Jan 2, 2015)

Summary. We uncover the true origin of the famous quotation of Azzam Pasha and consider what it means.


Adb al_rahman Azzam Pasha

Everyone who reads books on the Israeli-Arab conflict knows of the famous threat attributed to the Secretary-General of the Arab League, Azzam Pasha, as Arab armies rolled into Palestine on May 15, 1948, the first day of Israeli independence:

This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades.

Even some of the finest academic historians have used this quotation in their work, but its greatest popularity is amongst the legions of propagandists, of whom Alan Dershowitz is representative.

Extermination, not the creation of a difficult refugee problem, was the goal of the Arab attack on Jewish civilian populations. As the Arab League's secretary general, Abd al-Ahlman[sic] Azzah[sic] Pasha, candidly put it, "This will be a war of extermination and momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades." [AD]

As Dershowitz illustrates, the quotation is regularly presented as proof that the Arab states were planning a genocide when they entered Palestine in 1948. Coming as it did only several years after the Holocaust, this would be a chilling fact if it was true.

But, did Azzam really say it? And what did he mean by it? Read on to find out.

The proof of the pudding

The first task in assessing a quotation is to track down its original source.

A few authors claim that Azzam's statement appeared in the New York Times, but it didn't [RG]. Most either give no source, or claim it comes from a news conference given in Cairo on May 15, 1948, perhaps one broadcast by the BBC. The latter claims are obviously difficult to check, but apparently hardly any author expressed doubt over them until recently.

An anonymous writer in an Egyptian magazine disputed the interpretation of Azzam's words in a comment on a 1961 debate between Yaakov Herzog (Israeli ambassador to Canada) and Arnold Toynbee (British historian). Herzog presented the usual words of Azzam, claiming "I am quoting a BBC broadcast, 15th of May 1948." The writer commented:

This remark is here given completely out of context. 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. He was referring to the profound and fundamental issues that had been aroused by the Zionist aggression. The reference to the Crusaders and the Mongols aptly describes the view of the foreign Zionist invaders shared by most Arabs. A scurrilous debating trick indulged in on every occasion by the Zionist publicists is to imply that Arab leaders and politicians, are a gang of bloodthirsty fanatics, this is particularly absurd when it refers to the former Secretary General of the Arab League, as any acquaintance of his will readily confirm. [TH]

Nevertheless, the Egyptian writer gave no indication of doubting the reality of the "BBC broadcast".

It seems that the first doubts expressed over the claimed source of the Azzam quotation appeared only in 2010. In that year, Joffe and Romirowsky wrote that the quotation "cannot be confirmed from cited sources" [JR], and Morris reported that "its pedigree is dubious" [BM2].

The puzzle was finally solved late in 2010 by the present author, another Wikipedia editor, and a resident of Cairo, Talaat. The other persons prefer their identities to remain confidential.

The words of Azzam in fact originated in a Cairo newspaper more than 7 months earlier than claimed, in different circumstances and with different import.

Akhbar el-Yom

Today Akhbar el-Yom is the weekly supplement of a Cairo daily newspaper owned by the government, but in 1947 it was a privately owned daily newspaper. On October 11, 1947, Akhbar el-Yom published an interview by editor Mustafa Amin with several prominent Arabs, including Azzam Pasha.

Here is a translation of Azzam's part of the interview.

And Abd Al-Rahman Pasha sat to talk about the coming horrific battle. He said:

- Personally I hope the Jews do not force us into this war because it will be a war of elimination and it will be a dangerous massacre which history will record similarly to the Mongol massacre and the wars of the Crusades. I think the number of volunteers from outside Palestine will exceed the Palestinian population. I know that we will get volunteers from India, Afghanistan and China to have the glory of being martyrs for Palestine.

You might be shocked if you knew that many British have shown interest in volunteering in the Arab armies to fight the Jews.

This fight will have three important dimensions; faith, since all fighters believe that his fight for Palestine is the short road to heaven. Second it will be a chance for looting on a grand scale. Third, no one will be able to stop the volunteers who will come from all over the world to revenge the Palestinian martyrs because they know that the battle is an honor for all Muslims and Arabs in the world.

Another advantage the Arabs have over the Jews is accepting defeat, so if the Jews win the first battle we will win in the second, third or the last. On the other hand a single defeat of the Jews will destroy their spirit.

The Arabs in the desert love to go to war, I remember once while fighting in the desert I was called to make a peace and the Arabs told me "how come you do that? How can we live without a war?" The Bedouin finds enjoyment in war which he can't find in peace.

