Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has attracted a storm of criticism for an incendiary speech in which he accused the Palestinian grand mufti of Jerusalem during World War II of having suggested the genocide of the Jews to Adolf Hitler.
The comments in a speech to the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem came in the context of the current violence between Israelis and Palestinians and were condemned by historians and the Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog for trivialising the Holocaust. On the Palestinian side, senior official Saeb Erekat described the remarks as absolving Hitler.
In his speech, Netanyahu purported to describe a meeting between Haj Amin al-Husseini and Hitler in November 1941. “Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time; 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].’” According to Netanyahu, Hitler then asked: “What should I do with them?” and the mufti replied: “Burn them.”
Among those questioning Netanyahu’s interpretation of history was Professor Dan Michman, the head of the Institute of Holocaust Research at Bar-Ilan University and head of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem. He said that, though Hitler did indeed meet the mufti, this happened after the Final Solution began.
Yad Vashem’s chief historian, Dina Porat, told the Israeli news website Ynet that Netanyahu’s claims were incorrect. “You cannot say that it was the mufti who gave Hitler the idea to kill or burn Jews. It’s not true. Their meeting occurred after a series of events that point to this.”
Netanyahu made the claim – which he also made in 2012 – to illustrate what he said was the Palestinian history of using holy sites in Jerusalem as pretexts for committing acts of violence against Jews. However, almost as soon as the transcript was released by his office, he was accused on social media and then by a host of Israeli political figures of factual errors in his assertions.
The claim that Husseini – who met and supported Hitler – was the one to initiate the idea of the extermination of Europe’s Jews has been suggested by historians on the fringes of Holocaust research, but is rejected by most historians.
Defending his comments, Netanyahu said: “I didn’t mean to absolve Hitler of responsibility, but to show that the father of the Palestinian nation wanted to destroy Jews even without occupation … It is absurd to ignore the role played by the mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, who was a war criminal and encouraged Hitler to exterminate European Jewry.”
A spokesperson for the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, rejected Netanyahu’s framing. “All Germans know the history of the murderous race mania of the Nazis that led to the break with civilisation that was the Holocaust,” said her spokesperson, Steffen Seibert. “I see no reason to change our view of history in any way. We know that responsibility for this crime against humanity is German and very much our own.”
At the centre of the row is Netanyahu’s suggestion that Hitler had wanted to expel Jews and that it was Husseini who somehow persuaded him instead to kill them when the two men met in late November 1941.
In reality, the mass killings of Jews by SS mobile killing units –Einsatzgruppen – were already under way when the two men met face to face. The first was in Lithuania in July 1941, described by Yad Vashem as the “beginning” of the Final Solution.
In September 1941, again before Husseini’s meeting with Hitler, Einsatzgruppe C, commanded by Otto Rasch, killed more than 33 000 Jews over two days in the Babi Yar ravine on the outskirts of Kiev, an act of mass murder ordered by the new Nazi military governor of Kiev, Brigadeführer Kurt Eberhard.
Netanyahu’s incendiary comments come amid a rising death toll and accusations of incitement on both sides, with Israelis pointing to comments made by Palestinian officials and inflammatory material on social media, and Palestinians equally accusing Netanyahu’s government of fanning the flames and pointing to anti-Palestinian material on social media.
The violence continued on Wednesday with several incidents, including a stabbing that critically injured a 19-year-old Israeli female soldier.
Over the past month, 10 Israelis have been killed in Palestinian attacks, most of them stabbings. In that time, 46 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire, including 25 identified by Israel as attackers, and the rest in clashes with Israeli troops. An Eritrean asylum-seeker died after being shot by a security guard and beaten by a mob that mistakenly believed he was a Palestinian assailant during a deadly Arab attack at a bus station.
Reacting to Netanyahu’s comments, Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog wrote on his Facebook page: “This is a dangerous historical distortion and I demand Netanyahu correct it immediately as it minimises the Holocaust, Nazism and … Hitler’s part in our people’s terrible disaster.”
He said Netanyahu’s remarks played into the hands of Holocaust deniers. “A historian’s son must be accurate about history … Netanyahu has forgotten that he’s not only the prime minister of Israel but the prime minister of the Jewish people’s government.” The grand mufti, added Herzog, “gave the order to kill my grandfather, Rabbi Herzog, and actively supported Hitler”.
Herzog’s fellow Zionist Union MP Itzik Shmuli called on Netanyahu to apologise to Holocaust victims. “This is a great shame, a prime minister of the Jewish state at the service of Holocaust-deniers – this is a first,” he said. “This isn’t the first time Netanyahu distorts historical facts, but a lie of this magnitude is the first.”
Denouncing Netanyahu’s comments, Erekat, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator, also weighed in on the row. “It is a sad day in history when the leader of the Israeli government hates his neighbour so much that he is willing to absolve the most notorious war criminal in history, Adolf Hitler, of the murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust.” – © Guardian News & Media 2015