Exploiting the memory of the Holocaust and its victims is a far too commonplace event. Israel’s detractors accuse it of perpetrating a holocaust on Palestinians. Politicians and others frequently make inappropriate comparisons to the Holocaust. But when the prime minister of Israel – the man who refers to himself as the leader of the Jewish people – exploits the Holocaust, it is especially egregious.
Last week, at the meeting of the World Zionist Congress, Binyamin Netanyahu told a story that historians contend was cut largely from whole cloth. This much is true: in November 1941, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, met with Adolf Hitler in Berlin. Al-Husseini opposed Jewish migration to the Holy Land and rejected the idea of a Jewish state there. Increased Jewish migration to Palestine strengthened Zionism and the grand mufti had been a vocal opponent of it – to the extent that Arab rioting he incited helped form British policy on the matter, closing the doors to Jews escaping Nazi Europe. The mufti and Hitler had mutual interests, but al-Husseini was concerned that Nazi antisemitism could drive more Jews to Palestine (although, by late 1941, this was largely a moot point).
In Netanyahu’s curriculum, though, it was the mufti who put the seed in Hitler’s brain to enact the “Final Solution.” (Perhaps the prime minister had recently read the book Nazis, Islamists and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Barry Rubin and Wolfgang G. Schwanitz, which is reviewed in this issue, but not any of its critiques.)
“Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time,” Netanyahu told the congress. “He wanted to expel the Jews. And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said: ‘If you expel them, they’ll all come here [to Palestine],’ … ’So what should I do with them?’ [Hitler] asked. [Al-Husseini] said, ‘Burn them.’”
There is no evidence that any such discussion took place. In fact, the Nazis’ exterminationist intent was already well formed before al-Husseini came to Berlin. The Wannsee Conference, which set out the plan for the “Final Solution,” was mere weeks away and its agenda was set before the mufti had tea with Hitler.
History suggests that al-Husseini was supportive of the Nazis’ plans, but he certainly was not their architect, as Netanyahu implied.
The prime minister’s speech raised outrage globally. Academics and experts in the Holocaust decried his rewriting of history. Critics claimed his remarks were meant to incite hatred against Palestinians at a time when Israel is condemning Palestinian incitement against Jews. Netanyahu was diminishing Hitler’s guilt for the fate of European Jewry, said others. Even Germany’s leader Angela Merkel reiterated her country’s responsibility for the Holocaust.
It is clear what Netanyahu was trying to do. He wanted to demonstrate that Palestinian antisemitism and incitement against Jews and Israelis go back a long way, and he is correct. But to do so, he apparently made stuff up and, far, far worse, exploited the history of the Holocaust and the memory of its victims to score political points. It was shameful, unbecoming his office, and certainly undermines any claim he has to call himself the leader of the Jewish people.