I warned the Jewish leaders whom I met in London about continuing their policy, and I told them that the Arab soldier is the strongest in the world. Once he lifts his weapon, he not put it down till he fires the last bullet in the battle, and we will fire the last bullet.

In the end I understand the consequence of this bloody war, I see in front of me its horrible battles, I can imagine its victims but I have a clear conscience since we were called to fight as defenders and not attackers. [AY]

What does it mean?

As any historian knows, to understand the meaning of any spoken or written words, it is absolutely essential to first understand the context in which they were used.

Five weeks before Azzam gave his interview, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) presented a report recommending that Palestine be partitioned into an Arab State and a Jewish State. This was welcomed by most Zionists, but the Arabs of Palestine considered the Zionists to be foreign invaders, since most had arrived during the previous few decades. From their point of view, Palestine was an Arab country and carving a Jewish country out of it was a travesty of justice.

The UNSCOP report was only a recommendation to the United Nations, and nobody knew whether the United Nations would accept it or not. When it eventually came to a vote in November, the counting was very close, and even after that it was unclear for several months if Arab resistance to the plan would involve the regular armies of the Arab states. Back in October when Azzam gave his interview, there was no decision and no plan. That is why, when Azzam spoke of the Zionist enterprise being resisted by force, he only mentioned volunteers. The claim that Azzam was stating the intentions of the Arab armies is false.

Another reason Azzam only spoke of volunteers is that he was only the Secretary-General of the Arab League. The Arab League was (and is) an umbrella organization of Arab states, but it never had an army of its own or power to coerce the states belonging to it. Azzam didn't command a single soldier (nor, for that matter, a single volunteer). The claim that Azzam was making a threat he had the power to bring about is also false.

None of this is to say that there was no sabre-rattling. On the contrary, the meeting of the Arab League at which Azzam was interviewed produced calls for military posturing, and a decision was made to provide material and moral support to the Arabs of Palestine. The Arab states began training a rag-tag army of volunteers, some of whom were sent into Palestine to bolster local militias [BM1].

One of the reasons Azzam's first sentence is good for propaganda purposes (especially once the "Personally I hope.." part had been removed) is that English readers are likely to misunderstand it. Many readers think that Azzam is threatening to massacre Jews like the Mongols massacred everyone in their path. Since the sentence in its original Arabic simply does not say that, this claim is also false.

So what does it say? A central part of popular Arab history is the story of how two foreign enemies, the Mongols and the Crusaders, invaded Arab lands and were driven out by the Arabs in bloody wars. These Arab victories are what is "recorded by history", and what Azzam is predicting the future defeat of the Jews will be compared to. In plain English, Azzam's first sentence means

"I hope it won't happen, but if the Jews insist on forming a state, we will vanquish them like we vanquished the Mongols and the Crusaders."

A possible objection to this interpretation might be that the Mongols were not really defeated by the Arabs. History tells us that they mainly left for reasons of their own, although their defeat by the Egyptian Mamluks at Ain Julat in 1260 surely played an important part in it. The answer to this objection is that Azzam believed that the Arabs defeated the Mongols. We know this because he said so at least three times. On December 2, 1947, Azzam told a gathering of students that "The Arabs conquered the Tartars and the Crusaders and they are now ready to defeat the new enemy." [TI] (The Mongols are known as Tartars in Arabic.) He had said the same thing to the journalist Margaret Pope on the previous day [MP]. Even as late as 1952, Azzam would refer to the Crusaders and Mongols as enemies defeated by Egypt [AP].

There are two reasons for not dwelling on the precise words appearing in Azzam's sentence. One is that this type of belligerent bravado was a normal exaggerated way of speaking (and don't most protagonists before most wars boastfully predict the utter defeat of their enemies?). Another reason is that we don't really know what words Azzam used. Journalistic ethics in respectable newspapers today require a precise report of an interviewee's words, but in Egypt of 1947 it was normal for a journalist to spice up the words to make them more exciting for the reader. In fact, Mustafa Amin was famous for doing exactly that.

Regarding Azzam's statement about British volunteers, on the same day he was quoted by Baghdad radio as saying, "I have received applications from former British naval and air force officers expressing their readiness to fight on the side of the Arabs." [BR]

In total, the interview has little that is not known from other places. To invoke the ultimate defeat of the Crusaders and/or Mongols as a model was a normal rhetorical device used by Arabs of the time. Azzam himself had used it before [DH]. Azzam's naive prediction of vast numbers of volunteers entering Palestine is also known from other interviews [KB].

