Commentary Magazine


Undeserved Hosannas

* “Kill the Jews wherever you find them. Kill them with your arms, with your hands, with your nails and teeth.”

* “After we perform our duty in liberating the West Bank and Jerusalem, our national duty is to liberate all the Arab territories.”

* “The removal of the Israeli occupation from our occupied land, Palestine, is the first and basic condition for just peace. … The Islamic nation and just believers in any religion or creed will not accept the situation of the … cradle of prophets and divine messages being captive of Zionist occupation.”

Quick — name the Jew hater or vicious enemy of Israel capable of spouting such venom. Arafat? Khadaffi? Ahmadinejad? Actually, the speaker in all three cases was everyone’s favorite Arab moderate, the late King Hussein of Jordan (on, respectively, Radio Amman, June 6, 1967; Radio Amman, Dec. 1, 1973; and Amman Domestic Service, July 11, 1988).

I have this little calendar that lists the names of prominent people who died or were born on each specific date. Seeing that the anniversary of Hussein’s death (Feb. 7, 1999) is upon us brought to mind both the decades of duplicity that defined the king’s life until almost the very end and the Hosannas that have been coming his way for the past 11 years. (The trend continued in two recent, largely positive, biographies.)

So desperate are we for any sign of non-fanaticism on the part of an Arab leader, we seem to gladly downplay or overlook the negative and play up the positive, with little regard for historical truth or future implications.

The floodgates of Hussein revisionism were opened immediately upon his passing. Typical was a sugary tribute from columnist Richard Chesnoff, in the New York Daily News:

Now this great son of the desert is gone, and all the children of Abraham weep. We will sorely miss this brave brother of ours.

Also typical of the distortions by a media intent on canonizing the king was the assertion by New York Times foreign-affairs sage Thomas Friedman that Hussein “talked himself out of the 1973 war.”

While it’s true Hussein was considerably less enthusiastic about going to war in ’73 than he’d been in ’67 — losing a large chunk of your kingdom will do that to you — he was far from a passive bystander.

As noted out in the indispensable Myths and Facts, published by Near East Report, Hussein sent “two of his best units — the 40th and 60th armored brigades — to Syria. This force took positions in the southern sector, defending the main Amman-Damascus route and attacking Israeli positions along the Kuneitra-Sassa road on October 16. Three Jordanian artillery batteries also participated in the assault, carried out by nearly 100 tanks.”

Nearly forgotten in the rush to sanctify Hussein was the scorn that had come his way over the years for such behavior as his constant double-dealing in his relations with Israel, the U.S., and his fellow Arabs; his permitting the desecration of Jewish holy places when Jordan had possession of East Jerusalem (gravestones of Jews were used as latrines in army camps and dozens of synagogues were demolished or turned into stables and chicken coops); and his support of Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War, coupled with his circumvention of the U.S.-led blockade of Iraq.

By all indications, the elder-statesman persona adopted by King Hussein in the final years of his life was genuine, and even before then, he was the lesser of evils when compared with other Arab leaders. But to trumpet him as something of a historical giant or visionary is to drain those words of any real meaning and lower the bar for what should constitute forthright and reliable Arab leadership.