In summary, the interview provides almost nothing that the propagandists claim it provides.

From interview to propaganda sine qua non

We have seen that Azzam Pasha's words were from a different time and had a different context from what was later claimed. Somehow, his October 1947 warning of what Arab volunteers might do was soon converted into a statement of intention of the Arab armies that engaged the Jewish forces in May 1948. This conversion, deliberate or not, was a great propaganda success since the altered version appears in literally thousands of places. Now we will trace what we can of the conversion process.

Azzam's interview in Akhbar el-Yom was reported soon afterwards by Francis Ofner, correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor.

[T]he General Secretary of Arab League, Abdul Rahman Azzam Pasha, told the Egyptian newspaper Akbar el Yom: "War between the Jews and Arabs will be a real slaughter, like the slaughter of the Tartars. ... Hundreds of Englishmen have declared their will to volunteer for Arab armies in order to fight the Jews ... Masses of Beduins will volunteer, as Beduins consider war a pleasure. ... My conscience is clear as we are defending ourselves and not attacking." [FO]

Ofner added that the Jews dismissed Arab statements and preparations as "big but empty words and gestures". Apart from Ofner's report, we did not find any mention of Azzam's interview in the world press.

As far as we know, the first appearance of the quotation in its famous form was in a memorandum submitted to the UN in February 1948 by the Jewish Agency (the main political body of the Zionists in Palestine) [JA]. The beginning of Azzam's sentence "Personally I hope the Jews do not force us into this war because..." had gone missing, but the correct reference to Akhbar el-Yom was given.

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." In his further observations Azzam Pasha outlined three characteristics of the future war-the belief in glorious death as a road to Paradise, the opportunities of loot, and the Bedouin love of slaughter for its own sake. [JA]

With very minor exceptions, all later appearances of the quotation use the same translation this memorandum gives, and all remove the first part of the sentence, so we can be sure that all those appearances derive from this memorandum (usually indirectly) without any further reference to the original Arabic.

A few books mentioned the quotation in its 1947 setting during the next few years, without noting the memorandum it came from [IS,KZ,HS]. The first source which presented it in a 1948 setting, as far as we can determine, was a 1950 book of Harry Levin. Levin was a British journalist who was in charge of broadcasting for the Haganah. In his "diary entry" for May 16, 1948, Levin wrote:

From Cairo, Nixon of the B.B.C. reports a feeling of "restrained joyfulness" among the Egyptians over the decision to invade Palestine. "This is like the Crusades all over again," says Nixon. "Only this time the Arabs have gone out to save the Holy Land." And Azzam Pasha, Secretary-General of the Arab League, told the Egyptian Press: "This war will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongol massacres and the Crusades." [HL]

It is seen that Levin doesn't state precisely where he got the Azzam quotation from, but it wasn't from the Egyptian press since his translation is identical to the English sources before him. The reader could easily understand that he got it from the BBC, even though he doesn't say that. Perhaps this book is the origin of the false attribution to the BBC on the wrong date?

Two books published in 1951 also moved the quotation to May 1948 [JC,RL]. The book of Carlson has the same ambiguity as Levin's book regarding the BBC connection.

By 1952 we find the erroneous version even in official documents. A series of pamphlets published by the Israeli government attribute the quotation to a May 1948 press conference broadcast by the BBC [IL]. Israeli diplomat Abba Eban quoted it at the UN in that year, but was vague about the date [AE]. Also in 1952, a highly influential book by the Revisionist Zionist Joseph Schechtman (who was employed by the American branch of the Jewish Agency) used the quotation in its false setting [JS]. While it is impossible to prove, it seems likely that the Israeli pamphlets and Schechtman's book are the principal sources of the quotation's later immense popularity.

The false attribution to the New York Times might have first appeared in Gabbay's 1959 book [RG]. That book's role is especially eyebrow-raising because on an earlier page (p. 83) he gives a reference to Azzam's interview in Akhbar el-Yom and pretends to quote from it. However, his "quotation" (without the "momentous massacre" sentence that he plans to place on a different date) actually comes from [JA] with the phrase "opportunities of loot" changed to "opportunities of lust". A dirty trick indeed!

Was the change of date deliberate? Probably, but no proof is available. Abba Eban's vague "a few years ago" before the UN in the same month as his government published the false date is rather suspicious.

What did Azzam really say around May 15, 1948?

The only significant statement attributed to Azzam Pasha close to May 15, 1948 was his multi-page explanation to the United Nations of why the Arab nations were intervening in Palestine. After giving his view of the history of Palestine and Zionism, Azzam concluded:

The Goverments of the Arab States hereby confirm [that] the only fair and just solution to the problem of Palestine is the creation of United State of Palestine based on the democratic principles which will enable all its inhabitants to enjoy equality before the law, and which would guarantee to all minorities the safeguards provided for in all democratic constitutional States affording at the same time full protection and free access to Holy places. The Arab States emphatically and repeatedly declare that their intervention in Palestine has been prompted solely by the considerations and for the aims set out above and they are not inspired by any other motive whatsoever. [AL]

On May 20, 1948, Azzam Pasha told the press in Amman:

"We must fight the Jewish State, otherwise they will be fighting us here, in Trans-Jordan, and elsewhere in the Arab States."

He said that the regular armies of the League of Arab States had entered Palestine not only to protect Arab territory, but to fight the Jewish State.

"We are fighting for an Arab Palestine", he continued, "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.

"In areas where they predominate they will have complete autonomy. I am certain that the Jews would not offer us complete citizenship if they conquered Palestine. In any case, the Jewish State is a bridge-head into Arab territory." [PP]

Public pronouncements of this type were of course propagandistic in their nature and historians can reasonably debate how sincere they were. On the other hand, the claim that Azzam said one thing to Western audiences and another to Arab audiences does not seem to be true. Arabic broadcasts monitored by the BBC portrayed Azzam as firm but not bloodthirsty. A typical statement, reported by Beirut radio on May 3, was that "the Arabs must unite and the Palestinian Arabs must maintain their positions by every means". Moreover, according to Azzam, the Deir Yassin massacre (the killing of over 100 Arab civilians by Jewish militias on April 19) had been intended to spread terror "in preparation for the big battle the terrorists have been expecting" [LR].

The story of this story

This research was reported as it happened in Sep-Oct 2010 on the talk pages of Wikipedia. The key breakthrough was the discovery of a book review by Strawson which mentions an unnamed Jewish Agency memorandum of 1948 that cites Akhbar el-Yom [JS]. After identifying the memorandum [JA], we asked Talaat to look for the Arabic newspaper. Talaat approached the office of el-Akhbar in Cairo and was given a complete original newspaper from Oct 11, 1947.

In June 2011, an undergraduate student activist David Barnett, under a pseudonym, wrote to us that he had seen the Wikipedia discussion and would like a copy of the Arabic newspaper, which we provided. Soon afterwards, Barnett published an article with historian Efraim Karsh, claiming credit for the discovery [BK]. They asserted that it proves Azzam's genocidal intentions. As befits the quality of their "research", they thought that the red box we drew around the article with Acrobat was a "special box" placed by the newspaper to emphasise the article. Karsh admits that the scan he published was obtained from us, but claims Barnett did the research independently.

After Israeli historian Tom Segev published an article in Haaretz about this affair, Karsh published a response [EK] containing some severe distortions. He claims that I intentionally sent the newspaper scan first to a pro-Israeli researcher (himself). This is a lie; I actually sent it to an unknown person who was using a false name. He also says, correctly, that I refused co-authorship of his Middle East Quarterly article, but fails to mention that he only offered me co-authorship after his article had already appeared and Segev had exposed it. Middle East Quarterly is one of those pseudo-journals which exist to publish polemic rubbish that wouldn't be able to get into real journals.

The article of Barnett and Karsh tries to perpetrate the myth about Azzam, spread by people like Karsh for nearly 60 years, by claiming the truth vindicates the myth when it is perfectly obvious that the myth is now refuted. The sad fact is that the claim always smelled terrible, and it only took a little work by a few amateur historians to discover why.


Alan Dershowitz, The Case for Israel, John Wiley & Sons (2004), p81; bizarre mispelling in original.
Abba Eban, Speech to the United Nations Ad Hoc Political Committee, 39th meeting (Jan 12, 1952). Text in: Israel Office of Information, A record of international responsibility; a selection of speeches by the Israel Delegation to the Sixth General Assembly of the United Nations, 1952. The date is incorrectly given as Jan 14. The correct date, but only a summary of the speech, is in UN document A/AC.53/SR.39.
Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, Cablegram dated 15 May 1948 to the Secretary-General of the United Nations. A copy appears in Security Council document S/745.
Arab League leader and 1936 Treaty, The Times, January 3, 1952, p4.
Akhbar el-Yom, Oct 11, 1947, pp1,9. We provide a scan on which we have marked the Azzam interview with two red rectangles.
David Barnett and Efraim Karsh, Azzam's genocidal threat, Middle East Quarterly, 18(4) (Fall 2011), pp85-88.
Benny Morris, 1948 (Yale University Press, 2008), p68.
Benny Morris, Revisionism on the West Bank, The National Interest (July/August, 2010), pp73-81.
Baghdad radio, October 10, 1947, 16:00. Quoted by British Broadcasting Corporation, Summary of World Broadcasts, Part III.
Efraim Karsh, Malice, Haaretz, December 14, 2011. Hebrew.
David Horowitz, State in the Making (Alfred A Knopf, 1953), pp231-235.
Francis Ofner, Haganah Shock Troops Train to Quell Guerrillas, Christian Science Monitor, Oct 20, 1947, p6 (ellipses in original).
Harry Levin, I saw the Battle of Jerusalem (Schoken Books, 1950), pp164-165. Also printed in Hebrew translation in Maariv, May 16, 1950, p6.
Harry Sacher, Israel, The Establishment of a State (Wiedenfeld, 1952), p198.
Israel Office of Information, The Arabs in Israel (Jan 1952). We provide a scan. The 1955 and 1961 versions of this pamphlet also have the same claim.
Isidor Feinstein Stone, This is Israel (Boni and Gaer, 1948), p21.
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 Security Council document S/710.
John Roy Carlson, Cairo to Damascus (Alfred A. Knopf, 1951), p266.
AH Joffe and A Romirowsky, A Tale of Two Galloways: Notes on the Early History of UNRWA and Zionist Historiography, Middle Eastern Studies 46(5), 2010, pp655-675.
John Strawson, The One-State Solution: A breakthrough plan for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock by Virginia Tilley (book review), Democratiya, Spring 2006, pp34-48.
Kenneth W. Bilby, New Star in the Near East (Doubleday, 1950), p8.
Konni Zilliacus, I choose peace (Penguin Books, 1949), p259.
Beirut radio, May 3, 1948, 18:00. Quoted by British Broadcasting Corporation, Summary of World Broadcasts, Part III.
Margaret Pope, "Will Fight to Finish," Says League Official, The Scotsman, December 1, 1947, p2.
Palestine Post, May 21 1948, p3.
Rony E Gabbay, A political study of the Arab-Jewish conflict : the Arab refugee problem (a case study) (E. Droz, 1959), p88.
Rufus Learsi, Fulfillment: the epic story of Zionism (World Publishing Company, 1951), p384.
The Toynbee-Herzog debate, The Egyptian Economic & Political Review, 7(3), March 1961, pp6-9,20-30. Emphasis in original.
British Institute Gutted; Demonstration near Cairo. The Times of India, December 3, 1947, p5. Also reported by The Manchester Guardian, December 3, 1947, p5.
Joseph Schechtman, The Arab Refugee Problem (Philosophical Society, 1952), p6. Schechtman earlier published much of this work in two anonymous pamphlets, but they do not quote Azzam. The BBC is missing from this 1952 book, but by 1963 (Refugee in the World, p184) Schechtman had added it.

Appendix: Early uses in English

Apart from some translations from intermediate languages, all appearances in English have one of two forms differing in a trivial way that might help determine who copied from whom.
Form A: This war will be a war ...
Form B: This will be a war ...

Here are all the uses we found up to 1952. If you know of any others, please let us know.

Source Form Claimed date Claimed source
[FO] Ofner (1947)   - Oct, 1947 Akhbar el-Yom
[JA] JA memo (1948)   A Oct 11, 1947 Akhbar el-Yom
[IS] Stone (1948)   A 1947 (implicit) none
[KZ] Zilliacus (1949)   A Oct 11, 1947 none
[HL] Levin (1950)   A May 16, 1948 "the Egyptian Press"
[JC] Carlson (1951)   A May 16, 1948 "Cairo declared" (no mention of Azzam)
[RL] Learsi (1951)   B May 15, 1948 none
[IL] Israel (1952)   B May 15, 1948 BBC news broadcast of press conference
[AE] Eban (1952)   B "a few years ago" none
[JS] Schechtman (1952)   B May 15, 1948 Cairo press conference
[HS] Sacher (1952)   A 1947 (implicit) none

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